While the face of depression and self-harm continues to be middle-class white female teens, those most impacted are actually Latina adolescents.
In fact, according to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, at 41.4 percent, Latina teens are more likely to suffer from depression than their white (34.4 percent) and Black (31.4 percent) peers. It's also more common for our young women to fantasize about suicide and attempt to take their own lives. More shockingly, this is happening most in one of the liveliest and multicultural cities in the world: New York.
In disbelief, filmmaker Raquel Cepeda set out to understand how young New York Latinas are at the center of this national public health issue. In “Some Girls,” the Harlem-born Dominican award-winning journalist, cultural activist and podcaster takes four troubled teenage girls in a Bronx-based suicide prevention program through a journey of self-discovery.
Cepeda learns that the teens, who are Dominican, Puerto Rican, Central American and South American, are having difficulty navigating their communities, and the world at large, as young people who live outside the U.S.’ dominant white-black binary. They are struggling to see themselves, fighting Latina stereotypes they don’t live up to and negotiating the narrative of themselves this country taught them.
In the feature documentary, the young women undergo a process of re-education, starting with ancestral DNA testing and then a trip to the seat of the Americas, modern-day Dominican Republic. Here, their history and knowledge of self is decolonized, leading to self-transformation.
Cepeda talked with us about “Some Girls,” produced by Sam Pollard and Henry Chalfant, how living in-between in a white-black society impacts young people, how history told by us, rather than our colonizer, can be life-saving, and why we must pay attention to and uplift our Latina adolescents.
Latina teens have higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation and attempted suicide than any other racial or ethnic group in the country, and the problem is only increasing. Why do you think this issue isn’t getting the public health concern or media attention it deserves?
Well, that’s easy: because we as a society are stuck in North America’s black-and-white binary. Everything we explore, whether it be ethnicity, race or even the census, no matter what it is, the big broad issues are always seen through a black-and-white lens. And Latinxs, and Latina teens especially, don’t fit into that comfortable mold, which is how people are used to digesting their information.
Part of the problem for these young women is difficulty reconciling their U.S. and Latina identities. How does the racial binary in this country, from what you gathered from speaking with the girls for this film, compound this problem for them?
You think about teens, regardless of what race they are, they’re already dealing with issues that come from being liminal beings. They’re not children, and yet they’re not adults. They’re in the middle, negotiating both spaces. So it’s already an awkward phase where they’re getting to know themselves and finding their independence. If you compound these typical teenage issues with this feeling of invisibility, then that only makes the problem worse. You don’t see yourself in the so-called North American narrative, and when you do see yourself, it’s usually framed in a very negative light. Just look at Trump’s speech when he threw his hat into the ring.
Another major issue is that we don’t know our complete story, our real history. The narrative we are taught of our people, when it’s taught at all, is from our oppressor’s perspective. How might this impact our self-esteem?
When young people don’t see themselves represented in the narrative of North American history, when they don’t see that they, too, descend from men and women who were healthy contributors to society, they check out. They become disengaged. That’s why it’s so important for us to support ethnic studies. But when you look at the national school board, why are they so resistant to ethnic studies, especially when it’s proven to be successful in engaging students of color, including Latinx students? At the same time, they’re rewriting the narratives of the transatlantic slave trade by recasting slaves as immigrants. So what is it? What’s so special about our history that the powers that be keep it away from us? It’s empowering, and you want to keep one group benefitting by keeping others down. One way to do that, from the jump, is hiding the truth from them, or telling sides of a story that make them feel resentful over time with who they see in the mirror. It’s colonialism.
To help put the puzzle pieces together for these young girls, you took them to the Dominican Republic, the seat of the Americas. What were you hoping would take place for the girls there?
Me, personally, I was hoping they would come away feeling empowered. Although, I’m not naïve, and knew it wouldn’t change every girl’s life. But I was hoping the young women would feel hopeful and empowered to learn that despite what they learn in school and from society, that they continue within themselves a remarkable history book that carries the memory within it of their ancestors, people who found ways to survive in them. I was hoping they would come away with this on their own, with the desire of also wanting to survive themselves. While I didn’t suffer from these same issues they were going through, and I feel grounded in my own identity, it was still empowering to connect myself with the larger narrative of how the New World came to be, so I was hoping this would enhance their identity – not change or challenge it, but enhance it. I wanted it to make them curious and vested in forming their own narrative.
We get a glimpse of it in the film, but how did the girls’ attitudes, behaviors or spirit change after the ancestral DNA testing and trip?
As you see in the film, some were resentful with their results, because of how we are taught to resent ourselves in society, but some felt empowered. Because they’re so young, this is going to be a work in progress. As we know in life, sometimes people have to come back to their reality, which could be too much, especially in the conditions they live. However, I did see in different ways that they were positively impacted.
Here a teaser for SOME GIRLS, a feature documentary following a group of troubled Latina teens from a Bronx-based suicide prevention program who are transformed by an exploration of their roots via the use of ancestral DNA testing, followed by a trip to the seat of the Americas. On that journey to modern-day Dominican Republic, the white supremacist narratives about American history they've been taught are challenged, leaving them free to reconstruct their own respective identities. What does it really mean to be American? And, more importantly, what does that look like? From @raquelcepeda and @henrychalfant
Why did you want to share this story?
I don’t see these stories being shared in our communities. I felt like I had to fill in that gap. It’s very similar to why I wrote my book “Bird of Paradise.” It’s 2017, and my book was the first non-academic memoir written by a Dominican-American author. When I don’t see myself represented, when I don’t see my generation represented, I have to fill in the space. And I always feel that, because I’m so connected with the people, if I’m feeling someway, then they are feeling someway, too. And I always want somebody else to benefit from my experience. That’s always what informs my cultural products. I fill in spaces that are not filled now, and wasn’t then, and I’m always challenging the binary and fighting an uphill battle to invite others to do the same.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in the making of this film?
The most surprising thing I learned, honestly, was that the epicenter of depression and self-harm for teenage Latinas is New York City. I would have never believed that, and one of the things that started me on this journey was that disbelief. I didn’t believe Beatriz Coronel, who invited me to go and speak to these young women. We are supposed to be living in the most so-called ”diverse” city possibly on the planet – at least it was before neo-colonialism and gentrification. The New York I grew up in was so global and international that I felt there was a space for almost everyone. Even myself, who has had a very violent and difficult childhood, I found my space in hip-hop culture. I always felt there was some space for us to exist and thrive, so it shocked me. I was expecting to hear someplace in the Midwest or a southern city. I was in utter disbelief that New York is the epicenter of this problem. That was the most shocking thing that I learned.
Why should our Latina readers watch this film?
Everyone in the New World, not only Latinas or Latinx folks, but people in other communities, too, should watch this film. After all, being Latinx, we embody what it means to be American in the New World sense, considering that the seat of the Americas was in modern-day Dominican Republic. Also, it’s not just going to speak to folks that may have struggled with identity and mental health issues but also people who feel duped by our educational departments across the nation. It’s challenging what we’ve been taught – and what will get worse with Betsy DeVos. This film challenges our society’s binaries, and what can be more important than that today?
How can people support this film?
Follow us on social media and demand to see it. We literally just finished the film and have been asked to screen it in all these places. We’re now working on distribution and are aiming to get this out through limited theatrical distribution as well as online and educational distribution.