El Borracho: An ignored health crisis

The 1980s was more than just the era of new wave pop, big hair, and acid wash jeans.  The War on Drugs, originally established by Nixon, was prioritized by the Reagan administration, which poured $1.7 billion dollars into the cause. The American psyche became saturated with drug awareness and prevention programs birthing the Just Say No Campaign, D.A.R.E. and the National Red Ribbon Celebration.  

In many ways, the War on Drugs only further inflamed stereotypes characterizing brown and black Americans as gang members and drug dealers, as it resulted in the massive incarceration of minority groups for nonviolent crimes.  

It’s not as though any stereotypes about Latinos were newly developed in the 1980s, so much as they just evolved to fit a more modern role. Think of old Hollywood’s bandito character: a Latino, usually of Mexican origin, that doesn’t obey the law, drinks excessively, womanizes, and is prone to violence. This character has become the gang member, the criminal, the drug runner, the undocumented individual or a combination of all the above.  

But El Borracho? Now there is an interesting caricature.  

Thanks to Spring Breakers’ annual debauchery and Hollywood’s suggestive references to Tijuana, Mexico has long been viewed as a place where alcohol flows in excess, and anything and everything goes. Then throw into the mix the association of rancheras and gritos as being something that only extremely drunk men listen to when they want to sing about lost love. And don’t forget the current wave of T-Shirts plastered with the Lotería character on them, at least throughout parts of Texas.  

Despite the harmful stereotypes, Hispanics are less likely to drink than their non-Hispanic counterparts, but those who do drink are prone to consume alcohol in larger quantities.  

The fact is, alcohol is a mind and mood-altering drug, and the topic of abuse should not be dismissed or stereotyped as typical of one ethnic group or another.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that alcohol is a legal drug that alcoholism seems easier to discount when people think of substance abuse, which ultimately may prevent individuals from seeking help. When alcohol is readily available at every gas station, grocery store, and many family restaurants, it is easy to become desensitized to it as a drug.

Social factors and the media also play a crucial role in addictive behavior. Alcohol is often readily available at social gatherings, and engaging in some level of consumption or even binge drinking may feel like the norm. Plots in films marketed to young adults often center around college parties or a girl’s night that depends on excessive drinking for the experience to be considered epic.    

Universities across the country are responding to the need to support students struggling with substance abuse.  Locally, UTRGV is one of ten Texas universities that provides Collegiate Recovery Program (CRP) services. Since 2014, the UTRGV CRP has provided peer-to-peer recovery support, and conducts general outreach through campus-wide presentations, tabling, community health fairs and local National Night Out events.  

“The media is very, very focused on, we’ll say, opioids right now, which is an absolutely devastating thing happening in our country,” shares Kristina Canfield, Program Coordinator of the UTRGV CRP. “We’re losing 175 people per day — that’s the new statistic from 2016. I think the flipside of that is that we’re losing the focus on just how devastating alcoholism can be as well…. It’s always been this undercurrent issue….. [W]e tend to sweep it under the rug.  But there’s actually some decent research out there right now that shows that rates of alcoholism are rising again.”

Canfield stresses that the UTRGV CRP tries to remove barriers and focuses on preventing students from dropping out due to addiction. Although she has had to help students medically withdraw from the class, she does continue to maintain a professional relationship through the recovery process.  Even non-enrolled individuals can participate in the program because anyone can be a potential UTRGV student.

Services also include weekly Al-Anon meetings, which is a 12-step program strictly for family members and friends of alcoholics and addicts.  

“Culture really dictates how important family is in this process,” Canfield says. Often students may not need treatment themselves, but they are dealing with family members that have addictions and are being impacted by that addiction.  

The 12-step program itself has become a defining part of the Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) Fellowship.  Most people are aware of A.A. thanks to the film and television portrayals of people from all backgrounds coming together to discuss a common struggle.  Sometimes the scene is used for comedy or as a way to bring characters together, but most often it’s meant to drive home the idea that the character has reached rock-bottom.

The defining testaments of A.A. are that it is available in every community – including worldwide. It is open to anyone who is seeking support regardless of race, gender, background and most importantly, there are no wait lists to join a group.  There’s also no cost to membership, as donations are only taken to pay for building usage for meetings.

Although the average A.A. member is a 50-year-old white male, the organization has seen an increase in the number of women seeking help.

Approximately 38 percent of present-day members are women….  Because society has tended to apply different standards to the behavior of women, some women may feel that a greater stigma is attached to their uncontrolled use of alcohol.”

This growing trend is also true for Latinas, as “recent evidence shows some young Hispanic women are drinking as much or even more than young Hispanic men”, and the number of Latinas receiving DUI citations is increasing as the national rate is decreasing for men.

Regardless of a member’s background, A.A. provides a safe space for problem drinkers to receive support from individuals with the same experiences and hopes for sobriety.

Recognizing that there is a problem with addiction is the first hurdle, but receiving the proper help can be just as challenging. This is especially true when nationwide there are not enough local resources to support individuals seeking treatment. The national conversation continues to focus most efforts on prevention and intervention which leaves many struggling individuals to manage their addiction alone.  

Most people think of treatment as going “cold-turkey” and maybe entering a rehab program, but effective treatment includes what happens after the in- or outpatient program is done. Not to mention that treatment often comes from private clinics that have long wait lists.

“[T]here has to be an approach that is on a continuum. There has to be prevention.There has to be intervention. There has to be treatment, which where I think we are lacking in the Valley,” says Canfield. “I think we do a pretty good darn job in prevention, and some intervention detox services.  But we do not have any [in-patient] treatment.”

Local clinics in the Rio Grande Valley offer three to seven days of detox through outpatient services, which does help individuals struggling with addiction to begin the process. However, this is often not enough to manage the addiction long term, which is why the CRP or A.A. is so important.

Whether an individual pursues treatment through professional counseling from an institution such as Tropical Texas Behavioral Health or a private practice counselor, or turns to an organization like the UTRGV Collegiate Recovery Program or a local A.A. group, it is important to take that initial step and seek help.