“I felt anxious before coming here today,” Rosa Valdes said as she arranged it Educated Chola T-shirts, totes and mugs at Cafe Girasol in Boyle Heights. “Just because I take anti-anxiety medication, doesn’t mean it’s gone.”
While friend and colleague Beth Guerra, a brand strategist she met in the Los Angeles Economic Equity Accelerator & Fellowship program at Cal State LA, offers support and helps calm her nerves for a session of photo, Valdes takes a deep breath and moves forward.
Valdes is used to living with anxiety. In 2018, the 33-year-old entrepreneur was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder that left him with insomnia, poor appetite and migraines.
“When it’s bad, I ruminate more in my thoughts and develop depression,” he said. “I don’t think non-neurodivergent people understand how much one has to struggle with their brain when they have a mental health condition.”
Today, he’s infused that energy into his 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 talking about their mental health.
“It’s frowned upon to talk about mental health in my culture,” Valdes said as he folded T-shirts with the slogans “Tengo Muchos Feelings” and “Respira Profundo” (Take a deep breath). “The whole point of my business is to create awareness of mental health. There is no shame in taking medication, even though it has a huge stigma in communities of color.”
Guerra said she had the same problems as Valdes, whose parents immigrated from Tijuana. “Our backgrounds are very different,” Guerra said of his friend. “I’m a fourth generation Latina while Rosa is the first generation, but it’s very equal in our two 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 like Guerra, Valdes knows it’s easy to feel alone, especially as a woman of color who has been taught to internalize her feelings. “While the new era of Latinos may be more open about their mental health, there are still many who don’t want their families to know they’re struggling or even get help,” he said.
Valdes’ claim is supported by a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Latinos do not seek 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 infusing his products with humor. “I try to be as funny as I can,” Valdes said, “because if I’m feeling down and I can bring a little laugh to my day or someone else’s, I feel like I’ve done something.”
At the Unique LA makers event in downtown Los Angeles last year, Valdes drew laughs from customers as he handed out stickers printed with humorous slogans like “Always Tired” and “Amygdala ¡Callate!” next to serotonin molecule bracelets and colorful pill-shaped earrings representing lithium, Cymbalta, Xanax and Prozac.
“I think it’s a fun but subtle way to break the mental health stigma of taking medication,” Valdes said of the earrings. “I always like to explain to people and I’m 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 their mother, who encouraged Valdes to “take a breather” when times were tough. “It works,” he said with a smile.
Valdes’ crusade to get people talking about mental health is based on her experience with lifelong anxiety.
“I clearly remember being depressed at one point, but I didn’t know what it was,” he said of his youth. “In terms of anxiety, I have always been very ambitious and a perfectionist, to the point that I just exhausted myself. 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, I didn’t get into college. Now we know that’s not exactly true, but it’s something you do with anxiety: you catastrophize and assume the worst. I’ve done all that that could prevent failure.”
While attending graduate school at New York University, where he received a master’s degree in public administration, Valdes felt like he wasn’t up to par with other students. “I think me and other students of color have impostor syndrome,” he explained, “but we’re so good at hiding, or acting like we know what we’re doing, that it’s usually just suppressed in a way that we can continue to do. progress.”
After graduating from NYU, he took a job working for a non-profit, where he found it difficult to advance. “I learned that nonprofits are not a healthy place for people of color,” he said. “I had my master’s degree, and I still had a job at the same rate of pay as before. Many institutions are not built for people of color to succeed.” Moreover, the work did not help his mental health. “I already have impostor syndrome,” Valdes said quietly. “It aggravated this.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Valdes decided to fulfill a lifelong dream of owning his own business. Using her savings and continuing to work full-time as a leasing agent, she started Educated Chola, inspired by things she felt deeply about. “‘Always tired’ came from the fact that my brain is always running,” he said. “With anxiety, it’s constant. You think and worry 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 have need to worry.”
Inspired by his transparency and vulnerability, Valdes’ TikTok and Instagram accounts are often filled with direct messages from followers who want to try the therapy and are curious about their experience.
“When we go to events or pop-ups, people see the pill earrings and open them and talk about their mental health with Rosa,” said Guerra. “It’s great to watch their stigma break in real time.”
Although Valdes insists he’s not a medical professional, he’s comfortable talking about his own mental health experience in hopes it will spark conversations at home.
“I always tell people that regardless of what your family or culture says, do what’s best for you,” he said. “It’s your mental health. Find what works for you and know that it’s okay to be afraid when you seek 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 dealing with anxiety and depression, Valdes suggested testing the waters with family first. “See what their feelings are about mental health, and how supportive they will be if you share your struggles,” she said. “If they seem supportive, then wonderful. If not, don’t let that stop you from looking after your mental health.
“As part of our culture, we tend to feel that we have to share everything with everyone, especially our families, but we’re allowed to keep things to ourselves,” he continued. “And in this case, you’re the most important to take care of first. You can’t do anything to help someone else if you don’t make yourself a priority.”
Having a lot of feelings is hard and tiring, he said. “I have a full-time job and I’m constantly trying to create new ideas. I do everything on my days off. Eventually, it accumulates, and when I realized that my anxiety is off the charts, I realized that I should call my psychiatrist before ending up in a crying ball. That kick-starts me reset. This year, I tell myself to do less and I don’t feel bad about it.
As he looks ahead, Valdes hopes to turn Educated Chola into a full-service brand. “I want to create a database of resources to help people navigate mental health depending on their insurance or lack of insurance,” he said. “I’ve been on Medicaid before, and it’s very difficult to navigate and find mental health services. They make it sound super easy. It’s not.”
At some point, she would like to have her own self-care events or a conference where she can offer group therapy to anyone who wants to attend.
Meanwhile, he will continue to sell his products in Molcajete Tienda in Montebello, Cafe Girasol in Boyle Heights, online and in various pop-up events, such as LatinaFest on the 19th of March.
Being vulnerable comes with risks, but the reactions he has received on his products have been worth it.
“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 accounts, and I take all the good vibes. But I tell them, ‘Do it for someone in your life.’ Do it for yourself.”