Psychological Resources in the Latinx Struggle Against Systemic Oppression

The Trump administration’s latest attempt to further restrict the number of refugees admitted into the United States is just the most recent example of this country’s longtime practice of using undocumented immigrants as political pawns.

The opportunities afforded to undocumented immigrants have historically been tied to the whims of the US government and the economic prosperity of the country. For instance, immigration laws tend to become more flexible when a need for cheap labor arises and is not fulfilled by US citizens (e.g., during World War II). On the other hand, when the US experiences economic hardship, undocumented immigrants are scapegoated and blamed for the economic conditions of the country and immigration laws become stricter.

As a result, undocumented immigrants are susceptible to exploitation and abuse by their employers and experience traumatic stress related to home and workplace raids carried out by law enforcement agencies, all while facing the constant risk of deportation.

It cannot be denied that racism, ethnocentrism and nativism is as “American” as Monday night football. Racism, ethnocentrism, nativism and other forms of systemic oppression all continue to plague the lives of individuals in the US who are perceived as not being white, Christian or “American,” including Latinx immigrants and especially those who are undocumented.

In the last two years, however, systemic racism, ethnocentrism and nativism have been further strengthened and emboldened by the rhetoric and actions of President Trump, whose hateful ideologies and fear-mongering strategies have dire consequences for communities of color and other marginalized groups. To illustrate, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since the 2016 US election, approximately 800 hate crimes have been committed against those perceived as Latinx immigrants, Muslims, Jewish Americans, Black Americans, sexual and gender minorities, and women. Overall, the Trump era has ignited a collective sense of fear and uncertainty among immigrants who have been made to live in constant fear of being separated from their families.

The Light Is Not at the End of the Tunnel … It Is Inside Us

While criminalization, denigration and trauma are powerful experiences and an important part of the history and current realities of undocumented Latinx immigrants, they do not represent their full stories. Undocumented Latinx immigrants are brilliant, skilled, and full of hopes and dreams that defy systemic oppression and its toxicity.

The current sociopolitical system, marked by aggressive and excessive enforcement of immigration laws, can have a corrosive effect on undocumented Latinx individuals, families and communities. Consequently, aggressive enforcement of laws and policies have led to widespread fear, helplessness, hopelessness and uncertainty. During these turbulent and toxic moments, it is important for undocumented Latinxs to remember that they come from a long lineage of people who have defied all odds.

Indeed, Latinx ancestors were an incredibly resilient group of individuals who survived a history of immeasurable pain and suffering resulting from the invasion, exploitation and appropriation of their homelands. In stark contrast to the contemporary portrayals of Latinx immigrants by politicians as “lazy,” “criminal” and “deficient,” members of this community are descendants of remarkably advanced, sophisticated and prosperous civilizations rich in racial and cultural diversity, scientific ingenuity and creative entrepreneurship.

A collective history of prosperity and success, coupled with experiences of colonization and oppression, led Latinxs to develop unique coping strategies that have allowed members of this community to survive and thrive despite the challenges they have faced throughout the centuries. In our book, Cultural Foundations and Interventions in Latino/a Mental Health, we identified seven of these unique strategies of survival:

1) Determination: the drive and courage to do what is necessary to survive; 2) Esperanza: faith that things will turn out for the better even during the most difficult situations; 3) Adaptability: the ability to adjust, survive and thrive in a variety of contexts; 4) Strong Work Ethic: valuing the importance of working hard and taking pride in one’s work, regardless of social status or occupation; 5) Connectedness to Others: the valuation of being emotionally, physically and spiritually connected to others; 6) Collective Emotional Expression: the ability, need and desire to share strong emotions with others; and 7) Resistance: the willpower and courage to stand firmly for one’s beliefs and ideals.

Knowledge and internalization of these strategies can serve as an antidote to the ongoing attacks on the humanity and dignity that undocumented immigrants are experiencing in the Trump era.

This legacy of survival and perseverance has been observed in the various movements that Latinx immigrants and their descendants have created to resist and defy racial oppression and nativist practices in the US. For instance, during the Chicano Rights Movement of the 1960s, Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and Filipino leaders defied big agricultural business owners in California to demand humane treatment of farmworkers.

More recently, these coping strategies are evident among undocumented immigrant youth who have led and organized one of the most powerful social movements in modern US history. The Dreamers Movement aimed to bring undocumented youth out of the shadows by fighting for the Dream Act, a bill that would provide them with a path toward legalization. The Dreamers Movement reminded the nation that despite the daily hate and hostility faced by undocumented youth, a strong sense of solidarity, a belief in the power of resistance and a profound sense of esperanza (hope) unifies and strengthens the immigrant community. It reminded us that while the current sociopolitical climate may seek to evoke fear and pain among Latinx immigrants and refugees, it is important for members of this community to stay anchored in their history of resilience and psychological strengths.

The psychological strengths that already exist inside of us Latinxs can serve as a source of fuel to resist and advocate for an opportunity to live and breathe freely in the country we call home. Ultimately, we hope that Latinx immigrants can always remember that the light toward freedom and justice is not at the end of a dark tunnel. Instead, the light toward liberation shines inside the hearts of our beloved families in the form of collective determination, an unwavering joy for life, and a profound sense of hope that is capable of defying logic and tearing down the walls of hate.