From Adversity to Empowerment: Using Ancestral Stories to Guide Latinx Therapy


The Latinx community finds richness in the art of storytelling folk traditions that have shaped many Latin-American countries since the times of their independence from Spain in the 19th century (Miller, 2004). As bilingual marriage and family therapists (MFTs), supervisors, and instructors at a Hispanic-serving institution, we have witnessed the relevance and power of using culturally attuned stories with our clients. Storytelling evokes positive emotions that facilitate trust, compassion, and empathy (Zak, 2015). Storytelling responds to our human inclination to find meaning in our lives through the creation of individual and collective plots (White & Epston, 1990).

One therapeutic modality that honors our human proclivity to storytelling is Narrative Therapy (White & Epston, 1990). One of its main endeavors is to look closely at how individuals, couples, and groups use culturally available dominant discourses as a frame for their personal and collective experiences (Gehart, 2017). Furthermore, we enthusiastically apply postmodern, culturally responsive methods like Narrative Therapy in our MFT and mentorship programs, which are specially designed to meet the needs of Hispanic individuals, couples, and families. We meticulously consider the socio-cultural framework that shapes our clients’ personal narratives. This requires an authentic sense of curiosity and humility to capture what clients genuinely want to communicate without the filter of our assumptions, similar to the process of suspension of judgment used in phenomenological research, which Husserl called epoché (1931).

Suspending judgment allows us to see the value in exploring various aspects of the prevailing local discourses. This approach proved beneficial when Julian’s practicum team engaged with a Latino client (whom we’ll call Mauricio) through Zoom amidst the pandemic. Mauricio is originally from Colombia and moved to the United States seven years ago. He talked openly about his experiences as he navigated the complex culture of his new country. He struggled with who he was, torn between his native deep-seated customs with these new, strange ways of life. He consistenly encountered different ways of talking and unfamiliar social rules that reminded him he was not from the U.S. Even after many years, he felt like he was invisible. Mauricio felt ignored at work, with friends, and even among those who shared his religious beliefs. It was as though he was there, but not really seen or heard, and his personal stories went unnoticed. While the team listened to his story, we became particularly interested in the deconstruction of the dominant discourses related to acculturation, as we assumed this would help him take agency on those discourses (White, 1992). Part of the deconstruction, we thought, involved being critical of the new cultural values while underscoring his traditional Colombian values. We took an expert stance in externalizing what we all assumed was the problem. This could suggest a potential oversight where we, as facilitators, might have positioned ourselves as experts, thus, externalizing the supposed problem without fully engaging with Mauricio’s perspective. We followed the deconstruction path during the first three sessions until we noticed that our efforts were ineffective. Although we spoke Spanish, it was evident that the therapeutic alliance needed something more to enhance our connection. To cultivate a more effective therapeutic alliance, it was essential to recognize that language fluency alone was not sufficient; consequently, our oversight of his culturally informed narrative choices (McAdams, 2006) was a critical gap in our approach.


El Peñol, Antioquia – Colombia – May 25, 2022. The paisa muleteers had to make their way through the steep and dangerous roads of Antioquia

Mauricio shared that he hails from the western part of Colombia, specifically an area known as Antioquia. Renowned for its dual mountain ranges, the region’s rugged terrain historically posed significant challenges to access and exploration. Travel to and across Antioquia was only possible through the use of mules and oxen (Escobar Villegas, 2012). These animals were ridden by muleteers or “arrieros,” which is the term used by the people of Antioquia. The arrieros were instrumental in the foundation of Antioquia (Escobar Villegas, 2012). Their bravery and willingness to travel to unexplored and almost inaccessible places continue to be important features of the quasi-mythical figure of the arriero. This was a crucial narrative for Mauricio. His ancestral stories of arrieros helped us capture his potential individual redemptive story—a personal account of transformation from adversity to a positive state (McAdams, 2006)—and connect it to a broader collective narrative. Mauricio needed to connect his experience of being an immigrant in the United States to a traditional collective story of arrieros who migrated to unexplored territories to discover individual and collective success. The utilization of individual and unique narratives, as reflected by Bill O’Hanlon, underscores the significance of empowering discourses in addition to externalizing dialogues (Epston, 1993). These stories influence how individuals perceive their world, shape their identities, and determine their possibilities for change. We, informed by postmodern MFT modalities, encourage clients to recount their experiences and, through collaborative conversations, to co-construct alternative narratives that promote healing and empowerment.

With Mauricio, we connected his personal journey as an immigrant to the collective story of arrieros, individuals who historically migrated to uncharted areas in search of success. This provided us with an empowering discourse that validated his experiences and struggles, offering a sense of continuity, belongingness, and hope.

Sculpture of Arriero master Gabriel Vélez Calle. Source: SajoR, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Working within a virtual context, we included audio-visual components that reflected culturally attuned and empowering narratives. Before our fourth session, we explored streaming videos portraying the traditional Colombian arriero. This discernment and use of culturally relevant storytelling videos was crucial to our approach with Mauricio. We watched two brief YouTube videos during the fourth session. Each video started with a description of the heroic role of the arrieros. In addition to strength and a daring sense of adventure, the videos underscored moral values such as respect for family members (TVAgro, 2017), loyalty towards their friends and their community, and honesty and perseverance as central features of the arriero culture (Tamesis Teve, 2020). The heroic and individualistic features of the arriero were complemented by strong collectivistic values. We believed this was an opportunity for Mauricio to embody his ancestors’ narrative identity and their meaningful values (McAdams, 2001). Mauricio expressed how these videos brought back cherished familial relationships and cultural ties that had been overlooked. We considered these reflections and connections as unique outcomes that helped Mauricio envision a preferred narrative (White, 1992).

