“Why is there no place for us?”
Many years ago, before recovery mentor Lorena Vences overcame her own addiction, she got a DUI. As was required, she began a recovery program. But the help it was meant to provide wasn’t accessible to Vences, a Spanish speaker, because classes were taught only in English.
“I cannot understand what they’re talking about,” Vences said. “Maybe it was good information, but I cannot get it, because it was not in my language.”
Someone in her program told her about Alcoholics Anonymous classes in Washington County, where she then lived, available in Spanish. Hopeful, she attended.
“But it was just male groups. It was not easy to get in a room full of guys, you know, you, as a woman. And I [had] a really hard time,” Vences said.
Next step — trying out an AA group for women — but back to the old problem. The groups for women in her county were only in English.
“Of course I cannot get the help I need. I cannot understand, I cannot participate, I cannot share my story,” Vences said, recalling her frustration. “It was no benefit for me at all. But I have to do the program because it was required by the law.”
So that’s where she stayed. Doing her own research, she learned of more Spanish language recovery support available — but only for residents of the next county over, Multnomah — just out of reach. All the help she found, little by little, was due to her own initiative seeking it out.
“In the middle of everything, I start to notice: why is there no place for us? Why is there no program for Latinos?”
Years later, now in longtime recovery and certified as a mentor, Vences is helping provide that place for women up against the barriers she faced back then. The new Virginia Lopez House in Portland, where Vences works as a mentor, is the first transitional addiction recovery house specifically for people who identify as Latina in the state of Oregon.
“They are regular people. They are mothers, daughters.”
The Virginia Lopez transitional recovery house, which opened earlier this month, was born out of a triple partnership, with initial funding from the Oregon Health Authority. Efforts were led by Bridges to Change, an addiction recovery nonprofit that provides transitional housing, along with 4D Recovery, a recovery community organization with support services geared towards young adults, ages 18 to 35. NW Instituto Latino, where Vences works as a mentor, became involved with the project through its expertise with the Latinx community. According to its executive director, Miguel Tellez, NW Instituto Latino helped train the mentors and house manager, and is currently helping supervise them. The organization is providing culturally specific resources to help the house cater to the Latinas it serves, he said, with Spanish-language support and resources.
While the Virginia Lopez house provides shelter, Vences said, its role as a transitional recovery house includes connecting residents to outside wraparound services. Residents’ specific needs are identified from an intake interview.
“We refer them to the other services available in the community, because there’s some programs that work with Latinos,” Vences said. “Some examples [are] like food, like clothing, like mental health, like counseling.”
One such program is Central City Concern’s Puentes program, which provides drug & alcohol treatment and mental health care for Spanish speakers, among other resources. Tellez said Puentes can also help with medical and transportation vouchers. While outpatient treatment is not required to live in the house, Tellez said, it’s likely residents would be enrolled in it. Residents maintain their sobriety, frequently attend recovery meetings, and work with a mentor like Vences.
The house has eight beds, for a stay of six to nine weeks. Since opening in early August, four residents have moved in. Tellez said the house has no restrictions in place that would keep transgender women and non-binary people from living there, as well as cisgender Latinas.
“They are regular people,” Vences said when asked what the new residents are like. “They are mothers, you know, daughters. And they [are trying] to overcome their addiction, and [trying] to get in a program where they can develop the ability to not just achieve sobriety, but stay sober.”
“I’m a living example that we can recover.”
As a recovery mentor, Vences’ job is multifaceted. She said she became a mentor “because I want other women to have less trouble, you know?” There are resources that Latinas can rely on for bilingual, bicultural support, “but sometimes the information doesn’t get to the community. It’s hard to find it. So in the way that I went through and found them, so it would be easy for me. Like, ‘I know who can help, I have the information,’ and I can share that information with others,” Vences said.
Beyond resource sharing, though, Vences provides personal support, as a peer.
“[I tell] them that it’s possible, and show them, because I’m a living example that we can recover. That it’s possible to get back on your feet. You can go to school, you can do a career after, you can reconnect with your people, with your family, with society. It is possible. I did it, so I think other people can do it as well,” Vences said.
Part of that is helping residents navigate the cultural stigmas and barriers that Latinas in particular face when it comes to recovering from addiction.
“For Latinas, the mom is kind of on a different level,” Vences said. “A mom is kind of seen as the protector, the caretaker. So it’s important to be able to take care of the kids and the house.”
It’s not welcome in Latinx culture, she said, for women to have problems with addiction.
“It is difficult for them because they feel like a big failure, and they have this problem [accepting] themselves, with the guilt of being who they [aren’t] supposed to be,” Vences said.
Vences knows from experience how difficult it is to fight addiction as a mother — in her own case, she did that work as a single mother of five children. But her kids served as motivation, too.
“One of the things that I keep in my mind is the fact that I can get back to my kids, that my kids need me, and I have to be there,” Vences said. “That’s what is something so powerful inside myself, that will make me go the extra mile, [do] the extra things to try to recover myself, because I know where my place is, and I know that I need to go back.”
This motivation informs a crucial aspect of the Virginia Lopez house: residents are allowed to have up to two of their children, age 10 or younger, live with them during their stay. For Vences, thinking about being separated from her children was almost too painful to put into words.
“As a Latina, for me, it’s one thing that I — it’s my duty. Take care of those kids,” she said. “When you lose your kids, sometimes you lose everything. And you have a hard time to try to get the focus and the strength to do what you need to do. Because you think, ‘why now? Everything is gone. The main thing, the main reason is gone.’ So that’s why it’s important for us, to keep children around … the main idea, why you’re here, what you need to do, is there.”
A few weeks in for the first group of Latinas to live in the Virginia Lopez house, Vences has high hopes for them. She wants them to know that they have resources and community programs that will support them not just now, but after they recover — that people will be there for them when they need it.
“There’s hope in these programs and there’s hope in these people, to be able to recover their lives and become the woman they are,” Vences said.
Latinas with addictions are not evil people, she said.
“It’s not who they are. They’re just ill, they’re just sick. And they need to recover.”
And now, they have a place to do that.
To hear more of OPB’s interview with certified recovery mentor Lorena Vences, click on the audio player at the top of this page.