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Former telenovela actress promotes mindfulness to Madison Latinos

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Silvia Eugenia Ruiz, also known as Silvia Eugenia Derbez, is a former prominent Mexican telenovela actress currently living in Madison. She comes from a family heavily involved with acting and television, including her uncle, Eugenio Derbez, who recently broke into Hollywood.

But Ruiz’s life changed when the the death of a loved one drove her to immerse herself in mindfulness practices to cope. That set her on an unlikely path, where she is now looking for ways to bring mindfulness to the Latino community in Madison. She has already facilitated a few sessions at Centro Hispano and hopes to establish an official class.

Ruiz grew up in the halls of Televisa, the first and largest Spanish-speaking media company in the world, based out of Mexico City. She accompanied her grandma Silvia Derbez, a Mexican film and telenovela actress, to the studios.

Ruiz started her career on television at 7 years old. She recalls a frantic producer desperately looking for help while she waited for her grandma, who was trying on a wig. The producer approached her and asked her to act in a show.

“They had an emergency. It seemed like someone bailed and so I started in a show called ‘Que nos pasa’ and I played the daughter of Hector Suarez for three years,” Ruiz said. “I was very young but that’s how I started my career.”

Ruiz has acted in more than 20 telenovelas — Spanish-speaking soap operas — television series and films. She was 17 when she first acted in a telenovela.

“It was a big goal of mine, especially having a great example at home, the person who raised me,” Ruiz said. “She wasn’t just a pretty star with a pretty face and a good body that smiled, but she was an actress who prepared herself very well for her characters.”

However, a time came when Ruiz’s values and desires to be in telenovelas strongly changed, and she has since put her acting career on hold.

Ruiz said being public figure in Mexico was both a strength and a weakness.

“Because the more work I had, the more income and recognition I had. But there was also a weakness there. I say weakness because there was something in me that was searching for something more authentic and genuine that I wasn’t finding,” Ruiz said. “I had these opportunities and certainties but there was something telling me this wasn’t my path.”

While Ruiz took care of her grandmother after she was diagnosed with cancer, her grandma noticed Ruiz wasn’t convinced about her acting career. Before she died, her grandmother advised Ruiz to search for her authentic self to truly flourish.

When Ruiz’s grandmother passed away in 2002, she turned to mind-body intervention techniques to help alleviate the pain. Ruiz said she found her authentic self like her grandmother had advised.

She began to do performance art with social justice messages. She continued her training in mindfulness during this time and noticed reduced stress in her life. She eventually became an assistant and then a teacher.

In 2013, Ruiz went to a mindfulness retreat in Quebec where she fell in love and met her spouse. They moved to Madison in 2015.

“Love is a weakness, too. It gives us the strength to do the unimaginable. So I had to make the decision of either staying in Mexico and continuing with my career and Entre Piernas Producciones company, or pack my bags and leave everything behind,” Ruiz said. “So the moment that authentic and genuine love occupied a space in my life, it’s when I decided that it’s one of the most important things for me and that it’s time for a pause.”

When Ruiz arrived in Madison, she started feeling acculturative stress, the challenges of adapting to a foreign country. As a Mexican woman and performing artist who lacked credentials here, she began to feel stressed.

During this time, she thought about all the Latino immigrants who were also adjusting to a new life and culture. She began to look for opportunities where she could share mindfulness practices to those who were going through a similar situation.

Ruiz began to attend mindfulness retreats and workshops. She met Mariela Quesada, director of adult programs at Centro Hispano, in the summer of 2016, at a retreat for mothers and expectant mothers.

Quesada was there with a community health worker trainee who was interested in learning more about maternal health.

Quesada said Ruiz stood out to her because it’s uncommon to see people of color in these types of retreats. Quesada decided to talk to Ruiz about the possibility of training the community health workers at Centro Hispano with mindfulness practices.

After they talked, Ruiz went on to teach them what mindfulness means and to equip them with strategies to reduce work-related stress. After a few sessions, Ruiz also held a mindful eating class as part of the center’s "Para ponerse saludable" (To get healthy) class, offered during the summer.

Quesada said Centro would like to continue further training for the community health workers so they can spread this lifestyle in the community.

Ruiz said there is often skepticism about mindfulness practices in the Latino community.

One reason could be because those who are religious perceive a conflict with mindfulness practices, Ruiz said, but she said that meditation can enhance one’s faith.

“When you go to the church and you receive, you hear the Lord’s word and when you meditate, you learn to listen to your body with all your senses,” Ruiz said. “So you open up a space for the religious word to take in your body.”

Another reason, according to Ruiz, is Latino society has to value certain practices for the community to want to participate, and mindfulness is not yet there.

“So that is my job, to start making it become valid, for the community to recognize that this is a tool that can bring deep benefits in their lives and they can practice it anywhere,” Ruiz said.

For Quesada, these reasons resonate and said she hadn’t participated in any type of meditation or yoga classes prior to moving to the U.S. She was raised Christian and was skeptical, but motivated to try.

“It fills me mentally and satisfies me physically but it is not necessarily something that fills my soul,” Quesada said.

Quesada conducted a community survey of about 100 local Latinos ranging from newcomers to those who have been here for a while, to gauge their thoughts on mindfulness.

To her surprise, 90 percent of people were open to learning more about it and less than 5 percent said there was a religious conflict. Most people viewed meditation as praying.

The main concerns for classes, according to the survey results, were costs to attend the classes and the type of clothing they would have to wear.

Ruiz said due to the political climate, the Latino community needs to use this as a tool to defend themselves. Ruiz said Latinos should educate themselves to train their minds to be at peace in every circumstance, and when going through adversity.

“We need to create community, a place where the community feels safe to meditate... and have a space where people can meditate in their own language and have symbols and things that remind them of their Latino culture,” Ruiz said.

For Quesada, the meditations facilitated in Spanish by Ruiz were more authentic to her reality and context.

“It was more about human connection and there was sounds and rhythms and even laughter,” Quesada said. “The fact that she speaks Spanish, is passionate, and has done a transformation in her own life, are factors that have affected the way I feel.”

Quesada and Ruiz are working to find partners and funding to train community health workers. Funding is not only needed for an instructor but also to pay evening staff and child care workers. Eventually, Ruiz would like to extend weekly classes to the Latino community in general.

Ruiz said the Spanish mindfulness classes for the Latino community have to be adapted to them with instructors who are from Latin American countries or have lived a significant amount of time in one.

Ruiz also recognizes this is not a job she can do on her own and can work better in collaboration with Centro Hispano, local health care providers and other mindfulness facilitators.

“To truly have the impact the community needs, we need to work in a team,” Ruiz said.

In addition to providing these practices to the Latino community, Ruiz hopes to close the gap on research about mindfulness in the Latino community by also partnering with scholars who will study the population once there’s a solid base.