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Treating Latinos' Alcohol, Drug Dependency Sensitively : Social services: Casa Libre in Bell Gardens is one of the few programs of its kind in Los Angeles County.

June 20, 1993|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Frank Melendez, who began drinking at 9 and become an alcoholic by 15, was a Guatemalan immigrant who spoke no English when he arrived in the United States in the late 1950s.

But Melendez refused to become a statistic. He found treatment, went to college and began helping others like himself. Today, as program director for Casa Libre in Bell Gardens, Melendez runs one of Los Angeles County's few programs that treats Spanish-speaking families for alcohol and drug dependency.

The majority of Casa Libre's clients are immigrants from Mexico and the rest mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, Melendez said.

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Under his tenure, the number of clients served monthly has doubled from 50 to 100, Melendez said. He has instituted a series of programs to complement the organization's main mission: to treat Latin American immigrants in a culturally sensitive way.

Latino immigrants often are afraid of getting help, Melendez said. "They're afraid of being deported. Most of them can't read or write in their own language, so they get here and feel very lost."

Latin culture also encourages family members to view drinking--even to excess--as socially acceptable and to remain silent about domestic violence, Melendez said. "They're taught not to say anything to anybody about what's going on at home, to keep it a secret. It's a very strong part of the culture," he said.

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Most of Melendez's clients are struggling financially, exacerbating any drinking problems they might have, he said. Drinking "makes the world easier to live in, makes it much more tolerable. That's why people drink. It's not to beat their wife or end up in jail." Melendez speaks from experience. By 18, he was drinking a couple of bottles of tequila a day, he said, mostly to escape the stress of living with an alcoholic father who was violent with his family.

By 23, Melendez knew that he was in trouble. "I saw my father die from alcohol three years before. And I was in trouble with the law for drinking and gangs. I finally saw what I was doing to my family. That made me wake up."

Melendez went to Alcoholics Anonymous and started a new life, getting his degree in psychology and specializing in chemical dependency.

At Casa Libre, Melendez has built a program that encourages clients to view the center as a social gathering place. In addition to family, couples and adolescent counseling, Casa Libre arranges picnics, dances, sports programs, games and outings for teen-agers, such as trips to museums and concerts.

"There's a very strong connection between me and the families I serve," he said. "When I see kids getting better, marriages improving, I see their happy faces at dances and social events, it makes me feel satisfied to know I'm helping people who wouldn't otherwise have had help."

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