12/05/2014 04:17 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2015

Immigration and Mental Health: The Mexica Bussing My Table

Aca bussed tables at my upscale coffee spot.

We never talked in that world and there was only the slightest superficial courtesy of recognition between us. I'm part of the crowd that cleans up after myself. It may have been that small egalitarian act that first caught his attention and made him look past my uniform.

I knew nothing about Aca. He fit my illusion, maybe delusion, of the prototypical Mexican immigrant; short, dark, stocky, only older, and of course willing to do the work we Americans will no longer do.

For some reason we kept intersecting. In the back of the shop, a parking lot, the check-stand at the market, and once in a totally unrelated part of town. We were confused in that moment, caught outside the comfort of our assigned places. In that discomfort we bore witness to the cultural burdens, prejudices, and biases of the older men we were.

On that day, out on a foster child assessment in an economically challenged part of town, I was not so surprised to see him when I stopped at a market for some water. His bias was just the opposite. He was clearly startled to see this well-heeled white gentleman in that setting.

It may have been the humbling effect of our mutual frailty that led him to reveal his story to me.

I could call him Aca, but his real name was Acamapichtli, named for his family line dating back to that first Aztec emperor, with a lineage extending to the great Toltec ruler Quetzalcoatl. As he spoke he transformed from coffee shop boy into noble statesman. He apologized for his English and "heavily perfumed accent," broken and mixed with Spanish phrases, all with a built in apology as he finished each thought with comprende? I congratulated him on his mastery of the language with the ignoble disclosure of my twelve years in Miami, moving away barely able to utter dónde está el baño....more laughter, more relax.... Acamapichtli went on.

He had arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico some 10 years before, a dentist forced to abandon his ancestral home during a particularly violent period in that country's drug wars.

Aca was a dentist?
He saw the surprise on my face and smiled. I noticed his perfect teeth and took another bite of my bacon and bias sandwich. Had I expected decaying dental work?

He'd had a very successful práctica, employing several staff in an ultra- modern office space. He drove a fancy car and lived with his family in a Casa Grande. Everyone knew him and looked up to him. Because of his family name, he was known as el Dentista Aristócrata.

Aca had expected to continue his practice and life as he had known it.
But here in the U.S. his license was not recognized and all of a sudden he was no longer the gentleman doctor. Now he was just another Mexican immigrant looking for work; and he was not young. Within 2 years his money had run out and he was forced to send his family back to the anxious situation they had moved from.

Now he was alone.
More low level jobs, firings and quittings(sic) in an endless battle for dignity. A stint of sickness without health insurance had left him physically shaky and finally, homeless. He laughed as he told me of his lowest moment, the foundation on which he'd begun to rebuild his life; drunk and railing against America with some compañeros under a downtown bridge. He had been one of the chosen people of Aztlan, special and unique in Mexico. Now, here in America, he was simply mexcrement.

Immigration and Mental Health

According to Dr. Lawrence Kirmayer's study on immigrant mental/emotional health, resettlement can initially bring elevated feelings of hope and optimism. However, these feelings may soon be replaced by "disillusionment, demoralization, and depression" as initial hopes and expectations are not met and compounded as immigrants "face enduring obstacles....and inequalities aggravated by exclusionary policies, racism and discrimination."

That study and others describe pre and post migration conditions affecting mental health and how they may play out differently according to factors such as gender, age, or 1st, 2nd or 3rd generational family positions.

It is easy enough to point out research correlating far off and away terms like racism, cultural bias, or white privilege, and grouping peoples (Mexicans become Latin, Japanese become Asian) for convenience. It puts it all out there.... somewhere else.... away from us. It becomes numbers, statistics and coffee shop banter, well meaning but rarely actionable.

I close with the popular saying "all politics is local," and add my own bent on it. Start at home, down the street, in the market, and of course, in your local coffee spot. We can all, at a certain point, stand outside of ourselves, take notice of our frailties, our foibles, and recognize each other in our uniqueness and commonality.

And for God's sake, buss your own table.

Dr. Robert Lusson is a Professional Psychologist living in Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at

References and terms
Kirmayer, L. J., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A. G., Guzder, J., & ... Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: general approach in primary care. CMAJ: Canadian Medical Association Journal = Journal De L'association Medicale Canadienne, 183(12), E959-E967. doi:10.1503/cmaj.090292
All politics is
Mexica, Acamapichtli: