LA CULTURA CURA: In the Face of Extreme Social and Political Unrest, Youth Can Find Safety and Healing in Their Roots

Mothers adjust the Mayan costume of a De Colores dance troupe member in Maryland. Photo by Julienne Gage

On a cool September evening, dozens of Latinx school children dressed in bright, embroidered Mesoamerican dance costumes gather at the Bowie Center for the Performing Arts in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. Their parents braid sashes through long hair and straighten belt buckles. Younger children play video games on smartphones while older ones gossip.

Then comes a call to attention from their dance teacher, Rocio Bermudez, founding director of the local folkloric dance troupe De Colores. The kids gather in a circle, holding hands as she recites a pre-performance blessing. They raise their arms together in one triumphant cheer. Minutes later, they file across the stage, boots stomping, skirts and hats twirling. They dance joyfully and confidently to the sound of songs passed down through generations.

“When you dance you feel powerful, like you know everything,” says 10-year-old Camila Benicio.

“When I dance, I’m not afraid of what people say or how they bully because I believe I’m bigger and more important than that,” seconds Camila’s 13-year-old brother Diego Benicio. “My friends in the Mexican dance troupe support me when I’m down. We know we’re a big family and we’re stronger together.”

The Benicio family says their participation in Maryland’s De Colores dance troupe build their community support system. Photo courtesy of Yarania Benicio.

Positive feelings like these are few and far between for children like the Benicio siblings, who are growing up amid several enormous threats to their safety and self-confidence. They live in suburbs frequented by gangs, and just miles from the Washington, DC beltway, where conservative policymakers instruct law enforcement to racially profile Latinx youth.

Similar scenarios are playing out across the country. In fact, a 2016 UnidosUS report showed that Latino youth experience disproportionately higher levels of anxiety and depression than their non-Hispanic peers, thanks in large part to poverty, unsafe or unstable living conditions, and racial discrimination. This can lead to higher dropout rates, substance abuse, and other risk-taking behaviors.

Community leaders and educators hope that through arts, dancing and cultural rituals, kids will gain confidence and a sense of community to help them deal with their life challenges and traumas. As some community leaders put it, la cultura cura—culture cures. The challenge is getting support for these types of activities when funders don’t have tools for measuring results and policymakers lack the will to promote them, but increasing numbers of educators are thinking about how to promote social emotional learning. That’s prompting them to reflect on old cultural traditions.

Culture for Character Building

Long before the dawn of Western clinical psychology, dances like the ones the Latinx youth in Maryland were performing, were among many customs and rituals used to promote emotional resilience. So was singing, burning plants, meditating, and holding group discussions in a circle. Such cultural rituals can feel a lot friendlier to youth who aren’t accustomed to formal therapy, or lack access to counselors.

“These types of activities serve the purpose of both remembering and affirming cultural identity, which bolsters both individual self-esteem and collective well-being. They also reaffirm the importance of an intergenerational bridging of culture which is important to ensuring continuity in our communities” says Patricia Foxen, UnidosUS’s deputy director of research and the author of the 2016 publication Mental Health Services for Latino Youth: Bridging Culture and Evidence.

They are also cheaper and can be integrated into classrooms and already existing youth outreach programs. Over the last several years, UnidosUS’s program staff has been experimenting with such concepts in character building youth curriculums for their Affiliates. For example, UnidosUS recently created a program called the Men of Action Network, aimed at helping young Hispanic men combat pressures to adhere to old chauvinistic attitudes found in machismo while simultaneously combating negative stereotypes coming from power figures like President Donald Trump, who has consistently referred to young Latinos as criminals or bad hombres.

“These young people receive hateful messages about their community and about themselves from the powerful places in our country and the most powerful people in our country,” says Kumera Genet, a veteran Latinx curriculum developer and former UnidosUS staffer who helped develop Men of Action curriculum. Several UnidosUS Affiliates are in the process of adapting it, but in the meantime, Genet says there’s no time like to present to be discussing early warning signs of anxiety and depression among vulnerable groups of youth. Rituals can set the mood.

