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Self Care as Selfless Act: Mental Health at the Root of Activism 

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Activists in the Latinx immigrant community of Los Angeles share what they do to take care of their mental health. The issues these activists work on often impact their personal lives, and people who work in the service of others are particularly at risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. Self-care becomes a “selfless act” when it allows activists to stay healthy and do their work in a sustainable way.

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  • Paulina Velasco’s reporting on Self Care as Selfless Act: Mental Health at the Root of Activism was undertaken as a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow. Special thanks to USC Senior Fellow, Catherine Stifter.


  • Writer, Producer, Host: Paulina Velasco
  • Editor: Monica Lopez
  • Voice Over Actor: Mariana Carstens
  • Show Distribution: Anita Johnson
  • Staff Producers: Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani
  • Executive Director: Sonya Green
  • Director of Production Initiatives and Distribution: Lisa Rudman
  • Transcription Volunteer: Mickey Ellinger


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Paulina Velasco It seems like people have rituals that help them on a day to day level cope. Do you have something like that for yourself?

Maegan Ortiz So you mean besides having a glass of wine when I’m done with my work day?

Paulina Velasco You’re listening to Making Contact and Self Care as Selfless Act: mental health at the root of activism. I’m Paulina Velasco.

This episode is all about a little talked about aspect of social justice work, mental health. A lot of us can relate to the sentiment you heard from Maegan Ortiz about wanting to decompress after a long day. She’s one of the many activists I interviewed for this piece. I wanted to interview people who dedicate their daily lives to serving others. I was wondering how much heavier life and work can be for an activist, check .


Hector Plascencia There is this constant mourning that we’re experiencing. There’s this constant loss. There’s this constant imminence of defeat.


Paulina Velasco Hector Plascencia is an immigrant community health advocate and executive director of Plascencia Consulting. They’ve been doing this work for 15 years.


Hector Plascencia And I think that’s why it can be so difficult to get people interested in being a part of the work and being sustainable within the work.


Paulina Velasco I first met Hector when I was reporting a story in Los Angeles about how health clinics were responding to a Trump administration policy that was making their immigrant patients scared to go to the doctor.


Paulina Velasco I do a lot of reporting from LA’s Immigrant community, and community leaders and advocates were starting to share bits of their inner lives with me the more I got to know them. It seemed like a really hard job to be an immigrant rights activist. Keeping up with policies that change constantly, listening to people’s stories of hardship, trying to find solutions for them. I kept hearing about how that takes its toll emotionally, mentally, and how not a lot of people seem to notice.


Paulina Velasco Frances Chinchilla sees it a lot. She’s a licensed clinical social worker at AltaMed Health Network in Southern California. She treats patients as a therapist and she’s also in charge of checking in on other therapists on her team about how they’re doing.


Paulina Velasco Is there like a certain kind of person that ends up becoming an advocate or an activist or somebody who serves?


Frances Chinchilla Yeah, I would say so, I would say that it’s people who can really tap into empathy. It’s almost like a moral duty for them to be this voice.


Paulina Velasco At AltaMed Frances serves primarily low income Latinx immigrant families in Los Angeles. Frances also grew up in L.A., in a Guatemalan family.


Frances Chinchilla People who are very conscious about disparities and who have experienced them themselves, I think are the people that go into this advocacy kind of work.


Paulina Velasco So witnessing injustice or experiencing it personally draws some people into advocacy to try to right those wrongs, which means for many people in activism or organizing work, the issues hit close to home. This is something I can relate to. I was born and raised in Southern California, but my parents and siblings came from Mexico. I think there’s definitely a reason I report on experiences of immigration in the U.S. It’s something I’m familiar with.

For Evelyn Hernandez, it’s basically impossible to separate her identity from the work she does.


Paulina Velasco Evelyn’s a lead organizer with the TPS Alliance at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, where she started working about 10 years ago. She’s been living in L.A. since the 90s when she emigrated from El Salvador. She’s a recipient of TPS or temporary protected status that allows her to live and work in the U.S., but she has to apply for renewal every year and there’s no path to residency or citizenship. In 2018, the Trump administration canceled TPS for Salvadorans. That meant they couldn’t apply for renewal and had to leave the country forever. For Evelyn, that would mean leaving her three U.S. born sons behind. She remembers the exact moment she heard the bad news.


