By Sonia Alejandra Rodriguez
I’m guilty of always saying “I’m okay,” even when I know I am not. Often times, it seems easier to lie than to explain the depths of what hurts. It also seems more appropriate to suck it up than to admit I’m not as strong as I appear. Saying “I’m okay” when I am not is also a way to mask the shame I feel for feeling depressed when I know others have it worse. As Cindy L. Rodriguez explains in her blog post, “Depression in YA and the Latin@ Community,” depression is often associated with trauma and feeling depressed because you’re simply depressed rarely seems like a good enough reason. While causes and effects of depression vary tremendously, I have found that the stereotypes about depression are consistent. The stigma alone associated with depression has made it difficult for folks to speak openly about the issue. Because of this I wasn’t surprised that depression, including suicide attempts and suicide, isn’t a topic that is directly addressed in Latina/o children’s literature.
The first book I encountered where a Latino character attempted suicide was Gloria Velasquez’s Tommy Stands Alone (1995). Tommy struggles with coming out as gay because his family and friends are not supportive, and in a moment of desperation, he overdoses on pills and alcohol. At the same time that I came across Velasquez’s book, I was also reading media articles about Dr. Luis H. Zayas’s research on Latina teen suicide attempts which connected suicide attempts to difficulties assimilating to dominant American society. In their March 2010 issue, Latina Magazine published an article that presented Zayas’s findings and discussed the ways in which Latina teens have a more difficult time assimilating because of their immigrant parents’ traditional values. While at the time I found the article to be important and informative, I was very hesitant about placing the blame for suicide attempts on the parents. Zayas has made it clear that there are various reasons why Latina teens attempt suicide and that his specific research has shown that one of the reasons is the tension between the two cultures.
What I feel is missing from an understanding of Latina/o teen suicide attempts and suicide rates is a discussion of how racism and other histories of oppression have made it difficult for these young teens to stay alive. In other words, while parents and families can certainly be a factor in one’s depression, I am weary of saying that Latino youth are depressed and/or attempting suicide because of their families. In this light, depression becomes racialized and parents become a source of otherness. In reading Velasquez’s young adult novel and Zayas’s research, I became interested in the ways that depression is understood as an individual problem rather than addressed as a community issue. Understanding depression as a personal problem also questions one’s resilience; furthermore, one’s ability to overcome depression becomes a signifier for their value.
I was definitely excited to learn that Cindy L. Rodriguez’s debut young adult novel, When Reason Breaks, addresses issues of depression and suicide attempts. Rodriguez’s novel adds to a much needed discussion on depression and Latina/o children’s literature. There are certainly various aspects of the novel to love, but I found the ambiguity of which character attempts suicide to be the most intriguing. When Reason Breaks (2015) tells the story of the uncanny connection between two seemingly different teenage girls. Elizabeth Davis develops a gothic like edge after her parent’s separation. Her new attitude often puts her at odds with her mother, teachers, and peers. Emily Delgado hangs out with the popular crowd, her teachers like her, and her family is well off. Her anxiety, however, gets the best of her and she begins to retreat from those around her. Elizabeth and Emily are forced to engage one another when Ms. Diaz pairs them up for an English project on Emily Dickinson. As the novel develops, Ms. Diaz begins to receive letters from a student describing feelings of depression and uncertainty until she finally receives a suicide note.
Elizabeth’s and Emily’s characters are an opportunity to discuss stereotypes associated with depression. The assumption is that Elizabeth is the one that attempts suicide because she has something to be depressed about—her parent’s divorce. At first, this traumatic event makes those around her sympathetic to her situation. Over time, though, people begin to lose patience with her, which is apparent by how often her mother scolds her and how frequently she’s sent to visit the school counselor. Elizabeth is an excellent example of what I mean by a person’s ability to overcome depression can determine their value. Because it appears that Elizabeth is not getting any better with time, those around her begin to read her as “troubled” and more likely to be trouble. Her behavior is policed and what could be read as typical teenage behavior, such as challenging authority and talking back, are sources for dismissal and punishment. While it’s obvious that Ms. Diaz is a concerned teacher, she, nonetheless, polices Elizabeth’s behavior based on the assumptions that the school counselor has made about Elizabeth and her depression. These assumptions made it difficult to see that it was another student that was really the one in danger. In contrast, Emily gets overlooked because she does not publicly exhibit signs of depression nor does she have a valid enough reason to be depressed. No one questions Emily’s mental health when she begins to pull away from those around her or when she misses homework assignments. Instead, her friends make light of the pressure she feels from her father to perform a certain level of Latino conservatism to protect his political career. That pressure is not recognized as a valid enough reason to feel depressed, much less a reason to attempt suicide. It is Emily’s resilience, however, that allows her to hide her depression and go unnoticed.
I read Emily’s resilience as being motivated not necessarily by her desire to overcome depression but her desire to hide it. Her father’s political position is certainly a main reason why she needs to keep it together, but it is also her mother’s silence that makes it difficult for Emily to express her own feelings. Emily’s performance of resilience is a strategy that I believe many people dealing with depression employ—especially if what makes one depressed is not recognized as a worthy reason for being depressed in the first place. Resilience serves as a way for Emily to protect herself from being ostracized the way that Elizabeth is because of depression. Emily expresses concern that if she were to divulge that she struggles with depression that too many people will get involved and ask too many questions. Because of this it is easier to simply say “I’m okay.” This resilience, however, almost costs Emily her life.
When Reason Breaks further presents the opportunity to discuss the impact depression has on families and communities. Ms. Diaz reveals that she, too, struggled with a traumatic situation. At the end of the novel, even Elizabeth’s mom opens up about her feelings and is able to reconcile with her daughter. Furthermore, the novel reveals that it takes a community to support someone with depression on their journey toward healing. Addressing depression as a community breaks the silence on this issue and expands notions of what depression is, what it looks like, who gets it, and what can be done about it. Elizabeth and Emily’s struggle with depression also demonstrates that it is likely that there are others close to them that may also be dealing with depression. Even though Emily’s mother is not a major character in the novel, there are specific moments where her behavior and silences suggest that she also struggles with her emotions. Novels like When Reason Breaks demonstrate the importance of generating dialogues in our communities about depression and the various ways that depression affects us all.
Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez has been an avid reader since childhood. Her literary world was first transformed when she read Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Última as a high school student and then again as a college freshman when she was given a copy of Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Sonia’s academic life and activism are committed to making diverse literature available to children and youth of color. Sonia received her B.A. in English from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside, where she focuses her dissertation on healing processes in Latina/o Children’s and Young Adult Literature.
What a fine piece! I love your advocacy for teens with depression. As you say, Cindy’s novel cuts across racial lines and speaks to all kids struggling to beat back mental illness.
Reblogged this on The Eclectic Kitabu Project.
I just placed a hold on this book at my public library. Sounds so interesting. I look forward to reading it.
Pingback: “I’m okay”: Strength & Anxiety in Cindy L. Rodriguez’s When Factor Breaks | I Do Not Know How – We Care About You Foundation