Spark Model: George Longoria

What’s one of your favorites quotes?
One of my favorite quotes is Audre Lorde’s: “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing.” It’s actually my first tattoo; I got it on my back. I’ve always taken it to mean that I am an intentional creation, I am not a mistake. The way I am might be different but it is not something that’s not supposed to be. And afraid of nothing. One way my illnesses express themselves are fear of going out, or being judged, or being seen and so I try to remind myself that I am a warrior, created out of a deliberate divine intention.

What do you do in times of stress to cope or to relax?
I enjoy writing or reading and making small crafts with my hands. I like to ride my bike; I’ve been in environments where legal, controlled, use of cannabis has been found to be therapeutic for myself and friends. I enjoy the social aspect and unwinding of it. The way we can bond over glasses of wine with friends. A blunt is not at all something we should be afraid to admit we use to relax as an adult.

What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental health and mental ilness?
I would say ANYTHING because nobody is saying anything. I would say I have it too. I see the struggle you’re going through. And it’s okay and if it’s not okay now it’s not going to stay that way. I would try and validate the feelings people have instead of brushing them off and making it seem like a moral defect or a spiritual weakness. It’s okay to admit that you’re weak but that has nothing to do with your value as a person. I want to talk about my eating disorder more but I don’t know how to frame it nicely. A lot of times you see that when talking about mental illness, they make you hide it or they shame you for it, and there were certain times where my eating disorder was taken as a strength by other people. My mother would tell other people: “oh she just has a naturally fast metabolism;” but my mom knew I had an eating disorder. My friends would defend me when other people would comment on my photos stuff such as “you’re really thin, are you ok?” My friends would be like “that’s just how she is.” And it’s like mmm, no. I feel like I was accepted and glamorous because the health issues that I was going through were seen as an acceptable trait for the work I was doing in fashion. It was like a self-discipline that was not healthy at all. Trying to find a way to articulate that ugliness and trying to explain that eating disorders are very specific because they are often rewarded and celebrated by people in our society. It’s used as an insult “throw up after you eat a meal”, “lose a little weight” and we’ll make fun of models, for instance, for being an air head or stuff like that or being anorexic but then we won’t accept anybody who isn’t participating in this self-delusion. I guess for what I’m going to share is that you are so much more than your skin, your beauty or your sexuality or whatever people can get from you. You are so much more than that. You exist outside of people’s expectation outside of their approval and your value starts at the very center of yourself.

what would you say to yourself if you had the opportunity to go back in time?
It’s not worth it. There was a point in my life where I thought if I died from an eating disorder or if I died from the stress and the physical distress that I was undertaking it was okay. I used to plot out how many calories I needed, how much energy I needed. I would take a handful of nuts in case I felt like I was going to pass out before I got home. And who does that? You have to be suffering from a mental illness to put yourself through so much pain and stress. I guess what I would say is “I know you think it’s worth it, but it’s really not. It’s not okay. You are going to find so much value, and SO much beauty outside of that industry and those expectations when you just accept yourself for who you are.”


Spark Model: Mariam El-Haj

In times of stress, what helps you relax?
When you get stressed out your muscles tense up. What I like to do is take really hot showers or baths because I feel like it really relaxes my body and it lets me think a little more clearly. I also like to drink hot tea, because the warmth of the bath and the warmth of the tea warms up your body and you loosen it and the tension feels like it's melting away. I also like to immerse myself in crafts; I like to do creative things. I feel like when I get to be creative I am not stressed out. Creativity feels like comfort to me.

What's your favorite quote?
I don't have a favorite quote, but I do have a collection of quotes that I really enjoy and I feel like they're relevant to mental health and recovery. "The mind is beautiful because of the paradox. It uses itself to understand itself." - Adam Elenbass. Our mind is such a strong thing, and we are constantly trying to discover ourselves and others. "You may think I'm small, but I have a universe inside my mind." - Yoko Ono. I feel that we have no limits to what we can think or do. "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill. We need to learn and gain the courage to do both. "Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder." - Rumi. We must keep the dialogue flowing, and never use our voice to silence others. "Our prime purpose in this life is to help others, and if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them." - the Dalai Lama. We must learn to heal and let others grow. If we feel like that's something we cannot do, then we must remind ourselves not to hinder their growth.

