For many Latinas, the way that we carry ourselves in the world is due to the messages and cultural norms that we were exposed to. We grew up observing certain behaviors that created a narrative surrounding a devotion to family and a feminine gender role that is deeply based on self-sacrifice. We have been told that we need to be nurturing figures.We have been told that we are not allowed to share pain or discomfort. We have been told that our job is to cook, clean, and take care of children. We have been told that our opinion does not matter. We have been told that we need to put others’ needs before our own. We have been told that men are superior to women. We have been told that we always have to be loving. We have been told that we have to be submissive.
What I am describing is a cultural concept called “Marianismo.” Marianismo is widely seen in Latin American cultures, particularly when thinking about gender roles. It takes its name from La Virgen Maria to highlight purity and the idea that women need to be selfless and put others before themselves.
Although some view this as an outdated concept, others are still very much living through it in the present moment. It can be challenging to breakaway from this viewpoint since not everyone sees Marianismo as a bad thing; they see it as a normal way of living. This can be due to their current living situation and the messages that are witnessed on a daily basis.
Those that may be wondering if life can be different…if your voice is important – I’m here to share that yes things can be different than what they are and yes your voice is important. However, I also want to explore how breaking away from the norm can affect our mental health as I have not only experienced this in some ways but also see it through my work.
Within my world, I grew up a bit unconventionally (depending on who you ask) because I grew up with a single mother and Marianismo was not something that I grew up seeing within my immediate family. My mother had certain expectations from all her children and it was not based on gender roles or gender norms. Still, when I was surrounded by other family members like grandparents or aunts/uncles both in the states and in Mexico, the expectations were much different. I was expected to know how to behave in an environment that I was unfamiliar with. I remember spending summers at my grandparents home in Mexico and there was an idea that because my mother grew up with Marianismo, her children, her daughters, would do the same. I can recall feeling very confused and uncomfortable when I had to prepare meals when my male cousins got to play outside. I remember sadness when I was expected to care for my younger cousins instead of just enjoying my summers. While I had a nice time with my extended family, I couldn’t wait to go back home and get back to my normal routine where my opinion and thoughts felt like they mattered.
Navigating these expectations can be so challenging because of the mixed messages that we hear. Our mental health can be impacted and it’s so important to take care of yourself as you explore what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense for you when thinking about Marianismo.
Here are 6 things that can help you get started as you think about the emotional impact of Marianismo and how you want to live your life:
- Practice assertiveness: Oftentimes, there is a feeling that our opinion does not matter and because of that, we may shy away from speaking up due to Marianismo. Combat these feelings by setting boundaries and effectively communicating your needs. Write a list of things that you want to be different and practice saying them out loud. Pay close attention to your words and really listen to what you are saying. Notice any discomfort that may come up and be gentle with yourself. Remember, it might be years of unlearning and relearning that you are doing because of the messages that have been given to you.
- Use mindfulness: mindfulness is the ability to stay in the present moment, judgment free and can be effective in challenging ingrained beliefs associated with Marianismo. As you lean into mindfulness, pay attention to your thoughts and feelings. Begin to detach from the feelings of guilt that can be present as you consciously decide to deviate from traditional gender roles and expectations. Use your breath to guide you as you work through finding ways to feel more balanced with yourself.
- Use your community: remember, you are not alone as you work through internal beliefs associated with Marianismo. Connect with those you trust and openly discuss your feelings, as navigating the complexities of deeply rooted cultural expectations can be challenging to do alone. Notice the sensations in your body and allow others to share how they are feeling as well. Use your community as a support system. This can create a space for collective empowerment, healing, and growth.
- Positive affirmations: use positive affirmations in your day to day life as a tool when working through Marianismo. A good starting point can be writing affirmations that challenge traditional gender roles and celebrate you as a human. This can really showcase your individuality and reaffirm that you don’t have to follow cultural norms. Write these affirmations on a post-it or set them as a screensaver so that they stay present in your space. Read and pay attention to these words, they can be so helpful!
- Set goals: use goal setting to highlight what you want for yourself. Establish 3-5 realistic goals that can serve as a guide when asserting yourself as an individual and breaking away from the expectations of others. Keep your goals and aspirations at the forefront as it can help reinforce your power and worth. This is such a powerful tool that can redirect your focus towards what you really want for yourself, giving you the agency to shape your own unique story and break away from Marianismo.
- Reach out for professional support: Seek therapeutic services from a BIPOC therapist to help continue the conversation surrounding Marianismo. Having a BIPOC therapist who shares your background can offer a unique understanding of the nuances related to Marianismo. This can help you feel safe, heard, and truly seen. You can find BIPOC therapists at Latinx Therapy and Inclusive Therapists.
It’s important to remember that everyone has a unique journey and the things that you need to take care of yourself might look different. My hope is that you can take care of yourself in whatever way makes sense for you as you continue exploring the impact of Marianismo on your life. Ultimately, it’s essential for Latinas to recognize their strengths and unique identities despite the messages that have been present throughout your life.
Patricia Alvarado is a psychotherapist and owner and director of the group practice, Alvarado Therapy & co-founder of Latinx Healthy Minds providing mental health programs for Latinx professionals