“Can you tell your brother to answer his phone?”
This text message comes through on my phone at least once every couple of weeks, sometimes sent from my mami and sometimes sent from my papi. The story behind the text is always the same: They are trying to get a hold of my baby brother for one reason or another and he’s not picking up the phone. In their desperation to talk to him right away, after a few hours of him not answering, they reach out to me in hopes that I will have better results.
What my parents are really saying every time that they ask me to reach out to my younger brother is that they need help communicating with him. And every single time, I give in.
I was eight years old when my family immigrated to the U.S. My baby brother, meanwhile, was only two and a half. While I had plenty of memories of being born and raised in another country, he did not. While I easily retained my first language and can still fluently communicate in Spanish, he cannot. And while I can often understand where my immigrant parents are coming from, my very Americanized little brother simply cannot.
When I was in college, a thousand miles away from home, my parents made it a condition of their financial help that I had to call them every single day. Although I was busy and didn’t love the obligation, I did it anyway. While I was growing up, I maintained the image of being the perfect immigrant daughter—which included getting top grades, being accepted into a great university, and always staying close to my family.
Meanwhile, my brother took a different approach. He was smart and always tested well but hated doing homework, so his grades weren’t stellar. He went to college closer to home but didn’t adhere to my parents strict “once a day” communication rule.
My mom would call me, frustrated, every couple of months.
“Why can’t he just send a text once a day?” she would ask.
My dad would call me with the same questions or, sometimes, even get on the phone right after mom to ask me again about why my brother had such bad communication habits. I patiently tried to explain, every single time, that this is simply a product of him being Americanized.
“My American friends only talk to their parents every few weeks, at most,” I tried to explain to my parents. “Some of my friends don’t don’t even call their parents once a month. Seriously, some people I know only talk to their parents every few months.”
They just didn’t get it. Even if other families are like this, we weren’t, they thought. They continue to ask me, over and over, why my brother just can’t get his act together and communicate with them more. I don’t know how to continue to explain to them that it’s simply a matter of the way he was brought up.
Growing up, I was taught to be a rule-follower while my parents took a looser approach with my brother. While I was tasked with doing the dishes every day and cleaning the house on the weekends, he didn’t have such chores. I’m not sure if this was because he was the baby of the family or because of leftover machismo rules, but that’s how it was.
My parents checked in on me about my homework and grades and, when I finally got my first C in 10th grade, I was properly punished with no computer privileges until my next report card. At the time, this was an extremely depressing fate since I had just gotten my first laptop for my birthday the month before and my next report card was over three months away.
Do you know what happened to my brother when he got his first C? Nothing.
Again, I’m not sure if all of this was the result of him being the baby of the family or just the preferential way that Latino boys are treated (versus Latina girls), but this is simply how it was in my family. My parents let my little brother get away with many things that I could have never gotten away with and so, between that and the American pop culture image of families that he saw on television, he grew up without the strict, immigrant upbringing that I had.
Nowadays, whenever my parents and my brother get into any kind of fight or disagreement, I find myself stuck in the middle. Sometimes all that means is having to reach out to him and explain, once again, that our parents just want him to check in with them once in a while. At the same time, I find myself explaining to my parents that he’s in his mid-20s and just needs some independence for once.
But the more they push, the more he pulls away—and the more I am caught in the middle, trying to explain to my immigrant parents why my Americanized brother acts the way he does and explain to my Americanized brother why our parents need him to act a certain way or do things a certain way.
It’s a constant struggle in my life that, unfortunately, I don’t see ending any time soon.
I’m almost 32 years old and I helped to raise my baby brother from a young age and it seems that I am still doing that now. And as for my parents… Well, maybe one day they’ll actually listen to me when I say that my brother is “simply different” and needs to be given some space.
In the meantime, I’m also learning to value my own time and to say “no.” As much as I’ve accepted my role as the middle woman in my family, there are times when I just don’t have the energy or patience to go between the two.
And while I still have the desire to be the perfect immigrant daughter, sometimes I find it easier to just say, “No, actually, I can’t tell my brother to answer his phone.”