What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness?
Like any other organ in our bodies, the brain is one, and like any other organ it can get sick. It can get hurt or damaged. When it gets hurt it needs some sort of way to heal. Healing is different for everyone, but just because it's something we can't always see, like a cut on the skin, it doesn't mean it's not valid. The brain needs the ability to heal like any other organ would. Your skin is an organ, and if it gets damaged you need to take that time to let it heal, and you take those precautions to prevent further pain, so why wouldn't we consider the brain in a similar aspect? I think we're at a time with great progress and there's a lot of people that are learning and being more open to new ideas that they weren't before. I think one of those things is that people are being more open to the mental health fields and taking care of yourself, and understanding that we are different and that people have different experiences. This gives you a little more hope to say, "now I have these platforms where I can find other people that I relate to. Or people who understand what I am experiencing." There are new directions and avenues of treatments, for instance, now there is tele-medicine, you don't have to go out and do something that you are uncomfortable with to get the treatment that you need. I think all of these new things, this progress that we are having as a society, even though it's taking time, and stigma isn't erased, we are getting there. The only way we can reach that point of erasure of stigma is if we continue to advocate and try to educate. Try to share what we know, share our stories. We have to learn to not be afraid of judgment because it will always be there. Because when we don't understand something we tend to pass judgment on it. Instead of holding that fear of being judged I think we have to learn how to be confident in who we are and our experiences, and through time not care about that judgment, and I think that will help us push forward once we create more dialogue. Talking really does help.

Spark Model: Serge De Leon

What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness?

The very first thing I would say is “Get Educated.” This is for the people that don’t know how to deal with those in their life that may struggle. Secondly, to the person that struggles I would say “Show yourself some grace, mercy and forgiveness. You are going to fall, you are going to struggle and you are going to hate a lot of it. But show yourself grace, give yourself mercy and let yourself forgive yourself. The sun will always shine tomorrow. Let today struggle for today and give yourself grace.

What do you do in times of stress or difficult moments to relax or cope with the situation?

I write a lot, I play music. I’m an instrumentalist so I play guitar, piano, drums etc etc. So what I like to do in order to calm myself down is simply to pick up an instrument and play it or pick up my journal and pencil and write. Write about the day, write about what’s going on or just write whatever comes to mind. Sometimes after rereading them they turn out to be violent, or sad but even in those moments I think of the fact that it’s me letting go of what needed to be let go of.

What’s your favorite quote?

serge quote.jpg

One of my favorite quotes is by a band named MeWithoutYou. In one of their songs the singer says this “A glass can only spill what it contains.” I love this simply because of the truth that it stands on. If a glass contains water, then that glass can only spill water. If we apply this to ourselves, we then too can only spill what we contain. Sometimes what we contain is anxiety or any other illness that we may struggle with. At the same rate, if we then are in a good place we can’t help but let that shine right out of us. Times are hard and times are simple but ultimately it’s what we contain that spills from us, if we love ourselves for who we are we can only spill that same love!

Spark Model: Thanh Bui

what would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness?

Talk about it. As much as possible. The more we do, the more it's normalized. It doesn't have to be a huge thing, sometimes it just means casually putting it in the conversation. Not everyone will pick up on it, but for those that do notice, it challenges them to rethink the notion of mental illness and why it's not a part of our everyday conversations. Or, if you feel comfortable enough, talk really explicitly about it. Check in with people, ask them how they are, how they really are, whether they need anything. And sometimes with people with mental illness, they need a little push. For example, with me, my anxiety makes me want to say no to everything so either I have to tell myself rationally, "saying yes is better for you," or sometimes my friends are really good at helping me see the whole picture. As in, they remind me of all the pros of saying yes to whatever event or opportunity it is at the time. Some friends are excellent at challenging me to re-evaluate things in a logical way. For me personally, I don't think it's strange to go see a counselor or a therapist. Actually, I think everyone should do this, especially with all the things going on in our country and internationally. There's a lot of stress on people. Additionally, I think talking about mental health can help people identify symptoms. A lot of the time, it's hard to recognize them, especially if you're a high-functioning person with mental illness. It's actually the little things like fidgeting or scratching your hair when you're anxious, or having a really hard time getting out of bed, beginning tasks, brushing your teeth, etc. when you're depressed. Lastly, I'd say that we should talk about mental illness differently. Sometimes I feel really weird saying mental "illness" because I view mine as just another part of me. Not always the best part of me, but a part nonetheless and will be for the rest of my life. Similar to accepting the way my body looks, I've had to learn to accept and live with my mental health.



What do you do in times of stress to relax?