Genet suggests hosting a group check-in using a safe, inviting space, and some sort of object or activity to help center the participants. That might be a talking stick, prayer beads, or even something as simple as greeting each other in their native language. Once youth feel centered, it’s easier for them to express their fears and concerns, reflect on how those fit into a larger historical context, and also consider what paths their elders and ancestors might have taken to get through it.

The sister curriculum, Entre Mujeres, uses rituals to teach Latinas that they are as powerful as their male counterparts and to use that strength to stave off depression. According to the Centers for Disease control, Latinas are more likely to consider and commit suicide than any other youth cohort in America.

“Creating rituals within our groups is important for our young Latinas because they create a safe space to share their ideas, feelings, and thoughts,” says Crystal Requejo, an Entre Mujeres instructor at the Mexican American Unity Council, an UnidosUS Affiliate in San Antonio. She says her group builds a sense of consistency, comfort, hope, and trust by holding each session in the same room and starting with the same question: “What is new and exciting?”

“This helps them create relationships and bonds with one another to be able to open conversations that can build their self-esteem and confidence,” she says. Starting with a hopeful question helps these young women to think first about what’s possible – such as gaining acceptance into and scholarships for college.

Foxen adds that youth who suffer from trauma—those who have experienced sexual abuse or family separation for example—often shut down to the point where it is difficult to express their feelings in language. For these youth, she says, “it is vital to find non-threatening ways to reconnect with and calm their bodies. Activities that can soothe and center–rhythm, movement, scent, meditation—allow the youth to move away from the physical stress, and the cultural component then provides a further sense of structure and meaning where chaos once dominated.”

Young members of the De Colores dance troupe in Maryland. Photo by Julienne Gage.

At the Tejano Center, an UnidosUS Affiliate in Houston, Entre Mujeres participants merge their indigenous and Western traditions by learning Aztec dancing and participating in local posadas, a Mexican tradition of gathering friends, family, and neighbors to reenact the story of the Nativity.

“It’s a way to remember my culture and stay in touch with my family in Mexico,” says program participant María de la Paz Jiménez.

“Young Latinas should feel safe to show off their culture and use it to be the strong, independent women that they are,” adds her instructor Yannelly Meza, noting that this type of curriculum would be unlikely to exist outside of a Latino-centered institution like hers.

The Roots of Rites and Rituals in Today’s Youth Programs

An early pioneer of this approach is Daniel “Nane” Alejandrez, founder of the 41-year-old Latino gang outreach organization Barrios Unidos. He began experimenting with cultura cura practices after getting drafted into Vietnam and later serving time in prison for gang-related activities.

Working with cultural leaders from the Latinx and Native American community, he has helped to introduce a wide array of ritualistic activities to youth development programs. One of the most popular is what he callscírculos, group therapy sessions in which youth are invited to sit or stand in a circle and pass a stick referred to as la palabra. The bearer of that stick has the floor to express personal concerns or feelings of gratitude, and as they do, leaders might burn sage, beat a drum, or chant to unite the group in meditation.

Alejandrez and his colleagues have hosted these círculos in youth centers, schools, juvenile detention facilities, parks, and sometimes at retreat centers or on Native American reservations. In some locations, such as Barrios Unidos’s five-acre retreat center nestled in the giant Sequoia trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains, leaders have invited the youth to participate in traditional Native American sweat lodges as part of their healing process.

“We’re land-based people without a land, so having five acres of our own helps us to keep our spirituality intact,” he says.

Indigenous healing ceremonies are popular activities for participants of the nationwide Latinx youth movement Barrios Unidos. Photo courtesy of Barrios Unidos.

He recently hosted a group of urban youth from San Francisco, some of whom were under close psychological observation for behavioral issues, and noted how freeing his program was for them. “They got to run in the woods, go to the beach—some had never seen trees that big!” Alejandrez marvels.

But he says, “Círculos can happen anywhere—at a school, in the park. It’s having the right person to guide, a person that that has experience working with young people and time under their belts.”

