COMMENTARY: RGV Intergenerational Trauma: More Love, Less Fear

Words by Clarissa Garza, (LPC-A) Licensed Professional Counselor Associate

Edited by Abigail Vela

Accounting for previous clinical observations, the borderlands of South Texas appears to be a breeding site for intergenerational trauma due to the deep cultural embeddedness of silence, disharmony, and the lack of relational attunement. Conversations about mental health are silenced, yet individuals are expected to flourish in the areas of personal development, career, and family systems. 

Zooming into trauma-related stressor disorders, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), physician Gabor Mate presented a lecture stating, “Trauma is not what happens to you. It’s what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you.” Once referred to as “shell shock” during the Vietnam War, PTSD was officially recognized as a mental health condition five years later in 1980. Public controversy followed its first appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). In The Things They Carried, O’Brien writes about the experiences of Vietnam War veterans and their psychological stressors upon returning home, carrying traumatic memories of war decades after leaving the battlegrounds. For this reason, PTSD is a complex phenomenon that integrates personal, familial, historical, societal, and cultural elements.  

The effects of trauma include dissociation, suppression, maladaptive behaviors, and disconnection of one’s internal psyche and body. After a traumatic experience, the difficulty of readjusting to everyday life due to recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive distressing memories of the traumatic event leads to maladaptive behaviors like substance abuse, overworking, avoidance coping, and technology binging. Unlike most psychological disorders, PTSD requires the occurrence of a specific type of event from which the person affected struggles to recover. The person with PTSD fights to reintegrate themselves into their home and community, feeling alienated from others.

In Healing Collective Trauma, Thomas Hubl emphasized a collective term: intergenerational trauma as “transgenerational, multigenerational, or cross-generational effects of serious, untreated trauma experienced by one or more members of a family, group, or community with similar affiliations and circumstances, and is passed down from one generation to the next through epigenetic factors.” He warned readers about the increased vulnerability for further transmission in a family and cultural system. Mental health interventions from a trauma-informed lens are necessary to reduce potential transmission to younger generations.

Four women of color from different generations embracing each other, the youngest, a daughter with a third eye and her heart glowing. There’s a colorful rainbow background with the words “open your eyes… you will open your eyes” written.
Illustration by Sara Barriera

How can we prevent intergenerational trauma transmission as a collective society in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV)? Shared responsibility across all generations is essential to enhance our relational attunement and presence with each other. In Borderlands, RGV Native and scholar Gloria Anzaldua wrote, “The U.S. Mexican border es una herida abierta (an open wound)— a border culture. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by an emotional residue of an unnatural boundary.” The emotional residue relates to traumatic experiences that further perpetuate outcomes of poor health, economic instability, and low access to higher education. 

 

Relational attunement means being aware of a person’s emotional state while offering your full presence, attention, and listening capabilities. It is like changing the radio station to listen to the same song while being present with the other’s experiences, perspectives, and feelings. However, relational attunement of each other’s narratives and experiences requires self-attunement, the ability to attune and listen to ourselves. Sharing our authentic emotions becomes easier if we listen to others do the same, yielding more presence, compassion, and safe communication between generations. Only then will reaching out and asking for help be normalized and explored. 

 

Furthermore, Anzaldua emphasized that the borderlands of South Texas have undergone years of colonial oppression, immigration issues, poverty, racism, gender discrimination, and collective intergenerational trauma. Awareness of these deeply rooted cultural and social justice issues requires relational attunement from all generations, regardless of education levels and language barriers. Grandparents from Generation X who speak their native Spanish find it difficult to attune to and communicate with Millennials and Generation Zs who speak English. For instance, an English-speaking child or teenager living with their Spanish-speaking grandparents might struggle to communicate, let alone share their personal experiences and emotions. Eventually, the opinion that some individuals “lack the proper education” meets a dead end, and all generations are left accountable for creating a safe space to heal our collective wounds. 

 

Hence, the generational age gap difference, poor communication patterns, and language barriers between the younger and older generations are risk factors for serious events like death by suicide. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34. More awareness and discussions must be present at family and friends’ dinner tables to increase knowledge of real-life events.

A young woman embraced by the arms of an older woman. The young woman has a closed third eye, an a heart glowing in a deep blue. There’s a rainbow background and nopales that surround them.
Illustration by Sara Barriera

Our bodies become so used to the rush of cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress chemicals that they become addicted. Nos encanta la mala vida! Unconsciously, we trip over our feet, not knowing what to do or who to get help from during a traumatic event or crisis. Creating a healing space and having healing allies are essential to the trauma recovery process. In her writings, Spiritual Identity Crisis, found at the Benson Latin American Library in Austin, Texas, Anzaldua recounts, “The footprints of symptoms that require you to disconnect with clenched hands, to allow that energy to awaken and move within you. You disconnect, trip the circuit breaker, from experiences of terror and pain, the immobility allows the energy to bubble up- energy is deep, deep below the surface waves. Focus attention inside your body, stabbing pain in the right leg, weakness in the lower back… all resources are inside the body.”  

 

So, how does one pay attention to the body and heal oneself via the body? Eating colorful, nutritious meals, being hydrated, and achieving quality sleep cycles is a good start. Then, creating more space for healing extends to quieting the mind, breathing consciously, and moving and listening to the body. Through mindfulness and body awareness, alleviating our past wounds, las espinas, lodged deep into our skin will be possible. If our healing spaces are unavailable, we should ask for assistance from our healing allies in our social circles, workplaces, and family systems.

 

So, where do we pivot from here? 

 

All in all, everyone in the RGV shares a civic and social duty of being trauma and social justice-informed to move into a more profound process of relational attunement, healing, and conocimiento. In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Gabor Mate reveals, “No society can understand itself without looking at its shadow side.” Our task is not merely to intellectualize and understand what trauma is but to make sense of the painful effects and uncomfortable experiences that come along with it to break the cycle of further transmission. Slowing down to talk to our neighbors, checking in on our friends and family members, smiling at strangers, and being present with ourselves and others in a fast-paced environment are simple yet effective ways of practicing attunement. 

 

Instead of blaming a specific generation for the intergenerational trauma residue in the RGV borderlands, we must collectively focus on sharing accountability and responsibility. Promoting community-based resources, destigmatizing therapy, and continuing the discussions of mental health across all generations will create a strong foundation of resilience, trust, and self-efficacy. This way, the past can be shifted into the here and now, allowing for a safe, loving, and healthy ecosystem of authentic being, becoming, and belonging. It only takes one conversation, one shift in perspective, to save a life. 



RGV Mental Health/ Suicide Prevention Community Resources: 

Suicide Prevention – UTRGV

Mental Health Resources – UTRGV

Referral Resource Guide – UTRGV

Family Crisis Center

Mujeres Unidas

Alcohol/ Substance Use Assistance

Psychodynamic- Trauma Informed Therapy

For Uninsured/Low-Income Therapy

Complete List of RGV Mental Health Resources:

Mental Health Resources for the RGV and Webb County

Thomas Hubl’s New Book: “Relational Attunement”  

Free Virtual Collective Trauma Summit with Thomas Hubl and Guests (September 26- October 4) 

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