Self care, to me, looks like taking a break from other people or social media. We are constantly consuming a lot of information, not always positive information, and it can get overwhelming. What really helps me is getting outside and touching the earth, grass, anything that makes me feel grounded. And mindfulness; being present is really important. For me, there's always noise going on in my mind so that helps put a pause on things. It's really re-energizing. Or just talking to people- people I trust, people I'm comfortable with, people that know me better than myself sometimes.

what would you say to people who say that mental illness isn't real?

So I struggle with that a lot myself- unlearning the stigma. I never thought that I had some of these perceptions until they hit me. I was really skeptical of medication before I started. I was asking things like: Do I really need it? Do I need this thing just to keep me going? Is it natural to have to use medication to get through the day? But in reality, these things are pretty neurological, sometimes physiological. They have biological bases, and so I keep that in mind, that there is actually something going on differently up there (in my head). I also want to recognize that our emotional experiences aren't isolated from the people we care about. If something affects us it affects them too. So I run into situations where both my friend and I have anxiety or depression and it comes head to head with each other. Sometimes we can't identify the other person's anxiety because it comes out in a way that's incompatible with our anxiety. Maybe for one person it's silence and the other it's venting. It's a lot of negotiating, a lot of explicit talking about it. It's a hard conversation to have. I don't think anyone wants to admit that not everything is going well. And with a lot of people I know, they'd rather say "I'll take care of it" or "I don't want it to affect anyone else." The thing about mental health is that if you have it, whatever it is, it forces you to only think about yourself. For survival. Sometimes you can't see beyond it because you're held down by your thoughts and feelings, sometimes it manifests itself in a self-centered kind of thinking, but not in a conceited way, in a "I cannot focus on anything else right now" type of way. And that's a little hard to approach, so I find the best way is to ask people: "What do you think you need from me right now? Whether it's for me to listen or to talk through something with you, or maybe you don't need me at all." To wrap up, mental illness is pretty real, haha. It affects you (obviously), it affects people close to you, affects your academics or work, it's pervasive. Yet, really easy to miss if you don't know the signs. Because mental health is usually invisible, we often think our symptoms are attributed to other things. Having more conversations about mental health can bring to light things we really need to take care of, thing that a lot of other people experience, too- but we won't know that until we get to talking.  

What's your favorite quote?


Spark Model: Dani Marrero

What’s your favorite quote?

One of my favorite quotes is,“El que no se mueve no escucha el ruido de sus cadenas.” In Enlish, it’s “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” The quote is by Rosa Luxemburg who was a German revolutionary socialist in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

What do you do in times of stress to relax?

Normally, I drink water. And I know it sounds like such a simple thing! But it has helped a lot. There is also a biological explanation of why/how water helps you to relax. If you are experiencing high emotions or severe anxiety, like I often do, your body becomes dehydrated faster, and if you are dehydrated, you’re likely to make poor decisions. Or your mind gets cloudier. So, every time I feel really stressed, I breathe, calm myself for a moment, and drink some water.

Sometimes if the weather is nice I might go outside for a while and maybe walk but something very chill, you know? Nothing high activity. Other ways that I’ve found to relieve stress is to do something that I enjoy that is not particularly productive. The reason being is that I feel that a lot of my anxiety comes from having that urge to always be productive, to feel that I am always doing something meaningful and that I’m not wasting my time. And I think those are complejos I have for being the older child, being first generation in United States, so I always feel that I have to live up to certain expectations. So, I allow myself to do something that I like that’s maybe not particular “productive,” such as maybe eat fast food, watch Ellen on YouTube for like an hour, just doing something that I like. At first it was hard because I would be watching Netflix and I would be thinking of all the things that I needed to do so I wasn’t even enjoying my time or relaxing. But allowing myself to do activities I knew I would enjoy helped me break that mentality that I always needed to be productive doing something and allowed me to do more self-care. 

If this isn't how anxiety feels...

If this isn't how anxiety feels...

What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness and what words of hope would you offer?

I think for people like me, and by people like me, I mean, people who are queer identifying, people who are immigrants, who are first-generation in this country, there is a lot of pressure placed on us. There’s expectations that we have to live up to because our parents made huge sacrifices for us to be here. Or even sometimes individuals made the sacrifice for themselves to be here. So we think, “We have to be successful, we have to be students, we have to go to school, we have to do all of these things.” And by pressuring ourselves to fit all of these titles and all of these molds, we put our mental health back in the burner. We tend to think that it doesn’t matter how we are feeling. And to some point we even romanticize feeling extremely stressed. But we can’t romanticize because it is serious. It’s not okay for us to work so hard that we reach a breaking point.

