American Counseling Association of Missouri

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Resiliency Lessons Puerto Rican Style

Deanna Brauer de Palacios, MA, LPC, NCC

We counselors take our counseling hats with us everywhere we go whether to the grocery store, to our offices, or on vacation.  I had the wonderful pleasure of revisiting San Juan, Puerto Rico over the Labor Day holiday and was curious about how last year’s hurricane Maria may still be affecting the people especially as a recent news report revised the earlier death toll from 64 to 2,975.  This is still a fluid number as deaths are continuing to be attributed to the hurricane.  

Let’s compare some numbers.  Hurricane Katrina’s death toll was a staggering 1,833.  New Orleans now has a museum dedicated to telling the story, struggle, and survival of Katrina. 

After effects of hurricanes include health risks that arise from contaminated water, lack of food, health effects from smoke and fire, economic impacts, and impacts on education strike 3rd and 1st world countries alike. 

“How are things going after the hurricane?” I asked Puerto Ricans. 

One gentleman said that life in San Juan are almost back to normal.  He said that many street lamps are still down or missing noncritical parts.  More recent hurricanes around the U.S. took out other electrical parts and were borrowed parts from San Juan.  He added that many people outside the city have land that was passed down to them from many generations before official deeds and titles existed and so they are facing roadblocks with receiving government support as they cannot legally show that they own the property.  He said that homes in the country also tend to lack resources to rebuilt and make-shift houses covered by blue tarps is still common. 

My husband and I rented bicycles and biked to Old San Juan, the colonial part of San Juan built in 1521.  Part of the fort, which extends over a mile across the ocean and provides breath taking views, acts as a barrier to one community, La Perla.  There we were stopped by a darling enclave decorated with umbrellas, a gathering of all ages of people, and the trill of bongos and guitars.  A rhuma, or party, during the middle of the day ensued with vendors selling empanadas and cold cervesas.  After enjoying the music for a spell, we walked on the other side of the fort wall into the community.  Many houses were clearly beaten from Maria and debris was piled to corners of the neighborhood.  But the people swayed and danced.  Children laughed and played.  Older people talked and sang.  We were told later that this community "is as raw as you can get" where even the older people and teens carry guns for protection and economic hardship is a way of life.  Despite this, happiness is abundant.

La Perla is situated in this photo, under the fort wall and next to the ocean.

Another thing that did not change about Puerto Rico is it's national pride.  Everywhere you can see their flag displayed in all her glory.  It's painted in graffiti, on the sides of buildings, on rear view mirrors, on shirts and on anything else imaginable.

Man never made any material as resilient as the human spirit.

- Bernard Williams

We asked Roberto, the man who rented us bikes, about what he thought of the hurricane’s effects, he said, “I love it here.  It will take another hurricane to make me leave.”  Then he laughed.

APA defines resilience as adapting in the face of adversity.  One of the keys to adapting is to remain connected to others, particularly, those who you trust.  Does this sound familiar trauma therapists!  From what I’ve seen, Puerto Ricans are shining examples of resiliency; of flexibility, of adaptability, of social connectedness, of keeping sight of realistic goals and keeping a positive perspective.  And through their adversity, perhaps they are giving others the gift of resiliency. 

To donate to the relief effort, click here 

Counseling Latino Clients: Interview with Lucy Roldan Smith, MA, LPC, LCMFT

Lucy Roldan Smith, LPC, LCMFT has been practicing for over 10 years in the Kansas City area with native English speakers and native Spanish speakers.  She is trained in EMDR and Ericksonian Hypnosis.

Deanna:  First of all, thank you for taking today.  You work with a variety of clients.  Can you talk about working with Latino clients?

Lucy: They see me as an authority figure and to be respected.  Americans know I’m a counselor and tend to be leery about therapy because they usually don’t to want to express their emotions or thoughts.  American born clients will oftentimes say that they were hesitant about coming to therapy.  With the Latino community, the first thing that comes out of their mouths is “Doctora, Doctora Lucy.”  And I have to immediately tell them that I am not a Doctor, I’m a counselor, a therapist, and I have to tell them the difference between a counselor and an M.D. and therapists aren’t considered counselors in Missouri.  And many times, they will not drop using, “Doctora”.  They will continue calling me “Doctora Lucy” and they talk to me using the usted form of Spanish instead of tu form, which is more formal and a sign of respect.  It’s harder to get them to express and work on their own thoughts and insights and to discover insights because they want it to come from me.  I tell them, “No, this is about you.  You have answers.  I don’t have your answers.”

