We asked several outstanding Hispanic social workers to tell us why they chose social work as their profession and what they see as challenges to serving the Hispanic community today.
Aida Rodriguez, MSW, LCSW
Mental Health Social Worker
St. Louis, Missouri
Ms. Rodriguez and her son Zach
Q. What is your area of expertise?
My name is Aida Rodriguez, and I am a Cuban-born citizen of the United States. My family emigrated here in 1960, but since then I have lived not only in the United States, but also in Spain for five years, and in Uruguay for two. I have lived in Saint Louis, Missouri, since 1991.
My area of expertise as a social worker is mental health. I currently work as a medical social worker at an inner city clinic, where I also do counseling with patients. In the recent past I worked as a sex offender treatment specialist through the Missouri Sex Offender Treatment Program at Farmington Prison in Missouri, where I was hired because of their need at the time to have a Spanish-speaking therapist who could conduct group therapy in Spanish for a small contingent of incarcerated Hispanics. For two of the three years I worked extensively with English-speaking offenders, and in addition I helped to integrate a small but very diverse group of Spanish-speaking offenders into the therapeutic community environment, and led classes and therapy groups for them in Spanish. I saw significant change occur as those men learned about the many factors which led to their inappropriate behavior, and about the role of personal choice and personal responsibility in all matters. For some, it was the first time they had contemplated such ideas, or developed friendships and dared to tell their stories to anyone. All of them struggled with their demons, and with cultural notions which could only come out into the open by doing therapy in Spanish with a therapist whose native language is the same as their own.
Today, most of my clients are low-income immigrants, and most of them are undocumented but have children who are born in the States. While I do counseling with these clients as well, it is of a different nature, often directed at cultivating self-esteem, improving domestic relations, and at developing parenting skills.
Q. Why did you choose social work as your profession?
I came to social work "later" in life after being a stay-at-home mom for a number of years, and my interest initially was simply to enter the field of mental health and develop a private practice as a psychotherapist. Having experienced the psychological and emotional drama of immigration myself as a child, I had early on developed an intense desire to understand how people think, why cultures are so different, and why folks behave the way they do. Social work seemed to be a great way to scratch that itch, and turned out to lay the perfect groundwork for what I wanted to do professionally.
During my years at George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University I learned that I also had a keen interest in community development studies, and in international social work as well. It was a revelation when a professor said one day that in order to do International Social Work one no longer had to travel, so great was the influx and diversity of immigrants and refugees into the United States. All my interests somehow came together and astoundingly, a path in this career has indeed been unfolding as I put my skills and interests to work. Being a bilingual Hispanic has been key thus far, and I believe it will continue to be so up ahead.
Q. What do you believe are the biggest challenges to serving our growing Hispanic population?
Dealing with the results of a history of trauma is and will be one of the greatest challenges of serving our Hispanic population. While this topic is not often addressed in an open way, it is an important underlying issue for our Hispanic populations. A great many Latin American countries that have experienced devastating political instability, terrorism, extreme poverty, family disruption, and the decay of hope over time. Those places and their bleak realities may seem far away, but the people of those countries are right here among us in the Unites States mowing our lawns and installing our roofs. They hail from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, and Argentina, and more. Besides the anxiety and mood disorders with which much of the general public is now to some extent familiar, many of these people have a history of traumatic stress and PTSD or are strongly impacted by a loved one who suffers from these conditions. Their psychological and emotional experiences are complicated by a wide variety of practical problems, not the least of which have to do with immigration and language, as well as economic factors.
Also, as the newer influx of Hispanics see their children grow up bilingual they will struggle with the cultural gaps that immigrant families experience when the second and third generations come around. There will be great challenges for the aging population, a great many of them who are illegal immigrants, some of them quite uneducated and even illiterate, who worked hard, but were never able to save for retirement or pay into Social Security. They will become dependent on their American-citizen children for their financial support, but it is unclear whether many of these youngsters will have the educational preparation to support them here. Many of the older generation will return to their countries, and hopefully be able to retire on what money they were able to save, if any, and hopefully receive money from their children living abroad.
The separation of families due to labor immigration has impacted the cohesion of Hispanic families profoundly, and we are seeing and will continue to see the burgeoning phenomenon of the single Hispanic mother, and the need for Hispanic men to find meaning to their lives in a culture where marriage and family cohesion are not the norm. This will impact the new generation too, and hopefully it will result in children who will grasp the opportunity to become self-made individuals, taking the best that their backgrounds offer, and discarding the rest.
I believe that the social work principle of EMPOWERMENT will play a key role in our work with Hispanic individuals and those of other cultures. As social workers we should strive to reassure our clients that healing is theirs to have if only they reach for it. We must work to remind our clients that they can learn to dream again – or perhaps, learn to dream for the first time, ever.
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