In a culture where machismo dominates, my existence as both a woman and the eldest daughter has been clouded by the notion that I should prepare for a future in which my sole purpose is to cater to anyone and everyone. This mindset coupled with being the only daughter in the family has led to what feels like the weight of the world on my shoulders. Eldest daughters and daughters in general have shown to be fundamental to the way Latino families run. We can think of the role of eldest daughters within Latino households as pillars holding up the structure of the family unit.
More and more recently, I’ve come across Tiktoks, posts and other forms of media that have made me feel seen in my role as the eldest daughter. Often, being the oldest AND first generation coincides with being the first in everything. The first to navigate higher education, the first to obtain a degree and the first to address taboo subjects like mental health.
Many daughters have the shared experience of being an important source of support within the family.
For instance, some of my earliest memories involve translating for my parents everywhere—from school to the grocery store to the DMV. Having to explain health insurance to your parents before you even understand what it means or being a “second mother” to your younger siblings are formative experiences. Especially when you are the oldest, even if your siblings are old enough to take care of some of these responsibilities, most of it is expected from you. I’ve experienced this before and continue to experience it now. When I moved to go to college, I would get calls and questions when my parents needed help even though my brother was standing five feet away in the house. Of course, I do my part and help when they need it, but this instance has helped me grasp the idea that the role of being the eldest daughter transcends time and distance and makes me consider how those experiences have made girls like myself grow up much faster.
Just as there are responsibilities attached to being the eldest daughter there are also expectations that function as unspoken rules that daughters must adhere to. Domesticity is the most prominent of them since it is encouraged at such a young age. While learning how to cook and clean are valuable, there is evident imposition of gender roles. Something I’ll never forget from my adolescence is that any time my mom wanted me to learn how to cook it was always for the purpose of being able to make something for my husband when I got married. Whenever I didn’t cook she’d respond by saying “Then what’s your husband going to eat?” It’s not that cooking was a basic skill that I needed to learn to be more independent, but that I was learning it for someone else’s sake. Furthermore, when it comes to obedience we are taught that “calladita te ves más bonita”, this idea that women are more attractive when they’re quiet and docile. We are expected to not counter or defy any standards. In doing so, we would be disrespectful towards authoritative figures, specifically men, and we are not are granted the same lenience as our brothers.
My own experience and that of others who relate begs the question: How do these pressures affect existing mental health issues within the Latinx community? For the community, there are plenty of mental health stigmas that exacerbate the pressures. Religion—which is extremely important for many Latinos—can contribute to people’s struggles being invalidated based on this idea that if someone is anxious or depressed “maybe they aren’t praying enough” or “they lack faith”. This can ostracize folks and prevent them from discussing their struggles with their family as well as keeping them from seeking help. At the same time, the perception of mental health issues being associated with being “loca/o”—a highly problematic depiction of people facing mental health issues— heightens the fear and shame that prevents people from speaking out. Because often, personal mental health issues are pushed aside so as not to embarrass the rest of the family, not taking into account what that does to the person.
These existing stigmas are further impacted by gender and being the oldest. Women are typically not listened to and their issues are not taken as seriously, especially when we’re expected to do our duty and stay calladitas. Since both mental health issues and women are not taken seriously, the pressure or stress they experience is not seen as a real and genuine concern. According to the American Psychological Association, Latinas are twice as likely to develop depression in comparison to Latino men, white and African-American populations. Factors contributing to this include working multiple jobs, being overqualified and paid less for jobs due to racial and gender discrimination, and restrictive cultural values. These factors, as mentioned before, also keep Latinas from seeking professional help and even opening up to family and friends about their mental struggles.
Eldest daughters deserve all of love and appreciation in the world. We’ve all seen the meme asking, “Are you the oldest daughter or are you normal?” because the weight of the responsibilities undoubtedly shaped who we are. There is so much that is consistently against you and yet you continue to stay strong! Although there are times when the pressure is insurmountable and the expectations feel impossible, without those experiences we wouldn’t be the same people we are now. It takes strength to do what we have done and continue to do and for that we are all one of a kind. As we work to unlearn ingrained mental health stigmas and gender norms, just know you are not on this journey alone.