A Return to Roots

Dulce Vargas (left) and Irene Gomez stand in an Oxnard strawberry field, where the clients they serve work. Photo: Lori Eanes
Dulce Vargas (left) and Irene Gomez stand in an Oxnard strawberry field, where the clients they serve work. Photo: Lori Eanes

A group of 13 women sit in a circle under a painting of ancient Mesoamerica featuring the first indigenous president of Mexico, Benito Juárez. Under the painting is a quote by Juárez, in Spanish. Translated, it reads, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” The room is sparse, with folding chairs, incense burning on a small table and blocks in a corner for the toddlers who sometimes come with their mothers. The women, wearing the same jeans and T-shirts they wear to work in the fields, sip tea in paper cups. There’s a printout of a chrysalis and butterfly taped to the wall.

The women here at the Mixteco/Indigena Organizing Project in downtown Oxnard are part of a new support group and are learning how to manage stress and deal with difficulties in their lives, sometimes including domestic violence and mental illness. As indigenous people, they’ve felt their “outsider status” in both Mexico and the United States. They face other troubles every day as members of an often invisible minority group in California.

The support group is sponsored by the nonprofit Organizing Project, formed in 2001 to help indigenous immigrants in Ventura County and statewide. As the Affordable Care Act has expanded health care to much of California’s population, the nonprofit has stepped up the services it offers to those who have been largely left out of health reform: undocumented residents.

The organization has a range of com- munity activities—giving hundreds of backpacks to low-income kids; standing up for equal treatment of indigenous immigrants in schools, hospitals, courtrooms and the community at large; providing interpreters and holding cultural competency trainings for professionals in health care, education and the legal system; helping people escape domestic violence; and facilitating access to health care, drug and alcohol treatment, and government services, such as food stamps. One of the project’s focus areas is offering mental health services to farmworkers.

Most of the women in this support group are farmworkers. Most have never seen the inside of a therapist’s office, received mental health treatment or participated in a support group like this. All are indigenous immigrants, largely hailing from the southwestern Mexican state of Oaxaca, but now living in the Oxnard region. They are the descendants of Mesoamerica’s native people. Some of them still solely speak their native language, Mixteco.

Dulce Vargas, one of their own, is leading the group. Along with Irene Gomez, she runs the organization’s mental health program for women and, recently, men. Gomez was here earlier, meeting with Vargas to go over their caseload and strategize how to reach more people with their ever-sparse budget. The two women have different stories, but both spent their childhoods and young adult- hoods learning to make a life with little, and they bring that knowledge to their job.

The Affordable Care Act has done little to directly help the Mixteco/Indigena Organizing Project or the people it serves. Most of the nonprofit’s clients are undocumented and do not qualify for health insurance, even under the act’s expansion. The insistence on parity between treatment for mental health and treatment for non-mental health needs is one of the signature aspects of health care reform that will not reach them. The women and men in the support groups benefit only indirectly from the law’s requirement that mental health and physical health be treated equally.

Changes at the national level have still led to a positive shift in the dialogue about mental health, Gomez says. Because the federal health law requires insurance companies and government programs to cover an expanded range of mental health services, more people are talking about seeking treatment, and the stigma is slowly being reduced, Gomez adds.

Without access to mental health care that those with insurance enjoy, many farmworkers in California depend on groups like the Organizing Project. The women and men who come to meetings are working with Vargas and Gomez to create their own remedies for health and find additional help through therapists or mental health professionals if needed.

At one of the evening classes in mid-September, a group of 11 women sit on folding chairs, sipping tea. Soft music plays in the background. To begin, Vargas asks each woman to share how she’s doing emotionally and how her week has been. In a mix of Mixteco and Spanish, they talk about the pressures of parent- hood, the stress of too little work or too much, the feeling of being overwhelmed, depressed or discouraged. When one talks, the others listen. An interpreter helps translate for those who only speak Mixteco.

