PICTURED: Arcelia Martinez (third from left) with key grip Arturo Reyes, director of photography George Ortega and boom operator Johnathan Portillo during the filming of Isabel mi historia (2018). Photo courtesy of Arcelia Martinez

by Alex Wilson

An Oxnard filmmaker hopes to raise awareness about mental health issues facing teenage Latinas, which she believes are swept under the carpet all too often.

Arcelia Martinez was recently named “Artist in Residence” with the Oxnard Performing Arts Center to launch the effort called “The Esperanza Project.” It will culminate in the creation of a documentary film next spring, telling stories of young Latinas overcoming mental health challenges.

Monthly meetings called “Sin Verguenza,” or “Without Shame,” will also allow young Latinas to share their struggles via Zoom, and inspire each other through art workshops.

Community members are also invited to quarterly forums, staged remotely, featuring experts. The first one took place Oct. 17.

Martinez has a personal connection to the issue. She coped with her own mental health challenges before going on to earn a cinema degree from California State University, Northridge. She was prescribed antidepressants while a teenager, but now believes different treatment methods may have been more effective for her.

“Had the medical practitioner asked a couple more questions, he would have understood I didn’t need medication, and all I needed was therapy or support groups,” said Martinez. “A lot of the time, mental health becomes an issue because of unresolved emotions, of things that happen. It’s life. Ups and downs. It doesn’t always need to be dealt with by medication.”

Martinez says there are a variety of reasons such issues fail to be properly addressed in the Latino community.

“A lot of the time in our culture there are so many taboos that prevent us from even having a basic discussion of ‘How are you feeling.’ We don’t recognize emotions. They’re not important. Many Latinos come from immigrant families . . . and their goal is to survive, to work, that’s it,” said Martinez. “Things such as emotions and feelings are second to what is indispensable in life. And in order to move on, and help these teenagers, we need to talk about it.”

The first group meeting and art project on Oct. 21 focused on creating “zines” or small, personalized magazines focused on working through life’s challenges. Future meetings will involve other types of artistic expression such as jewelry making and songwriting.

Martinez says that while talking about mental health issues with people who care is critical to recovery, using art as a type of therapy can also prove effective. “Art is one of the many things that help mental health, and keep you in balance. If you are participating in that kind of activity you are keeping your mind active. And so these spaces will provide art-based activities for the young Latinas to come and address what our own culture’s taboos are through art,” said Martinez.

She’s glad to have the opportunity to share her art in a way that benefits individuals and the community. “It feels rewarding. It feels humbling. I’m definitely grateful to have an opportunity like this,” said Martinez. “It’s cathartic at the same time, seeing as I’m providing something to the community that I wish I would have had when I was a teenager.”

The Esperanza Projects is partly funded by an $18,000 grant from the California Arts Council. Organizers are still looking for matching grants as well as people willing to share their own experiences.

For more information about the Esperanza Project and ways to get involved, visit www.oxnardperformingarts.com/the-esperanza-project.html.