While scrolling through Instagram, I came across “Some Girls” documentary. I was excited to finally find a film that focused on depression in teen Latina-Americans, something I wished existed when I was in high school with depression. That day I texted Kelly Duarte, The Strange is Beautiful’s media and pop culture contributor, and we met up to watch it together for free on Kanopy, a video streaming service for public libraries. Though the documentary has a lot of great things about it, such as bringing awareness to this under represented and under researched issue, we were disappointed because it ignored many root reasons of why Latina-American teens are more likely to get depression, and disagreed with the creator’s choice to use DNA testing as a means of healing – especially because they claim it helped them, yet they never had depression.
Preached What Didn’t Work
“Some Girls” documentary, taking place in 2012 and 2013 but released in 2017, was directed, produced, and narrated by New York based, Dominican-American journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker, Raquel Cepeda. The documentary features Cepeda following the lives of a varying number of teenage girls at Comunilife’s Life is Precious, a community-based suicide prevention program for Latinas ages 12 to 17 in the Bronx, and creator of the campaign “Ni Una Mas.” Cepeda gets the teens DNA testing, teaches them the real American history, and flies them to the Dominican Republic to connect with their roots. Rewind time, before working on this documentary, Cepeda did DNA testing on herself and wrote a book called “Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina” released in March 2013 about how it helped her – though we confirmed with Cepeda via email that she never had depression. Why would Cepeda think that getting DNA testing done, visiting the Dominican Republic, and learning history would help Latina-American teens’ depression if it hadn’t worked for her own because she never had depression? Why would we have someone who has never had depression tell us how to feel better?
According to a Remezcla article, Cepeda got the idea after visiting Life is Precious for a career day. When talking to the girls, she realized how similar their struggles of disconnect between their American and Latinx cultural identity are to hers. Their program director, Beatriz Coronel, listed that, plus what they learn in school and the media they see as huge risk factors for suicidal Latinx teens. But why would DNA testing help versus connecting more with their culture?
Cultural Connection Heals, Not DNA Testing
“I personally don’t like the idea of using DNA testing to find out who you are since it is the culture you grew up with that is so much more important. I’ve seen people use their ancestral DNA to excuse many toxic behaviors (i.e racism) so I don’t like the idea of using DNA to fully form a basis of what is a spiritual journey to rediscover a culture that they don’t fully belong to,” said Kelly Duarte, The Strange is Beautiful’s media and pop culture contributor.
Agreeably, for me, I grew up with family of Peruvian culture from my mom’s side. If I did a DNA test, I’d probably find that I’m half European from my dad’s side, and part Spanish and Portuguese. None of that would change my depression because since I was a child, having pride in my Peruvian culture gave me confidence. I felt special because of the traditions my family had, the food I could teach my friends about, and our oral stories.
In our opinion, it would have been more beneficial for the Latina-American teens to have learned more about the specific culture they identify with, and to travel to that country to see their culture’s history, food, and energy.
Historical Connection Hypothesis Insufficient
In the documentary, the teens traveled to the Dominican Republic for the purpose of learning the history of Latinx migration to the states to help heal them. Cepeda’s implied hypothesis was, because they don’t know their history, they are more depressed than other groups of people. But what about African Americans who don’t know their history? If this was true, why are Latina-teens the highest group at-risk of suicide and not African American teen girls? Lack of historical representation and connection can be a correlation between Latina-American teen’s depression, but it doesn’t explain why they are most at-risk.
Missed Opportunity to Discuss Anti-Blackness
The trip also taught the girls about the bond between Latinx and black people, but it did not expand enough on anti-blackness and how it relates to mental health. For viewers, the history lesson during their trip may help in ridding of anti-black feelings afro-Latinx teens might have toward themselves, but it didn’t seem to impact one of the girls in the film named Maria Celeste. Before the trip to the Dominican Republic, Maria Celeste received her DNA results that she is from Southwest Africa and expressed much disappointment because she thought being African sounded “boring.” At the end of the documentary, we find that Maria Celeste still feels the same. When she had first said that being African sounded “boring,” the documentary could have discussed anti-blackness in the Latinx community and how it relates to her depression, but they didn’t and many other aspects of Latinx culture relating to mental health were sorely left out.
“I wish they had touched more on the ideas of mental health and how it relates to Latinidad. Many Latinx kids grow up in toxic households because of traditional expectations. There’s anti-blackness in the community that causes many of the girls in the documentary to hate themselves. There’s strict gender roles that one is expected to conform to. These are all topics that could’ve been talked about that the documentary only mentions or straight up ignores,” said Duarte.