“I’m feeling stressed a lot, and pain in my body and thinking suicidal thoughts,” one woman says. “Today I said to my four children ,‘I’m coming straight here, because I need to be here to learn how to better myself and seek help,’” another says. “I’m starting to do therapy to be able to better communicate to my children. Sometimes I feel really sad, so lonely. But little by little, I feel these circles heal me.”

“I suffer a lot from depression,” says a woman with a young child, sitting across the circle. “I don’t do anything, I don’t work, I just take care of my child.”

Another woman worries about her baby, who was born prematurely. But then she says she draws strength from being a mother: “We have to try to keep doing better, not just for ourselves, but for our children.”

Dulce Vargas understands their struggles. She grew up in a small town in Oaxaca. Unlike many of her fellow indigenous immigrants, she was able to finish high school and complete some college courses in accounting. But when she came to the United States at 23, she was forced to start over. Vargas cleaned houses to help support her two daughters, and eventually became a cook in Oxnard restaurants. A few years later, she began volunteering for a new organization—the Mixteco/Indigena Organizing Project.

An estimated 165,000 indigenous immigrants from Latin America have come to California in the last two decades. Because about 60 percent do not speak English or Spanish, they often face challenges finding interpreters in health care, educational and legal settings.

Vargas speaks Spanish and doesn’t encounter all the problems faced by people who speak only Mixteco. But she has watched her family members and friends experience discrimination and has herself faced bullying by other Latinos. In Mexico, indigenous people have historically been belittled for their sometimes darker skin and shorter stature, prejudice that is often carried over into the United States.

She also understood that these stresses wear away at mental health. Indigenous women often talk of being constantly afraid—of the police, of their husbands if they are abusive, of their employers who sometimes take advantage of them.

Because they are undocumented and often don’t understand that they can go to the police for help with- out being deported, they feel as though they have no protections for themselves or their children. Not speaking English or Spanish is another barrier that can make indigenous people feel devastatingly lonely, sometimes leading to depression. Their jobs in the fields are unstable, poorly paid and exhausting, which can contribute to anxiety and other physical and mental health ailments. Chronic stress can cause mental health issues to erupt in an otherwise healthy person. Farmworkers, particularly those who are indigenous, face stress at every turn—in the fields, at home and in the community.

So when Vargas heard about the fledgling nonprofit that was starting up a class to teach indigenous women about mental health and domestic violence, she wanted to volunteer.

Despite the increased public attention to mental health needs in the United States, the topic remains somewhat taboo for the Mixtecs. “People are more open to talking about it,” she says. “But we still encounter cultural beliefs people have that if you have mental illness someone has put a spell on you, and if you seek help it means you’re ‘crazy.’ We have to show people that mental health is something everyone needs to pay attention to.” Vargas says she often en- counters these stereotypes when teaching her classes for women.

Vargas also helps Gomez run the non- profit’s domestic violence program. Gomez was helping to run women’s programs at the organization when she met Vargas. Also an indigenous immigrant, Gomez had come to the United States at 14 with her family. Immediately, she began working in Oxnard’s straw- berry fields. Because her family of 10 was desperately poor, she needed to help earn money instead of going to school.

Gomez toiled there until she was 26. But she used the fields as her classroom, learning Spanish from her fellow farm- hands. Determined to change her fate and make a better life for her three children, she attended night school to learn English and finish her elementary education. She was hired at the Organizing Project in 2007.

Gomez serves as the manager of the domestic violence and mental health outreach program for the Organizing Project, which helps farmworkers and indigenous families access therapy and mental health services in their own language or with the assistance of an interpreter. The domestic violence program helps people escape abusive relation- ships, get restraining orders and protect their children.

Today, Vargas facilitates both women’s and men’s workshops and is a case man- ager for the domestic violence program. Since 2008, she has led support groups and classes for women several times a year. For the first few years, she trained promotoras, or health promoters, who help educate women and men from their own community about the cycle of violence, legal protections for victims of abuse and the detrimental impact of violence on children. The promotoras visit homes in the community and provide information in Mixteco with a special sensitivity to cultural beliefs.

