Image By Tedder (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Guest post by Magdalena Morales-Aina, LPC-S, LPCC

While attending a conference in Anaheim in June 2016, I decided to visit the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects with my friend and colleague Lisa. I was born in East Los Angeles and lived in the housing projects with my parents and four siblings before moving to Texas.

In 2014, my 16-year-old son and I drove into the projects for the first time since moving to Texas over 30 years ago. “Ramona Gardens” sounds like tranquil retreat or an assisted-living community, but when I was growing up there was nothing tranquil about Ramona Gardens Housing Projects. The projects are located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of East Los Angeles, California. I grew up in the 2800 block of Lancaster Ave in the heart of the projects, a few blocks from the hill we had to cross to get to school and a world away from my life today.

Like many folks, I have overcome adversity, pursued higher education, and achieved what I consider professional success. I can say “I love my job”.  As a licensed therapist and criminal justice professional for over 20 years, I never expected for this unplanned visit to have such a profound impact on me. I am no stranger to the effects of trauma, as a matter of fact, I am a Trauma-Informed Care Trainer.

I can’t help but feel that revisiting the projects in 2014 forced me to relive the traumatic events I experienced as a young girl. I am one of five first-generation American children born to poor, low-income, limited English speaking immigrant parents who came to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream.

As I drove through the projects I experienced a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. I felt a sense of pain, anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, and flashbacks of the violence and suffering that I witnessed as a young girl living in Ramona Gardens.

As written in a 2014 LA Times article, the Ramona Gardens projects were built in 1941 at the bottom of a valley bordered by a freeway, warehouses, and railroad tracks. Ramona Gardens is relatively invisible to outsiders. The geography made it nearly a fortress to gang members who lived inside. Separated from the outside community, it housed the poorest of the poor, who became easy prey. At one point, police were told never to venture into the area without heavy backup.” 

After a brief dissociative episode, I regained some level of composure and my son shared his reaction to how my demeanor changed immediately after we parked in front of the building where I spent most of my traumatic childhood.

When I returned home to Texas, I shared my experience with my siblings and learned that many of those horrible experiences are still embedded in their hearts, minds, and sometimes in recurring dreams.