A New Definition of Resilience: Young Latinas.
There’s this girl I know. She’s 18 years old, born in Ecuador. She moved to New York a few years ago — for the same reason many of us have — looking for a better future. She’s not quite sure why she’s here, but she does understand that in her new environment, she’s going to have to figure out many things for which she doesn’t yet have answers. Back in her home country, she was almost ready to graduate from high school. Now, in NYC, her new home, she was told that she needed to repeat high school. So, she enrolled as a 9th grade student. She sits in the classroom with 13- and 14-year-old girls. She takes classes with teachers who speak in a language she does not understand. Soon she starts to believe that something is wrong with her. She doesn’t fit in her new environment. She wonders how she’s going to do well in a place where she can’t even communicate. She questions if it would be worth it to repeat school since even when she’s done and ready to put her knowledge into practice, she won’t be able to do so because she’s undocumented. However, even with all these insurmountable and exasperating difficulties, she’s expected to find the strength, confidence and “resilience” to overcome it all. She can do it! I know this girl. She’s one of the young women for which my nonprofit organization was born. I know this young woman; she was I, 20 years ago. I know this young woman; she is the many other girls whom I don’t see, but who wonder every day: Can I do it?
It’s been 20 years since I moved to NYC, and little has changed for young immigrants. I was born in Colombia and like the girl from Ecuador, I decided to move to NYC by myself in 2000. Like the young woman above, I also had to do it all over again. I enrolled in ESL classes at CUNY for two years before I was able to continue my psychology degree, which I had started in Colombia. I had to start my degree almost from the beginning at John Jay College since the school didn’t accept all of the credits from my Colombian university. I had to work to pay for my education because my undocumented status didn’t allow me to receive financial support. I had to find the strength, confidence and resilience to overcome the insurmountable and exasperating difficulties in my new environment. I needed to find within me, a force foreign to many, an internal fuel that speaks a language that many are unable to understand. A power that only those of us who, before achieving that top of the mountain called success, would first be summoned to remove all the rocks blocking our way and build a path to proceed. This fuel is that internal source that makes us believe that we will be able to get ahead and conquer all the obstacles. The young woman I know from Ecuador, the young women that we support in my organization, all of the young Latinas working hard every day to achieve their goals, me and my personal story — all of us and our lives redefine the meaning of the word resilience. We are the new definition of resilience.
In New York City, Latinas have the highest high school dropout rate at 37%, the highest teen pregnancy rate at 39%, and the highest suicide rate at 23% (NYCDOE 2010; CDC 2011; Gillibrand 2014) of any group of girls in the country. Nonetheless, Latinas are resilient. Identifying and capitalizing on the strength of this population can lead to transformative changes in the lives of these young women. At my organization, Latinas On the Verge of Excellence (L.O.V.E.), we match young Latinas and other young women with relatable role models who encourage them to make positive choices and help them to maximize their full potential to lead healthy, successful lives.
The system here in NYC has made me, the young woman from Ecuador, the other young women that we support in my nonprofit and all of those whom I don’t know, resort to our own personal strength; our own definition of resilience, to ensure that the system and its broken policies would not keep us down and prevent us from moving ahead and achieving our full potential. However, not all of our young women may understand the meaning of this resilience. That’s why many live in hopelessness reflected as depression, gang involvement, teen pregnancy and high dropout rates. Not all young women feel that they are capable of succeeding in a system that forces them to solve their challenges on their own and therefore feel hopeless and demotivated. That’s why we need to use our voices to build a new system that would support all young women to achieve everything and anything they want. We need to redefine the meaning of resilience and help our young women to understand that they are the sole definition of this word. Explaining to them that their strength, confidence and resilience make them powerful so they can remove the feeling of being unfit aliens that this system instills in their minds. We need to show them that we are capable of achieving anything we want, even if external challenges such as a poor educational system, broken policies that keep minority communities in poverty, insufficient mental and reproductive health support, among many other unbearable obstacles, can make it harder for us to attain our goals. Our success is built on the bricks of sacrifice, determination, and discipline. This is the resilience I’ve had to find within myself. This is the resilience many young Latinas embodied in NYC.
My personal experiences of working with our young women have shown me that the likelihood of succeeding in the system we live in depends on whether or not we believe that we are worthy of what we desire for ourselves. It’s based on our power to believe that despite the challenges we face we will be able to achieve our goals. In order for our young women to believe they can do it; we need to make sure more of us do it. We need to be their role models. They need to see us having the resilience to fight and break the status quo so more of us can be able to achieve our goals.
The girl I know deserves to thrive. The girl I know deserves access, support and equitable opportunities. This is not a naïve thought. This is not science fiction nor is it wishful thinking. Twenty years have passed since I arrived in NYC and little has changed. The only thing that has been built is this new definition of resilience, born out of a system and structure of a society that insists on keeping many behind. Though it may take some time to change this system and structure, in the meantime, we can change our community’s voice so our young women can believe it is possible for them to succeed. It is possible for them to feel that they belong in a place that makes them think that they don’t fit in. It is possible for them to be unique and embrace who they are. It is possible for them to break the cycle of self-doubt and believe they can make it. Mental health may have a general definition, but mental health for young Latinas: immigrants, undocumented, English language learners, low socio-economic status, first generation — has a different meaning. These young women have given a new definition to resilience. They are Resilient Latinas.
“Climb a little higher darling, and you’ll reach the top of that mountain.”