For Mexican Immigrants, Alcoholism is Yet Another Hazard

Hispanic youths participating in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in East Harlem. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

(…) Jail time, a feeling of defeat, empty pockets, an emaciated body and a liver on strike after thousands of beer and tequila bottles consumed for more than 12 years of non-stop drinking were what Ángel’s life amounted to. He was lonely and feeling he had lost everything… even the dreams with which he crossed the border days after graduating from high school at a Mexican town when he was 16. At only 28, everything had gone up in smoke.

“That was what my life had become. It wasn’t pretty after I started drinking for the first time, when a work friend told me: ‘Come with us, it’ll be cool,’ and from that day on I never stopped drinking and destroyed my life,” remembers Ángel, adding that he was born again when in 2016 he met the group “Jóvenes Manhattan,” an East Harlem-based organization that helps immigrants fight alcoholism.

“They saved my life here. I had lost everything and was close to losing my life. Here, they greeted me with a hug, and, with look of confidence, they told me: ‘If you have the will, sit down and listen.’ And so I did two years ago, and I have stayed sober since,” said the “Jóvenes Manhattan” member, adding that for many immigrant youths seeking the “American dream,” the experience is so brutal that alcohol can easily appear as a concealed trap.

“Once you slide into a feeling of sorrow, that you don’t belong, that they don’t understand you… you hold on to the bottle. You start drinking one day, then two in a row; then three, and then the whole week and you can’t stop (…),” he said. “I even drank cough syrup to try to get high, to get a relief from stress… I mixed Xanax with alcohol. I would wake up and go to the fridge to get another beer to cure a hangover. I fought a lot. I let my family down. I stopped going to church. I would spend a whole week’s paycheck at once. But I got here and I was saved.” (…)

Ángel explained that the support group is like a family in which everyone works for the common good. (…) There are no doctors, psychologists or therapists. It’s the members themselves who, under the Alcoholics Anonymous principles, share their problems and help each other.

(…) According to the New York City Health Department, while on average the rates of alcohol abuse among Latinos are quite similar to those of other communities, in the case of Mexicans the numbers are much higher.

Mexicans in New York “have a higher prevalence of binge drinking (36 percent) than non-Latinos (17 percent) [and Latino New Yorkers (18 percent)],” said an agency report on alcoholism.

(…) Claudia Martínez, a psychologist specialized in youths and teenagers, said that, compared to other addictions, alcohol’s relative social acceptance levels makes it easier to fall for it, and failure to address the subject directly at an early age has devastating effects.

“We Latinos grow up seeing alcohol as part of the party, and it’s an issue that is taken with such lack of responsibility that there are even families in which the kids are offered drinks as if it was a game, and this brings consequences,” said the expert. (…) In the case of many immigrants, she added, alcohol becomes almost the sole enjoyment they can resort to to combat solitude and stress.

“We constantly see those young people working hard every day, far away from their families in a foreign country, and they see in alcohol an outlet to feel good, and even to forget the tension generated by the Trump threats and the fear of being deported,” said Martínez. “It is a really harsh reality in our community to see youths lost to drinking, and that’s why we need more programs so they can enjoy themselves in a healthy way and develop their talents. We are not just working machines.”

(…)

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