Evelyn Hernandez I remember that we were watching TV and we were having a family dinner. We have these dinners together, at least two or three times a week as often as we can.


Paulina Velasco Evelyn is married and calls her children the love of her life.


Evelyn Hernandez So I remember that dinner. All four of us were sitting down and watching the news on. Well, I won’t give the TV channel any free advertising.  But then the reporter said TPS for Salvadoreans had been cancelled. You have just 18 months left and then it’s over. That was the last one. I remember my sons faces. They all turned around to look at me. It turned into such a bitter dinner. I felt enraged. Powerless. I was angry. My children should not be living through this just because of the Trump administration.


Paulina Velasco Evelyn had already been working for years advocating for a path to permanent residency for TPS holders, many of whom have been in the U.S. for decades and, like Evelyn, have U.S. born children. So this moment for her was like a call to arms.


Evelyn Hernandez I’m fighting to stay strong for my children. In my picture of the future I don’t see myself living in El Salvador and leaving my sons here. That was never the plan.  In my vision, it’s always been me with my sons watching them grow up, get married, have children of their own. I thought I’d be surrounded at every possible moment with my grandchildren. So that’s the picture I envisioned for myself that day.


Paulina Velasco A matter of immigration policy had directly impacted Evelyn’s life. Her work, her career had always been personal.


Evelyn Hernandez You get a knot in your throat and you start to feel angry and you tell yourself, I’m going to give it my all to fight against this administration. And I don’t even care about the consequences because they’re hurting what I love most in the world.


And for me, that’s my family, my children. And through the pain, you cry, five minutes, two minutes, three minutes, whatever you cry. But then it’s over and you harden yourself and you say, this will not make me weak. I have to be stronger.


Paulina Velasco In 2018 and 2019, TPS holders sued the federal government over the cancellation of TPS for people from inside of El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, Honduras and Nepal. So Evelyn’s departure has been postponed over and over while the cases make their way through the courts. In the meantime, Evelyn has organized marches to Washington, appeared in the news. This is her at a Telemundo conference.


A panelist asks her to talk about how she copes with the uncertainty of these court cases.


Paulina Velasco Evelyn says, do you want me to answer as a TPS recipient or as an organizer?


Paulina Velasco If you ask me as a TPS recipient, I start crying, she says. But if you ask me as an organizer, I have a heart of stone.


This is Evelyn a few months later explaining what she meant.


Evelyn Hernandez  I try to separate the two things. My personal life when I get to my house is one and the other is my work life. I grew up in El Salvador and in El Salvador they say what happens when you cross the threshold of your house stays inside your house. And what happens outside your house stays outside and you deal with it there. You don’t mix up the two.


It’s not that I don’t want to look weak. It’s that I just don’t want to place myself in a victim mindset. I try to block everything that might be painful to me. And honestly, I can’t even explain it to myself. All I know is that I block the things that are painful in my soul or my heart so that I can put up a fight and concentrate on what’s in front of me, because all I know is that I have to fight to stay here. And I do not have the luxury to think too much about it.


Paulina Velasco One thing that sticks out about Evelyn is that her work is so tied to her personal immigration status, but to her it’s really about family. She wants to stay in the U.S. for her sons. Frances, the therapist, says she notices a lot of her Latinx patients put family first. She says it can be a good thing. Families are like a built in support system for us. But she also observes how a focus on family can block some people from attending to their own individual needs.


Frances Chinchilla Oftentimes there is a lack. Well, yeah, oftentimes I see a lack of self empathy, a lack of self compassion.


And there is this sense of like I have to be in the service of others. My duty is to the family, to others, taking care of their needs. And having to carry that makes people believe to some degree that they have to sort of just hold it down, keep it together 24/7.


And in terms of like where that stems from, culture and upbringing, I think is usually the root of it.


