La Casa’s Wellness and Culture Talking Circle is a new twist on programming

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A new initiative started this year by Indiana University’s La Casa Latino Cultural Center, a program within IU’s Office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs (OVPDEMA), is somewhat unique when compared to some of its other offerings. La Casa’s Wellness and Culture Talking Circle series, which occurs monthly, combines aspects of Latin American culture with a wellness check for students.

The series was brainstormed by La Casa Director Lillian Casillas-Origel and staff member Leticia Zapata Gonzalez. The duo wanted students to feel comfortable opening up about their concerns, while incorporating cultural traditions from different Latin American communities.

“It’s really hard to get the students to come to mental-health programs dealing with stress, depression, etc. So, one of the things that the students gave us feedback about was they wanted to see more cultural events. They wanted to explore more diversity within Latin American culture. In the Latino community, we have these talking circles. When we have problems, we have a tendency not to go to mental-health professionals. Instead, we keep it within the family,” said Casillas-Origel. 

“So, we thought how use the relationship they have with the center—it’s a community, a family—how do we use that as a way of getting them to talk, and can we incorporate a cultural component to it? The idea was similar to the quilting bees, where women would get together to sew and as they sewed, they’d talk to each other. We decided we’d do it once a month and every month, we would highlight a different culture and a different craft. We brought those three things together: The idea of talking about something to do with mental health, bringing in the talking circle, and creating a cultural component.”

Not only is it attracting a new audience, but they bring other new people. That’s what we like to see happen in our programming. It’s a communal retention initiative. 

La Casa Director, Lillian Casillas-Origel

Zapata Gonzalez, who Casillas-Origel claims is the more artistic of the pair, expounded about the craft-making portion of the event, which has drawn as many as 30 student participants.

“We’ve made Guatemalan worry dolls, canvas bags with Brazilian flowers, and now, we’re making Peruvian gourds,” she said. “It’s very therapeutic. Students talk a little bit and distress as they’re working on their projects. They didn’t want to sit and talk. I think it’s easier if they sit and do something. That’s the hook.”

Thursday evening at La Casa, there was a definite sense of community as conversation flowed while students worked on their gourds.

“I’m not creatively inclined, but I like the events. I thought it was cool to learn about how different cultures practice stress relief through the arts. I was a little skeptical at first. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able create this,’ but the instructions were pretty clear and it was nice that while we were doing it, we were able to learn about the significance,” said Stephanie Huezo, a Ph.D. student in history from the Bronx, N.Y.

“I’m a Latin American historian, so I was into it from the beginning. But I think having Lillian explain why they did the talking circles, how they came about, and the importance behind it was really helpful, because we have our ideas of how we can relieve our stress here. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s nice to get to know more about ways that other cultures and other people in different countries do it. Part of that stress reliever was that you forget about everything, even though you’re creating something to help you with that stress.”

Students paint during La Casa’s Wellness and Culture Talking Circle series.

La Casa brings in a campus partner to co-sponsor each event. The Office of International Services was Thursday’s partner, and past partners include the Center for Human Growth and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

“One of the reasons we came up with the gourds was that we were looking at different cultures. The ideas of gourds came up because gourds are very fall-related. We have a garden here, and people usually pick pumpkins and gourds in the fall. We did research on Latin American gourds and Peru kept coming up,” said Casillas-Origel.

“The goal is to focus on a different Latin American country every month. For the spring, we haven’t made a decision yet. We want to do it as authentic as we can, but the challenge is buying materials from an approved vendor in the United States that’s not ridiculously expensive and for those of us who are not artistically inclined, something that we can learn and teach while making sure we’re being culturally sensitive. That’s kind of our criteria.

“I’ve seen people that have come back since then and they’re not my regulars. Not only is it attracting a new audience, but they bring other new people. That’s what we like to see happen in our programming. It’s a communal retention initiative. We’re not just celebrating culture and giving them free food. With this event, we want to bring culture in without doing something as big as Day of the Dead. So, to do it in smaller doses, that’s where the Wellness and Culture Talking Circle series comes in.”