Language and Identity

Meanwhile in East Los Angeles, a lack of trees hasn’t stopped Alex Sanchez, director of program Homies Unidosfrom using círculos.

Homies Unidos started as a program in El Salvador to help gang-involved youth who were deported there from the United States in the 1990s. With its help, Sanchez was able to leave the MS-13 gang. Though group’s Salvadoran program closed down several years ago, Sanchez has been working to revive it in Los Angeles by offering self-esteem and youth leadership workshops, especially those who have arrived as unaccompanied minors.

His goal is to reach them before life pressures do, since many of them live in neighborhoods where they can easily fall prey to bullying, drugs, prostitution, and gang life – the kinds of social problems that prompted their parents to send them abroad in the first place. In many cases, he becomes the parent or elder they left behind or the one they need because their own families are too busy or unsure of how to help.

“The parents can’t teach their kids about what to face out there because they don’t know. The only thing they know to say is “no te metes en problemas”—”don’t get into trouble,” says Sanchez, who notes that unaccompanied minors are supposed to be protected from deportation as long as they stay in school, but many have been out in the real world so long they feel disillusioned and start to rebel.

Participants of the Los Angeles-based youth program Homies Unidos combat negative stereotypes and risk taking behavior with art projects and heritage-affirming rituals. Photo courtesy of Homies Unidos.

“Gangs become part of that tribal element that you’re seeking. It’s how our youth have coped with lack of culture, and that’s where cultura curacomes in,” says Sanchez, who began to feel more connected to his heritage and stronger in his quest to promote peacemaking after attending several sweat lodge ceremonies in California in the late 1990s. “I felt it was important to bring that knowledge of culture to the program so that youth are able to understand their value and sacred purpose, so that they understand they don’t need to search for their identity because they already have one,” he says.

But he says he’s the first to recognize that colonial stereotypes can sometimes disrupt the initial flow. Even though he has native Pipil ancestry, the sweat lodges he participated in as an adult immigrant in California represented his first experience with indigenous traditions because he was raised Jehovah’s Witness in El Salvador, one of many religious groups that shun native ceremonies.

“Some of those kids are coming in and saying ‘that’s witchcraft.  I can’t do that. It’s against my religion. I can’t bring my parents to this,” says Sanchez, adding, “For a lot of us, being indigenous is a curse.”

Genocide of indigenous peoples is something these children’s own parents and extended family may have witnessed or heard about in their own lifetimes. For example, Guatemala’s 40-year civil war lasted up until 1996, claiming some 200,000 lives, most of them Mayan. And in El Salvador, many of the country’s indigenous groups quit asserting their identity after a 1932 massacre known as La Matanza in which then-President Maximiliano Hernández Martínez killed some 30,000 natives. Plus, decades of internal conflict, including El Salvador’s civil war from 1980 to 1992, have led to stereotypes of Central Americans as inherently violent.

“It’s hard for these kids to come to their culture when it’s been demonized so bad, but at the same time, when we start working with them, and they get to start understanding and expressing themselves, they want the palabra—the talking stick—and they can’t wait to get it,” says Sanchez.

Symbolic objects can set a calming mood for reflective discussion.Photo courtesy of Barrios Unidos.

And the words themselves can be healing, especially for multilingual youth struggling to fit in and learn English, oftentimes repressing their deeper cultural identities. During one of his own character-building programs, he discovered a group of Mayan siblings speaking to each other in their native K’iche’ when they needed some privacy, so he invited them to use K’iche’ words as part of their graduation ceremony, which was to culminate in a círculo alongside their parents.

At first, the youth worried that this wouldn’t be a good idea as their parents were both evangelicals who largely shunned rituals. Sure enough, one of the gals lit a stick of sage as her father hid, chagrined at a back table and her mother stood closer looking dumbfounded. The girl began to cleanse the room with the burning stage and as she did so, she began reciting words of gratitude in K’iche’. Her mother impulsively corrected the girl’s grammar, but rather than ruin a moment, the interaction prompted both parents to become intrigued and fully step into the circle.

