Barriers to Bridges: Mental Health “Cultura” Examining the pride of South Texas ‘cultura’ and the stigma of mental health 

Latino heritage is deeply rooted in the community of Laredo, with tradition and family at the core of its values. Because of its proximity along the South Texas border, the community is primarily known as a gateway between the United States and Mexico. Historic landmarks like the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum and the San Agustin Cathedral continue to stand tall amidst the changing landscape of the town. Laredo’s diversity is echoed in a blended dialect of Spanish and English and savored in distinctive dishes emblematic of Latin cuisine. Murals and mosaics embody the colorful and rich culture which locals refer to as ‘cultura’. For countless years, Latinos have passed down their cultura and with it the values of tradition and family. Other philosophies such as work ethic, beliefs, and religious faith have also been generationally taught. Although cultura serves as a solid foundation for families, there are cracks etched beneath its surface that often go unnoticed from generation-to-generation.  

While there is a sense of pride and perseverance within Laredo’s diverse populations, there is also shame and stigma surrounding mental health. Research shows that Hispanics and Latinx groups often don’t address mental health concerns, which can lead to a lack of knowledge and increased taboo regarding the topic.1 Yvonne Pacheco is familiar with these barriers; she has lived in Laredo her whole life. “The stigma still exists, and I think it’s rooted in our cultura. I often hear people say, ‘there is no such thing as mental or behavioral health issues’ we just have to cope with it or deal with it,” she said.  Pacheco is a Community Connector for Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas Inc. and describes her role as “boots on the ground.” She serves as Methodist Healthcare Ministries’ point of contact to various funded partners and organizations throughout Laredo, including the surrounding rural communities in Webb County, Zapata County, and Dimmit County. “I will meet with anyone from community centers to small grass-root organizations, to just a group of folks that are doing nice things in the community”. Through her connections with various groups, Pacheco has gained insight on key issues in the region, including mental health. Although there is still a looming stigma, Pacheco has seen some shifts thanks to the work of several organizations. “There is more conversation about it, there are more people going to community centers, there are more people seeking out different programs. There is the big campaign of awareness, let’s talk about it.” 

One of the organizations Pacheco remains connected with is PILLAR, a Methodist Healthcare Ministries Funded Partner.  The non-profit organization serves as a behavioral health center, substance abuse treatment center, and drug testing facility. However, it also  provides Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) testing and has a harm reduction program for people who may be actively engaging in substance abuse or know someone who is. PILLAR’s Co-Founder, Manuel Sanchez recalls the early days of the organization which began with services provided to members of the LGBTQ+ community, who were experiencing acts of bullying and high suicide rates. However, Sanchez felt by broadening PILLAR’s outreach more people could be helped across the community. “We have found that by casting a wider net we are going to have an impact in the area of suicide, and certainly trauma associated with acts of bullying.” PILLAR aims to provide services to men and women, including children as young as 5-years old. Although the organization has made great strides over the years, Sanchez points to challenges associated with cultura and the stigma that persists, “Generational exposure to spirituality and other culture beliefs will always trump any messages surrounding behavioral health care because in our community, they haven’t been around as long. No one took the time to talk about the scientific practices that were in existence helping people manage emotions, alter perception and patterns of thought that have a deeper impact.” However, Sanchez believes the culture is changing, “it’s the younger generation that are now educating the older folks on the value of these services because they have been more exposed to these messages.” PILLAR tracks its impact in the community using several techniques, including evaluations, goals, and even tracking local suicide rates, and area hospitalizations for emotional crisis. Sanchez hopes that PILLAR’s services will have lasting effects throughout the region. However, he believes willingness and patience are both needed before healing can begin, “This is not something that gets rectified overnight. Sometimes we are dealing with decades long of engrained thought patterns and behavioral practices, so it takes time. If someone really allows the process to take shape and they do the work on their end, you see a difference.”   

Cultura has been woven into the fabric of South Texas communities; the values, beliefs, and tradition are held sacred by families. While it is important to cherish these teachings, it is crucial to examine the inherent barriers that have been forged for generations. Mental health stigma has become a common challenge for organizations like PILLAR, and there is still a long way to go before barriers can be broken. However, both Sanchez and Pacheco believe the path to peace is gradual, with the first step beginning with acceptance. Intentional listening and learning will allow for a greater impact, that will leave an indelible mark in the lives of families for generations to come.