Paulina Velasco And all of us can get in the way of a person seeking professional help. Some of that is changing. But Frances still says there’s a lot of stigma around mental health.

Frances Chinchilla Even for first generation, second generation American patients.

There’s the idea like, you know, we don’t we don’t need this. We don’t do this. It’s not part of who we are as a culture.


Maegan Ortiz Oh, yeah, oh, hell, yeah. Okay, loca.


Paulina Velasco You remember Maegan Ortiz from the top of the show. She’s the executive director of IDEPSCA,  a workers’ rights organization in Los Angeles. She’s from a Puerto Rican family in New York where she started organizing as a teenager. She’s been involved in activism for about three decades.


Maegan Ortiz It’s not a phase. Sorry, Mom.


Paulina Velasco She says she almost hit a breaking point right before COVID19 shut everything down in the U.S. in March 2020.


Maegan Ortiz This transition, like right before pandemic time was like, if I’m going to make it, we need to figure out the mental health situation that I need to like, learn how to take better care of myself.  I was burning out. And I also have a tendency to overwork and I like to be, you know, typical daughter of immigrants, you know, be the gold star student.


Paulina Velasco Maegan decided she needed help. She signed up for therapy.


Maegan Ortiz I also got anti-depressants. I’m not even going to lie. Antianxiety medication. I think there’s a lot of, like, stigma about talking about those things, especially like within the nonprofit world, especially if you have a title like executive director. you’re supposed to act a certain way, present yourself a certain way.


My mentor died of untreated cancer for a really long time because he worked himself to death. That’s what he did. And like, he didn’t care for himself the way he should have.


Work life balance is hard anyway for women, especially for women of color, especially.


I mean, so that’s all that’s a lot to handle on its own. And then on top of that the pandemic. And then I’m a single mother. That’s a lot. And it’s okay to say it’s a lot.


Monica Lopez You’re listening to Self Care A selfless act. Mental health at the root of activism on making contact. This show is offered for free to stations around the world. Check us out on Twitter and Instagram. Our handle is making underscore contact.


Paulina Velasco And now back to Self care a selfless act: mental health at the root of activism. And a topic you might have heard Maegan Ortiz mention when she said she felt like she had to get help because she was starting to burn out.

Burnout is a real mental health condition that can impact activists. It’s a state of emotional, mental and sometimes physical exhaustion that comes from working under a lot of stress for a prolonged period of time.

There are several stages to burnout. The first is being enthusiastic about a job that you like doing.


roque armenta Organizing really helped me feel less powerless.


Paulina Velasco That’s roque armenta. They’re based in L.A., where they grew up in a working class family. Their parents were born in Mexico, but grew up in the US too. roque is the associate director of Power California, a civic engagement group that focuses on empowering California youth.


roque armenta My 20s were just, you know, I think I was starting off on my career and I felt like I needed to sacrifice so much of my life. And I think at the time when I was growing up, there weren’t too many folks like that was the culture and organizing. And I feel the way that I think a lot of times I decompressed was like, hey, let’s go for a drink after. Right. But I think after a while.


I realized when i got to my 30s, like, I just I still felt like tired.


Paulina Velasco In the next couple stages of burnout you start noticing some days are harder than others. Then it becomes just chronic stress. It shows up in physical symptoms, anger, self isolation. For roque it took more than two years to realize what they were experiencing was burnout.


roque armenta I couldn’t think; I couldn’t focus. I felt like I was bad at work. I realized like I was just almost like in a routine at work, like kind of like not really connected, not really excited. And that made me feel bad because I felt like I’d given so much of myself to this work and I knew I felt dedicated but detached. I don’t know how to explain this, but there is just this feeling where I knew deep down there was more, but I couldn’t access it. And I think I got to a point where I was just dreading going to work. And I it took me a while to acknowledge because I also think, like, I didn’t want to let folks down. I felt scary. Like I was ungrateful.


Paulina Velasco A key part of burnout is institutional stress. Feeling like you don’t have control over your work schedule, for example, or that you lack support in the workplace. It can happen when someone feels an internal conflict about what they’re doing too. But it’s not usually about the work itself. Frances talks about this in her own line of work as a therapist.