I came out when I was 17 years old. I was a senior in high school. At that point my parents had divorced recently, I was about to go to college, and I’m the first in my family to attend college in the U.S.  I would go online to the universities websites and see tuition and I would think “yeah, right!” Before I knew about financial aid and scholarships, I would just think, “no way.” So, I had so much stress already. Then I came out, and it caused a lot of confusion in my family, a lot of chaos, and a lot of misunderstanding that turned into pain. So I felt like I couldn’t come forward with my mental health or I couldn’t address my anxiety because I felt that there was already enough trouble. I blamed myself almost for it. Our life was already hard enough, right?

And I remember my mom would always talk to me about it. My mom would say to me: “mija, la vida ya es suficientemente dificil para gente como nosotros, somos inmigrantes, yo no hablo ingles, no venimos de familia rica y aparte esto!” And by “this” she meant what she referred to as “my lifestyle choice.” Now she doesn’t think that way anymore but for her it felt like I was making my life more difficult and in some ways I internalized that. I felt that the stress, or anxiety, I was feeling was there because I thought that in some way I was choosing to feel stressed, or anxious.

And then I went to college and anxiety led me to take more poor choices about my academia. My first semester of college I went to St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. I had just come out my senior year, so it was only a few months that I was out. When I first came out it was really rocky with my mom. I had to move out of my mom’s house and I moved in with my dad whom I don’t have a very good relationship with.

So, for my first semester of college I stayed at St. Mary’s. It was a last minute decision to stay in Texas because I was actually supposed to go to North Carolina for college. I had a full ride there. But when I got right out of high school I found my first girlfriend. She was in Texas, and I always think back to that summer and my first semester of college and think of how I stayed in Texas because I had a girlfriend. And it sounds wild, to change your whole college career for a partner. But for me it was as if I had finally found a sanctuary. And I found support that I couldn’t find at home or my friends. For me, it wasn’t so much the individual but the feeling that I could be myself with someone. And feeling like I finally had an individual that provided support led my anxiety to get the best of me to thinking that that was the best decision for me. And knowing that I couldn’t go back home and ask for advice also led me to make that choice.

Not only that, when it was my first semester at St. Mary’s, I only completed half of the semester and then I dropped out. I dropped out and my parents didn’t know. They weren’t paying for my college or anything, I was on a scholarship, and I was working in retail over there in San Antonio. I remember I dropped out, and my life just consisted of hanging out with this individual and I felt that that was the only way I could be myself. And it was a relationship that ended a few months later, and of course, you’re 18, and you’re devastated for months, right? Listening to Sin Bandera, just the worst, right?! But I think back on that now, four years later and I analyze myself and I think, wow, how hard was it for me to acknowledge my mental illness, and then also not have a system of support to cope and then knowing that I couldn’t go home at that time to talk with my mom and ask her for advice about life. I think about how all of these factors led me to take those poor choices. And how those poor choices then caused more anxiety.

Also, months later after the individual and I broke up, coming to the realization that, I dropped out and you know,  I had a scholarship, and I had moved out... Students like me that don’t come from wealthy backgrounds and that are first generation are not really given the opportunity to mess up. You can’t. And thinking I had messed up led my anxiety off the rails.

Mental health is something that people don’t talk about very often within the LGBT community. Having that lack of support from your family or not knowing where you can turn to affects you in many ways. And to some people this is what causes their anxiety, or their mental illness to amplify. Later, maybe two years ago, I told my mom that I had dropped out. I remember telling here how in the beginning that lack of support impacted me so much. And that I felt that I didn’t have anywhere to run and so when I found and individual that eased my anxiety a little bit, I deposited everything to that relationship.

I remember I left the Valley because I thought I would never find a place for myself in the RGV. The Valley has a reputation for being super conservative, homophobic and a transphobic place and in many ways that is true. But name a city where this isn’t true! Maybe other cities receive differences a little better but hate crimes happen everywhere. People leave the Valley for very wrong reasons, and I was one of those people. I thought the Valley didn’t have anything to offer for me. Both for my personal and professional life. Specially because I had just come out. I know a lot of young LGBT people feel that way. That they have to leave the Valley to find themselves, to find this “gay utopia” somewhere. You don’t have to do that. If you want to leave the Valley and go to another city, do it because you have ambitions to explore somewhere new, or because the career you want is still not offered in the Valley but don’t leave because you feel that you won’t have a community here. Because you do. And this is also specially important for LGBT youth who are undocumented to know who can’t leave the valley because of their immigration status.  

