Being an Indigenous Therapist Allows me to Empower My Community to Break Trauma Cycles

My experience as a first-generation Oaxacan daughter guided me toward becoming a therapist

Mirna Martinez indigenous therapist

Photos courtesy of Mirna Martinez

The million dollar question I get asked, “Why did I become a therapist”? My answer changes all the time because I have many responses. In my upbringing, mental health was acknowledged but not openly discussed. Giving back to my community has been a core value instilled in me. Raised in an Oaxacan household, I was encouraged to strive for anything through hard work and perseverance. Witnessing the tight-knit support within my community, where leadership empowered others, deeply influenced my path. Additionally, being the first in my family to read and write in English placed me at the forefront of vital efforts for my family’s survival in this country. Ultimately, my experience as a first-generation Oaxacan daughter guided me toward becoming a therapist, social worker, and an active member of my community.

After I received my Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, I took a year of service to explore what options I would have when pursuing a masters degree. I was not entirely sure what path to take but after speaking with people, and taking my own community-oriented upbringing into consideration – I knew that I wanted to pursue social work. My values are centered on giving back and empowering each other and I knew that with social work, I would be able to incorporate that with the individuals that I would be working alongside with. When I started graduate school, I learned that social workers can hold multiple roles within the micro, mezzo and macro roles and I naturally gravitated towards the clinical path as I learned that through social work, one could become a therapist. I gravitated towards therapy due to a need for bilingual therapists and a major gap for indigenous therapists. 

There are only about 5,000 psychologists in the United States who are Latinx/Hispanic, representing 5 percent of all psychologists, according to 2016 Census data. The number reduces significantly for those identifying as Indigenous and/or Native American with approximately 260 Indigenous psychologists across North America, according to data from 2018. Pursuing a Master’s of Social Work (MSW), in a predominately white institution (PWI), I was greatly outnumbered by other races and ethnicities. To hold the lens of a Oaxancan identifying student was challenging.  Going into graduate school to receive my master’s in social work I was greatly outnumbered by other races and ethnicities. I would sit there and read all the evidence-based practice research papers and keep thinking “this intervention would never work on an indigenous person”.

For example one of the biggest interventions used in therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is utilized to unlearn behavior that can become harmful including core beliefs and ideas about yourself. It can become a harmful intervention to utilize with indigenous clients due to making them feel invalidated. If a client shares with me that they truly believe their responsibility is to serve their family and I attempt to change their mindset I am not taking into consideration their values. A big value of being from Oaxacan is this idea to serve, “tequio”. A tequio refers to giving your service to your pueblo. The idea is that when a male turns 18 their responsibility is to serve the community such as helping with the town halls, church services, cleaning the roads and other community services for a year. Now, females are allowed to give a tequio depending on the pueblo.

There is a stigma around mental health in our communities. Not to say that we don’t pay attention to those suffering from mental health symptoms, there are just different approaches that we take. For example, if one suffers from a traumatic event or a scare, our family practices cleanses. I remember when I got crashed into while on my bike I was traumatized and scared to get back on a bike. My aunt gave me a cleanse to help reduce the symptoms I was feeling, in other words to reduce my PTSD symptoms that I was experiencing. 

There are different methods on how to complete a cleanse depending on one’s pueblo. The cleanse I received was with an egg, herbs “yerba the susto, albahaca, and ruda”, these herbs are mixed with alcohol. My aunt started off by rubbing an egg dipped in alcohol all over my body. The egg is then broken into a cup with water and the healer lets you know the significance of it. After the herbs are rubbed all over your body. Normally, the cleanse is fully completed in 3 days, but it depends on how big your scare was and how much your body has been affected. These cleanses have been practiced for many years, just because they haven’t been scientifically proven does not mean that they do not heal. Many individuals have been healed from these practices including me.  

To be an indigenous therapist means to be mindful, proactive, and constantly tired. I say tired in the sense that there are many things that go on in this world that can retrigger us and harm us. As an Oaxacan identifying therapist I take many practices into account when providing therapy. I encourage if one practices indigenous healing to continue that healing process as well as attending therapy. I create and hold space for those who may not have felt validated by previous therapists. I feel honored when a client lets me know “my previous therapist never understood how being indigenous/Oaxacans has impacted me”. To be proactive is to be constantly researching and keeping up with what is going on in our indigenous communities in order to be better informed. I am often mindful of the external factors a client is experiencing. There are many crisis that come up and I may need to focus on a different theme during sessions. Often crisis occur when a client is living at home with their families. Many boundaries are broken due to the responsibility one upkeeps on our Oaxacan households.

I graduated from my Masters program in May of 2020 during the midst of the pandemic. I had several mentors while in my graduate program but none who held my indigenous identity. I found my mentors later on in my career. I found a group of Oaxacan therapists, we meet on a monthly basis and talk about what it means to be a Oaxacan therapist. I hold them dear to my heart and always feel empowered when I am able to attend meetings. 

The biggest issues that I often hear from indigenous identifying clients are domestic violence and sexual trauma which overlaps generational trauma. A common question that I have had with indigenous clients is, “how does one stay connected to their roots if their traditions are heavily based in misogyny, sexism, and marianismo”? There have been individuals who look at their ancestor’s violence as being tied to their indigeneity. This concept of serving men and turning away when domestic violence occurs is very common in the community and it continues. When one tries to break away from this concept they are seen as different, and some are even shunned away from their family and community. 

There is a lot of guilt and shame that one faces when trying to break generational trauma. Some clients may not be ready to create boundaries due to the responsibility that they hold. My work is to not force but empower one and hold space. I know what it is like for the guilt to overpower my choices. I am constantly breaking boundaries because my emotions can take over. It does not mean that I am going backwards in my healing journey but to me it means that my family heavily influences my decisions. I grew up family-oriented and I know I cannot break away from this mentality in one day to the next. I share this with clients because I hear their guilt. I let them know that they are not alone. There was guilt in pursuing this profession starting off with having to move out of state for graduate school. I moved to Cleveland, Ohio and when I left my mom was not doing physically well. I remember coming back during winter break and my mom looked very ill. My aunts made me feel that it was my fault my mom’s health had declined. I wanted to take the next semester off and be at home with mom. I had to overcome this fear, guilt, and shame of leaving my mom once again. Even after graduating amid the pandemic and opting to stay in Ohio for work, I grappled with guilt. The uncertainty of the pandemic’s duration led me to return home after three months. As a first-generation individual, this interplay of guilt and responsibility is ingrained. Every decision involves considerations for my family, sometimes evoking guilt and other times fostering a sense of empowerment.

I am honored to work with very strong individuals who hold similar identities to mine. The healing that we are able to create together is very powerful. I can hear it in their voices when they create a boundary and feel empowered that they did. I share with clients that feeling of powerlessness is a common thread in our community, especially if you are female presenting. I help them gain this power back. To feel so powerless all of your life takes a toll on one’s physical and mental health. 

I am honored to have a community of Oaxacan therapists where we meet monthly to hold space for each other. I am honored to work with Oaxacan clients who are breaking generational trauma. I am honored to have my Oaxacan family whom believes in the work that I am doing.

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BIPOC mental health indigenous culture Indigenous Latina Latina mental health latina therapist Mental Health Mirna Martinez Oaxacan therapist
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