Mexican American Therapist Cynthia Perez Talks Decolonizing Mental Health for BIPOC

Cynthia Perez is an Indigenous Xicana therapist dedicated to inner child healing and ancestral wisdom

Cynthia Perez therapy BIPOC

Credit: Cynthia Perez | Courtesy

Therapy can be a transformative tool for healing, self-care, support, and understanding of ourselves and others. But there are many ways that the Latinx community is being denied the mental health care they need. Sometimes, it’s a cultural or religious opposition to therapy, which is often stigmatized and considered something that is only needed by “locos”. Sometimes, we’re trained from a young age to deny or hide our feelings, to not cry, and to not talk to strangers about what you and the family may be going through. But despite the fact that we face the same levels of mental illness as other racial and ethnic groups, many systematic barriers prevent Latinxs from accessing any kind of mental health care including language barriers, poverty, difficulty accessing health insurance, and legal status. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), only 35.1 percent of Latinxs receive mental health treatment each year compared to the national average of 46.2 percent. And they’ve found that half of Latinx teens in the U.S. may not receive medical treatment despite having a serious mental illness.

That’s why the work of Latinx therapists like Indigenous Mexican American Cynthia Perez is vital. Perez is a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who founded Rooted in Reflection, focusing on healing intergenerational trauma, inner child work, psychosocial science, epigenetics, and Indigenous practices. “Therapy is my true calling and it’s such an intimate experience. I’ve been doing it for 15 years and yet I’ve only been in my fullest grace in the last three years, decolonizing myself,” she tells HipLatina.

Though she’s been working in the field of therapy and mental wellness for over a decade, she’s had a job since she was 14 years old through after-school programs, internships, and counselor jobs at foster youth camps. She learned accountability and responsibility through those jobs, and was taught by her family to speak up about things she noticed in the world and to create her own unique philosophy to carry her through life. But she also knew that the system of therapy that she wanted to work in wasn’t always going to be accepting of the unique viewpoints, beliefs, and practices that she brought to the table. As she points out, Latina and Indigenous social workers only make up 6 percent of the field, meaning the field not only is overwhelmingly white, but is also overwhelmingly dictated by Western thought and science.

Straight out of grad school, she began working in traditional healthcare as a bilingual therapist in Los Angeles. She conducted home and field visits across Boyle Heights, South L.A., and Rancho Palos Verdes, just to name a few. Through this work, she formed intimate relationships with clients, meeting their families and community leaders like pastors. She understood the importance and privilege of sharing those intimate spaces with people in her community. But when she went back to the office and wanted to do more than just give her clients informational pamphlets, she was shut down and labeled a “rogue” or “creative” therapist. One of her ideas included using hip hop music to bridge the gap between her and a 16 year old, which was looked down on because it wasn’t evidence-based or certified according to her co-workers.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she as a healthcare professional was especially impacted, suddenly overwhelmed by fear and the fact that her team had a big responsibility to take care of more people than they had the manpower or resources for. So she started looking into better approaches that they could take to manage the high levels of emotional distress.

“Somebody on the team who was a social worker let me hold space to meditate,” she says. “That made me start doing my own research. I was able to find these linkages and pieces of evidence that show that indigenous practices have been calling to me like dance, music, being in nature, and holding space, which all have evidence behind them.”

But when she took these approaches to her healthcare job to implement in the workplace, nobody seemed to care. She realized that, even after giving eight years of her life to her work, she wasn’t getting the support she needed, her ideas weren’t being valued in her place of work, and her body reacted accordingly. She would go to the hospital vomiting bile. She got shingles all over her body. But after all, it was a stable job in healthcare. She had a pension. The salary and work were not only ideal but necessary, especially during the pandemic. She thought she would retire there. Her parents definitely couldn’t understand why she would give that up and she too struggled to come to terms with it. Then, one day, it hit her as she went to her local park and sat by a pond on the property.

“I went into healthcare for how the white walls looked minimalistic because it meant fancy. It meant American,” she explains. “But the first thing I wanted to go was those white walls. It would be on the land under the trees. I would use the land as a co-regulator because I’ve never done my own practice. It’s going to flow with what I want. We might use an Oracle deck or a hammock. And I felt like the animals, the water, the trees, all told me ‘yes.” This was the impetus for the founding of her practice, Rooted in Reflection.

Over time, she was able to get opportunities to work as a telehealth therapist with the undocumented migrant and first-gen populations, which opened up doors for practices that Western healthcare wasn’t able to give her. In her sessions, which were free to clients, it wasn’t just about conversation, although that was a big part of it. Instead, she also incorporated Indigenous practices like deep breathing, meditations with drums, tapping, and sound healing. She asked about what land they came from and what elements called them, always returning to the idea of roots and indigeneity.

“I started to see that our people come from this way of holding space and I found myself unraveling my own gifts because of the people that were called with me,” she says. ” Even in my meditation, my ancestors told me, ‘This is where you’re supposed to be,’ and that allowed me to feel deserving of this. I freed myself from limitations that had previously been my goals and I never would have imagined that I could have gone deeper. And now that I’m here, I see that I was meant for bigger. This is my bigger.”

It was especially humbling because her grandparents were immigrant fieldworkers in Oxnard, who worked in the fields picking and canning produce. That meant that they left their home in Yucatán a lot, which caused Perez’s mother a great deal of separation anxiety and trauma. She was unsure if she deserved the opportunity to go full circle with her career, to attempt to heal similar pain in others like her mother and those who worked in the fields.

