When Daniela Peterson moved to Teton County from Chile with a degree in psychology, she wasn’t aware of the large Spanish-speaking population. She wasn’t even sure she would find a job remotely within her field of study.
She certainly didn’t have the faintest idea that, in the mid 2000s, she would become the first native speaker to offer Spanish-language counseling in all of Wyoming. More than a decade later, her private practice, La Familia Counseling, serves about 100 people, the vast majority of them Latino. But even in the beginning, the demand was greater than she could meet.
“It was amazing how many people needed services by then,” Peterson said, “but they were using interpreters because they didn’t have anybody who could do direct counseling.”
Her route to Jackson Hole differed from that of many Spanish speakers. In her home country of Chile she met her future husband, Ryan Peterson, who was then splitting his seasons as a fly-fishing guide between Wyoming and Patagonia. After a long-distance relationship while she finished school, the two married and settled in Teton County.
Peterson found work at the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center, interpreting between counselors and Spanish-speaking clients. Early on, a supervisor urged her to get her degree equivalency so she could work as a licensed counselor in the U.S.
“She was like, ‘I’ll help you, because we need you so bad,’” Peterson recalled.
With only basic English skills and little knowledge of American psychological theories, Peterson struggled to teach herself enough to pass the test. But even after two failed attempts, she said, “There was never a thought in my mind that I was going to give up.” On the third try, with the help of a dictionary, she succeeded.
Now licensed, she moved to the nonprofit world with the Curran-Seeley Foundation, a drug and alcohol counseling center, where she created another first for Wyoming: a Spanish-language substance abuse treatment program, for which she received an award from the Wyoming Department of Health.
Around that time, Peterson started receiving calls from people asking, in Spanish, if she would help them or their children.
At first she turned them down, since the foundation focused exclusively on substance abuse. But she eventually decided to give it a part-time shot, and as a few clients turned into a few more, she soon wound up with 20 each week. La Familia began to bloom into the full-blown practice it is today, with a primary focus on Spanish speakers dealing with domestic violence and trauma.
“It was a big relief to my clients to talk about what was going on in their language,” Peterson said. “I’ve been here for 15 years, and if you ask me what would I prefer, of course I’ll say I would love to do it in Spanish. It’s just different. It comes from your soul.”
But it’s more than just a preference, she said. With an interpreter constantly halting the stream of raw emotion and thought, it can be far more difficult for a counselor and client to connect.
“It’s so hard to open up to one person. Can you imagine having a third person looking at you and talking after you and interrupting?” she said. “It just doesn’t flow the way it’s supposed to.”
“But,” she said, “it was the best thing the agencies could do. It’s better than doing nothing.”
And as La Familia has expanded over the past few years, Peterson said, “We found out that it’s not just the language. It’s understanding what counseling approach fits them best.”
That varies depending on a person’s upbringing, education, traumatic history and, of course, the culture they come from.
For example, rather than shake a Spanish-speaking client’s hand, she will kiss the person on the cheek — a more familiar and comfortable greeting for those from Latin America. And as her practice has grown, Peterson has brought on five counselors from the United States, Mexico and even Slovakia, meaning there’s someone who can connect on a deep cultural level with virtually every client.
“I think that’s the beauty,” she said. “We can understand. We are very open minded, and we will provide the services the client needs based on their traits and cultural background. That’s why we call it La Familia.”