As the world becomes more and more transparent, and as we begin to share struggles we’ve faced growing up, both from the world around us and on a more intimate level, we recognize the same themes of unhealthy family dynamics that many of us experienced. Through this realization, we also acknowledge that oppression came from the societies we grew up in and from our very own families. Frequently, harsh critiques and unwanted opinions came from the women in our family. While their intention was often to steer us the “right” way, what they did instead was shame us, abuse us, and sometimes even force us into living lives not meant for us.
Growing up Latina meant adhering to not only religious traditions and societal expectations, but it also meant surrendering to the relentless pressure from family members to be a prototype of what they envisioned as beautiful and successful. And if we didn’t meet their expectations, it meant being exposed to intense scrutiny for not being enough of what they thought we should be. You weren’t “lady” enough, or “polite” enough, or domesticated enough, or even studious enough. You weren’t skinny enough or even curvacious enough. Sometimes, we even get judged for speaking English too well or Spanish not well enough, or even Spanish slang not well enough. Walking the thin line between succeeding in this country and being accepted by the women in our family is traumatizing. And, unfortunately, there are deep-seated roots that cause this behavior.
There is a long-documented history of patriarchy and colonial influences in Latin culture. Both affect how our parents raise us and what they expect of us. There is little space for the natural evolution of a person when you believe that your existence is designed to satisfy someone else’s expectations, designed to meet societal standards. Because of this, our parents felt the right to disagree and judge our choices in hairstyle, clothes, makeup, friends, and dates. Additionally, because religion plays a significant role in Latin culture, we were expected to live by the Catholic church’s set of rules. For the LGBTQIA+ community, this made it difficult to be open about one’s sexuality when our parents didn’t accept that.
Societal expectations engraved on gender roles and gender roles essentially defined and measured whether or not our behaviors were praised or shamed. For example, women are expected to thrive in everything domestic. We are expected to clean, cook, do laundry, and serve. Frequently, if we rebel against these roles, we are considered malcriadas because we refuse to let these roles define us. This is a way of exploring our possibilities outside of family expectations, but for our mothers, this is a disappointment.
Aside from domestic expectations, our mothers often wanted us to be married, be successful, and look a certain way by a certain age. But the message of what they want from us and how they want us to get there is constantly contradictory. For example, if we’re going to pursue higher education, we may jeopardize our chances of being a mom. If we are unsure whether or not we want to have children, we are not fulfilling our dutiful responsibilities as women. But if we choose to have children and continue to pursue our careers, we are not fulfilling our roles as mothers. However, we have to strive to be successful. We have to be well respected in society, and to do that, we have to either be doctors or lawyers. The title “Doctora” is synonymous with success and achieving the so-called “American Dream.”
To be considered successful, we need to represent positions that are considered powerful and influential. In our cultures, and especially for immigrant families, striving for a title such as a doctor and a lawyer means we’ve made it in America. We’ve obtained the dream our parents dreamt for us. However, the danger with this innocently harmful wish for us is that many of us don’t want that title, and striving for anything different can disappoint our parents and make us feel like we aren’t talented, skilled, or intelligent enough.
In many households, we are torn between picking studying or family parties, speaking Spanish, or improving our English. If we seek to better ourselves, whether mentally, physically, or spiritually, we become afraid of being judged as “white.”
For example, therapy “is for white people,” veganism “is for white people,” and we are often left feeling isolated and misunderstood. The need to navigate both satisfying our family’s wishes for us and our desires can be exhausting and traumatizing. It can confuse us and mislead us. And while the need to control and even discourage our behaviors, our choices, and our life path is rooted in the need to belong, or assimilate, it is also rooted in maintaining the peace with entities that have decided on these standards: Patriarchy, religion, politics, colonialism, society. To rebel peacefully from expectations that only seem to oppress us, you don’t have to be loud, or destructive, or purposely upset your family. The reality is, you can do both: Become who you want to become and still honor your roots, your culture and your family. So, do you. Be true to you and in doing so, all the little girls looking up will know it’s safe for them to be true too.