“En Serio”: Alexis Rivera discusses mental health and systemic challenges facing young men and women of color

Alexis Rivera has lived his whole life in Framingham serving his community, a trait that was planted in him through his family. 

His mother used to work for SMOC – the South Middlesex Opportunity Council – was a housing case manager and family partner, and now works for the Key Program in Framingham as an executive accountant. His father has “always been in the dry-cleaning business,” he explained, and also owns a food truck that sells pinchos – “best in the city! – right outside the hood.” 

Alexis Rivera is a therapist at Advocates, a non-profit that focuses on mental health, and is the director of the Intercultural Family Support Center. His center focuses on helping Portuguese- and Spanish-speaking communities throughout Framingham. 

The center also works to set up various events open to all ages of the community, including art classes, yoga and meditation classes, bodyweight strength classes, as well as “respite nights” for the caregivers of people with autism and mental disabilities, all of which are offered to the community for free. 

The center is also an overall resource center that provides food, toiletries, and clothing to those in need, as well as referrals to mental health counseling. 

The purpose of the panel was to discuss and raise awareness of mental health wellness in communities of color, and the cultural and systemic obstacles that hinder young men from fostering healthy emotional well-being. 

“Mental health is non-existent – it’s always swept under the rug – for Latino communities,” he said. 

Part of Rivera’s mission as a therapist is to tackle the idea of masculinity in young people of color. 

In college, ethnic and gender studies was where Rivera’s attention was the most. “I think I learned more about myself in that program than I learned about everything else in that class,” he said. 

“I learned more about what it means to be a Puerto Rican man,” he said. 

It was his capstone course, “Latino (Mis)Understood,” where Rivera was first challenged on his views on masculinity. 

Rivera recalled the first time he met his professor, a gay Puerto Rican man, who he said “was the first man that looked at me and was like, ‘what makes you think that I want you?” to which Rivera responded by saying “the same thing all young men say: ‘I don’t have a problem with gay men, just don’t come on to me.” 

It was at that moment that Rivera was directly called out by his professor, and he began to understand more about himself and the culture of masculinity around him. 

Rivera remembers how his seminar would last long into the night “just having these deep conversations on masculinity. How is it that Puerto Rican men came to be Puerto Rican men? How is it that ‘machismo’ is something that is so influenced in our society?” 

“We do a lot of policing,” he explained. “We do a lot of putting people into boxes the second that there’s an emotion. 

“There’s not much being done to foster this emotional awareness,” he said. 

Rivera referenced the book “Man Enough” by actor Justin Boldoni, who equates “machismo” to a suit of armor. “That suit of armor is us policing ourselves back into this male box. 

“By becoming more emotionally aware, by having these conversations, we take them off,” he said. 

Speaking to the men in the room, Rivera said, “I’m sure that you hold on to a lot of things. I’m sure you hold on to your emotions, or shouldn’t question yourself or double guess whether or not you should say something to your significant other. 

“There needs to be a place for you to let it go,” he said. 

He then brought the discussion back to young men of color and their relationship to dealing with mental health. 

“When I hear somebody telling me that a young Black man or a young Latino man has anger issues, my initial instinct is depression,” he said. “I don’t see that person as having anger issues. It’s more so the fact that that child doesn’t have a safe outlet to let that go.” 

Rivera went further in depth into his method of therapy. 

“I’m very biased in the sense that I will work with kids more than I would work with adults,” he said. “Adults are very stuck and firm in their ways – kids I can still work with them and get into a place of understanding.” 

Rivera explained, “I don’t give them direct advice. It’s more of a conversation that I have with them because I feel that young men and women have enough people talking to them and at them that don’t take the time to understand what’s going on.” 

Part of Rivera’s approach to therapy is the “VCR” method, a model that was created by Dr. Kenneth Hardy, a couples therapist at Drexel University in Philadelphia. 

Rivera explained VCR stands for “validate, challenge, and request,” which he employs because “oftentimes when we get into conversations with people, you see that defensiveness that people may have, and that apprehension to talk a little bit more because that person doesn’t feel validated – that person doesn’t feel heard.” 

