October 15, 2019
When Cristina Muñiz de la Peña first met the young man and his mother, the teenager was distant. Cristina tried to engage with him, and he couldn’t open up. But as a psychologist, Cristina knew that his behavior reflected deeper traumas and dynamics in his life. The young man had just recently made a life-altering move to the United States from Honduras by himself. After years of living apart from his mother — he in their home country and she in New York City, where she had moved when he was just a boy — they were now reunited and trying to rebuild a connection that had been worn by time and distance.
His mother had brought him to the Terra Firma program in the Bronx, a project supported by Catholic Charities New York, Children’s Health Fund, and Montefiore Medical Center. At Terra Firma, staff like Cristina work with newly-arrived unaccompanied immigrant children and their families to help them access healthcare and legal justice. At CHF, over 40% of the patients we serve identify as Latinx. Having staff who are able to connect with these patients personally — speaking their language and knowing what cultural factors may be influencing them — is essential to providing care that will truly make a difference in their lives.
A Spanish immigrant herself, Cristina found employment upon arrival to the United States thanks to her education. As co-founder and mental health director of Terra Firma, she has come face-to-face with the lives, struggles, and triumphs of children like this young man, who have made difficult and often dangerous journeys to the United States by themselves. “It’s given me a lot of humility, but also responsibility,” she says.
“Working with the families at Terra Firma, I’ve become even more aware of my privilege and the power that comes with it.” She has grappled with how to best use this “power and leverage” to positively impact her patients’ lives. It’s important for her to “honor the voice” of those she serves in her advocacy.
Watch: Cristina testifies before Congress on the harms of family separation
With few studies on the psychological effects of immigration on minors, Cristina found there was no book or roadmap to guide her in this work.“The biggest challenge for me,” she says, “is learning that trauma shows up in a million ways…Trauma for these children is so multi-layered. The social injustice and stressors all show up very differently in each child,” she explains.
But the keys to Terra Firma’s success, Cristina believes, are the access to various critical services this population so desperately needs, the continuity of individual care, and the expansion of those services and care to their extended families and the larger community.
As for the young man who came to Terra Firma with his mother, Cristina eventually suggested that he join a group counseling session. And over the course of several weeks, he became so involved that he asked to come back again and again. A subtle victory on the surface, it reflected an internal change that could lead to more connections and healing. And when the family recently lost their tiny home and everything they own in a fire, they came back to the center for support.
They, like “all the patients,” Cristina says, are representative of the trauma this community faces, as well as their steadfast resilience — which is why she is dedicated to advocating for their rights. She helps her patients harness this strength to thrive and move forward in whatever way they choose for themselves. Children’s Health Fund is proud to support Cristina, Terra Firma, and the life-saving work that is being done every day.