In recent years the LGBT community has grown so much. Something very special about the LGBT community in the Valley is that in contrast to other cities, in the valley we’re like a family. We support each other when someone doesn’t have enough. Enough energy, enough resources. I would hope that young LGBT people don’t feel like they have to run away from their culture, from their roots here in the valley to find a sanctuary.

A lot of young LGBT people that I’ve talked with in the Valley also fight mental illnesses. Anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder. And there’s this thinking that if we leave home, it’ll get better. Sometimes we don’t know right away that we have a mental illness. We think that it’s because we’re in a homophobic place that we are feeling a certain way but if we leave, that everything will suddenly be perfect. And it doesn’t work that way. You can go ANYWHERE in the world, and trust me, you are still going to be a ball of anxiety! It’s hard to have the will to find that community in the valley because after living through so much rejection and homophobia, sometimes people just want out. But when it comes to healing and when it comes to being in touch with your roots, and your identity, that’s something that another place is not going to give you.

I hope that one day there will be no more LBGT youth leaving the Valley because of homophobia and transphobia and that more and more we build a place where LGBT youth feel that they can stay here and be themselves. That if they leave it’s for completely different reasons that it’s not because they feel that they can’t be themselves at home.

Dani Marrero Hi is an LGBTQ community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley. She has also organized on immigration issues and is a proud Mexican immigrant.

Spark Model: Alexis

- In times of stress, what helps you relax?
I love to do henna and to meditate while I do henna. I meditate and attract all the things that I want in my life and reflect on things that I don't. 

- What's your favorite quote?
"We are all searching for someone whose demons play well with ours."

What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness?
I would want to say to others who are dealing with mental illness or problems to remember when they were younger and they didn't have any worries in the world and how when we're younger we aren't really that concerned about what people thought about us. We were just living our life to the fullest and I think that's what I would say, to reflect on life when we were younger. The way I see it, would you tell a little girl that she's not pretty enough or not good enough? No, you would tell her the complete opposite, so why is it so hard for you to tell yourself that? There's a lot of pressure from society to fit in or to look a certain way, and it's really hard. And we shouldn't give in to those pressures. I think we should ask ourselves and reflect, why is it so hard to love ourselves when it's so easy for us to love other people? 


Spark Models: Mayra & Mariana

In times of stress, what helps you relax?
I kind of just shut myself off to the world and I try to stay away from people so that I can try and channel my emotions. Organizing and cleaning helps me relax as well. 
Something that really relaxes me for some reason is listening to Sam Smith. I get in my car, raise the volume, and just play his music. Sometimes I would let some tears out, sometimes I wouldn't but I found that this is a way for me to relax.


What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness? 

To be completely honest, this is something new to me. But something that is very important to know. I used to be ignorant on the subject, I wasn't well informed. But once you start learning about it it's very rewarding because you also get to learn how to help others. You learn that you shouldn't treat people differently because of it. And that just because someone has a mental illness that doesn't mean that they are crazy. 
I would want to let other people know that you are not alone. Maybe you feel that there is no one out there for you but trust me there is. You never know when life can surprise. It might be your neighbor, it might be someone you meet at school that you befriend. What's so cool about Spark is that it lets others know that they are not alone. That you are here for them. 

What's your favorite quote?

"All you need is love." We literally come to this love to find love. Some might say that others come to find money, or other things in life but I think that ultimately what fulfills life is finding something or someone you love, something that makes you passionate about it. 
I think my favorite quote would be "life is very hard but even though it's hard, it is worth living it." Even though we might feel overwhelmed at times, there is always something good to look forward to. It is worth living, no matter how hard it gets. 

Spark Model: Dominik Ortiz

-  In times of stress, what helps you relax?
 I try breathing exercises, I turn off my cellphone, and listen to classical music. I find that spending time on my own, without any contact with social media, and listening to classical music really helps me clear my mind and relax. Also, talking with a loved one really helps me release whatever negative emotions I am going through at the moment, and it makes me feel better.

- What's your favorite quote?
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

- What would you say to combat stigma surrounding mental illness?
First of all, I feel like every single person in a moment in their lives will either feel some sort of anxiety or might experience periods of depression, or maybe very strong emotions that might make us fall down. The beautiful thing about life though, is that after something really bad happens to us, really good things also follow, and that is something we should be grateful for. That despite the circumstances people with mental illness are dealing with, there should be hope, because nothing bad lasts forever. Let's enjoy the good things in life, and the gifts that come with it.