First Gen Social Worker Dr. Yanira Hernandez Talks Trauma-Focused Therapy for BIPOC


Yanira Hernandez Pa'lante Therapy

Photos courtesy of Yanira Hernandez

Therapy remains out of reach for many in the Latinx community. Whether it’s because of cultural stigma, a lack of understanding about what therapy entails, the lack of Latinx representation in the field, or the inability to access services because of their cost, there are a lot of reasons that our mental health and wellness often go unchecked. On top of that, our wider community experiences many types of trauma from impostor syndrome, immigration, assimilation, forced separation, poverty, and parentification, which are not as explored or researched as they should be because we’re not a part of the mainstream. That’s where Latina social workers like Dr. Yanira Hernandez come in. A first-gen Mexican American licensed clinical social worker and the CEO of her private practice Pa’lante Therapy, Hernandez focuses on individual therapy, immigration psychological evaluations, and trauma-focused work to center the unique experiences of BIPOC and Latinx communities.

“Historically, when we think about therapy, we don’t think it’s for individuals that look like us or who are low-income or from a system-impacted community,” she tells HipLatina. “If you don’t see yourself in a therapeutic space, or in any space period, you don’t think it’s for you. Therapy has always been very Eurocentric, especially with the theories and how you’re trained clinically. So part of the work that we do is decolonizing therapy, bringing all those intersections into the therapeutic space, and not only bringing in the theories that we learn in grad school, but also inviting in theoretical perspectives from our ancestors. We’re looking at how intergenerational trauma impacts our well-being, the body, everything.”

Hernandez was someone who knew what she wanted to do very early on in life. From a young age, she enjoyed helping people, accompanying her mom to the factory where she worked, performing community service, and tutoring. This quickly manifested into a desire to become a pediatrician and when she was accepted to UCLA, she went in as a biochemistry student on a pre-med track. She genuinely loved the medical field, especially when it came to biology, so it seemed like the perfect fit. But it didn’t take long for her to start experiencing feelings of what she calls the “impostor phenomenon“. The term, as opposed to “impostor syndrome”, is meant to push back against this idea that her feelings of inadequacy are solely her fault).

“I didn’t see myself in the classes. I didn’t have mentorship where I felt like I saw myself pursuing that career anymore,” she says. “So naturally, the dream trickled and my world collapsed because it was what I’d been training myself for all of my K through 12 education. I remember having a phone call conversation with my mom and being in tears, like ‘I’m so sorry for failing you’ because I know that this was their dream for me.”

After speaking to her counselor, Hernandez decided to take a class in the Women’s Studies department, which spoke about topics like intersectionality, feminity, the school-to-prison pipeline, system-impacted communities, and the historical oppression of women. For what seemed like the first time, she finally felt seen, especially as someone from South Central LA, with a population that’s mainly Black and brown, who grew up witnessing the very issues they were discussing in the classroom. At the same time, she was also tutoring elementary and middle school students. In those sessions, she realized that their academic performance wasn’t necessarily being impacted by something school-related but by things that were happening at home. These two experiences really drove her to pursue a career in social work, specifically clinical social work and mental health based on what she was learning about trauma and its impact on the brain.

This is true especially when it comes to what she calls a “system that trickles down into other systems,” such as the educational system, the mental health system, the justice system, and law enforcement, all of which are historically rooted in systematic oppression and Eurocentric values. As the daughter of undocumented immigrants, she knows what it means to have intersecting identities that are systematically impacted by the immigration system and policies that create more barriers than opportunities. As a first-gen student, she had to navigate the education system all on her own, from FAFSA to mentorships, and anything related to mental health definitely wasn’t talked about at home.

Through this process of learning and reflecting, she was able to find intersections between social work, education, and women’s studies. Over time, she continued her clinical training, graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s in Women’s Studies and Education Studies, graduated from USC with a Master’s in social work, and became licensed not long after. While working in schools, she wanted to be the bridge that wasn’t there between educational policies and student mental health. She wanted to be an active advocate for students and families, educating staff members about mental health and how mental health impacts learning, and training them on social-emotional practices. She even went back to school to get a doctorate in education with an emphasis on educational psychology.

This was especially true with working-class and low-income students. If they’re going through something personal at home, such as their family’s financial struggles, Hernandez argues that this severely impacts their ability to learn and pay attention in the classroom. And when BIPOC students are more likely to be disciplined and punished for their behavior than their white peers, she knows it is critical to do consultations with teachers to explain the reasons behind why certain students may not be able to stay after school, not because they want to be rebellious or disruptive, but because their family needs them home. In these sessions, she also coaches them on different strategies they can use to support rather than punish the student.

