I can remember “wanting to die” when I was five years old. It was the only way I could think of escaping my situation. I was living with a mentally ill mother who was chronically abusive. Sure, we were also living in poverty, in a neighborhood too dangerous for me to play outside where I didn’t fit in because I was “too white,” too Americanized and better educated than my peers. I was isolated from my peers not just because of the abuse but because my mother was afraid I’d become tainted by the culture she saw around us.
These issues were secondary to the abuse but they weren’t so secondary to my life or the lives of those around me. At three years old, my youngest sister was sent away to the Dominican Republic because my mother couldn’t afford to take care of her. It would be years before my sister could come back. Many of my friends had siblings in similar situations or were passed between family members because of money trouble.
Like any kid, by the time I was old enough to recognize I was poor, I was taught to be ashamed of it in a status-oriented, materialistic society. In high school, my Mexican best friend said he couldn’t go to college because his parents wanted him to start working right away to help support the family.. I was luckier than most of my peers in that both of my parents had been raised in New York and been raised to value the importance of going to college.
As a preteen, I was called into the guidance counselor’s office for telling my friends I wanted to kill myself after showing up at school with black and blue bruises. At 13, I met the Holocaust survivor who would give me hope for surviving but it was my teachers who helped me sustain the hope that education would help me escape my surroundings. (My mother hoped I would go to college so she could steal my financial aid money to help the family.)
But what if you don’t find that hope to keep going?
What if your parents can’t relate to you because they’re from a foreign country? What if two different cultures are sending you very confusing, mixed messages and you second-guess all your actions? What if you’re too poor to consider struggling to survive for more than day to day? Where do you turn? Unfortunately, many young Latinas are turning to the same place I thought would help me escape as a young teen…suicide.
Suicide rates among Latina teens are apparently quite disturbing: “Latina high school students have higher attempted suicide rates than white non-Hispanic (7.7 percent) or black non-Hispanic (9.9 percent) girls their age, the CDC reports.”
In the CNN story, “Trapped between worlds, some Latina teens consider suicide,” I found too much I could relate to. Like teen Latina Francisca Abreu, I was depressed and cut off from the support system parents should provide. I was “the daughter of immigrant parents, [living] in a low-income setting…caught in an intense battle with her mother over Latino and American cultures.”
When I came home late from drama club (I begged to join explaining lack of extracurricular activities could affect my chances with colleges), my mother accused me of doing drugs…I wasn’t but many of my friends were. Like Francisca’s mother, my mother wanted me to “to stay home, learn how to cook and clean the house” and I also “wasn’t allowed to hang out with friends.” I was rarely praised for my grades and more often criticized for burning the rice or mopping the floor improperly.
“Teenagers have certain freedoms; they don’t need to consult with their parents to make certain decisions,” Dr. Luis Zayas, a psychologist at Washington University, says in the article. “That’s the culture that’s here, and inserted in that is the Latino family that says the family is much more important than the individual.” Among other things, this is one reason, I, like many of my Latino students when I taught high school, was pulled out of school frequently to stay home to help take care of my siblings when I should have been in school.
Though the article ends on a high note, we know the teen in the article has a tough road ahead of her learning to cope with depression and now, also struggling with being a teen mom. The odds aren’t in her favor but there’s hope.