Humor as a Coping Mechanism for Trauma in the Latino Community

Humor and Trauma Latinos BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of Medium.

“Laughter is the best medicine,” the saying goes. And perhaps in the face of trauma, it is truer than ever.

At a time when memes and funny online videos sometimes help us disconnect from reality and finally be able to fall asleep, humor seems to be a key element in coping with the worst of times.

“It’s more than just medicine. It’s survival,” said Erica Rhodes, a Los Angeles comedian.

“Even during the Holocaust, people told jokes,” Rhodes said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “Laughter is a symbol of hope, and it becomes one of our greatest needs of life, right up there with toilet paper. It’s a physical need people have. You can’t underestimate how it heals people and gives them hope.”

Two studies published by Stanford University in 2011 showed that the most effective form of cognitive reappraisal — reinterpreting situations in positive ways — is good-natured comedy.

Researchers at Stanford’s Psychophysiology Lab demonstrated that comedy is a more effective coping strategy than solemnity in the face of stressful images, and positive, optimistic humor is more effective than cynicism.

A fundamental tool for Latinos

For Guillermo Avila-Saavedra of Salem State University’s Department of Communications, comedy proves to be an “interesting” site for investigating the symbolic articulations of U.S. Latino identity. Although Avila-Saavedra examines humor through television comedic discourses (including George Lopez, Carlos Mencia, and Freddie Prinze Jr.), humor is anchored at the intersection between identity and revalorization.

In fact, Avila-Saavedra finds that the most recurring themes in Latino humorous discourse are reclaiming the insult and affirming otherness, two survival tools for communities coping with the trauma of otherness.

“The use of Latino and non-Latino cultural stereotypes as [a] source of humor fulfills a dual purpose: On one hand, it affirms a collective sense of Latino ethnic identity, but on the other hand, it claims inclusion into a broader American mainstream,” Avila-Saavedra concludes.

“The analysis identifies strategies to affirm otherness, such as the use of Spanish and highlighting cultural differences, as well as strategies to assert Americanness, such the endorsement of traditional American narratives. Reclaiming the ethnic insult becomes an effective way to depoliticize the ethnic joke, therefore easing social tensions.”

What Avila-Saavedra calls “to reclaim the insult” is often transformed, as in the case of humorist George Lopez, into the indiscriminate use of the racist trope, even if it is at the expense of one’s own experience.

Not everything is popular culture

From Ugly Betty to Sofia Vergara, the over-typification of the Latina, for example, is cooked between two discourses: the superficial one that perpetuates the concept of the “hot Latina” and the deeper one that seeks to describe aspects of our idiosyncrasy that go beyond tacos and immigration.

And the risk of scorn is precisely that of perpetuating codes that have done us more harm than good.

As J.N. Reyna wrote in a 2013 column, there are reasons why people are increasingly sensitive to stereotypes and certain types of humor. Citing recent research, Reyna argues that derogatory humor is associated with greater acceptance of discrimination against disparaged groups.

But what happens when humor is a tool for coping with trauma?

For Carl Gutierrez-Jones, author of the research article Humor, Literacy and Trauma in Chicano Culture, what is crucial in the relationship between humor and trauma is “the discursive and rhetorical self-consciousness that is attributed to humor.”

That is, beyond self-mockery, humor for Latinos is a way of appropriating their own identity, becoming aware of the winding reality of struggles and obstacles, and transforming it into the strength and energy behind growth and survival.