La Cultura Cura seeks to heal where violence flares

Young women involved in the Silver Star Youth Program at Rancho Cielo in Salinas work on scarves they donated to women at a homeless shelter during the winter months. Photo: Sandra Solorio

“La Cultura Cura” is helping communities reconnect with their culture to prevent violence in Monterey County, which has one of the highest youth homicide rates in California.

“The whole concept of La Cultura Cura (Spanish for the cultural cure) is really based on the philosophy that within the very essence of each individual, within the family, within the culture and within the community there are the resources – the healing mechanisms for growth and healing,” said Jerry Tello, who developed the curriculum that is now helping service providers in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties.

“We work with a whole host of partners – its community based,” Tello said via a phone interview from his base in Los Angeles. “From library staff to probation to social services practitioners to drug and alcohol counselors and violence prevention counselors.”

Monterey County has the third highest rate for youth homicides in California in 2011, the most recent data available. The county had the highest rates of youth homicides in California in 2010 and 2009. Much of the gun violence in the county happens in Salinas.

Stakeholders in Salinas created the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace as a way to connect agencies and services to those in need to prevent violence before it starts. “Violence is a public health issue that not only affects the individual, but the community as a whole,” CASP stated in their comprehensive plan, “Violence is a major contributor to the deterioration of families and communities.”

Tello’s methods tie in easily with those efforts. Though there may be a lot of pain, dysfunction and fear in some families or communities, there are positive assets that are carried from generation to generation, Tello said.

“If they are surviving every day, and dealing with pains and wounds, they don’t get the opportunity to build on their cultural pride or the true sense of the value,” he said.

Starting in East Los Angeles, Tello has provided staff development and taught his curriculum to practitioners around California as well as in other states through a non-profit he co-founded, National Compadres Network. So far, Tello and his staff members have now expanded the network of people using his curriculum to 130 practitioners in the three counties. Those who have been trained in his methods include county behavioral health counselors, probation department staff and nonprofit employees.

Sandra Solorio, who works with 15 teenage girls at Rancho Cielo’s Silver Star Youth Program in Salinas, said she first trained with Tello in 2010.

“It was a lot of culturally getting to know who we are first – the bad, the good and getting all that experience,” she said. “It’s teaching us to teach others.”

In the Silver Star Youth Program, teen girls attend classes at the community high school from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. In the afternoon they have enrichment programs such as Tello’s youth rites of passage El Joven Noble or Xinachatli programs, an aggression replacement training class, substance abuse counseling or mental health services as needed. They also have opportunities to participate in sports. The program is a collaborative between the Monterey County Probation Department, Monterey County Office of Education and the nonprofit, with many of those working closely with the students trained in the concepts of “La Cultura Cura.”

A key component in the youth rites of passage programs is that the teens do a community service project. Last year, the girls learned to make scarves on a small loom they were able to take home with them over Christmas break.

The girls and staff members visited Dorothy’s Kitchen, an emergency shelter that provides meals and a place to sleep for homeless women, to give out the scarves after break.

“As the women were checking in they could pick one scarf,” Solorio said. “The girls were so excited when the women selected the one they made.”

The year before, they made blankets to donate to the shelter.

Some of the students, Solorio said, are referred by probation staff members and others from Monterey County school officials who think the program could be a good fit for them.

“They have to want to do the services and be open minded,” Solorio said, noting not all the students in the program have had legal problems, “And accept the help. That’s the main thing. If they don’t want to be there it’s not going to work out.”

While the programs focus on helping the teens understand how their past experiences influence their behavior, the healing component comes in with showing them how they can do things differently.

In the two years Solorio has been with the program she said she has two teens who completed their treatment and are now going to college while they work.

“I tell a lot of the girls they are going to be the role models within their families,” Solorio said.

“They are the next generation and they come out and go to college. It’s possible to do something different within their own family unit.”

Juan Gomez, a senior consultant with the National Compadres Network, described Tello’s approach as the wisdom of grandparents rather than academia.

“There is a highly populated Latino community and a highly populated migrant community,” Gomez said. “(But the services) came from models that were not reflective of the diversity of the community.”

In Salinas, Gomez has offered the El Joven Noble program at the Cesar Chavez Library in an area of town where there is not a community gathering space except for the newly renovated library.

“It goes beyond cultural competency – it is cultural humility,” he said. “You can’t just take a class and learn everything about people. You need to have a relationship and reciprocity.”

He said the National Compadres Network staff will continue to train more people in the methodologies Tello created.

“It’s not just parachuting in and out,” Gomez said. “It is working really hard to really build this network.”

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