Photo of Melba Vasquez

Melba Vasquez

Training Location(s):

PhD, University of Texas at Austin (1978)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Independent Practice

Career Focus:

Counselling; gender; multicultural issues; diversity, ethnicity and race; social justice.


The oldest of seven children, Melba Vasquez grew up surrounded by the unconditional love of a large, Latino/a family in Texas. She remembers relatives' faces lighting up whenever she entered a room and feeling cherished. This loving environment created an incredible foundation with which Vasquez could face the world and built her career as a Latina psychologist.

This foundation was shaken when Vasquez entered the public school system and experienced racism. She started elementary school at a time when the educational system was still semi-segregated; when Black and White children were still taught in separate schools. With Latino/a students being the only students-of-color in her school, she remembers being surrounded by so much White: White teachers, White administrators and White students. Vasquez recalls, "I went from being a cheerful little girl to being very sad and probably went into a depression... for a period of time when I first entered school." Fortunately, in grade 4 Vasquez switched to a Catholic school run by Mexican nuns. She felt grounded and her foundation was rebuilt. She thinks it is important to remember these early advantages and disadvantages because they "contribute to our resiliencies and allow us to get through, survive and thrive in different ways, as well as face obstacles by virtue or our gender and ethnicity and race."

As an undergraduate, Vasquez majored in English, partly because she did not know what else to do. In high school she had received an A on an English assignment, which the teacher confided was one of the four A's she had given in 10 years. This remark made Vasquez feel that she was 'good' at English and that it was what she should pursue. She received teacher certification, but it wasn't her passion. Vasquez was interested in understanding human behaviour in regard to discrimination and prejudice, an interest inspired by her own experiences.

While working towards a Master's in Counselling Psychology at Texas State University in Austin, Vasquez was encouraged to apply to a PhD program. She states:

[It] didn't make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, [but the professor] reassured me that it would be a good fit, and she was absolutely right. Because it allowed me to further explore, gave me the tools, the skills, the intellectual capacity to understand and explore further the dynamics of prejudice and discrimination as well as resilience and survivorship.

During her graduate training there were no Latino/a psychologists on campus. In a "non-politically correct way of engaging with affirmative action" she recalls, "We were told we were guinea pigs because even though our grades and GRE scores were reasonable, that we were not the usual...students admitted into the program and so we were guinea pigs." Thus, professional conferences became an important place for Vasquez to meet other Latino/a's in psychology.

An important event during her graduate training was a lecture given by a Latino psychologist at her university. The speaker urged her and her friend Anna Gonzalez to attend the upcoming Chicano conference in California. At this conference, they met Dr. Martha Bernal, the first American Latina psychologist. Vasquez jokes: "Anna and I were shy, young, second-year graduate students standing off in the corner, watching her in awe. And we dared each other not only to go up and introduce ourselves, but to touch her."

They did go and speak to Dr. Bernal and she became an important mentor in their lives and careers. Vasquez and Gonzalez were among the first cohort of Minority Fellowship honorees at the American Psychological Association (APA). This fellowship urged them to be involved and provided them with summer internships. As she was socialized to be more involved with the professional organization it made sense to Vasquez that this involvement could be political. Thinking of her own mother's community activism, Vasquez notes, "I think that oriented me to see politics in professional arena as a natural thing to do."

Her APA fellowship led to her being invited to sit on the Board for Social and Ethical Responsibility in Psychology, which at the time was "considered the social conscience of the profession." She describes this as "one of the best experiences" of her life. Although being involved and challenging discrimination can be painful at times, Vasquez feels that she has learned that one person can make a difference.

As the Latino/a population in the United States grows, Vasquez feels that Latino/a psychology will continue to grow, challenge stigma, and break barriers. However, there is still the need to train White practitioners to address Latino/a needs and lessen the Latino/a communities' mistrust of psychology. When thinking of young Latina psychologists, she offers the advice "Follow your bliss". Indeed it is important to make sure psychology is the natural fit, so the work doesn't feel so much like work. She also thinks it is important to live with mistakes. Vasquez states: "A lot of people tend to make mistakes, and a lot of women of color in particular tend to allow those to define themselves, I see that over and over again, that people allow mistakes to define who they are. And I encourage people to learn that mistakes are simply a natural part of life, that they should allow themselves to believe, un-ambivalently, in their own competencies."

While Vasquez may have made mistakes over her life time, there is no mistaking the impact she has had on psychology. She has served as president of the APA's Society for the Psychology of Women, and has been a consulting editor for the pioneering journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. In 2011, Vasquez was elected the first Latina president of the APA. During her twelve month term in this position, she appointed task forces that reflected her goals and her approach to practicing psychology. These task forces addressed immigration, discrimination and prejudice, and educational disparities.

Following her time as APA president, Vasquez maintains her work as an independent practitioner in Austin, Texas. Her involvement in professional organizations continues, as does her consistent focus on creating a more equitable, inclusive, and effective psychology.

by Jenna MacKay (2010)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works

Ginorio, A., Lapayase, Y.V. & Vasquez, M. J. T. (2007). Gender equity for Latina/os. In S. S. Klein (Ed.). Handbook for Achieving Gender Equity through Education, pp. 485-500. Lawrence Erlblaum Associates.

Kagan, N., Armsworth, M., Altmaier, E., Dowd, E., Hansen, J., Mills, D., Schlossberg, N., Sprinthall, N., Tanney, M. & Vasquez, M. (1988). Professional practice of counseling psychology in various settings. The Counseling Psychologist, 16(3), 347-365.

Pope, K. & Vasquez, M. J. T. (2007) Ethics in Psychotherapy & Counseling: A Practical Guide (3rd edition). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Spruill, J., Rozensky, R. H., Stigall, T. T., Vasquez, M., Phillips Bingham, R. & De Vaney Olvey, C. (2004). Becoming a competent clinician: Basic competencies in intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 60(7), 741-754.

Vasquez, M. (1992). Psychologist as clinical supervisor: Promoting ethical practice. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 23(3), 196-202.

Vasquez, M. (1998). Latinos and violence: Mental health implications and strategies for clinicians. Cultural Diversity and Mental Health, 4(4), 319-334.

Vasquez, M. (2001). Advancing the study of Chicana/o psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 29(1), 118-127.

Vasquez, M. (2009). Latino/a culture and substance abuse. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 8(3), 301-313.

Vasquez, M. J. T., & Comas-Diaz, L. (2007). Feminist leadership among Latinas. In J. L. Chin, B. Lott, J. K. Rice, & J. Sanchez-Hucles (Eds.), Women and leadership: Transforming visions and diverse voices. (pp.264-280). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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