The Battle Against Alcoholism in Chicago's Puerto Rican Community
The first time I took the test for my driver’s license, I must have been so nervous and thirsty for the test to be over, that I freaked out the instructor by turning too quickly into the facility and she failed me. I felt so bad and embarrassed, and cried on my way out of the DMV. In an effort to somehow console me, my aunt offered some drinks to help me “feel better” when we got home. I was sixteen-years-old. My first drink was actually a year before for my quinceañera during a sleepover with all my damas and chambelanes.
Actually, alcohol was always a necessary party favor at family events and get togethers. I must have been five-years-old when my dad asked me to pass him a beer. At a pretty young age, I thus learned the purposes of alcohol: it was used to pick up your mood when you felt down or stressed.
Isn’t that what society teaches us about alcohol? Isn’t that what we see in ads: beautiful women in bikinis and hot guys showing off their pecs, drinking it up at some beach party? It’s all about having a good time, right?
Drinking alcohol is a socially acceptable way to let loose, build confidence, and have a good time. It’s even more socially acceptable and expected to binge drink during the college years. The fact is, regardless of tolerance, when you drink alcohol the effects include being disoriented and the inability to make logical decisions. National media in recent years have taken note of the problem with drinking and developed a national campaign due to the influx of DUI’s and death by drunk driver.
How does alcohol impact our communities?
Alcohol is so easily accessible and readily available in communities of color. If you go to any in Chicago, especially if they’re low-income, you’ll find as many as two or three liquor stores within a 0.5 mile radius. Alcohol is also cheap and if you are age appropriate, alcohol is legal. It isn’t considered a “drug”, so there’s no social taboo tied to it like, say, marijuana.
Drinking alcohol is probably one of the most common ways to cope with issues. Many people who drink use alcohol to self-medicate when they’re depressed, or to “calm the nerves”. Drinking in this way is a learned behavior which can become a family pattern. A person would be high risk for alcoholism the closer it runs in your family (i.e. parents). Some studies have even pointed to a genetic trait of alcoholism passed from parents to children. So if my parents drank and I witnessed them drink, there is a strong likelihood that I’m going to drink. Which lo and behold, I do.
Now drinking becomes problematic when two things happen: it impacts your daily functioning (i.e., going to work or school), and it impacts your relationships. Alcohol abuse occurs when you drink over your limit, have excessive blackouts, and get into trouble with the law. Alcohol dependence happens when you find yourself continuing to drink regardless of how it’s negatively impacting your life.
It is common with those who have an alcohol problem to also be suffering from a mental illness. The most common myth when it comes to alcohol is that it lifts your mood. In moderation alcohol can be relaxing, but alcohol is actually a depressant or “downer”, which means it does the opposite of lifting your mood. Excessive alcohol use can actually make someone more depressed.
In relation to the Diaspora, Puerto Ricans have some of the highest rates of substance abuse and depression among Latina/os. Due to the severity of the problem, community members in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood took action and started a ‘Drop the Bottle’ campaign in 2011 to encourage youth to find alternatives to drinking. The campaign was a result of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center’s (PRCC) Barrio, Arts & Communications Academy (BACCA), to raise awareness of healthy alternatives to using drugs or alcohol to solve problems. The campaign ran videos of youth talking about why they started drinking, which included anger about family problems or neighborhood stress. Some also mentioned that the program helped them find liberation through the arts of poetry, song, and writing. The campaign ran poster ads in the community with positive statistics about the low percentage of teen drinking and high percentages of use of alternatives.
However, substance use in communities of color continues to be an issue. It is important for community members to recognize the underlying issues in order to take action for social change. Building awareness about substance use and addiction risk factors is a public health concern that requires prevention through education. Humboldt Park saw the issue and collaborated with community members to tackle the problem head on. This is an example of the importance of mentorship and social problem solving.