Frances Chinchilla So I think we just stumble across some frustrations with just the systems at play, not necessarily with the work that we’re doing with the patients.


It’s also not necessarily having all the resources that we feel that the patients might need. Right.


Like, services are sort of limited for people, especially undocumented people around mental health and psychiatry.


And then all those adjunct other services like housing. And so there’s like these systemic things that are obviously not in my control but are really not necessarily in their control either. And so that’s where the frustration happens.


Paulina Velasco And there’s another way that the work activists do impacts their mental health, a thing called compassion fatigue.


Frances Chinchilla People in the helping field are just at a higher risk of burnout. Definitely.


Compassion fatigue is a term that’s used for people in caregiving positions. And it’s just like an over loading, of hearing constant stories of distress and people’s traumatic experiences. And that’s where vicarious trauma also comes into play.


Paulina Velasco Compassion fatigue is a little different from burnout. A lot of the symptoms are similar. It’s a kind of emotional exhaustion. But according to the American Institute of Stress, compassion fatigue can come on faster and can be cured faster. Francis also called it vicarious trauma or secondary trauma because it involves taking in the trauma of others.


What happens is over time, a person that has to exercise their empathy a lot starts to feel unable to care for others as deeply as they’d like to. Hector Plascencia was a recent college grad when they participated in a summer program at the University of California, Los Angeles called the Dream Resource Center. It provides internships and leadership opportunities to undocumented youth like Hector. Hector was already working and thinking deeply about mental health and health care access.


So they started a project where groups of young people could come together and share their experiences of the U.S. immigration system. Hector found it difficult to facilitate that space.


Hector Plascencia The first day people came ready to talk.


Right. Ready. Pour out everything up basically.


These are people that just needed to say it. And there was finally a space to say it. So that night it was so beautiful.


And at the same time, so overwhelming. I didn’t realize the impact that it was having on my body.


I went home. My partner at the time, there was a party that night. I couldn’t go because I was having anxiety attacks.


Paulina Velasco But Hector didn’t let the experience discourage them from continuing the work.


They were able to recognize the compassion fatigue they were feeling and redirect their efforts.


Hector Plascencia For me, it’s been about creating emotional boundaries. So I wasn’t able to facilitate the circles, but I was able to train people on how to have these conversations, navigate them through this thinking process and the funding aspect of it, how to try to sustain it.


Paulina Velasco In addition to creating those boundaries, as Hector describes it, another way to combat compassion fatigue and burnout is to keep taking care of yourself.


Hector Plascencia If I’m not doing things for myself and feel like everything that I’m giving is for the community, for the movement, for Latinx, for immigrants, then I start to get angry for my decision.


Second, I get back in there, I get angry again, and there is that resentment.


Paulina Velasco Hector and I talked a lot about that, about getting to the point where you feel like you’re trying so hard to do some good in the world, but you’re not seeing the results or you’re getting tired and sad and mad and you start to resent the work itself.


And obviously, those feelings are not conducive to working in the service of others in a sustainable way. It all finally comes back to health. Mental health is important for activists, not only because it’s important for any given individual. It’s important because it’s what keeps them going.


Frances Chinchilla It’s just kind of like the same advice that I give patients, not advice because I’m not supposed to give advice.


But what I try to encourage is really taking care of yourself because you are caring for others. And so you have to constantly check in with yourself. You have to constantly replenish your well to do this work and to do any work which is in the service of others. Period. Because you can’t; you will burn out.


You will burn out quick.


And we need you. So take care of yourself. So it’s almost like taking care of yourself is like a selfless act because you’re doing it not only for self-preservation, but in order to keep doing the work that you do.


Paulina Velasco For Hector, healing has always been the path forward in social justice work.


Hector Plascencia There is always the necessity to get involved. Whether you should step in, whether you should say something, whether something should change, there is a necessity to do something. Whether people will. What moves them towards that? That’s where I draw back to healing. If someone is healed. That means they feel comfortable in who they are expressing themselves. Understanding the situation and moving with clarity. And so my hope is that as this healing process takes place, it’s also a part of people recognizing their agency.


