Virginia Paloma (Spain)

What attracted you to community psychology?

Within the academic field, I have been fortunate to have had mentors who helped me to mature intellectually, to initiate me in committed and socially useful research, and to meet a scientific community—that of community psychology—with the same intellectual concerns and personal values as me. Specifically, it was Prof. Manuel García-Ramírez who introduced me to Liberation Psychology and, from there, I came across community psychology.

From the beginning, I was “in love” with Ignacio Martín-Baró, the greatest exponent of Liberation Psychology, a current that emerged in the 1970s in Latin America. This current emphasizes the role that structural dynamics and asymmetrical relations of power play in human suffering. It also encourages building a transformative practice from academia that advocates for the rights and well-being of oppressed people. I remember that one of the first texts that Prof. Manuel García-Ramírez shared with me was “War and Mental Health”.

Later, I did a research stay at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas in El Salvador, where Martín-Baró did most of his work. I still fondly remember how I dusted off many of his writings from the shelves of the university library. I went crazy photocopying all the material I could find of his—at a time when his work was not yet digitized. In fact, the folder with all this material that I brought back to Spain is still one of my greatest academic treasures.

What makes community psychology attractive for you?

For me, community psychology (CP) is attractive because I feel that this discipline aligns with my own intellectual concerns and personal values.

My parents raised me in a family environment characterized by intellectual restlessness and concern and help for people in socially vulnerable situations. My upbringing took place largely within a Christian community in a working-class neighborhood. Before I was born, my parents decided to move from a more privileged area of the city to this neighborhood, as a way of being consistent with their own ideals and values. This decision by my parents meant that I grew up in an attentive and intellectually stimulating family environment (my father always had a book to offer me, and my mother accompanied me every afternoon when doing my school homework), along with a largely challenging social environment. For example, I remember that my high school was right next to a slum settlement and my peers were—what I would now consider—an at-risk population in terms of drug use, dropping out of school, teenage pregnancy, etc. At the same time, I remember going with my parents to various demonstrations, protesting in front of the courts against the imprisonment of people who opted for insubordination, temporarily hosting homeless people at home, receiving recurring visits from people with mental health problems or with some kind of functional diversity, etc. We were a family firmly rooted and involved with the reality of our environment.

All this undoubtedly had an impact on my way of being, my dreams, fears, concerns, etc., which clearly led to my professional choice. So, this is why CP was attractive to me (and I decided to specialize in it): because I thought it was a way to be useful to others through my work, contributing as far as I could to generate more individual well-being and social justice in our world.

Please tell us about an event that was formative for your engagement with community psychology.

It is difficult for me to think of a single event. Rather, I believe that it was a series of events that took place at the beginning of my formative period as a researcher (2007-2010) that were key to understanding my engagement with community psychology.

In 2007, when I finished my degree in psychology, I helped Prof. Manuel García-Ramírez to organize in Seville the seminar “Integrating New Migrants in New Europe: A Challenge for Community Psychology”. Here, I had the opportunity to meet in person Isaac Prilleltensky and Maritza Montero, two authors I had already read. Hearing them firsthand was exciting. In 2008, we founded CESPYD: The Center for Community Research and Action at the University of Seville. That same year, I participated in my first conference in CP (which coincided with the II International Conference that took place in Lisbon, Portugal). Both events helped me to deepen my identity as a community psychologist.

In 2009, I made a research stay in El Salvador, where I could learn about the work of Martín-Baró and witness situations of oppression that consolidated my interest in doing work that would serve to advocate for social change. That same year, I also participated in the 12th Biennial Conference of the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) in New Jersey, USA. This brought me closer to the scientific community in the United States, something that was consolidated to a great extent after a research stay at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2010, invited by Fabricio Balcázar.

In your assessment, why is community psychology very useful for working with immigrants?

My studies have been analyzing the degree of subjective well-being—and other related variables—of migrants and refugees in situations of social vulnerability. To this end, I have understood that mental health is closely linked both to individual strengths and the existing social justice in the receiving context. On the other hand, my studies have been characterized by trying to improve this subjective well-being. To this end, I have designed community-based intervention proposals that make use of the community’s own strengths and resources, in order to increase mental health by promoting processes of resilience and psychological empowerment (moving away from individualistic and pathologizing visions).

In this sense, CP offers me a valuable conceptual framework to (a) understand mental health from an ecological or multilevel approach, where the intersecting oppressive social determinants have a great impact on the lives of migrants; (b) design, implement, and evaluate community interventions from a collaborative approach with other social agents and allied disciplines; (c) emphasize the strengths of migrant people and communities, who are considered agents of change; (d) respect, value, and celebrate cultural diversity; and (e) consider research as a way to understand social reality, transform it, and advocate for more inclusive and fair policies.

What are the main challenges community psychologists in Spain are facing today?

In Spain, the Official College of Psychology only defines the specialty of “Social Intervention Psychology,” presenting it as the field within psychology interested in contributing to the study and improvement of social problems. The reference journal in Spain within this field is Psychosocial Intervention. Thus, CP itself is not formally defined, and can be considered as a specific approach within Social Intervention Psychology. This means that there is no easy identification as a “community psychologist.” Moreover, in the academic field, communication networks among psychologists who define themselves as “community psychologists” are scarce. Therefore, I believe that one of the main challenges is to establish meetings within the Spanish territory to identify ourselves, share projects, and seek synergies among us.

Please provide a painting (or mural) that, for you, symbolizes what CP is about.

I have chosen the painting “Almond Blossom” by Vincent van Gogh, painted during his stay in the psychiatric center of Saint-Rémy (France) in 1890. This painting suggests to me the importance of beauty, the beginning of spring and of a new life. CP, like an almond blossom, represents for me hope in life and in a better world.