It’s More than the Cinnamon


Me: (silent).

Lady: DO. YOU. HAVE. CINNAMON? (Speaking loudly and slowly while making the motion of a shaker in her hand).

Me: I don’t work here, but I can show you where the cinnamon might be.

Lady: Oh, umm, thanks.

I’ve had several moments like this. I’ve had so many moments like this that I’m able to laugh it off and no longer experience shock. See, this woman probably knowingly or unknowingly, thought I didn’t speak English and even further, thought I worked at the hotel where I was staying. (Also, for some reason I still can’t understand why there’s the component of speaking loudly either). Although I wasn’t offended by the occupation she categorized me under, I was hurt by the stereotype I was given. I remember I was with my friend, who identified as white woman, who was baffled and stunned at the whole scenario.

Besides the personal experiences I had, I was fueled further when I noticed that my Latino/Hispanic clients were also having similar scenarios. During a lecture in my gender and ethnicity class, in my doctoral program, the professor defined social justice as the “ethical, spiritual and professional responsibility to address cultural, political, economic inequalities that may negatively affect a person or groups” (R. E. Montilla, personal communication, October, 2010).

What I took from this class is that counseling is not limited to mental health but that mental health wellness is affected by sociopolitical factors and inequalities; identifying that power dynamics are still present in society and are used to harm individuals in order to continue the cycle of oppression.

With that stated, it’s also important to become aware that oppression also lies in the counseling room and that power dynamics exist when engaging a client. In Paolo Freire’s popular book Pedagogy of the Oppressed he states: “One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within and thereby acts to submerge human beings consciousness” (Freire, 1970, p. 51). Although Freire is eluding to political and historical oppression, he also speaks to psychological oppression; the oppression that people may initially come in to counseling exhibiting symptoms of a disorder and in reality their pain contributes to their inability to connect with others who cannot nor want to connect with them for several reason including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

In my experience working with the Latino/Hispanic population there are certain important learning lessons I’ve had: that I had power, that I was also powerless, and that these played an immense role on how I viewed and was viewed by my clients. I played the role of the oppressor and the marginalized and recognizing this allowed me to be authentic in understanding myself and others. I understood that many of the clients I had were demonstrating symptoms of a disorder but I firmly believed that I couldn’t pathologize these individuals when their actual experience was the wrath of oppression and a sense of helplessness in their place in society.

Martín-Baró, writer of Writings for a Liberation Psychology wrote: “[…] the foundation for people’s mental health lies in the existence of humanizing relationships of collective ties […]” (Martín-Baró, 1994, p. 120). In order for us as a profession to move forward it is imperative we recognize that healing happens in connection with others.

My hope is that I can translate this message to my students; that we are constantly in the place of the privileged and marginalized counselor, where there’s a constant dance of power dynamics.

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