Why This Poor Caribbean Region Has Superb Mental Health

Family in Northern Colombia
Family in Northern Colombia
Tatiana Acevedo


BOGOTÁ â€" Colombia's Caribbean coastal cities have people with less depression, bipolar mood swings, schizophrenia and other mental health conditions than elsewhere in the country, according to a recent national mental health poll. Is that surprising?

A few days after I arrived in the Caribbean, I was invited to a barbecue in one of the many residential communities there mainly inhabited by young families. Like other enclosures in hot cities, it included a "spa zone" with a swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath and showers. Our barbecue proceeded smoothly, at least until later in the evening, when the conversation was interrupted. Three black women dressed in the white overalls of the residence's employees, entered the "spa zone," but did not emerge for five, 10, or, was it 15 minutes?

The residents were unnerved. They wondered if the three women were in the sauna or the steam room. I’ll go talk to them, one of the residents ventured. Another explained that the women were taking a shower before going back to their own neighborhoods, where "you don't always have water." Finally, there was agreement to discuss the issue at a residents' meeting, and to ban entry into the spa area for all staff at the residential complex.

A few weeks later I met the women who had caused the stir as well as some of their friends and relatives employed in domestic work in the Caribbean. I listened to them in places like Malambo and Soledad â€" neighborhoods on the outskirts of Colombia's northern cities that are filled with creativity and resourcefulness. I found out how they had set timetables, after some trial and error, for the use of hundreds of private swimming pools in the region. They just laugh at the stipulations laid down by residents in complexes. I found that, in these districts, there is always someone â€" a neighbor, relative or even acquaintance â€" ready to turn on the tap to save water for everyone on the days when running water is available.

In my research on access to public services like water, sewerage or electricity, I documented various informal networks on getting, keeping, and gifting water. Men take turns to climb onto public generators to extend power cables. Barring nights and weekends when they rest, men, women and children, share everything from personal stories and homework to frustration, anger and loss.

With inadequate infrastructure, neighbors in working-class districts of the northern coast get together to compensate for their neighborhood's shortcomings in order to make life more tolerable. They share a somewhat relaxed attitude to what the day, or life, may bring next. This is what is revealed in the previously mentioned mental health poll.

The survey understands that mental health doesn’t pertain to just psychological problems and conditions, it encompasses personal resources and attitudes we adopt in the face of vicissitudes, suffering and emotional tension. The study, which divided the country into five regions â€" Bogotá, Central, Eastern, Pacific and Caribbean, finds that Colombians are not very satisfied with their interaction with neighbors, except on the northern coast where ties not only bring satisfaction but foment trust. It's the same when it comes to a person"’s relationship with their boss, teacher, relative, lover or friend.

The Caribbean is remarkable for the limited amount of psychiatric discomfort among residents. The survey shows that children in this region have the fewest mental disorders. Among adults, in addition to mental disorders, there are fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression as well as fewer attempts at suicide.

But the reason why people report the lowest number of mental conditions may not be as simple as it appears, and the survey results should be read with caution. For example, since people in this region find it hard to access any mental healthcare â€" it can take more than 15 hours to reach a clinic or specialist â€" they might have different definitions for an illness or condition from those who can regularly visit a shrink.

Moreover, people in the Caribbean most frequently identify with the statement, "Life has made me so hard that nothing hurts anymore." This attitude casts the otherwise positive poll responses with a pall of melancholy.

Although the Caribbean does well on mental health indicators, old tensions and inequalities persist in this region. As a footnote in the study observes cheekily, mental health cannot exist without social justice.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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