For the health and future of our communities, we need to start caring about ourselves, regardless of how “selfish” some think that is.

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ByLorena/Stocksy United

During my early years of adolescence, I knew I was depressed.

I always felt anxious and worried, and I would express those feelings. But, more often than not, I was criticized and invalidated by those around me. I was told to “stop complaining and toughen up.”

It’s not that those around me didn’t care. Rather, they chose to ignore the reality of mental health and overlooked any signs or feelings of emotional, physical, and mental illness.

This isn’t unusual in the Latinx community. We’re constantly working to maintain a positive work ethic, to provide for our families, to ignore any and all personal issues — because “if you can’t see it,” some like to say, “it isn’t real.”

Many of my mental health symptoms were rooted in trauma I experienced growing up in a low-income community and the effects that come with it: experiencing housing insecurity, confronting scarcity on a daily basis, constantly worrying about money.

I felt powerless to take control of my life or overlook my circumstances.

Growing up in a traditional Latinx household with a Mexican mom and a Guatemalan dad, my emotional well-being was often challenged by my family’s cultural notions around mental health. I couldn’t thoroughly express my concern for my state of mind without being invalidated.

Nonetheless, I understood that I was, in fact, depressed, and I’d have to figure out how to overcome it alone.

For many traditional Latinx folks, mental health issues simply don’t exist. I’ve seen folks around me suppressing their emotions due to traditional beliefs around machismo (a toxic “hustle mentality” around work), emotionally consuming familial practices, and, most significantly, not having the resources to properly address them.

Due to our socio-economic status, I never had health insurance, so seeking professional help was entirely out of the question.

At school, I wasn’t afforded the resources to properly address my mental health because of the impoverished, underserved community I grew up within. I had no choice but to find other methods of therapy.

Luckily, I found my outlet through exercise and became diligent in preserving my physical health. In high school, I became an avid runner — cross-country in the fall, track and field in the spring — and started working out.

I did all of this to address the anxiety that stemmed from my mom battling cancer and going through years of chemotherapy, my father constantly overworking (and even leaving in pursuit of it), and all the other challenges that came up during those years.

Still, I questioned my existence, not knowing who I was or who I would become. I sat by, just waiting for the depression to eventually pass. For quite some time, I felt alone and lost every sense of trust with others.

It wasn’t until I recognized how toxic, unstable, and uncertain my lived experience as a Latinx person was when I started to dig into the cause of why I’d always felt so anxious, neglected, and misunderstood.

When I moved out to go to college, I finally had the personal space and time to be alone that I needed in order to really learn about my identity and purpose in life.

In that space, I finally realized that the trauma I experienced didn’t come from my family, but from the systems of oppression in American society that dictate who gets to achieve wellness and mental well-being.

Capitalistic expectations around work and xenophobic legislation force many in the Latinx community (along with other historically marginalized groups) to bear the brunt of oppressive systems in the United States, taking a toll on our mental, physical, and emotional health.

Those same forces make it nearly impossible for us to invest in our mental health. It’s hard to thrive without equitable healthcare, community resources, or even the time to practice self-care.

Today, as an adult and an activist, I practice self-care as a revolutionary act. I live freely and in pursuit of creating a world that will allow diverse communities of color to flourish, recognize their power, and live life in control.

I used to think self-care was selfish — that it was egoistic to care about yourself. At least, that’s what I was raised to believe by those around me.

But I now understand that there will always be people, including family, who can’t face their own emotional blockages due to unaddressed trauma. This is an issue I seek to resolve by empowering others.

As soon as I learned to ignore those who were harming more than helping, I learned to set boundaries and prioritize my mental health first. It doesn’t matter who’s impeding your growth — you have to ignore those who impose limitations on your potential.

It requires a lot of strength to do this, but it’s well worth the fight.

Self-care is community care, and the degree to which we give ourselves time and attention determines our ability to help advocate for others, too.

Thanks to my investment in my emotional well-being, I can now openly express my concerns. And I am far more confident about expressing my thoughts and opinions.

Efforts, such as Latinx Parenting — a bilingual organization rooted in intergenerational and ancestral healing — only reaffirm my belief that my experiences growing up weren’t unique to me or my family. It’s a shared experience in the United States among Latinx youth with parents who might not fully recognize the challenges that come from growing up in a toxic environment.

We can’t get to the root of these challenges that impact our Latinx community if we’re constantly choosing to ignore it. For the health and future of our communities, we need to start caring about ourselves, regardless of how “selfish” some think that is.

To be vulnerable is a revolutionary act.

I now live and breathe activism while existing in every space as my authentic self. I share my opinions, vocalize my feelings, and make my identity and intention to serve known in every room I inhabit.

I come into this work every day with an intentional mindset, giving me the space and opportunity to empower and be empowered.

When I am mentally fit to care for myself, believe in my potential, and strive every day to become better than yesterday, I have the strength to support my community in ways I didn’t even know were possible.

Irene Franco Rubio, born and raised in Phoenix, AZ, is a devoted social justice activist and catalyst for change. She has devoted her efforts to advocating for People of Color through digital community organizing, intersectional movement building, and uplifting diverse voices. You can find more of her work on her website.