In many Spanish-speaking communities throughout major U.S. cities, people struggling with substance addiction turn to unlicensed rehab groups, programs offering therapy ranging from testimonies to intensive—and sometimes harsh— residential regimens. Of murky historical origin, these rehab groups borrow from Pentecostal Christianity and self-help culture, and frequently provide help to those unable to access more mainstream care. Often using the name and adapted logo of Alcoholics Anonymous, they are typically started and overseen bypadrinos (“godparents”), who are pastors, recovered addicts, or both.
In a This American Life broadcast, Ira Glass recounts the stories of addicts from Puerto Rico who say that police and municipal government officials on the island sent them to these rehab groups on the mainland, promising deluxe treatment programs. Many of these addicts ended up homeless after discovering, as Glass put it, “flophouses open 24 hours a day with group therapy going till late at night, sometime 10 or 13 hours straight.”
In this rehab style, documents are typically confiscated for safekeeping, and people live together in tight quarters for a period of weeks, receiving free room and board. There, standard treatment often consists of lengthy sessions that can include yelling and insults. Other reports describe additional shaming rituals at specific locations, including a groveling confession to a council of sober peers, or punishment by shaving the head or eyebrows.