In 2016, Centro Hispano Program Planning & Evaluation Director Evelyn Cruz noticed a glaring pattern in the survey responses she received from the organization’s patrons: overwhelmingly, one of the two unmet needs indicated by Latine community members was their access to mental health resources.
In the wake of a political campaign and eventual administration set on dehumanizing immigrant communities, the impact of bigotry, racism, and discrimination weighed heavily on the Latine community, a challenge to which Cruz and her colleagues were determined to find a meaningful solution.
Since 2019, in partnership with UW-Madison School of Education, Centro has been developing a bilingual psychological services certificate to address structural issues in workforce training and to increase the number of bicultural and bilingual mental health providers serving the Madison area. The certificate is available to students in a number of disciplines within psychology, such as rehabilitation school psychology, counseling psychology, and social work.
Funded by the Wisconsin Partnership Program, Esperanza: Nuestra Cultura de Salud (Hope: Our Culture of Health) centers a holistic, strengths-based approach to mental health and well-being that gives particular importance to family- and community-centered programming.
With intentional emphasis on cultural competency and linguistically appropriate services, Esperanza aims to remove the accessibility barriers to mental health services for Latine community members. “The language of feelings and emotions is your native language. Us for whom Spanish is our first language, this is the language of emotion,” Cruz explained. “This is the language that we feel in and to be able to talk about your mental health and express your needs in that language in a way that someone can hear it and understand you is a huge part of the process.”
The barriers posed on mental health communication surpass the technicalities of language for Latine community members. Cruz also emphasized the role that spirituality plays in understanding one’s own well-being. “I think oftentimes, [spirituality] is missed when we center Western ways of viewing the world. And for us, our spirituality is super important to the work that we do. It’s not a [separate] thing,” she said.
“I think that with spiritually, you can also understand certain things around mental health. [It’s very different when] you’re trying to explain certain things to someone who really doesn’t understand Latino culture and how embedded our communication with our ancestors is,” she continued.
Taking into account the larger context of studying and working in Madison, Esperanza also aims to honor the Indigenous ways of knowing in which Latine and Ho-Chunk cultures are rooted.
“That is part of finally recognizing and honoring the fact that we are on ancestral land,” Cruz said. “And so we’re looking at those indigenous practices and cosmology as a place of strength and a place for doing things differently, to support community well-being, and to reprocess and to stop judging things as bad, or good or bad, but really honoring the differences in how we relate to each other in the world.”
Above all else, hope is at the center of “Esperanza’s” mission, in honor of the program’s name. “I think that part of the intentionality around how we’re building this partnership, and building the work that we do is by naming our framework and shaping ourselves,” Clinical Assistant Professor Dr. Alyssa Ramírez Stege said. “It’s like, how are we centering the type of work that we want to be doing? [We have to center] healing processes.”
“That’s probably one of the major things that we do at the beginning, is knowing that despite all of the suffering that we can go through, there is hope that change can happen, and hope for healing, and hope for things to get better,” Stege added. Stege serves as the bridge between the university and Centro, ensuring that there is synergy between the community and the university’s differing needs and expertise.
The certificate program, which was approved last year, is available to students in various fields within psychology, such as rehabilitation school psychology, counseling psychology, and social work.
“I think that [interdisciplinarity is] our biggest strength, that continued collaboration and partnership, growing at the speed of trust,” Stege said. “That’s so important to how we’re collaborating and how we’re being able to be intentional, is doing it as we grow in our own trust in ourselves and other people.
While Esperanza is dedicated to enhancing the mental health experiences of community members, Stege also emphasized the symbiotic nature of the program’s benefits. “I think we often think about community-university partnerships as the community [being] the one who is benefiting from that,” she said. “But we often don’t see the other side of how having supporting and affirming community-engaged partnerships on the university side also changes our culture there.”
“There’s so many things that are different for the training of our students that impacts their development as professionals and as students in their training. They’re being trained in these radical healing frameworks, but they’re also being trained half in Centro on how to do practical skills that other students don’t necessarily have the scaffolding or connection to do,” she added.
In addition to their patrons’ well-being, Centro is also dedicated to supporting the wellness of their staff. “We think about it as health equity from the inside out. You cannot give what you don’t have,” Cruz explained. “We support Centro staff through information, skills around reflective supervision, reprocessing issues that happened in the community, and really honoring that our passion and our empathy can be our strengths, and how to protect ourselves. So then it doesn’t become our weakness,” she said.
Esperanza is just one of the many initiatives at Centro Hispano that strive to enhance the well-being of Madison’s Latine community. Camino Sagrado (Sacred Path) engages community members with practices of healing from racial trauma. Centro’s new social media campaign Momentos (Moments) will also dedicate intentional digital spaces to promoting mental health literacy.
“I think one of the things that the pandemic highlighted too, was how much disconnection was happening. And like, we know that that leads to suffering, too, right, having that social isolation in so many ways,” Stege shared. “But then all the other things that our Latino community has had to go through too, and how much access we can have at a public health level, when we are intentionally developing content that could be spread through social media and media communication.”
Organizers hope Esperanza is only the beginning of a new culture of addressing mental health, especially for Madison’s marginalized communities.
“With ‘Esperanza,’ we’re really thinking about the full person, their full experience within the context of the structural oppression that we live under,” Cruz said. “[What] goes across all of the work at ‘Esperanza’ is the desire and the intention to support a different narrative about our community. It is a narrative of wellness and well-being. And it is a narrative where we look for the strengths in the community and build on those.”