Coastsiders may know Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga as the founder and director of Ayudando Latinos a Soñar, a Latino-centered nonprofit that hosts many cultural arts programs, mental health services, and social justice and immigration initiatives.
But Hernandez-Arriaga’s background in social services predates ALAS’s creation in 2011. She has a doctorate in education, is a licensed clinical social worker and is an associate professor at the University of San Francisco. Her studies focus on child trauma and Latino mental health, and for the past 18 years she’s been involved in numerous programs with some of the most marginalized communities in the Bay Area. She’s worked alongside refugee children of San Mateo County and Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall’s mental health program.
In November, Hernandez-Arriaga published “Love and Monsters in Sofia’s Life,” a 60-page children’s book that follows a child’s journey as she experiences fears about deportation while underscoring the important connection to her family and cultural ties. The lead character, Sofia, is based on many of the youth Hernandez-Arriaga has worked with in the past.
The book is available on Amazon and at Ink Spell Books in Half Moon Bay. Hernandez-Arriaga said she’s working on publishing a Spanish version soon.
“This really was born out of my work through my counseling in the Bay Area, from children who shared the fear that they hold in silence,” Hernandez-Arriaga said. “In many ways, people don’t explore this constant worry that their family could be separated through forced deportation.”
Locally, Hernandez-Arriaga is an active member of the Coastside’s Latino community, working with farmworkers and their families while studying immigration trauma and visas available for victims of crime and asylum. She has spoken with many kids and young adults who, even though they may be U.S. citizens, have a lot of internal anxiety about their family’s status in the country. She calls this kind of unchecked trauma an unaddressed mental health issue. From a mental health perspective, she hopes this book can be a key starting point in addressing kids and professional services on such matters.
“This trauma of constantly being scared, under the radar and worried about separation from their loved ones, it’s something that you carry around,” she said. “It’s chronic. It’s anxiety-provoking in many ways, and affects life in many different areas.”
The book also points out a robust support system for children, such as advocacy groups, lawyers and familiar connections. Sofia is introduced to resources that can help her and her family. Hernandez-Arriaga believes the book will offer new perspectives to both children and mental health professionals, or even parents who want to educate their kids on a complex issue.
“Once she lets out this secret she’s been holding, there’s this opportunity for dialogue and sharing,” she said. “And now Sofia becomes stronger in learning that she’s not alone.”
Veronica Castillo Salas, a San Antonio-based artist, created the colorful illustrations for the book. Throughout it, she added small details that evoke more realism to the characters and setting. Hernandez-Arriaga has been a voice for many through her social justice advocacy and community outreach. She knows educating children on complex topics takes patience and persistence. But it might start by turning a few pages.
“My hope is that this book can amplify our activism, both locally and beyond, to really fight for children and families to have their immigration reform that can keep families together,” she said. “Everyone is human. And every child has a right to safety and security and to not have to live in fear every day.”