On a warm summer evening at the Chicano Resource Center at the East LA Library, Josof Sanchez greeted former students and mentees as they arrived.
Books on the Chicano Movement and Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War packed the shelves in a part of the library that had been turned into a makeshift film studio.
NOTE: This story originally ran on the website of LAist.com, a news media partner of CALÓ NEWS.
“We’re hope producers. We’re dream builders. That’s the mission,” Sanchez said.
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Sanchez has worked with youth for decades, serving as a probation commissioner for L.A. County and more recently mentoring youth through a film program at Santa Monica College.
Sanchez sat down in a chair and began drawing out the young people who’d volunteered to tell their stories.
‘It hasn’t been an easy journey’
Participant Britany Flores helped conceptualize the film project, wanting to combine mental health advocacy with the arts.
In her testimonial, Flores opens up about struggling to get out of bed, having several anxiety attacks a day in school, and being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder.
She also talked about the challenges she faced seeking help.
“Being a Latina of a first generation low-income family, I learned to understand that mental health was … stereotyped and stigmatized in various different ways,” Flores said.
Her goal now is to become a forensic child psychologist. It’s part of the reason Flores wanted to film her own story and help coordinate the other young participants, like Anahi Jimenez, who said she was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD when she was a junior in high school.
“It hasn’t been an easy journey. I was close to becoming suicidal,” Jimenez recalled.
“Since then I’ve been in therapy and I’ve learned to talk about my issues, because in my family, and I feel in the Hispanic community, we’re kind of just told to ‘keep going and don’t feel,’” she said.
One thing Jimenez and all of the participants have in common: They hope other young people who watch their stories will feel less alone, and give them the courage to ask for help if they need it.
Getting that help though can be specially difficult, as there’s a dearth of therapists who understand the traumas that can come with being a first-generation family.
Sanchez said it’s been powerful to witness them — most in their early 20s — open up about the hardest moments of their life.
“When I’m hearing them speak, they’re telling you basically what they’ve been wanting to tell their parents. But because of that stigma of ‘Get over it, there ain’t nothing wrong with you, you’re embarrassing the family’… They feel that to claim you need mental help is a form of weakness,” Sanchez explained.
Julie Matsumoto, who worked with Sanchez on the project and also directed the film shoots, said the pandemic linked many young people together in a shared trauma.
“The need is just enormous as far as services [go]… young people are suffering from trauma, anxiety, depression, all kinds of different things,” Matsumoto lamented.
Other young people who participated in the film series talked about alcoholism within their family, living with a family member with serious mental illness and personal involvement with the youth justice system.
Journey of giving back
For Alex Nieves, it’s a way of passing on what he had learned.
“You know, when I was younger, I didn’t know what mental health was. I didn’t know it was a thing … Growing up I watched a lot of documentaries … those stories of resilience, they helped me, so I wanted to start my journey of giving back to the community,” Nieves told LAist.
Meanwhile Andrea Barrientos said she’s working on a career in human resources, in part because of the fear and loneliness she experienced as a kid suffering mentally in silence.
“I’ll be in the company, seeing employees and how they are … and if I could help make life easier for them while they’re there,” Barrientos said. “I really want for people to not be afraid or scared to talk about what they are feeling.”
All of these deeply personal stories will eventually be uploaded to YouTube to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Personal trauma informs care
For Josof Sanchez, addressing youth trauma is personal. His own father struggled with addiction and sold drugs. One time, Sanchez said his father even hid drugs in his diaper.
Later on in life, when he was sitting in a car with his dad, Sanchez said undercover police raided the vehicle.
“They attacked the car. And they literally almost beat him to death and there was blood all over, and I was only 5 years of age,” Sanchez remembered.
From that day on, Sanchez said he didn’t speak again until he was 10 and struggled to read and write, leading to a very difficult time in school. “All this was trauma,” he said.
Sanchez’s work with youth is informed by that childhood experience, he said, and he’s dedicated to helping others cope with their own past.
Hearing the youngsters’ stories has been educational for him, and left him deeply moved.
“It’s an honor to have them give of themselves so someone else can be taken care of,” Sanchez said.
“The parents are also able to see it and then they’re able to open up and say ‘I need help.’”