To address cultural trauma in San Antonio, we must confront our city’s painful past

Our San Antonio therapy practice, Purple Couch Therapy, operates with a very specific philosophy: that our ancestors didn’t always get the support they needed to thrive. This is especially true in San Antonio, a city famous for the Alamo.

The Texas Revolution was a struggle some have argued was just as much about upholding slavery as it was about independence from Mexico. On land seized by the Spanish from the Payaya people and other Indigenous groups, Texans fought to ensure that slavery continued. The Alamo has come to represent the fight for Texas independence, but it has also been a site of trauma for Indigenous and Mexican American communities. The narrative surrounding the Alamo has often ignored or minimized the experiences of these communities, perpetuating a narrative of conquest and triumph. These are the traumas our forebears never got the chance to heal from on this land.

Today our mental health struggles continue and impact more San Antonians than ever. Young people in the United States had a 51% increase in suicide attempts during the pandemic. Among their greatest stressors were the impacts of trauma, grief, racial/ethnic violence and loss over the past few years alone. Over a third of kids said they experienced racism before or during the pandemic. Per the CDC, “experiences of racism among youth have been linked to poor mental health, academic performance, and lifelong health risk behaviors.” But how often do we address San Antonio’s racist founding as a community?

In a city that continues to honor the Alamo and the men who defended Texas’ plan to continue the enslavement of Black people, where a confederate monument wasn’t removed from Travis Park until 2017, where redlining prevented people of color from accessing housing and other resources and led to significant segregation, a culture of ignoring or dismissing San Antonio’s history only results in more death by suicide, substance use, homelessness and incarceration. Today’s San Antonians aren’t able to properly address trauma tied to these events, much less work toward healing.

Prominent researcher Lillian Comas-Diaz describes this as ongoing cultural trauma. In her book Multicultural Care: A Clinician’s Guide to Cultural Competence, she defines cultural trauma as “the victimization that individuals and groups may experience because of their culture, including their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, or political ideology and their interaction with other diversity characteristics.”

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart’s extensive research on historical trauma reveals how mental and emotional suffering moves across generations. Her work shows firsthand what it means to ignore 500 years of institutional, legal and intergenerational genocide and oppression of Indigenous peoples: ongoing psychological suffering.

As social workers and therapists, global leaders in our field show us real ways forward, ways to help everyone in our city grow and thrive. First and most obviously, that we can actually provide mental health services to those in need. American Rescue Plan Act funding allocated for mental health is designed to help provide access to mental health services for direct individual counseling and community circles.

Mental health care providers can use the most current, compassion-led research by leaders in our field. In her book, Thriving in the Wake of Trauma, American Psychological Association President Thema Bryant outlines step-by-step therapeutic protocols to support those experiencing ongoing trauma from race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, migration status, religion and many other historical/cultural factors. Some modalities are well-known, such as narrative, psychodynamic and systemic interventions.

I support my staff in exploring even more creative modalities such as art therapy, dance therapy, and eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR). We also employ research by the Cultural Somatic Institute to support our clients as they process these profound intergenerational scars in our bodies, where trauma lives. According to psychotherapist Resmaa Menakem, “a calm, settled body is the foundation for health, for healing, for helping others, and for changing the world.”

At Purple Couch, we’ve seen firsthand that youth wait to seek help mostly due to a lack of support from parents, mistrust of the health care system, and just not feeling safe to go to mental health providers lacking BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) representation. They don’t get help because addressing very real, very present, and very meaningful past trauma just isn’t San Antonio’s culture.

San Antonio is over 75% BIPOC and too many of our friends, neighbors, and community members have been historically unsupported, unseen, and ignored by our therapeutic community.

So I’d like you to consider: How can I get more engaged with the community right in front of me? How can I support our neighbors suffering in silence? How can I better care about kids in school? How can we make the workplace an easier place to spend our time? And how can we check up on one another, and build programs designed to do just that?

The answer is designing new social approaches to care and strategies that help us all feel more connected and supported. At the Austin-based Institute for Chicano/a/x Psychology, the President of the National Latinx Association Manuel Zamarripa and institute co-founder Tlazoltiani Jessica Zamarripa provide both research and guidance for how therapists can impactfully support whole communities impacted by historical trauma: by revealing our historical, cultural, and intergenerational values. By leaning into our historical strengths as healing cultures, our communities actually develop an ethos of care and connection to one another. This may seem like a new way to build community in San Antonio, but in fact, they are very traditional and familiar Indigenous, Latino, and African family values we would be bringing to our city’s forefront.

San Antonio’s culture means historically avoiding, dismissing, or rejecting our history of oppression, so when you speak up and say that you feel pained by this violent legacy, you’re doing something new in the pained history of our city. It’s our hope at Purple Couch Therapy that we as a city can begin a dialogue and begin healing this very, very old pain.

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711 E. Drexel Ave
San Antonio, 78210

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