Rivera made a point to explain that “‘validation’ does not mean ‘agreement’.” 

He said VCR isn’t about changing someone’s mind “right then and there,” but “it’s to make that other person feel that they’re being heard, while also planting that seed.” 

Rivera was also highly critical of the US education system, and how it is an impediment to the well-being of young men and women of color. He particularly focused on the No Child Left Behind program enacted by the Bush administration in 2001. 

“The reality of that bill was it should have been called ‘Child Left Behind’,” he said, explaining that the intention behind the bill – taking resources from schools that underperformed on standardized testing and transferring those resources to better performing schools – was highly damaging to schools that were predominantly attended by Black and Latino children. 

Rivera referenced the book “Pedagogy of Freedom” by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, who wrote about “teaching with love,” as well as what he called the “banking method of education.” 

“Teachers deposit information into your head that you’re going to regurgitate onto a test,” Rivera explained. “The banking method of education is only teaching you to test – It’s not teaching you to love what you’re doing.” 

Rivera explained that, while this approach may work for some kids, it does not work for people like him. 

Part of the services Rivera provides is to make sure kids who are on IEPs – Individual Education Plans, a program developed for students with special needs – are having their basic needs met “to the fullest,” as well as to “make sure that whatever services they may need, are also added on to it, because these are the services they’re entitled to,” he said. 

Rivera also touched on the effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on the Latino communities he served. 

He said what he saw happening the most was serious job losses across the Latino community. “As Latinos, as people who are undocumented, they can work in the restaurant business or they can work in very minimal locations, and a lot of these locations were shutting down,” he said. 

It was at this time that Rivera’s focus had to shift away from mental health counseling to trying to make sure individuals’ and families’ basic needs were being met. 

Referring to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” Rivera explained, “If people come into my center, and they don’t have food, or water, or a place to live or clothing, they can’t think about school, they can’t think about their mental health, they can’t think about any of these things because their basic needs aren’t being met.” 

Rivera explained, “How can I expect this father to think about his mental health when he’s like ‘I can’t put food onto the table’.” 

Rivera added, “Then what I saw was a shift in education. There was a shift in the way teachers see education and the way that the school districts would see what they think is equality.” 

Rivera explained the crucial difference between “equality” and “equity.” 

“Equality is ‘I’m going to give everyone a pair of shoes,’ – equity is when I give everyone a pair of shoes in their size,” he said. “Equity is what matters.” 

Because of the massive shifts that COVID-19 brought to the state and to his community, many services were gutted, and the in-person services that were available shifted to Zoom. 

Rivera said, “In Massachusetts, at least for staffing purposes, you need three to one – for every three individuals you need one staff. But now everything is on Zoom, you don’t need that person, just the screen.” 

Because of layoffs and federal money that was distributed during the pandemic, there was an increase in funding, however, Rivera noted, “Not much access was given to communities of color.” 

On top of funding issues, Rivera said he also had to take on the task of educating the communities he serves on the COVID-19 vaccines due to massive distrust of the government. 

“A lot of Latinos don’t trust the systems that are in place,” he said. “How many times do we go into a house, and when we say we work with Advocates they think we’re DCF [Department of Children and Families]?” 

Rivera referred to what is known as “la operacion,” which took place throughout the mid-20th century. “When the United States first colonized Puerto Rico, they were sterilizing Puerto Rican women. 

“How do you expect someone who lived through that, to trust the US government?” he asked. 

“As a clinician, I had to go into the community and provide more of an education around this,” he said. 

Though he has a master’s degree, saying he “supposedly ‘mastered’ the art of counseling and psychology,” he admits “There’s years of things I still need to learn.” 

He admitted that he can only do so much, saying, “I remember when I first started off in this field, I wanted to impact everybody. And then I quickly realized that, ‘dude, you’re only one person.’” 

He said, “You can affect the ones that you can affect – you can work with the ones that you work with,” and he admitted, “There are going to be a lot of them that, unfortunately, we can’t do much for.” 

He said, “I have a placard that I need to bring into my office which says ‘Never stop learning, because life never stops teaching’.

“There’s not going to be a day in your life where you will not learn something new about yourself, or someone else.”