Like many of our hermanas caribeñas and otras Latinas around the globe, Puerto Rican women wear the term resilience as a badge of honor. We’re taught at a young age to avoid complaining because la vida is unfair and we ‘best get used to it.’ While many might agree that being tough in the face of adversity is an attribute worth fostering, it’s important to center our mental health as we go through our lives being la super-mujer! Whether diligently preparing for the start of an upcoming school year, conscientiously providing at-home elderly care services for a parent, enthusiastically organizing community activism, or strategically administering the day-to-day needs of our business (or all of the above simultaneously), la mujer puertorriqueña’s plate is overflowing with responsibilities.
When you add living in a country with great economic instability – one where we are still experiencing the aftermath of September 2017’s devastating Hurricane María – the continuous struggle against the patriarchy where femicides seem to be normalized, post-trauma from the January 2020 earthquakes in the southwestern region, and recovering from a post Covid-19 pandemic era, it’s clear what I’m talking about. Oh and let’s not forget our oppressive colonial status.
To be clear: none of the above is noted as an excuse (especially since women all over the globe deal with daily adversity). Rather, it’s for the context of what life is like for femmes on the archipelago of Borikén.
So, what happens to the mental and emotional health of Boricua women who are busy being Superwomen?
Bernice Fuentes Cirino, a 14-year veteran mental health professional facilitating community outreach in the northeast region of Puerto Rico, shares her perspectives with HipLatina. Having seen the impacts of trying to ‘do it all’ both in her personal and professional life, she reminds us: “Women dedicate their lives and attention to others—as mothers, daughters, sisters, etc.—often at the cost of their personal self-care and mental health. By intently focusing on others, their emotional well-being is put on hold. And while femmes are often characterized by their strength, especially when facing adversity, it’s important to avoid neglecting themselves. They must also focus on doing the internal work to promote emotional and mental stability in times of crisis.”
Women have a great capacity for overcoming obstacles. STILL, sometimes we need outside help and WE SHOULD REMEMBER it’s ok to seek professional advice.
A perfect example of this last item was during Hurricane María, the catastrophic Category 4 storm that hit the archipelago on September 20, 2017. For 100 days straight, a large segment of the population remained without electricity. Though the exact numbers remain indefinite, some reports indicate that nearly 1 million persons (of a then 3.2 million population) were impacted by the power outage. When we consider that over half of Puerto Rico’s population is women, the above figures tell an obvious story – women here deal with a lot!
In the aftermath of the hurricane, countless households were without electricity, without running water, and without a means of communication. Along with the major physical damage to homes and property, the calamity also left emotional and psychological scars on the Puerto Rican population that remained.
Hurricane María and its subsequent trauma aside, this notion of having to always be resilient is not only exhausting, it’s detrimental to our mental health and continues to perpetuate the myth of what’s expected of la mujer puertorriqueña. Licensed Mental Health Counselor Marley Moreira-Rivera tells HipLatina: “Our culture tends to prioritize collective well-being over the individual one. This particular characteristic often pushes us to ignore our personal needs under the pretense of the collective good being more important – we lose balance. In many cases, this approach leads to the invisibilization of women since we’re taught [from childhood] to make sacrifices ‘for the family’ and so, often we begin to abandon ourselves.”
Here, it’s important to point out what we mean when referring to a woman’s well-being. Moreira-Rivera elaborates, “Usually when we think of self-care, we focus on things like going to the beauty salon, getting a mani/pedi, or a massage. Self-care goes far beyond what social media and society teach us – it’s different for each person. It’s crucial to remember it’s self-care even if our culture calls it selfishness.”
Another part of the problem Moreira-Rivera pinpoints is this idea of silence and strength. In our cultura, admitting you need help is sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness – it’s the kind of stuff you don’t share with others. “Collectively, there’s a mindset dictating we can’t talk about mental health. But who says it’s a weakness? For generations, we’ve ignored social and emotional problems by this culture of silence – the one telling us la ropa sucia se lava en casa – is the same one making us reluctant to seek outside help.”
The word resilience carries huge weight. As psychologist, Dr. Ilia Rosario Nieves, Dean of Behavioral Sciences and Community Affairs at Puerto Rico’s Pontificia Universidad Católica tells HipLatina: “The burden of resiliency makes it crucial to keep careful watch over the mental and emotional health of women in our communities. We must continue to help them find ways to strategize things like time management, organizing their day-to-day responsibilities, and identifying valuable resources in this area.”
Nieves has several suggestions for women. She notes, for example, that “planning activities and setting priorities in one’s daily routine helps provide a more balanced and structured flow in our lives – as well as aids in time management.” Another important thing to remember is we shouldn’t feel like we have to do everything ourselves.
The distribution of household tasks in the family is crucial. Delegating, seeking balance and setting limits promotes the physical, mental & emotional health of women.
Another item in our toolbox is our tight social circle, what I call les amiges del alma (soul friend), those special persons in our lives who are often closer to us than blood relatives. Nieves adds “Both family and social networks make it possible to organize daily responsibilities. Identifying key people as part of our support team is critical.”
Again, there will be times when we get overwhelmed, and in those cases, women should not hesitate to seek help. A few options are Taller Salud, a feminist community-based organization focusing on women’s healthcare needs, ASSMCA, a government-based entity dedicated to building a ‘mentally healthier & stronger’ Puerto Rico, and Línea PAS (Suicide Prevention and Crisis Hotline or by dialing 9-8-8). Note: the Línea PAS website has a chat option.
After all, even Superwoman needs TLC, and she too deserves to make herself una prioridad. How else can she continue to create a more beautifully stronger Borikén and world?