But she was able to see first-hand her community undo assumptions they had about therapy and self-care in general, breaking down their initial instincts to be guarded. She shares that they grew more intentional about taking time for themselves, even addressing what privacy and secrecy really mean in their families, which was so groundbreaking for clients who had never tried therapy or had sought therapy from someone who didn’t understand their unique experiences.

“I’ve seen the way that we used to close the doors to the community and feed that shame by giving resources, causing harm by being punitive, using labels,” she says. “Our people just want a space to be heard and not to be judged, and maybe it’s not their family. So in the work I do now, it’s really about having compassion to see what this behavior is rooted in and to put language to what we’re feeling so that we have compassion.”

On the other hand, sometimes that shame that comes from the healthcare system, also comes from within our own culture. Perez has seen how marianismo has manifested itself in many of the women that she speaks to, which is the belief that all women are self-sacrificing, nurturing, pure, modest, and submissive. Influenced by religious ideas about La Virgen de Guadalupe, this encourages women to deny their own pleasures and wants, instead putting other people’s needs ahead of their own, which can cause deeply traumatic emotional wounds that can carry on for generations.

“Marianismo impacts us when we are moving on from unprocessed trauma and our intergenerational wounds that have been passed up from our ancestors. And we don’t know it because it’s not our lived experience, but we’ve been modeled it by our mothers or community mothers around us. It impacts us through materialism, being restless or resentful or raging, looking for permission to feel or looking for something to do to prove our worth, feeling like your value comes from the things that you do and give, not from who you inherently are. And if your value comes from what you do for others and what you can provide, then there’s never going to be enough. And you’re never going to be enough. What would happen if we addressed it?”

She explains that we carry our inner child inside of us all the time, which acts as a soul or true essence. In scientific terms, this means memories we carry in the brain, which is designed to be flexible and reshaped even after unprecedented trauma. Rewiring can be done through play, being in nature, and rest, so as children, play was able to continuously wire and rewire our brains. But she notes that many of us did not get to enjoy play time, which meant that many of us had to grow up faster than we should’ve.

“The thing is, we have generations of our ancestors living in our DNA. We call it our epigenetics, the survival gene that sits over our genes to protect us and carries the unhealed part of our ancestors,” she says. “When we choose to be in joy, we are rewiring the brain, which goes down to your nervous system and the vagus nerve and connects to your brainstem. The brainstem is the ancestor and that’s three generations right there. So when you say, “You’re amazing. You’re creative. Play is fun,’ the nervous system wakes up all these cells, the cellular memory in your blood, in your skin, in your bones, all of it starts to percolate and remember. But when you heal your inner child through play, through love, through land, and through rest, it remembers faster and starts to free up. You’re turning trauma into joy. You’re scientifically changing your nervous system, changing your brain, changing your DNA. Everything you say to future generations will be softer. And if you’ve healed yourself, guess what else? You’re healing the world.”

Going a step further, Perez explains that more unlocking and rewiring can be done when we engage in the play of our ancestors. Perhaps our grandmother cooked a certain dish or walked around in her garden barefoot, and more amazing things can happen in our bodies and brains when we engage in these activities as well. It’s especially important because our trauma, especially what marginalized communities face, impacts not only our general well-being but also our life expectancy and likelihood of committing risky behavior.

She recommends that folks seek out free or sliding-scale workshops online and in their local community centered on topic relevant to them. Even folks on disability can access therapy services through their employers’ healthcare spending account, which offers reimbursements for therapy that isn’t covered by insurance. Essentially, even though there are so many barriers out there, there are different avenues to access the care you need.

“Find something and see if you can show up for yourself,” she said. “Try showing up for yourself, allowing yourself grace, allowing yourself to enjoy it, and reparenting the inner child. If they have negative feedback, give yourself a big deep breath and go, ‘No, this space is for you. And if you don’t like it, we can leave. We have autonomy and sovereignty.’ Or create a soft space for yourself, maybe by gathering some book recommendations that call you and then making a ritual for yourself and setting an intention. Invite that child or invite that inner ancestor to unravel you.”

Through her therapy service Rooted in Reflection, Perez provides opportunities for classes including multi-month healing circles focused on inner child healing, parenting, Indigenous joy, and marianismo. Perez also hosts the podcast Confetti All Around, where she discusses ancestral healing with fellow therapists and social workers. It’s the community, as well as her commitment to her own healing and growth, that fuels this undeniable passion for her work. She notes:

“I’ve been held up by the community. I know that I’m on a spiritual path because every time something moves, something else goes. I find myself learning the most in my most awareness right now, but I had to live in the career of chasing, of performing, of hiding my truest self. So it all started with inner child healing for me. I was like, ‘Why don’t people feel this?’ And I started writing things to my inner child and the feeling was so magnetic. It was so warm and inviting and it felt too good. Yes, I’m always expanding and growing, but also it has to be in safety. That’s why we have to be able to create safety. And the more you do it, the more you find you are truly deserving of it. It starts to become the way your body just feels because you’re changing your DNA and your nervous system. It starts with you.”

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ancestral healing ancestral wisdom BIPOC mental health Cynthia Perez decolonize epigenetics Featured healing inner child latina Latina mental health latina therapist Therapy
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