Vargas also leads women’s support groups and classes called “Living With Love.” The classes focus on emotional health, stress relief and safe relationships. “I would say that I care about the people who come and I care about giving them a way out [of an abusive relationship] if that’s what they want, because I know the effects of it,” she says. “I care about that.”

Vargas and Gomez soon became friends, bonding over their similar interests in personal growth and helping the community. The two women have both overcome great adversity in their own lives to help thousands of farmworkers, recent immigrants and their families get access to mental health, domestic violence and drug and alcohol services. Experienced with living in the shadows, they are tireless advocates of bringing light to those who feel hopeless.

When Vargas first volunteered for the Organizing Project, she was in the throes of a violent relationship. She faced severe abuse from her husband and was in a depressive fog because of it. She was also seeing the effects on her daughters—her oldest had become de- pressed and withdrawn, and Vargas had her see a therapist. As Vargas learned about domestic violence through the classes she was teaching at the non- profit, she began to open her eyes to her own situation at home.

“A lot of emotions arose in that moment,” she says. “I was living it, and at the same time I was teaching it to my first class.” Soon after, Vargas sought therapy and found the strength to leave her husband. “Everything has its own process,” she says of her journey. “In my case, because of my experiences, I can better help others.”

This year, Vargas also started offering the classes to groups of men, teaching them the same material. She wasn’t sure how the courses would go over—especially to recent immigrants who had grown up in Mexico’s machismo culture—but about a dozen men consistently showed up and were surprisingly receptive to the classes, says Barbara Marquez-O’Neill, an Oxnard domestic violence expert who helped create the curriculum and who helped found the Partnership for Safe Families and Com- munities of Ventura County, a nonprofit that assists victims of child abuse, domes- tic violence and sexual assault.

“Those who have been in an abusive relationship are usually women, according to statistics, but that’s not to say that’s always the case,” she says. “We were very careful to remain gender-neutral.”

“People in the community kept saying, ‘You can’t just work with the women, you have to work with the men,’” Marquez- O’Neill says. “We’re doing primary prevention, which is reaching everybody, not just people who are immediately at risk or in danger.

“We talk about gauging your internal temperature, your light within. I went to the final group, and to hear the men say ‘la luz interior’ was so exciting. It was very well received.”

Altogether, Gomez and Vargas reach about 2,000 people annually. Many of those—because of language and cultural barriers, as well as poverty and their un- documented status—would not have got- ten help elsewhere, says Marquez-O’Neill. “Are they reaching an underserved and sometimes un-served community? Absolutely,” she says.

Much as the women seek to do in their support groups, Vargas and Gomez have ound a way to use their personal tragedies and triumphs to help others. For Vargas, it is her story of escaping domestic violence and depression, and finding stability and hope on the other side. Gomez, meanwhile, tells of her childhood spent in the strawberry fields, scraping by for years while she attended night school and learned to speak English. “She understands the struggles and the barriers that the indigenous community goes through,” Arcenio Lopez, Organizing Project’s executive director, says of Gomez.“ Irene manages programs that offer support to families that share the same challenges she faced when she came to this country.”

Despite the mental health disparities for indigenous people, the work that Gomez and Vargas are doing and the changes in the national conversation show that things “are moving in the right direction,” says Lopez.

As Vargas’ evening class continues, a few other women trickle in, explaining that they had to work late in the fields. Two babies crawl on the floor; the older children play in the next room, supervised by two women. Soon, the nonprofit will begin programs that teach the children about their indigenous heritage, through crafts, songs and stories.
Vargas starts leading deep breathing exercises. Then she begins the teaching portion of the evening. “These classes work a lot on knowing yourself, our own emotions,” she says. “Then we can see and analyze a little better what our relationships are with our family.

“We can all learn from each other. Everyone’s story is different, but everyone carries wisdom.”

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