Tina Reyero is a licensed professional counselor at Colorado Springs Thriveworks, a counseling organization that does dedicated outreach to people of color. She also volunteers with the Military Artistic Healing program at the Bemis School of Art (which serves as the home base for NAMI Colorado Springs’ Array Parity project).
As part of our blog series on racism and mental health, we recently talked with Tina about the issues of diversity and inclusion, in both her professional and personal lives.
Can you describe your background a little bit?
I consider myself mixed ethnicity and mixed race, to a degree. I am half Puerto Rican, and my mom has Anglo Puritan heritage. As all of this has become more mainstream conversation, I've reflected quite a bit about the challenges of being mixed race, mixed ethnicity, mixed heritage. I've always leaned more toward being really proud of my Latino and Hispanic heritage. ... And I've really dived deeper, to not deny the roots of my mom's side, and the Anglo Puritan heritage and where I grew up.
I’ve written a little bit recently about my early years of childhood in upstate New York and being immersed in my neighborhood with various backgrounds, heritage and cultures and races. It shaped my understanding, my mindset, my heart, my compassion and my openness more than anything about connecting with others that I might not look like or speak the same language as.
Where in upstate New York were you?
In the Hudson Valley — the Poughkeepsie/Hyde Park area, about 90 miles north of the city. But I grew up going to the city quite a bit, because my father grew up in the Bronx. He was part of that Puerto Rican diaspora in the late '40s, early '50s from the island to New York. We were raised to become familiar and to be comfortable with going down to the city in the 1980s, '90s, early 2000s. So even though I grew up in suburbia, I was familiar with the city … and my [upstate] neighbors were of varied backgrounds.
In your neighborhood then, or in your family, was there talk about mental health when you were growing up?
A little bit, yeah. I think both my parents struggled with depression, and that was brought into discussions about their culture, race, ethnicity and understanding themselves. Especially I think of my dad, who I know felt torn between both worlds — living in suburbia of the mainland United States, but also [knowing] about the history of poor treatment of Puerto Ricans by the U.S.
When you went to New York City, was that kind of a way to stay connected to Puerto Rican culture?
Yeah, that was one way, and of course also going down to the island pretty frequently for holidays. I spent a summer there when I was 13, and I went back for a college exchange semester. It was really important for myself and my siblings to understand that heritage and that culture.
From my understanding of history — and this is where I'm somewhat torn — my father was very, very proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, but also wanted us to really immerse and assimilate into what it was like to be an American in the late 20th century. I think it was always a tug of war and a dichotomy that I struggled with, and I sense my siblings and my dad did as well.
Do you see any of that now in your clients of color? It's a slightly different time now, but I would guess there are similarities.
Yeah, I think I do, especially within Black and Latino cultures that live in this area, versus maybe other parts of the country. I think there's more of a struggle with having their voices heard and being seen and also assimilating and adjusting to their immediate environment.
I talk to Black clients about this, especially in initial sessions: What was your upbringing like? And how has [your world] changed? Just so I can understand their worldview and not just assume that I understand because I consider myself anti-racist along with really embracing cultures, people, languages and the arts. I think it's up to me to be curious about where their struggles are. And I think especially when we talk about the subject — about race and racism, and blending or assimilating into the community — I do sense a struggle to strike that balance between honoring their own culture and heritage, but also fitting in with or challenging the white-privilege norms.
You said you feel the struggle may be more pronounced or slightly different in Colorado or Colorado Springs, versus other parts of the country?
I'm thinking of Colorado Springs even in comparison to perhaps Denver, but especially other parts of the country, considering my framework. My first 25 years of living was on the East Coast, and now I've been out here for almost 20 years, and I'm still struck by the things that aren't "named." It's almost like there are persistent race-related elephants in the room.
"I've been out here for almost 20 years,
and I'm still struck by the things that aren't 'named.'"
How can we really address the issues of race in a more conservative town or city, as Colorado Springs is, versus other parts of the country, where I think it's more open? And I not only say that as someone from the East Coast. Prior to my counseling career, I was a flight attendant for 14 years, so that helped to shape my understanding of people's mindsets and how they functioned in different parts of the country.
Looking at George Floyd’s killing and everything that's followed: Have you seen it affect some your clients, and if so, can you talk a little about what that effect has been?
Yeah, a few clients come who are Black to mind— especially a few who are younger — who I sense feel empowered to speak more freely, and to get involved in protests and movements. I sense that they're still [skeptical] … but I think there's some more understanding and hope, especially from their immediate family.
I think of one particular client who perhaps was not comfortable in his school setting, who has asked to go to a different one. That has been acknowledged as an important part of his grounding and of his desire to be true to himself.
I sense and I hear from them that they have been exposed to various racial instances at school or work or within systems, and I think they're starting to really advocate that equal treatment is equal treatment.
What do you feel that many white therapists get wrong, or don’t understand, about working well with clients of color?
I sense that many struggle ... in regard to their mindset, and think that can be exhibited by microaggressions. I just saw that movie again, Crash, that came out in 2004, and I don't feel like much has changed with regard to some white middle-aged understandings of how people of color have been oppressed. They simply struggle to put themselves in the oppressed people’s shoes. They struggle with being vulnerable and open to having a conversation.
I think there are so many blocks and defenses to having a nonconfrontational, nonaggressive conversation because it doesn't feel safe, and/or they feel they'll perhaps lose some of their power — their control, which they believe they deserve. So I think the mindset and the language that is used is a struggle to be explored, because they go into defensive mode. And I think being defensive is sort of like a microaggression ... that puts up that block and that barrier.
"Being defensive is sort of like a microaggression."
You know, even as I was sharing this … I’ve noticed myself with you, that I feel more comfortable naming this; earlier on I felt a little uncomfortable as I was talking about my heritage. So I'm sure there's more for me to uncover, in feeling judgmental toward myself or my upbringing or my privilege. The more I name that or talk about that, the more comfortable I am.
Well, thank you for talking about it, despite those feelings. It leads into one more question I wanted to ask: That defensiveness you talk about, the feeling of not wanting to feel threatened or exposed ... if there was something that you would recommend people do to help break down that defensiveness, what would it be? Is there, say, a book you've read or an exercise you've found to help people work through it?
I think of two things. I think of micro-communication skills. For instance, of being aware of "I" language versus "you." Saying, "I feel ..." "I think ..." instead of saying, "You are making me feel uncomfortable," or "You are doing this." I think basic communication skills like that, on top of active listening and reflecting, are vitally important to maintain that safety, so we don't go into defensiveness.
That kind of bridges into Brené Brown's The Power of Vulnerability, which speaks to: How can we feel safe in order to be vulnerable? That is, by practicing the skill of active listening and reflecting in order to trust, in order to come back to the healthy cycle of being vulnerable, with safety. … I think that's a skill that we all need to practice, and we can give ourselves some compassion and nonjudgment and understanding that it is a practice. All of this is a practice, and nobody's perfect at it.
Is there anything that I haven't asked you about, or that you haven't gotten to say, that you'd like to add?
I would just say educate, educate, educate. And of course don't take resources at face value — be willing to dive a little bit deeper. You know, just a little bit. Look at it as like, dipping your toe in, dipping the baby toe, then the middle toes, then the big toe. And just coming back to knowing that the more we openly discuss without judgment, the more effective and healthy our minds, our behaviors, and our love toward one another can be.