From Historical Oppression to Spiritual Freedom

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By: Jonathan Morales

Mental health has often been overlooked in our communities of color. There are many sociocultural and institutional reasons for this, but most overlooked is the linkages to our historical oppression. In trying to assuage mental health problems, many people choose to seek out spirituality as a way to deal with these issues. For those without access to mental health professionals, due to institutional barriers, spirituality can become an alternative to Western “scientific healing”, which is often Eurocentric in the way it deals with clients of color. Spirituality does not have to mean a belief in a God or ‘gods’ per se, but indicative to it is a worldview of supernaturalism and other phenomena. This belief is comforting, and I would argue, healing to one experiencing emotional trauma and disturbance.

historicaloppression-mediumAccording to Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, in regards to African religious continuities, Puerto Rico has been little studied by scholars. African-based religions and spirituality such as Lucumi/ Yoruba (Santería), espiritismo, curanderismo, etc. has a history of trauma and survival, especially as it relates to the oppression of Africans who arrived to the Caribbean islands as slaves under European colonial rule. The imposition of Christianity by European colonialism marked a transformative event of cultural and spiritual survival. African gods/ spirits (orishas, Lwas, etc.) were hidden behind Catholic saints by their practitioners as a way of holding on to traditional faith.  Christianity was also transformed from an oppressive institution to a liberating and healing force, as we see with the history of the Black church in the U.S. context. Although espiritismo was introduced to Puerto Rico from Europe through the likes of Allan Kardec, we see the syncretization with African derived religions such as Santería. In “Espiritsmo in the Puerto Rican Community,” Vega states, “The African… did not surrender their consciousness… and through resistance demonstrated that the maroon was not solely the one who escaped, but also the one who remained” (1999: 347). In other words, their faith was used as a way to maintain African consciousness. In relation to mental health, defining faith as a way of embracing and promoting consciousness is a powerful testament to the healing attributes of spirituality.

In a study in the Puerto Rican community of Hartford, Connecticut, the underutilization of mental health resources was tied to institutional barriers to access and the existence of alternatives such as religion, traditional spirituality, etc. In addition to economic barriers such as poverty and lack of health insurance, institutional barriers included language barriers, a lack of understanding of Latina/o culture and lack of respect for the use of alternative healing/ therapeutic methods such as curanderas, espiritistas, and santera/os.  Some of the helping resources used by Puerto Ricans in this study included: 1) traditional home resources such as the use of agua florida and the presence of an altar with saints used for prayer and healing, 2) home medical equipment and over the counter drugs, 3) Espiritismo, 4) Puerto Rican agencies, 5) neighborhood health centers, etc.  Another important helping resource was close ties to kin for social support.

If we examine inequality in communities of color, such as scarce health/ mental health resources, poverty, lack of funding, and improvement in schools, etc., it is apparent that these issues breed mental health problems and microaggressions (specifically against the white power structure).  The history of oppression, urban decay and degradation, the war on drugs, and police tactics such as ‘Stop & Frisk,’ are damaging to the human psyche and human dignity. Issues such as patriarchy, masculinity and machismo in our communities is also damaging to one who is experiencing mental health problems. For example, men would be seen as “weak individuals” if he sought-out such services.

In a recent conversation with a close friend of mine, a Dominican school psychologist based in New York, he stated:

“In my clinical experience, people who adhere to a religious tradition – and even some who claim not to espouse any belief – always bring their God-view to every situation. The key is to tap into the healthy parts of these conceptualizations. Expressions such as “God is good all the time’ or ‘God might be late but always on time’ are commonplace among African American clients in time of stress. ‘God does not give you more than you can handle’ or ‘Dios aprieta pero no ahorca’ – literally, ‘God may squeeze but will never strangle’ are faith-derived expressions among Latino clients seeking meaning when situations are beyond their understanding. Others reach to intergenerational coping skills (such as santería) passed down from generations.”

In addition, many clients of his did not understand how institutionalized racism and historical oppression contributed to the stress and mental health problems present in their lives. These “too big to handle” issues by oneself is comfortingly met by an equally big spiritual and cosmological force such as religion and traditional faith. Spirituality must be seen as a positive and legitimate way of coping and healing problems of our everyday lives, especially mental health problems. Of course, this raises the question of where does that leave non-believers.

Spirituality is a practice all people can engage in/ with regardless of belief. Spirituality is nature, community-building, self-love, art, in addition to prayer, meditation, dance and song. It is there for all to use for healing when the very institutions we most need are not available to us. It is a form of resistance to these institutional barriers.


Moreno Vega, Marta.  “Espiritsmo in the Puerto Rican Community: A New World Recreation With the Elements of Kongo Ancestor Worship” in Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, Jan, 1999.  
Schensul, Stephen L. and Jean J. Schensul.  “Helping Resource Use in a Puerto Rican Community” in Urban Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 1982.  
Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Loera, G., Méndez, L., Sala, M., Latino Mental Health Concilio, and Nakamoto, J. (2012). Community-Defined Solutions for Latino Mental Health Care Disparities: California Reducing Disparities Project, Latino Strategic Planning Workgroup Population Report. Sacramento, CA: UC Davis.
Personal conversation with Dr. Aris Peguero, Psy.D


Jonathan Morales is a New York City born and raised graduate of Hunter College where he studied Anthropology and Africana-Puerto Rican/ Latino Studies. He works at an ethnic studies research institute and is in the process of applying to graduate school. He has family in Lares and Quebradillas, Puerto Rico.

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