3 Women Of Color In Wellness Share How They’re Reclaiming Traditional Practices To Help Heal Their Communities

Courtesy of Dennis Alves Photography/Cynthia Santiago-Borbón/Tiffany Smith/Suhaly Bautista-Carolina/Veronica Olivares

In the midst of a historically tense political climate, the concepts of "wellness" and “self-care” have evolved from traditional healing practices into a $3.7 trillion industry. But even though our times have made it even more difficult for marginalized communities to simply exist, their access to wellness is virtually non-existent. Though many of these practices are considered to have originated in communities of color, structural barriers make it difficult for black and brown communities to participate in this booming field.

While a multitude of resources have sprung up to train more people of color in healthcare, as well as make it easier for patients to find culturally competent healthcare providers, there is a sense that traditional healers are being shut out of the industry these very same traditions helped create. As the field has grown and moved into the mainstream, for example, major brands are facing backlash for appropriating holistic practices and tools that black and brown communities used for centuries to combat oppression and nourish their spirits.

But as cultural appropriation of traditional practices continues to make headlines, a growing number of women of color are reclaiming these traditional practices in order to heal black and brown communities, who face barriers to benefitting from these practices. Bustle spoke with three women — Cynthia Santiago-Borbón, Suhaly Bautista-Carolina, and Veronica Olivares — about their work combatting the erasure of traditional healing practices, and why they think this work is so important today.

Courtesy of Cynthia Santiago-Borbón/Dennis Alves Photography

Cynthia Santiago-Borbón, LCSW-R, GG, AJA, is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist who has trained in numerous modalities including positive psychology training, meditation teacher training, and social justice training. She tells Bustle that the focus of her work is “helping people of color to heal from the harmful effects and trauma of racism and oppression.”

“I use a holistic model that helps my clients understand the historical and institutional context of how racism may also be contributing to their feeling stuck, unworthy, or not capable of accomplishing their goals. Sometimes, my clients just need to know that what they are feeling and experiencing is real and not just something that they are making up like they so often hear from other mental health practitioners that don't have or use an anti-oppressive lens in working with people of color,” Santiago-Borbón says.

The effects of day-to-day racism and discrimination affect every part of day-to-day life for people of color (including earning potential, and job and housing opportunities), but it’s also been shown to increase the risk of numerous emotional and physical health problems.

“It's mentally and emotionally draining to deal with racism — covert and overt — on a daily basis. In a time when it's supposed to be so easy for people to create the lives they want, black and brown communities are still living with structural and institutional racism that makes it far more difficult for them to access their dreams and opportunities.”

Santiago-Borbón is passionate about this work because she says she’s had firsthand experience with this kind of pain.

“As an Afro-Latina, I experienced the harmful and often detrimental impact of going to supposedly well-meaning therapists and coaches that minimized my experiences with racism. Experiences of racism were hurtful and painful and sometimes traumatic. When I shared my stories ... my experiences were either questioned or minimized, which caused further injury and trauma. I am so committed to making sure that my clients feel like they can talk about all of their experiences and feel heard. I want to make sure that they come away healed from these wounds and empowered and liberated to live the lives they desire,” she adds.

Courtesy of Veronica Olivares

Veronica Olivares is a licensed clinical social worker who is trained in dance and movement therapy. She’s studied the dance forms of Bomba y Plena and West African dance, and utilizes various forms of creative arts as a therapeutic tool — which she believes black and brown communities are especially in need of at this time.

“I think that the Latinx community is experiencing a true awakening of consciousness as many communities are around the world. We are interested in knowing who we truly are and where we come from, wanting to decolonize from wrong ideas about ourselves that were taught to us about race, colorism and identity,” Olivares tells Bustle.

Because of that, her work blends conventional and alternative approaches to incorporate what will be most helpful to each patient’s mind, body and spirit.

“Latinx people are looking to collect the bones of stories that were dismantled and broken a long time ago. I believe connecting to culture is one of the ways in which we get our hands and bodies in motion to put the pieces back together. This crafting of stories has been a way for our people since our ancestors lived on these lands and I think many of us are now remembering this about ourselves,” Olivares adds.

Courtesy of Suhaly Bautista-Carolina

Suhaly Bautista-Carolina is the founder of Moon Mother Apothecary, an online apothecary that offers plant medicine and herbal products created in the traditional wisdom and knowledge of her Dominican ancestors. Suhaly started Moon Mother in 2018 with the intention that she wanted to share her plant wisdom and medicine with others.

“My journey into plantwork has revealed a collective hunger for this type of healing. We are turning and returning to our ancestral and indigenous wisdom and what a beautiful thing to witness that has been. I am proud to step into the arena and contribute my medicine and knowledge,” Bautista-Carolina tells Bustle.

Like the others, she has seen a collective interest from marginalized communities to relearn and practice traditional healing methods. “Our ancestors came here after fleeing trauma from their own countries, and when they cut themselves off from their homeland, it also cut off future generations from their history and practices. This history of migration makes us resilient but also makes us curious to fit the pieces together for ourselves,” she adds.

It’s an eye-opening time as black and brown communities turn to the healing methodologies that have been tradition for thousands of years. While there are many people working in this space, women like Santiago-Borbón, Olivares, and Bautista-Carolina are blending the education and arts with holistic approaches of spirituality that are much needed today.

Correction: This article has been updated on Nov. 15, 2018, to accurately display Suhaly Bautista-Carolina's last name.