Paulina Velasco And that’s what happened for roque. He went to grad school, an


roque armenta While I was in grad school, that’s also when I was able to do my work around my gender identity. And so I think part of also why I was tired was because I was hiding a big part of who I was. And so it wasn’t until I I came out that I realized I had to do something different because I want to be here in the long haul like I matter. And so I had to also make sure that I wasn’t only taking care of my community, but I also had to take care of myself.


I’ve had to over time, right, figure out how do I, like, refill that cup right as I’m giving to others.


How do I refill that cup?


Paulina Velasco Healing, refilling the cup can come in many forms and many people call that day to day practice self care. And there’s a lot of things that can be part of a self care routine.


Frances Chinchilla The need to connect, the need for spirituality, to practice gratitude for the sort of things that feed the spirit, feed the soul, say thanks for three or four things.


roque armenta I am not very religious, but I do believe very much in God and, you know, I want to eat. Is there a show I want to watch a song I want to put on a repeat for like 10 times because it makes me super happy.


Frances Chinchilla Like the need for creativity. The need for therapy. Being able to process things.


Evelyn Hernandez Reading because it takes you to a whole new world. Tending to my garden. I love cooking.


Maegan Ortiz Social media.


i’m not gonna lie. I try to meditate every day. I go to therapy every week.


Should be able to process emotion physically, I can eat right? I can exercise. I can sleep.


Dance music is huge for me. Part of a bomba group.


Hector Plascencia I love this routine like I do my own hair. I go running in the mornings. I started Crossfit.


There’s so many levels to it.


Paulina Velasco A study about the freedom of the press carried out in the 1940s called the Hutchins Commission wrote this, quote, “It is no longer enough to report the facts truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the facts. The truth about the facts is that work in the service of others and for the improvement of other’s lives, whether it’s activism, social justice work, whatever form it might take, can be joyful and difficult. Some things about the world change slowly, if at all. Being a human being who cares a lot about that is hard.”


Frances Chincilla It’s definitely hard. I think that’s why we’re rewarding.


Paulina Velasco And there are lots of people who keep at it who keep caring.


While it’s interesting, it’s been interesting to hear how well, like little things seem. Even though they seem little compared to the big thing that that’s the problem.


The little self care teams and small moments seem to be what keeps people going.


Frances Chinchilla Yeah, I think it’s like being able to change the lens in which you’re looking at things. Right. Like when you take that wider shot, it could just consume you and overwhelm you.


Frances Chinchilla And so sometimes it’s just really tightening the shot. I guess, into focusing on one thing that you can do right now or today or tomorrow, that there’s movement in that. It’s not going to solve every single problem. But it’s something.


Paulina Velasco That was Frances Chinchilla, a licensed social worker with AltaMed Health Services. We also heard from Hector Plascencia. There’s always the necessity to get involved, roque armenta As I’m giving to others, how do I refill that cup?  Evelyn Hernandez Estoy luchanda para mis hijos. and Maegan Ortiz: Oh, that’s a lot to handle on its own. And it’s okay to say that it’s a lot.


Special thanks also to Dr. Sandra Pisano and to Jocelyn Perez, who I spoke to for this project as well. I’m Paulina Velasco in Los Angeles. You can find photos of the people you heard from in this piece on my social media accounts. I’m at underscore Pina Velasco. That’s p i n a v e l a s c o. There you can also find resources that Frances, roque, Hector and the others recommend for mental health and self care. Books, idea accounts, blogs.

This piece was produced as a project for the USC Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 California Fellowship. Special thanks to Catherine Stifter. It was edited by Monica Lopez. Marianna Karstens did the voiceover for Evelyn Hernandez. The Executive Director of Making Contact is Sonya Green. Lisa Rudman is Director of Production Initiatives and Distribution. Making Contact Producers are Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson and Salima Hamirami. For other shows and more information about this episode, visit Thanks for listening to Making Contact!


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