“Being able to provide support in a different way that I hadn’t before was really eye-opening for me,” she explains. “I was learning how the environment and systems can impact the well-being of each person and how their family histories can also affect their mental health, especially in first-generation and immigrant communities. This is my passion, to advocate for them because I’m living in it too and my identity is part of who I am.”

Through her work, she has even been able to break down barriers with families and caretakers of students at her school. Often, they don’t want their children receiving therapy because of our cultural stigma that leads them to believe there’s something wrong. They might not even know what therapy really means. But many times, these families see Hernandez at school, which completely rewrites the narrative they have in their heads about what therapy is and what therapists look like. It’s life-changing realizing that a therapist can in fact be a member of their community.

It’s also important for Hernandez to acknowledge and work toward breaking down other barriers that our community faces, like navigating health insurance as undocumented immigrants. Today, undocumented community members are able to access programs like MediCal instead of paying out-of-pocket, which enabled her own mom to pursue therapy and seek support. Other times, it’s Hernandez hosting workshops for older family members at her school and teaching them how to use the directory to find therapists. Raising awareness about these vitally important tools and teaching our community how to use them, sometimes by translating materials, is one more way that she is helping to dismantle the stigma. For her, it’s all about visibility and representation.

More recently, Hernandez has taken the leap of leaving her job as a clinical social worker at her school and committing to her private practice, Pa’lante Therapy, full-time as opposed to doing it on the side as before. In many ways, Pa’lante Therapy has been the work of many years, beginning as far back as her time as an undergrad at UCLA where she felt the symptoms of impostor phenomenon.

“I felt like I didn’t belong because I had gone from South Central to Westwood in UCLA. The way that I dressed, the way that I was showing up authentically just didn’t fit in, so I molded myself to fit into the UCLA culture. Especially with me switching majors, I battled a lot without feeling like I was smart enough,” she says. “Now I know that it was because, unfortunately, I didn’t have a lot of those resources that my peers did. I didn’t come from a high school that had AP classes and had equipped me to get into UCLA. I had to remind myself that it was not on me.”

This carried throughout her entire educational career at USC as well, where she completed both her Master’s and Doctorate degrees. However, there came a moment in her doctorate program when her teachers, who were BIPOC, really came through and supported her. She was the only one to get an A in her final exam for her research methods class and the only one who the professor asked to give a presentation on her work to the class. When she was encouraged to use her intersectional identities as her superpower for her dissertation was a pivotal moment. She realized that she wanted to support other first-gen Latinas in the same way as they navigated the same academic and professional spaces while also experiencing impostor phenomenon.

As a result, she decided to open her private practice during the pandemic in 2020, hiring an entrepreneurial coach and building a brand from the ground up. Pa’lante is named after the title of her dissertation, which focuses on the resilience of first-gen college students. It was especially important for her as someone who, when she first went into therapy, was paired with an older white woman who didn’t quite understand her experiences or her identity. Through this practice, she’s determined to help her clients feel seen and comfortable.

In addition to speaking engagements, Hernandez currently provides individual therapy to immigrants and first-gen professionals and students, as well as immigration psychological evaluations and femtorship, or mentorship for women who want to learn more about mental health and how to navigate mental health systems. Looking ahead, she’s excited to work full-time at her practice and has learned better how to lean into self-compassion and the fear of failure and self-doubt while managing negative self-talk. Because she’s never done certain things before, nor her family, it’s easy to get lost in those thoughts but she’s learning to embrace the fact that she’s the first one to step up and make radical change. Ultimately, she knows that it’s not just about her but also about the clients who choose to seek her support and assistance and share space with her. She notes:

“My parents are undocumented so I bring in their legacies with me every single day, especially when it comes to the therapeutic space because I know that a lot of the clients also bring in their legacies with them and that all of our stories are scared, including mine. When I see my clients, a part of me also sees myself, whether it’s because we have a shared experience or I’m giving them the support in the space that I wish I had. Being able to hold space for others in this way is just so magical, so powerful, so sacred, that it means a lot to me that people are entrusting in me to support them in navigating this journey. It’s not about me, it’s about them. It’s about what’s coming up for them and their stories and their legacies. Being able to really honor the legacies and stories of each individual is such a humbling and beautiful thing to do. We don’t go and tell our stories to just anyone. Right. We want to connect. We want to find community. We want to feel seen. I feel very privileged to be in this setting and in this space with my clients.”

In this Article

Featured first gen first gen mental health first generation first generation latina latina therapist latinx therapy mexican american social worker therapist Therapy Yanira Hernandez
More on this topic