By Amanda Cruz
There’s a saying in Spanish that goes “ponte las pilas,” literally meaning “put the batteries in. I heard this phrase from my dad all the time growing up and even now as an adult. If you heard someone say “put the batteries in” in English, you’d probably think about getting a remote control or a toy car, but dad was actually telling us to “put the batteries in” to ourselves.
As kids, he would say “ponte las pilas,” to me and my siblings on the weekends when we tried sleeping in or if we were struggling to keep up in school. It’s an uncommon phrase in English, but it carries a lot of meaning in Spanish. It means to put more effort into something or to work harder. It’s the message I grew up hearing during any struggle I faced, especially when it came to my mental health.
Mental illness isn’t something my family ever talked about. Growing up, I didn’t know what depression, substance abuse, or anxiety were, even though they affected many of my loved ones and myself. I remember times when I became so depressed that I would spend my days escaping reality under the bed on my phone watching music videos. I wasn’t aware that there was an underlying health issue that needed to be addressed, and neither was my family.
My father is an immigrant from El Salvador, and my mother is native Hawaiian. Despite growing up in very different conditions, their shared work ethic was imparted on us. My dad was constantly working in order to send money home to my grandparents and aunts. My mom had moved far away from her family to become more independent. This, coupled with their belief that we as individuals could overcome any struggles on our own, influenced us to deal with our struggles alone. Ultimately that meant we bottled everything up so much that eventually, we lost all ability to communicate and understand each other. My family began falling apart.
I was falling apart too. I would have uncontrollable breakdowns and my mom would have no idea what to do. When I was done releasing all these emotions I would get a stern lecture about how I just needed to “ponerme las pilas”. My parents thought I was just being an “introverted kid”. This cycle of breakdown and lectures lasted all throughout our childhood and even into adulthood.
My family was so disconnected from the concept of mental health, that it took multiple threats of suicide from a family member for us to finally have a conversation about it.
And even now, not everyone has come around to the idea of openly discussing mental health or mental illness. My father does not believe there is such a thing as “mental illness.” He still adheres to the “ponte las pilas” philosophy. According to dad, when our family member was having suicidal thoughts, they were overcome them by just“putting the batteries in.” Fortunately, my mom now understands that mental illness is real and something that she should take seriously when we bring it up. She now listens to us instead of brushing our concerns off. Most of my family has made efforts to work on our individual mental health and create more effective communication in our family, but my dad still has hesitations.
My family’s struggle to understand and get support for mental health is not unique. Many Hispanic families still follow the “ponte las pilas,” philosophy. This needs to change. The importance of mental health shouldn’t be learned only when someone is on the brink of taking their own life.
More people like me from multi-ethnic and immigrant families should learn about mental health early on so that kids grow up knowing how to navigate their mental health and seek help before reaching a crisis point. There will always be some who stick to their way of thinking, like my dad, but if we can educate just a couple of members of each family, there is so much more opportunity for healing.
I hope one day when I can tell my dad about my mental struggles, and instead of responding with “ponte las pilas” he’ll say instead, “esta bien, mija”. It’s okay, daughter.