Deanna: How do they respond to that?

Lucy: I think it takes a little time, but they warm up to it.  I use a lot of psychoeducation with them.  I use a lot of psychoeducation with all my clients but especially with Latino clients.  This is because if I don’t tell them why I’m asking something or where I’m going with something, they more than likely not do it.  Now the American will more than likely not do what I ask them.  The Latino will do it no questions asked but I want them to be informed.

Deanna: The Latino clients that you see, are they usually from just 1 or 2 countries?

Lucy:  I see people from a multitude of countries. 

Deanna: Do you see cultural nuances from country to country?

Lucy: Yes.  So, what’s most important is if we can see the cultural nuances but what is even stronger is important is recognizing the socio economic.  The more educated the more likely they are to come to therapy and the less educated are likely to say I can’t tell my family I came because they are going to think I’m crazy. 

Deanna: There’s a big stigma about mental health?

Lucy: Yes, there is.  But the more educated, the more likely they are to come.  So that’s a bigger influence on how they respond to me and how therapy goes than necessarily culture.

Deanna: How likely is it that a Latino client would be to see a non-Latino therapist?

Lucy: They are very reluctant.  They are very reluctant because they feel that the non-Latino therapist will not understand cultural significances like if you have a female who comes to you and her husband does not want to come or maybe he does come but not all the time, but you know in that relationship, what he says goes.  Now if she’s quite comfortable with that, I’m no one to say, “You need to take control, you need to be more independent”, like an American.  That’s not my place.

Deanna: You’re taking into consideration the strong cultural influence from where she’s from.

Lucy: Yes, and if she’s not feeling that she’s being oppressed and that is her role, then I work with that role and she’s not coming to see me to become more independent.  I know that if she asks her husband to go to the grocery store and I ask her to do something in therapy, then she needs to ask her husband if she can do it.  I have to respect her culture, her socioeconomic level, I have to respect the role she plays, and she is comfortable being in.

Deanna: So, it sounds like the SES level is extremely important.  What are some of the other different nuances that come to play?

Lucy: Yes.  The Latinos that are more progressive tend to come from a city.  In a lot of Latin American countries, if you are from the city, you are more educated, and you have more opportunities.  If you are from the suburbs or from the country, you are less educated.  The more rural communities don’t have schools up to middle school or high school.  You have to go out of town for that.  And so, if you want to continue education, your parents have to have enough money to send you out of town to live in the school or with a family member.  Where they are, whether they are form the outside the city or in the city is also a huge factor.

Deanna: What sort of recommendations would you have for non-Latino therapists working with a Latino client?

Lucy: I would say they need to get to know the roles that people play.  They need to know the expectations in that home as far as mom, dad, etc.

Deanna: They are very relational?

Lucy: Yes, they are very relational.  They really need to know the family.  And for instance, if mom is only in charge of the children and dad is hands off, that is cultural and it’s also socioeconomic, but we also know that the father needs to be more involved.  But, you would use cultural references in order promote more father involvement.  Many times fathers don’t want to be involved with babies because that is considered women’s work.  Or, that he’ll be in charge of the child when the child turns 5.  Well, we know that if he hasn’t been involved until the child is 5, that child will not want to have anything to do with that father.  So, it’s about educating them also. 

Deanna: You’re bringing back the psychoeducational component.

Lucy: Yes.  The more involved you are with your infant, the more likely he is going to be involved and follow in your footsteps. 

Deanna: It sounds like you’re basically saying to have the client teach you about their culture.

Lucy: Yes. Absolutely.  That is critical.

Deanna: ACA and NBCC have issues public statements condemning the separation of families at the US and Mexico border.  I can’t help but think of the tremendous heartbreak going on there.

Lucy: People forget their humanity for the sake of being right or loyalty to an entity.  It’s extremely disheartening that people ignore and turn to look away when people are suffering, and innocent children are being treated as if they are less than human.  I ask how we can criticize other countries for violating human rights when we are allowing this to happen.  In this “greatest country in the world”, look what this greatness does to those who have no power or voice.  That is not law nor protecting American citizens.  It is abusing power without considering human suffering. 

Contact information for Lucy Roldan Smith:

4131 Mulberry Dr., Ste. 245                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Kansas City, MO 64116                                                                                                                                                                                                                      


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