2019 MTV Movie & TV Award and Teen Choice Award-nominee Jessica Marie Garcia currently stars as breakout character Jasmine in Netflix’s hit coming-of-age series On My Block. The Cuban-Mexican-American actress also co-stars in the Gina Rodriguez-produced Disney+ series Diary of a Future President. Garcia also starred in all four seasons of the hit Disney Channel Original series Liv and Maddie opposite Dove Cameron. Originally from Orlando, FL, Garcia got her first big break when she landed a role on the ABC Family series Huge playing Sierra Cruz. Additionally, Garcia is also a member of the all-female ensemble cast of BETCH: A Sketch Show, and she is also an avid television and film writer with several projects in development. Follow her on @Jess_M_Garcia and Twitter @JessMarieGarcia.
I was scrolling through my phone, sitting in the passenger seat as my mom drove us down a quiet street in Burbank one hot summer night. Her beat up red Oldsmobile was holding on by a thread at that point — she had recently driven that car across the country to move in with me, from Florida to California in just three days. I know; taking breaks is not really her thing. What can I say? She’s a Latinx mom. I’m happy she at least stopped to use the bathroom.
She was joined on this journey by my senile 83-year-old Cuban abuela, who, before this trip, enjoyed throwing bologna out of car windows and breaking out of our apartment any chance she got in order to escape the communists who had supposedly moved in downstairs. Adding to this ready-made comedy special was our 120-pound Belgian Shepherd, Rocky, who had a, shall we say, nervous stomach on long car rides. You can fill in the blanks on how enjoyable this road trip was for everyone involved.
But, my mom was doing all of this in order to be by my side, and to support me and my Hollywood dreams. She has always been my hero. She has always been the strongest person I have ever met. She always taught me to stand up for myself, use my voice, and never back down. But that summer night in Burbank showed me a side of my mom I had never seen before.
I was elbow-deep in my phone, looking for my friend’s address when, all of a sudden, I heard the familiar WOOP WOOP followed by the lights of a squad car in our rear-view mirror. My mind went straight to annoyance that we were probably going to get a ticket. As I sat in my privilege, I looked over at my mother who was now both stiff and trembling. I had never seen her like this. This was the same woman I had only seen cry twice in my entire life. The same woman constantly tearing down misogyny in her workplace. And now she was scared? Of what!? A traffic stop? But, as she spoke to the officer, she stuttered over her words; her voice took on an almost child-like quality. I don’t really remember now what the reason was that we were pulled over. I know the cop didn’t give us a ticket, but I also know that my mom definitely still paid a price that night. In that moment, I saw the trauma that she never spoke to me about; trauma she blanketed as “strength.” She was triggered by this police officer and I already knew why.
My mother was just eight years old in 1964 when she was jolted awake in her bed in La Habana, Cuba. She was told by her parents to pack everything she could carry to go on a “fishing trip.” In reality, my family had decided to flee Cuba, and this was their escape. But before they could make it safely onto the boat, they were caught by the police. My mother was forced to witness the three men who had been in charge of her family’s escape executed by police. My mother, grandmother, and uncle spent six weeks in jail, while my grandfather spent two years there. At eight years old, my mother was handcuffed, interrogated alone, body-searched, and imprisoned. I grew up hearing these horror stories of how strong my family was to overcome them, and eventually thrive in this country despite what they had endured. I always found such pride in the strength of our community, and how hard we will always fight for our families.
I just don’t understand why we can’t use that same drive to fight for our mental health. Why do we, as Latinx, care more for the health of our families rather than ourselves as individuals? When will we face the fact that we have to take care of ourselves before we can care for others? Don’t we listen to flight attendants?
“Approximately only 33% of Latino adults with mental illness receive treatment each year, compared to the U.S. average of 43%,” says The National Alliance on Mental Health, and I know that behind those statistics, there are countless factors as to why Latinx, specifically, don’t seek mental help. Language and cultural barriers are a gigantic factor: “There are only about 5,000 psychologists in the United States who are Hispanic, representing just 5% of all psychologists,” according to the American Psychological Association. Who wants to confide in someone who doesn’t understand you? There’s also a lack of information and misunderstanding about mental health, privacy concerns, lack of health insurance, and legal status, to name a few problems. I know my mother would have benefited enormously if she had sought out therapy after the living nightmares she experienced during her childhood, especially the separation from her father.
Just as it’s hard not to see how my mother’s ongoing police-related trauma is related to her horrific experience as a child, it’s impossible not to think about the trauma that all the families in America who have been separated and traumatized at the hands of ICE, and because of unjust immigration policies will continue to endure for years to come. How many kids are going to grow up with similar trauma as my mother — or worse? How will it affect their daily lives, their interactions with authorities, their ability to walk or drive down the street without fear?
While it’s impossible to know all the answers to these questions, luckily, I have discovered an initiative that is doing everything in its power to end the stigma around seeking mental healthcare, and get these families the help they need. The “Todo Por Mi Familia” initiative is made possible through the Seneca Family of Agencies, a national, California-based nonprofit that coordinates free mental health services, including counseling for reunited immigrant families across the country who entered the U.S. and were affected by the mass separation on or after July 1, 2017. Those who entered and later reunified are eligible for services. It is also important to know that it doesn't matter if anyone searching for help is undocumented — all information is kept completely confidential and will never be shared with ICE or any other government entity. I had the pleasure of speaking to program supervisor Johanna Navarro-Perez, who encourages those who may not think they have the means to accept help to reach out anyway — TPMF may still be able to help families who don’t have access to a phone, and help them figure out a way to speak to a therapist on a constant basis.
As for my family and me, through writing this, I was able to have a much-needed conversation with my mom about mental health, and I am so thankful for Johanna and TPMF for educating me on their incredible work. I hope together we can help end the stigma surrounding mental health in our culture by ending it at home first.
You can access services by calling Seneca’s confidential and toll-free hotline at 844-529-3327. For general inquiries about how to assist families in accessing these services or for more info about the Todo Por Mi Familia initiative, please contact 323-326-8287 or email Info@todopormifamilia.org.