Left Out Many Aspects of Latinidad Mental Health
Instead of pushing Cepeda’s 3-step module to overcoming depression – DNA testing, learning your history, and taking a trip to the Dominican Republic, the first and last of which are inaccessible to do for most people – we wished she had gotten to the root reasons of why Latina-American teens are more likely to get depression. Things we wished were covered are the European beauty ideal, the expectation of women in the household to be subservient to men, the stereotype of Latinas to be more sexual, the expectation that Latinas always have to take care of their family, and religion or “Catholic guilt.” A few of these topics were shown in the documentary to have directly affected the Latina-American teens, such as the European beauty ideal in the beginning group discussion with all the teens, and the stereotype of Latinas being more sexual brought up by one teen named Ashley, but they were not discussed further than displaying how these issues occur in their lives. Everyone heals differently, and there are so many aspects that affect a person’s mental health, so addressing just historical and DNA connection in their lives is not enough.
Tried Too Hard
Other critiques we had were our dislike of Cepeda’s pushy and leading questions, and a few of the production choices in the documentary. Her personal journey published in her book was a motivator to bring this knowledge to other Latina-Americans struggling, however, because of this, throughout the documentary it was clear that she had her own agenda. She wanted so badly for the girls to feel better about themselves by doing the same thing she did…though again, she never had depression. Throughout the documentary, Cepeda questions the teens to get the answer she wanted. As a teacher to middle schoolers and high schoolers, I know it can be hard to get teenagers to speak and talk about their feelings, but I also know that when they feel comfortable with someone, they speak. Many teens that I’ve taught have revealed to me their mental health struggles or other personal aspects of their lives without me prodding. I felt uncomfortable each time this happened in the film.
While Cepeda pressed her desired answers and results from the teens, the audience was manipulated by the sad-sounding classical music at 17 minutes when Maria Celeste was telling her story. The audience could decide for themselves how Maria Celeste’s life realities made them feel without cheesy music trying to force an emotion in them.
Another production critique we had was the animations took a lot of time away, time they could have spent telling more of the girls’ stories. Only two of the girls’ stories were told in entirety. In the beginning, they showed seven girls at Life is Precious, but only six received DNA testing, four went to the Dominican Republic, and only two had “before” and “after” full anecdotes of their lives shown.
Positive Visibility and Awareness
Beyond our critiques, it is not to be overlooked that Cepeda’s chosen topic itself is monumentally important to address, and gives a voice and face to Latina-Americans with depression – the most at-risk for suicide group of people.
“I was shocked when I saw that the rates of depression and suicide are higher for Latinas but it makes sense. Latinas have so many expectations and have such a strict mold to fit into. And if they don’t fit into that mold by being gay, black, atheist, promiscuous, anything that is out of the ‘norm’– they are shunned or punished for the most part,” said Duarte.
We were also grateful that it shows Latina-Americans correctly in history and gives us visibility. On top of this, it brings awareness to a mental health option – Life is Precious – in a lower income and people of color neighborhood in the Bronx. Lastly, the anecdotes and profiles of each girl were powerful, especially Ashley’s story that showed four different perspectives of her depression: Ashley’s, her mom’s, the counselor’s, and the school’s.
No Proof of Healing…Yet
The six months later anecdotes of Ashley and Maria Celeste implied that there was a correlation between Cepeda’s healing plan and their recovery. If you take a closer look at the timeline, Ashley explained that she was feeling better one year before she went to the Dominican Republic in 2013 with Cepeda. Maria Celeste claimed she felt no different after it all, yet Cepeda kept trying to get her to say otherwise. Their stories were not strong enough to show correlation between Cepeda’s 3-step module and their increased wellness.
I could not find existing research studies of how receiving DNA testing helps Latinx or other people of color struggling with depression. Actually, with most of my searches, it was studies that showed negative correlations between mental health and Latinx culture in terms of acculturation, or the process of learning and blending in with the white culture of the United States. Acculturation shouldn’t be something that we should be researching. We should be researching the effects of Latinx kids taking pride in their Latinx culture and knowing where they come from, and how that combats the Eurocentric and racist values that are thrown at them each and every day. This is why Cepeda’s general focus of Latina-American teen depression in correlation with their roots and identity is important. Instead of DNA testing, we feel the teens would have benefited more from learning about their specific culture. Since not all Latinx-American people came from the Dominican Republic, we feel it would have been better if they heard how their family or people from their culture came to America. Even if DNA testing and visiting the Dominican Republic did help teenage Latina-Americans heal their depression, it is not realistically accessible for others to do this. The documentary and current available research does not show correlation between DNA testing and healing for Latina-American teens, but we believe using cultural connection and identity as a means of healing could be medicinal.
Cultural Connection as Self-Care
For those looking to use cultural connection as a means of self-care, we suggest researching your culture online, and asking your family – if you’re able to speak with them – questions about their lives before coming to the United States. Consider contacting professors of Chicano studies and other culturally specific classes about where to find more about tu gente. We hope to see further documentaries, media, and research studies created on the positive effects of connecting with one’s culture for Latinx-American teens’ mental health.
You can watch the documentary below.
Written and edited by Shannen Roberts.
Discussions and quotes of Kelly Duarte.
Shannen Roberts (she/her) is the Peruvian-American, founding editor-in-chief of The Strange is Beautiful, musician and yogi.
See her posts here.