Puerto Rican author and former Latina magazine editor-in-chief Sandra Guzman brings us a book on what every Latina should know about: dating, health, succeeding professionally, and managing friendships, among other things.
The New Latina’s Bible: The Modern Latina’s Guide to Love, Spirituality, Family, and La Vida (Seal Press, $19.95) offers insight on topics as they relate to us. In the nearly 10 years since the original Latina’s Bible came out, Guzman updated lots of information and added two new chapters. In one of them (Chapter 4, “Latina Blues: It’s Not In Your Head”) she felt compelled to write about an issue that affects more Latinas than we may realize: depression. When one in every seven Latina teenagers attempts suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Guzman gives depression and suicide the attention it deserves.
In an intimate interview, Guzman tells us how depression may go unrecognized and untreated in a culture that is known to be lively and joyful.
How were you alerted to the issue of depression among Latinas?
In the first edition of the book, I talk a little bit about the alarming statistics of attempted suicide among Latina teenagers, and that was something that concerned me at the time. That was ten years ago, and unfortunately the numbers continue to rise. In some pockets of the nation, the attempted suicide rates are up to 20 percent, and that’s pretty devastating. But what really truly inspired me to say, “This is something that needs to be intimately talked about,” was a relative. Somebody who I deeply love in my family was depressed and apologized for being depressed. It hurt me to the core, because as I wrote in the book, if the person had had diabetes, cancer or high cholesterol, I don’t think the apology would have come. I realized that within our own culture we don’t have the language to understand the process and to treat this as white people do.
What did you find in your research that surprised you about depression or its treatments?
The Argentineans, for example, have a healthy self-esteem. There are always these inter-Latino jokes that Argentineans think highly of themselves, and they do! I discovered that maybe part of it has to do with the fact that they have so many therapists in their country. Everybody has a shrink. I love that the culture in Argentina is very much like, “Yeah, we can all use a little help.” So, they treat it as they would treat anything else. Unfortunately, for the rest of Latin Americans, it is not so. We look at life through many different prisms, through many different glasses, and culture has a lot of ways in which it paints the disease. I just don’t think that as a community the culture has caught up with the breakthroughs in technology. At the end of the day, Latinas have the highest incidence of depression in the country and are the least treated. Once we are diagnosed, we are more likely not to continue medication. The culture and the medical breakthroughs have not met. As a result, there are a lot of men and a lot of women who are not living life to their fullest potential.
You have very personal examples on depression. Why include those personal stories that were shared to you?
Depression is debilitating. It robs us of our sense of self, and our ability to create and live healthy lives. I started talking about it first with the intimate circle – my family. That’s where it all starts. Then you go outside of the family to friends. I have another friend who also suffers from depression and panic attacks, and I noticed how her father was treating the whole thing. He was a very educated man, but was paranoid about her taking medicine that she desperately needed. I thought I would do a great service to Latinas to demystify depression. One out of three Latinas could potentially have depression at some point in their lives, and we are all going to be touched by it.
In the book, you list signs of depression among Latinas, and one of them is people saying things like, “No tengo ganas de hacer nada” (I don’t feel like doing anything). I’ve certainly heard that phrase before. How does depression reflect physically in Latinas?
One of the interesting things that happen with Latinas is that depression becomes physical. It’s usually accompanied by another disease or when it’s not accompanied by another disease like cholesterol or diabetes, it becomes physical. When our brains are not working, something physically hurts. For African Americans the symptoms, too, become physical. Again, we do not have the language to accept the emotions.
We are a culture that is known to live life to the fullest, dance and gather as family and friends. How does our culture influence the low incidence of depression treatment among Latinas?
I think we certainly are a soulful people. At every Latino party there has to be music. Otherwise we say, “This is not a party. It’s like a funeral.” There is food, and it’s intergenerational. There is always a little kid in an adult party, and there is always a viejito or a viejita. It’s very normal for us. Because we are a joyous people, if all of the sudden you have a disease that prohibits you from taking part in the joy, something is wrong with you. “You’ve got to get over it. It used to be worse in the old country, what are you complaining about?” It just becomes a horrible vortex where you, the person who is feeling depressed, can’t win. You’re supposed to snap out of it, “¿Que te pasa? Come on.” There is a misunderstanding and a misconception. It has nothing to do with being happy or not. The disease has to do with the brain and the chemicals that are not functioning optimally.
What advice would you give someone who may be experiencing symptoms of depression?
My one piece of advice is to seek help at a place that actually specializes in mental health. Studies have shown that at least a third of Latinas who are seeking help are doing so in places that have nothing to do with mental health. They are going to a spiritual intuitive. They are going to their church or pastor. You wouldn’t take your shoes to get fixed in the cleaners. You go get help in a place that actually has the experts to give you the attention, the love, and the care that you need.
Speaking of getting help, in the book you share your personal experience with dating violence. How has that experience helped you better understand the problem?
The experience helped me understand what women who are in a situation where there is verbal and physical violence are going through – to understand the embarrassment and the shame of it. Once I was told, “Unless you experience hunger, you’ll never know what that feels like in your body.” I think in that sense, it was easier for me to understand what woman experience, and why they stay longer than they should. It’s about what’s happening inside their hearts and souls. I was very embarrassed for a long time. In fact, I write about this very good friend of mine whose party I went to with a black eye and I was wearing a crazy patch on my eye. She ordered the book online. I don’t think she’s read it yet, and I’m kind of waiting for her reaction.
What allowed you to move past that situation?
When I processed it, and I understood it had nothing to do with me, that is when I began to feel more empowered. The only thing it had to do with is allowing myself to be in that position, and my vowing never to be in that position again. I love this chapter because ultimately, it is about love. It is about self-love. Most of the violence that takes place in relationships is not physical. The extreme texting, “Where are you? Who are you with?” That can be really annoying. But, this is the truth and the fact of life for many young people. Eighty percent of the abuse that happens in relationships is verbal. We have to stop. Mujeres can be machistas, too. This is a collective issue that we have to look at together, and work out together.