“I felt anxious before I came here today,” Rosa Valdes said as she arranged her Educated Chola T-shirts, totes and mugs inside the Cafe Girasol coffee shop in Boyle Heights. “Just because I take anti-anxiety medication, it doesn’t mean it’s gone.”
While friend and colleague Beth Guerra, a brand strategist she met at the Los Angeles Economic Equity Accelerator & Fellowship program at Cal State L.A., offers support and helps soothe her nerves for a photo shoot, Valdes takes a deep breath and forges ahead.
Valdes is used to living with anxiety. In 2018, the 33-year-old entrepreneur was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder that left her with insomnia, little appetite and migraine headaches.
“When it’s bad, I ruminate in my thoughts more and I develop depression,” she said. “I don’t think non-neurodivergent people understand how much one has to fight with their own brain when they have a mental health condition.”
Today, she is funneling that energy into her own line of T-shirts, tote bags, stickers and jewelry, which range in price from $3 to $40 and are designed to inspire other Latinos to become more comfortable with talking about their mental health.
“It’s looked down upon to talk about mental health in my culture,” Valdes said as she folded T-shirts bearing the slogans “Tengo Muchos Feelings” and “Respira Profundo” (Take a Deep Breath). “The whole point of my business is to create awareness about mental health. There’s no shame in taking medication, although it has a huge stigma in communities of color.”
Guerra said she has experienced the same issues as Valdes, whose parents immigrated from Tijuana. “Our backgrounds are very different,” Guerra said of her friend. “I am a fourth generation Latina while Rosa is first generation, and yet it’s very much the same in both our worlds. Mental health is not something we talk about. Going to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist is a very big deal.”
Despite surrounding herself with friends such as Guerra, Valdes knows that it’s easy to feel alone, especially as a woman of color who has been taught to internalize her feelings. “While the new age of Latinos may be more open about their mental health, there are still many who don’t want their families to know they are struggling or even getting help,” she said.
Valdes’ assertion is backed up by a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that Latinos do not seek out therapy at the same rates as other racial or ethnic groups.
Such feelings are what prompted Valdes to try to normalize mental health struggles by interlacing her products with humor. “I try to be as funny as I can,” Valdes said, “because if I’m feeling down and can bring some laughter to my day or to someone else, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.”
At the Unique L.A. makers event in downtown Los Angeles last year, Valdes elicited laughter among customers as she shared stickers printed with humorous slogans such as “Always Tired” and “Amygdala ¡Callate!” alongside serotonin-molecule bracelets and colorful pill-shaped earrings representing lithium, Cymbalta, Xanax and Prozac.
“I think it is a fun but subtle way of breaking the mental health stigma of taking medication,” Valdes said of the earrings. “I always love explaining them to people and am happy to do so if it helps.”
Valdes was born in Boyle Heights and grew up in southeast Los Angeles. After her father died when she was 5, she and her two sisters were raised by her mother, who encouraged Valdes to “take a breath” when times were hard. “It works,” she said with a smile.
Valdes’ crusade to get people talking about mental health is based on her experience with life-long anxiety.
“I clearly remember being depressed at one point but not knowing what it was,” she said of her youth. “In regards to anxiety, I have always been very ambitious and a perfectionist, to the point where it would just exhaust me. So I was always trying to get the best grades since I was in third grade because I felt that if I didn’t get into the honor roll, in honors or AP classes, that I wouldn’t get into college. Now we know that is not exactly true, but that’s something you do with anxiety: You catastrophize and assume the worst. I did everything I could to potentially prevent failure.”
While attending graduate school at New York University, where she received a master’s degree in public administration, Valdes felt like she didn’t measure up to the other students. “I think myself and other students of color have impostor syndrome,” she explained, “but we are so good at hiding it, or acting like we know what we’re doing, that it usually just gets suppressed so that we can continue to move forward.”
After graduating from NYU, she took a job working for a nonprofit, where she found it difficult to advance. “I learned that nonprofits are not a healthy place for people of color,” she said. “I had my master’s degree, and yet I got a job at the same rate of pay as before. Many institutions aren’t built for people of color to succeed.” Also, the job did not help her mental health. “I already have impostor syndrome,” Valdes said quietly. “It exacerbated that.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Valdes decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning her own business. Using her savings and continuing to work full-time as a leasing agent, she started Educated Chola, inspired by the things she felt deeply about. “‘Always Tired’ came from the fact that my brain is always going,” she said. “With anxiety, it’s constant. You’re thinking and worrying all the time. You have to interrupt yourself, which is probably why I’m always tired. If I can catch it, then I don’t spiral and worry about things that I don’t need to worry about.”
Inspired by her transparency and vulnerability, Valdes’ TikTok and Instagram accounts are often jammed with direct messages from followers who want to try therapy and are curious about her experience.
“When we go to events or pop-ups, people will see the pill earrings and open up and talk about their mental health with Rosa,” Guerra said. “It’s awesome to watch her breaking stigmas in real time.”
Although Valdes stresses that she is not a medical professional, she is comfortable talking about her own mental health experience in the hopes that it will generate conversations at home.
“I always tell people that regardless of what your family or culture says, do what’s best for you,” she said. “It’s your mental health. Find what works for you and know that it’s OK to be scared when seeking professional mental health [help]. That fear and shame is the exact reason why I created this business.”
Asked what advice she would give to other Latinos who are grappling with anxiety and depression, Valdes suggested testing out the waters with family first. “See what their feelings are about mental health, as well as how supportive they would be if you shared your struggles,” she said. “If they seem supportive, then wonderful. If not, don’t let that hinder your pursuit of taking care of your mental health.
“As a part of our culture, we tend to feel like we have to share everything with everyone, in particular our families, but we are allowed to keep things for ourselves,” she continued. “And in this case, you are the most important one to take care of first. You can’t do anything to help anyone else if you don’t make yourself a priority.”
Having lots of feelings is hard and exhausting, she said. “I have a full-time job and I’m constantly trying to create new ideas. I pour everything into my days off. Eventually, it builds up, and by the time I realize my anxiety is off the charts, I realize I should have called my psychiatrist before I end up in a ball crying. That kick-starts me to reset. This year, I’m telling myself to do less and not feel bad about it.”
As she looks ahead, Valdes hopes to turn Educated Chola into a full-service brand. “I’d like to create a database of resources to help people navigate mental health depending on their insurance or lack of insurance,” she said. “I’ve been on Medicaid before, and it’s very hard to navigate and find mental health services. They make it sound super easy. It’s not.”
At some point, she’d like to have her own self-care events or a conference where she can offer group therapy to anyone who would like to participate.
In the meantime, she will continue to sell her products at Molcajete Tienda in Montebello, Cafe Girasol in Boyle Heights, online and at various pop-up events, such as LatinaFest on March 19.
Being vulnerable comes with risks, but the reactions she has received about her products have been worthwhile.
“I’ve had people come up to me and thank me for being so open about my mental health issues,” Valdes said. “People will send me hugs or good vibes on my social media accounts, and I’ll take all the good vibes. But I tell them, ‘Do it for someone in your life. Do it for yourself.’”