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Lower suicide rates? Look at immigrants

First-generation immigrants from Latin America report some of the lowest levels of suicide in the nation, and this despite living with constant anxiety due to compromised legal statuses, workplace exploitation, high levels of poverty and overt discrimination.

The Other Side

How does one of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S. buck such a devastating trend?

“I think our culture and the emphasis we place on family plays an important role,” Olivia De Pablo told me one afternoon in Durango, where she advocates for the immigrant community. “It’s our support network.”

Olivia migrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was in her 20s. She’s witnessed, and personally experienced, the struggle that migrants go through. But she’s also seen the community’s resilience. “We turn to family for everything,” she explained. “That’s our secret.”

The secret De Pablo speaks of is rooted in the cultural tendency to maintain strong social networks, which increase happiness and satisfaction with life. When Latin Americans cross the border into the U.S., they bring this tendency with them. Surveys find that U.S. residents with Latin American heritage have broader social circles and are more team-oriented than the general population. This is true across the nation, but it’s also evident here in La Plata County.

The collective strength of our local Latinx community was on full display on a recent Saturday evening at Westside Mobile Home Park, where residents hosted a traditional posada. In Latin America, posadas are colorful reenactments of Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to rest their heads in Bethlehem. Westside’s celebration included piñatas, traditional songs from Colombia and Mexico, and plenty of spicy food. While adults reminisced about traditions, children ran in and out of the neighborhood’s small communal house, playing tag, and hide and seek.

As I sat back, enjoying a thick cup of champurrada, I reflected on how resilient the people around me were. Exactly one year ago, they’d faced eviction from their homes due to the threat of a corporate buyout. But they pushed back and eventually, alongside Elevation Community Land Trust, purchased the land beneath them. And now, here they were celebrating Christmas in the manager’s old home, which has since been repurposed as a communal house.

Cultural unity is good for the neighborhoods like Westside, but it’s also good for one’s health. A 2021 study at Fordham University in New York City found that despite having less access to health care and reporting lower socioeconomic status than the general public, first-generation immigrants are five times less likely to attempt suicide than native-born U.S. citizens. These findings mirror long-documented health trends, which demonstrate that Latinxs enjoy longer, healthier lives than their non-Hispanic White counterparts. Still, while Latinx health outcomes are dramatically better than the general population, within two generations of living in the U.S., they fall in line with everyone else. In other words, living north of the border may be good for the pocketbook, but it’s bad for one’s mental health. And it’s not hard to understand why.

The U.S. has long treated members of the Latinx community like social pariahs, deporting thousands of immigrants – including scores of U.S. citizens – each year. And generally speaking, Latinos have never been fully accepted as Americans within broader society.

“We’re like machines,” De Pablo explained. “Our role in the economy is recognized and we’re accepted as workers. But we’re not fully accepted as humans. We’re second-class citizens. But it doesn’t have to be this way. What if our culture were embraced? What if our commitment to family and community were held up as an example?”

Indeed, what if?

Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.