Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program announced its list of 2015 recipients. Out of the more than 2,000 science, engineering and social science graduate students around the world who will be receiving three years of educational funding, 45 hail from UCI—and among them is anthropology student Gray Abarca.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and anthropology from UC Berkeley, Abarca chose to continue his education in UCI’s anthropology program. His research—which earned him the NSF grant—revolves around the practice of acompañamiento emocional (emotional accompaniment), a new type of alternative therapy being practiced within a specific community health organization in the greater Los Angeles area. Abarca focuses on Southern California’s Latino community and this specific organization, as well as solidarity organizations in El Salvador that display similar practices.

Acompañamiento emocional rejects traditional therapeutic practices in which one person is the expert and the other is the patient. In fact, those providing this particular type of psychotherapy (called ‘promotores’) are members of the community that they serve, giving them a very intimate awareness of and deep connection to the people they work with. This allows promotor and patient (referred to as ‘participants’) to view one another as peers.

“In this way, the promotor accompanies the participant on their journey to emotional wellness as opposed to telling them what to do,” Abarca explains. “It’s definitely an exciting practice because it operates through this idea of mutual expertise. There is an attempt at actively making an egalitarian environment. In fact, the promotores avoid using mental health labels since they feel like the labels do more harm than good by impeding relationships. The implication is that equitable and respectful relationships are part of the healing process.”
In an impoverished community like the one Abarca is studying in the greater Los Angeles area, there are constant struggles with social dynamics leaving many residents feeling as if they are powerless and marginalized. The resulting stress can have many adverse effects on the health of the community. So, instead of asserting more authority over these people through vertical relationships, the promotores help to establish a sense of empowerment.

“These are people who are aware that the poverty of a community makes them sick,” Abarca explains. “Inequality makes them sick. And to combat this sickness the promotores don’t just promote health, they also promote a sense of empowerment because that’s often what is lost in these kinds of communities. They try to remind you that you are more than society might make you out to be.”
The goal of this kind of alternative therapy is to transform identities for psychic and emotional well being, and participants are expected to become involved in community activities as part of their treatment.

In the U.S., promotores have just recently been recognized by the public health sector, however because they do not go through schooling—most of them actually reject the idea that formal training is necessary—they are seen as assistants who work for psychologists and trained therapists instead of working directly for their communities.

In El Salvador, Abarca was able to see the broader history of the acompañamiento movement.

“What’s particularly interesting is that the notion of acompañamiento was not originally used as a therapy, but was instead an act of solidarity practiced in a context of war and social movements in El Salvador,” Abarca explains.

After discovering roots tracing back to the Salvadoran civil war and Archbishop Óscar Romero, he believes that this therapy could be key in getting underprivileged communities the physical and emotional help that they really need.

“Óscar Romero was in a position of power as an Archbishop and was definitely a leader, but he wasn’t necessarily telling the people of El Salvador what they needed,” Abarca says. “Instead, he learned from them what they needed and physically joined them in their efforts to obtain it. That’s acompañamiento. My research participants argue that these communities don’t need a leader planning the future for them—they make the road by walking.”

To further understand the practice and its potential on both a local and global scale, Abarca will conduct 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Southern California and San Salvador, El Salvador. He will engage in archival research as well as participant observation to collect data with the goal of understanding the history of acompañamiento, it’s use in a health and activist context, and its trajectory.

“Observing these communities create something despite the lack of adequate resources is truly powerful,” he says. “There’s so much transformative potential to the acompañamiento relationship, and I want to learn what it is.”

Abarca will receive $46,000 per year for three years to fund his study and education. He will begin his field research in September 2016.

—Bria Balliet, School of Social Sciences

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