During the fifth and last session, Mauricio experienced a meaningful realization after watching an arriero express sadness about the fate of the arriero culture in Antioquia (Tamesis Teve, 2020). With a nostalgic expression, Mauricio shared that the younger generations in Colombia are not as interested in embracing the arriero tradition. The video concludes with an arriero selling his mules as his youngest son moves to a more urban context to pursue a different path.

After a moment of silence, Mauricio, in what seemed like an epiphany, said: “I am like a Colombian arriero in the United States.” He expanded on this idea of being an arriero in a foreign country and articulated two moments of his experience as an immigrant: 1) he expressed that he felt like an extension of his family in Colombia and of his native culture. There were times in which he had lost sight of these experiences. We considered Mauricio’s cultural reflections as a meaningful moment in his preferred narrative; 2) he stated that, as his ancestors did, he was also exploring a new territory. His exploration was rooted in the culture of his ancestors, the arrieros. Mauricio was an arriero, an explorer of new opportunities in a new territory, and he was not alone. He was accompanied by many individual and collective stories of success that were the foundation of Antioquia.

The power of storytelling within the Latinx community cannot be underestimated. By embracing culturally attuned narratives, MFTs can foster trust and empathy with their clients. Narrative Therapy, in particular, provides a framework for exploring the dominant discourses that shape our lives and offers an opportunity for individuals to rewrite their stories in a way that aligns with their cultural values. Through the case of Mauricio, we saw the transformative effect that connecting personal experiences to collective narratives can have. By tapping into his ancestral stories of arrieros, Mauricio found a sense of continuity, belongingness, and hope. The use of audio-visual components further enhanced this process, allowing Mauricio to embody and embrace his cultural identity. Overall, storytelling serves as a powerful tool in therapy, empowering individuals to redefine their narratives and promote healing and empowerment.

The utilization of individual and unique narratives, as reflected by Bill O’Hanlon, underscores the significance of empowering discourses in addition to externalizing dialogues.


Julian Crespo, PhD, LMFT, is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor designations. He is an assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy at Our Lady of the Lake University, with teaching responsibilities at both the San Antonio and La Feria campuses. Dr. Crespo is also an instructor for the certificate in Psychological Services for Spanish Speaking Populations at Our Lady of the Lake University. In addition to his academic roles, he fulfills a pivotal function as the director of the Clinic of Marriage and Family Therapy located in La Feria, Texas. In this capacity, Dr. Crespo oversees a range of therapeutic services, while supervising MFT trainees in English and Spanish.

Carlos A. Ramos, PhD, LMFT, BCaBA, is an AAMFT Professional member holding the Approved Supervisor designation. Dr. Ramos’s theoretical orientation is grounded in Ericksonian and systemic concepts. His interests include clinical hypnosis, bilingual supervision and therapy, and qualitative research. He is an assistant professor in the psychology department at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, and the certificate director of Psychological Services for Spanish Speaking Populations. He is the author of:

Ramos, C.A., Castro J., & Velez J.A.G. (2021). Therapeutic Latinx Story-Sharing or Chismorreo. In: m. polanco, N. Zamani, & C.D.H. Kim (Eds.) Bilingualism, Culture, and Social Justice in Family Therapy. AFTA SpringerBriefs in Family Therapy. Springer, Cham.
Ramos, C. A. (2019). Inviting comfortable connections: A case study of a young Latino male with “dysfunctional anger.” Journal of Systemic Therapies, 38(3), 27-40.

Epston, D. (1993). Internalizing discourses versus externalizing discourses. In S. G. Gilligan & R. Price (Eds.), Therapeutic conversations (pp. 161-180). W W Norton & Co.

Escobar Villegas, J. C. (2012). La historia de Antioquia, entre lo real y lo imaginario. Un acercamiento a la versión de las élites intelectuales del siglo XIX. Revista Universidad EAFIT, 40(134), 51–79. Retrieved from https://publicaciones.eafit.edu.co/index.php/revista-universidad-eafit/article/view/879

Gehart, D. R. (2017). Theory-based treatment planning for marriage and family therapists: Integrating theory and practice. Cengage Learning.

Husserl, E. (1931). Ideas: General introduction to pure phenomenology (Vol. 57). Routledge.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of general psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

McAdams, D. P. (2006). The redemptive self: Stories Americans live by. Oxford University Press.

Miller, M. G. (2004). Rise and fall of the cosmic race: The cult of Mestizaje in Latin America. University of Texas Press.

Tamesis Teve. (2020, January 14). Recuerdos de Arriero. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5BabLSFPiU&t=710s

TVAgro (2017, July 20). Los arrieros de Antioquia: Pasado, presente y futuro. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsamYBcq_QU&t=811s

White, M. (1992). Deconstruction and therapy. Dulwich Centre Newsletter, 1, 1-13.

White, M., & Epston, D. (1990). Narrative means to therapeutic ends. W. W. Norton & Company.

Zak, P. J. (2015). The neuroscience of empathy: Progress, pitfalls, and promise. Nature Neuroscience, 18(5), 832-839.

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