Sharing Stories in Spanish

In testimonios participants discuss their experiences and learn stress-reduction strategies.

Published in Dome - May 2015

The knocks are loud, the voice angry. It’s the downstairs neighbor, complaining about noise, threatening to call the police. The adults abruptly stop chatting, and the children halt their play. Fear of deportation, always in the background, becomes palpable.  

When a woman recounts this story at a recent gathering of Testimonios, a support group for Spanish-speaking immigrants, Flor Giusti leads participants through a discussion of options. “We talked about how we sometimes need to make a fast assessment of the situation,” says Giusti, a social worker for the Children’s Medical Practice at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. 

Fortunately, the woman’s husband was able to reason with the neighbor and calm him down, says Giusti, a volunteer facilitator for Testimonios, who describes the meeting.

Testimonios (“testimonies”) groups meet four Tuesday evenings a month, alternating between all-male and all-female gatherings, in a second-floor room of a Patterson Park church. The 90-minute sessions begin with a dinner provided by a local Latin restaurant, says Donna Batkis, senior psychotherapist for the Hispanic Clinic at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. Then, group members share stories, connect and discuss coping strategies.

Since Testimonios began in May 2014, about 80 participants have listened and talked in that church, says Monica Guerrero Vazquez, program coordinator for Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s Centro SOL, which provides clinical, research, educational and advocacy support to the Latino community. Some participants come for one or two sessions, while others forge more permanent bonds, she says. 

Undocumented immigrants live in the shadows, far from loved ones and often in deep poverty. Many are supporting families back home with physically demanding jobs that pay less than minimum wage. They may have escaped gang and cartel violence in their home country, only to become victims of crime in Baltimore.

Testimonios facilitators are bilingual faculty and staff members with backgrounds in social work, psychology and psychiatry. Discussion topics include reasons participants moved to the United States, what they left behind, and how to manage stress using tools like meditation and breathing exercises.

Barbara Cook, who provides child care at the meetings, is medical director for The Access Partnership (TAP), a Johns Hopkins Medicine program that delivers health care to uninsured and underinsured people living near Johns Hopkins campuses in Baltimore. She helped start Testimonios because otherwise-healthy Hispanic patients were seeing their Johns Hopkins primary care physicians with headaches, stomach pain and other complaints requiring expensive evaluations that often yielded negative results.  

“Since anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder can cause the same symptoms, the TAP program sought to refer appropriate patients to a mental health provider,” says Cook. “But mental health resources are scarce, particularly for the uninsured. We decided it might help people just to gather with other folks who had been through similar stress.” 

Members learn about the group by word of mouth, from posters in the community or through TAP. Cook notes the sessions are not therapy, but rather “a conversation with a group to handle these stressful or traumatic experiences.”

Participants come from many countries but share a perspective that helps them work through the frustrations of navigating a new culture. At one recent meeting, a father complained to sympathetic listeners that being in America means his son can avoid a beating by threatening to call the police. “The question for the group was how to discipline your child without using corporal punishment,” Cook says. “There was a long pause. Giving a timeout or taking away someone’s cellphone is not part of their culture.” 

“These are people who came from countries where they were undergoing extreme poverty and extreme challenges in daily life,” says Giusti. “They knew they could die in the process of coming here, and they came anyway. Even though they are in poverty and have multiple challenges, they are not doomed by those challenges. It’s very gratifying to work with a population that has that will and drive to move forward.”

For more information about Testimonios and Centro SOL, call 410-550-1129 or email [email protected]. Centro SOL will host a Latino Health Conference at the Bloomberg School of Public Health on May 12, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.