Mainstreaming the Concept

Former Barrios Unidos leader Luis Cardona, now a worker with the Department of Health and Human Services in Montgomery County, Maryland, welcomes these stories. Also a former gang member and Barrios Unidos alumnus, he knows traumatized youth often get into trouble while seeking the structure that’s missing in their disrupted lives. He is more than willing to be a surrogate father figure, but he also wants to see more families use cultura cura for reunification. He liaises with schools, local police, social workers, youth groups, and churches to support programs that do that. In fact, he helps implement El Jóven Noble, a predecessor to UnidosUS’s Men of Action program.

“Even in a community like Montgomery County, which is very welcoming to immigrants, we still encounter a small minority of people or even policies that have negative impacts on brown children,” says Cardona. “This targeted oppression makes it critical for them to stay connected to traditions and values that help them work through their struggle.”

But getting funding for these types of initiatives can be difficult because they don’t fall into the stricter measurement categories for evidence-based practices, says Foxen.

“We need to funders and policy makers to expand the framework for evidence and evaluation, so that it is more inclusive of culturally-based interventions and forms of healing, and so that it incorporates local perspectives not only into the design, but also the evaluation, of these programs.”

And even where there is statistical evidence, these practices can be met with significant resistance, notes Dr. Curtis Acosta, an assistant professor of elementary and secondary education at the University of Arizona South. He worked as a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District from 1995 to 2010 introducing indigenous words, songs, and chants, as well as Latinx literature into his social studies curriculums in Arizona. He noted that Latinx students performed better in all subjects when their teachers and the materials they were reading reflected people like themselves. In fact, he said students participating in his school’s rigorous Chicanx and Latinx-oriented curriculum consistently graduated at a rate of 96%.

“This was the first time they were reading and finishing books in an English class because the literature was a mirror to them. The history class was connecting them to the lives of the parents and grandparents, and ancestors in a way that drove conversations with their families at home,” he said. “They were so engaged in school that they were hungry to share their excitement with those who mattered the most.”

In 2010, conservative Arizona lawmakers enacted a ban on ethnic studies, but in 2017, an Arizona judge overturned that ban on grounds that it was discriminatory and politically partisan. But undoing the damage will take time and careful reflection, says Acosta.

“Our schools have functioned for generations as hierarchies. Certain cultures, genders, sexualities, and races have been seen as superior, and then this became normalized,” he says. “As teachers, we need to reflect on our practices deeply to see if they are egalitarian, compassionate, empathetic, and humanizing.”

As Acosta and his colleagues seek ways to improve recognition for cultura curawithin classrooms, groups like Barrios Unidos are considering how to develop tools to prove its effectiveness outside of school. Meanwhile, many graduates of cultura cura programming say their testimonials are a sign in and of themselves.

Diego Cardona used cultura cura rituals to heal from juvenile detention. He still participates in sweat lodges at Barrios Unidos’s retreat center in Santa Cruz, CA. Photo by Nane Alejandrez.

Diego Cardona, 23, got involved with Barrios Unidos in high school while serving time a juvenile detention center, and while he has long since graduated from school and Alejandrez’s Santa Cruz program, he is still a regular cultura cura practitioner. He says these activities have given him confidence and inspiration to pursue a career as a cook at a local restaurant while developing a side business producing and marketing traditional Mexican atole, a hot cornmeal beverage. Whenever he needs to recharge his mind and body, he goes up the mountain to the Barrios Unidos retreat center to reflect on his heritage while using the sweat lodge.

“There’s a lot of things—some of them are seeing what our ancestors did and how they managed with everyday problems instead of going out and getting drunk and high. They connected with the earth through a sweat lodge, feeling all those problems melt away, coming out and looking at the stars and seeing that there’s nothing too big that this universe can’t fix.

Do you have an example of how cultura cura has worked in your youth outreach or education program? We’d like this story to serve as a launching point for sharing more ideas. Please email them to Progress Report’s Senior Web Content Manager Julienne Gage at jgage@unidosus.org.