Inspired by Catholic faith, San José nonprofit promotes mental health for Latino teens
Lupita Castañeda-Liles, fourth from left, participates in a performance by a Mexican folk dance group she is a part of at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, California. (Courtesy of Monica Gomez)
When Lupita Castañeda-Liles started the seventh grade at the Catholic elementary school she had attended all her life, she had an unpleasant surprise: some of her classmates, who had previously been her friends, started intimidate.
“She came home from school sad and crying,” says her mother, María del Socorro Castañeda, a former professor at Santa Clara University and author of the 2018 book. Our Lady of Daily Life: La Virgen de Guadalupe and the Catholic Imagination of Mexican Women in America.
“In Santa Clara, I had taught women’s rights,” she told NCR. “It was hard to watch my daughter go through this bullying experience. We searched online for organizations dealing with Latina teenage girls and mental health. There were sites about teenage mental health in general, and a few- ones on African American girls and mental health, but we couldn’t find any on Latina mental health specifically.We saw a need to fill that gap.
Today, Lupita is a 15-year-old sophomore at Notre Dame High School in San Jose, California, and inspirational principal of Become a Mujeres, an organization dedicated to empowering Latina teenage girls and their caregivers. Since the organization began three years ago, mother and daughter have led workshops in elementary, secondary and college schools. Topics include self-care, overcoming impostor syndrome and honoring one’s culture.
“We start the workshops by telling our story. It’s more of a reflective dialogue. The point is not to come in and say, ‘Let me teach you how to be mentally healthy’, but to share our stories and collectively find healing,” she says.
María del Socorro Castañeda and her daughter Lupita Castañeda-Liles are hosting a Becoming Mujeres online workshop in 2021. (Courtesy of Monica Gomez)
When the pandemic began just months after the organization was founded, mother and daughter turned to online workshops in many settings, including San Jose State University and Christian University of the Texas at Fort Worth. A workshop was held at Notre Dame de San José high school.
“She was great,” says Monica Gomez, a former student at the school who works in donor relations and also advises Latinas Unidas, a student group focused on Latin culture and identity. Latinas Unidas held an online Becoming Mujeres workshop in December 2021.
“At the time, she was only in eighth grade, but she was a teenager that our students could see as someone like them,” adds Gomez. “She shared her personal story of her and her mother building this network that could enlighten other students facing challenges such as classmate envy, racial intolerance, social media pressures and the “Bullying. Many teens face this, but young women of color face it more.”
Gomez said Latina teens face unique challenges due to internal cultural pressures, as well as external stereotyping and discrimination.
“It’s hard to manage a character when we feel like we have to change our culture for others,” Lupita told NCR. “There are many things in our culture that we value – our dancing, our music, our singing, our food, our interpersonal relationships. From an outsider’s perspective, people jump to conclusions, especially about our music. “
Despite the challenges, Gomez sees movement toward greater empowerment for girls in her community.
“Culturally, Latinas are told to be respectful and kind, not to talk to elders when there’s tension, but I see that changing,” she said. “Our students are more empowered now. Social justice causes have helped that. Black Lives Matter has raised tremendous awareness. As young women of color, we have to prove ourselves. We have to constantly show that there is more to us just a stereotype.”
“The point is not to come in and say, ‘Let me teach you how to be mentally healthy,’ but to share our stories and collectively find healing.”
Now that the pandemic has subsided, the Castañedas are beginning to resume in-person workshops. For Lupita, it continues to be personally healing and empowering.
“Sometimes difficulties arise for a reason,” she said. “I don’t always have access to all the help I need. But sometimes the reason we go through these difficulties is that we have to adapt to how we react to different situations to avoid reliving them in adulthood. As painful as it is now, whichever way you see it, it will be beneficial in the future.”
For María del Socorro, this project is rooted in her Catholic faith and upbringing.
“The roots of Becoming Mujeres are deeply Catholic,” she said. “I have co-workers at Chicana who think the only way to be self-reliant is to remove everything to do with the institutional church. That attitude has always caused me pain. Yes, there are ways of being Catholic that harm women.I list them in my book – the stories of the women I interviewed.
“At the same time, the book speaks of the life-giving things that come from being Catholic: the feeling of being grounded in one’s family and culture, of being rooted in a faith that, when you need it, will help you to overcome the challenges of life. The important thing is to learn how to navigate Catholicism, to find a way to keep moving forward in our faith as we seek to carve out a worthy space for ourselves within the Catholic Church. “
Lupita agrees with her mother. “Catholicism has negative aspects, but I recognize the good aspects that motivate me to be who I am today. Religion is something I can grow from. The concept that there is something more great that we comfort me and make me feel that the work we do is worth doing.”
María del Socorro recalls that as a teenager she received a lot of practical advice from the church in the form of her pastor, Fr. Mateo Sheedy, who urged her to apply to Santa Clara University. .
“I emigrated to the United States at age 9 and took non-university courses, even in college,” she explained.
“They put me into sewing, carpentry, Future Farmers of America. Latinx students didn’t have the grades for college. I ended up in community college, which is great if you have a mentoring. But if you don’t, you can easily fall through the cracks,” she said.
María del Socorro said it was Sheedy who “kept asking me when I’d be transferred to Santa Clara.” She said Sheedy also helped convince the school to admit her, even though her grades were lower than other students and an adviser suggested she consider applying to another institution.
“Father Mateo sent a fax to the provost, telling them that I was the type of student they needed. ‘You’d be crazy not to accept María Castañeda,'” she recalled.
Lupita, who hopes to study psychiatry and work in mental health, has always been inspired by her mother’s story.
“As Latinos, we are underrepresented in many ways, but especially in academia,” she said. “When I was younger, my mother was my role model. There was no celebrity I looked up to who had the accomplishments I wanted. But the story made me realize that if my own mother could do it, I had no excuse.”
María del Socorro urges everyone to maintain a growth mindset.
“I tell people to shine their light big and bright,” she said. “If people don’t like it, they can shade it.”
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