When Jenna Horgan first approached the group of nine girls about writing a song together, they were sure it was impossible.
The girls were part of a music therapy group at El Futuro, which provides mental health services to local Latino community members.
Two of them had immigrated into the United States within the past year while the other seven had been born or raised here. Given their different backgrounds, the girls weren’t sure how to write a song encompassing all of their experiences.
But when Horgan began asking them for advice they would give a friend struggling with depression, the girls were full of ideas.
Never miss a local story.
Stay positive, one said.
Sea fuerte, or be strong, said another.
“One after another they said these beautiful and wise words,” Horgan told about 300 people at a fundraising lunch Thursday.
The girls maintained that their words didn’t even rhyme, but as Horgan put them to music, the song began to take shape. “One of them said ‘this is actually really good,’” Horgan said to laughs.
Horgan and Rosa Inez Ramirez, a junior at Durham School of the Arts, debuted the song at the luncheon and invited the audience to join in for the final chorus: “life is muy preciosa - vívela,” live it.
Flashcards and telenovelas
Dr. Luke Smith, the group’s executive director, moved to Durham in 2000 for his psychiatry residency and found many of his patients spoke Spanish. As of 2013, 14.5 percent of the Durham population identified as Hispanic or Latino.
He began teaching himself through a mixture of flashcards and telenovelas and eventually led an effort to establish El Futuro in 2004.
The organization has three main missions, said Kerry Brock, manager of grants and strategy development: clinical treatment through group and individual therapy, community outreach and education, and professional training for people like Horgan, who is interning with El Futuro while pursuing her master of social work at N.C. State University.
Most of the group’s clients are referred from other community agencies, but Brock said, “something that we’re really proud of is the second largest source is family and friends of current clients.” She said this reflects the group’s focus on confianza, trust.
El Futuro served almost 1,460 people last year in nearly 9,000 sessions.
Karon Johnson, an El Futuro therapist, said language barriers, lack of information about services, and fears that what they share won’t be kept confidential can keep some from seeking help.
“There’s stigma,” she added. “Often religion plays a very large part in the Latino community. ... If you can’t pray enough, or you can’t trust God enough for him to relieve what’s going on then why come to man when God provides everything.”
“As an African-American woman I can relate because there’s also that level of stigma and hesitance in our community as well,” she said. “For me, I see so much interconnectedness, shared experiences, shared fears. Being able to bridge that gap is hugely important to what we do.”
Johnson said people seek help for depression, PTSD, acute stress disorders and substance abuse. Many are struggling with financial stress, and some with anxiety over their immigration status.
El Futuro also offers programs specifically for Latina adolescents, which Horgan said have the highest rate of contemplated or attempted suicide of any demographic.
Johnson said the programs help the girls learn to express themselves and better understand their feelings.
“The music therapy was a more recent development that Jenna was just so gracious and innovative to come up with,” she said.
According to Horgan, not only was the song-writing process therapeutic, but “the recording process was empowering as well.”
“One client told her therapist later that week, ‘I was afraid to sing, but the group helped me find my voice,’” she said.
Speaking the same language
Many Latino families grapple with the challenges of acculturation, says Karon Johnson, an El Futuro therapist.
In some cases, a parent may speak Spanish while the child speaks English or a mixture of both. “So they come to our clinic, and we do all that we can to help them to learn how to speak each other’s languages,” she said.
Providing culturally informed, bilingual services is a critical point in El Futuro’s mission.
“One of the important elements of mental health services is creating an alliance with your provider, and that can be interrupted a bit if there’s an interpreter there,” Johnson said. “You lose some of that natural rapport.”
That’s not to say all of their clients speak Spanish. “We’ve had clients who are Latino but who were born here and speak only English and really just wanted to be in a place that understood their family culture, their history, and the things that come to bear when they’re dealing with their environmental stressors,” she explained.
Smith calls it “la lucha.” In a dictionary, this would translate simply as “the fight,” but he described as a “grinding, neverending struggle.”
“We feel that burden as people walk through our doors each day,” he said. “When a group of us met over ten years ago to establish El Futuro, I didn’t appropriately consider the daily encounter that we would have with la lucha.”
Staff writer Natalie Ritchie