Mal Hija: The Strain of Not Meeting My Mom’s Expectations

After being sent back home from school due to the COVID-19 pandemic , I once again spent a lot of time with my family

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Photo: Unsplash/Omar Lopez

After being sent back home from school due to the COVID-19 pandemic , I once again spent a lot of time with my family. During that time, coupled with many gaps of time spent alone in my room, I had the chance to reflect on my relationships and the people in my life, specifically with my mother. Our relationship can be best described as filled with peaks and valleys; just as there have been times where we truly leaned on each other as the only women in our family, there have also been times where the looming veil of machismo and the male gaze has stopped us from truly supporting each other.

To put it into perspective my mother was one of the first people to ever call me beautiful but she was also the first to ever body shame me.

Over the summer of 2021, I took a Chicano film class where I was first exposed to the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves. The film, based on the play by Chicana playwright Josefina Lopez, is a significant film in Latinx representation. It was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2019 making Colombian director Patricia Cardoso the first Latina to be included in the registry. The plot centers on Ana, played by America Ferrera, an East LA Mexican-American girl as she navigates through the experiences of being a young first-generation Latina while coming in constant conflict with her mother, Carmen, played by Lupe Ontiveros.  Watching the film was a revelation as I felt my own relationship with my mom unfold before my eyes in a way that was almost uncanny. From navigating marianismo to how the generational divide creates tension, this dynamic spoke to me and my experiences with my mother.

Ever since I was a child, modesty, in terms of appearance, was one of the first things to be ingrained into my mind as something “young ladies” are supposed to do. One of my earliest memories is my mother scaring me out of wearing a skirt to school in the first grade because I would get in trouble. When I would attend class and see other girls my age in their skirts and dresses I was confused by this idea that wearing something like that would cause issues since my peers seemed to be fine. I rationalized that my mother just didn’t want me to embarrass myself or feel uncomfortable while running around. However, as soon as I grew older the reasoning behind not only avoiding wearing skirts, dresses, or anything “too short” but also changing out of certain clothes became apparent. More often than not, the presence of a male figure was what resulted in me putting on jeans instead of the shorts I wanted or putting on a hoodie instead of a tank top. When I was around 10 or 11 years old, I complied because I thought that I was the one in the wrong for dressing inappropriately in the first place. Based on sermons given at church and the way the people in my family have spoken of women who are more “atrevidas” it felt right that I needed to be accommodating to these men that would supposedly be uncomfortable by the sight of me. Now as an adult, my mother continues this behavior toward me so much so that this past winter break I was asked to change every day out of dresses that I loved and thought to be appropriate enough to wear around my family before my dad came home from work. I was combative about this each time we argued about it because it seemed unfair that me being the only girl had to be watched so closely based on my choices in clothing. 

As I sat in my room after many of these arguments, I began to consider maybe I’m the one making a big deal out of it. I thought back to all the calls my mom made to my tias and how highly she spoke of my cousins who were “bien portadas” unlike me. Why couldn’t I just do as I was told? If I did, maybe then I’d be more accepted by my mother, maybe then I’d be the daughter that she hoped for instead of causing so much conflict. After much thought, I grew angry and started feeling betrayed; almost as if my mother was siding with men over me, choosing their comfort over mine. If I get unwanted attention or looks from men, that shouldn’t be my fault and I shouldn’t have been made to feel that way so young. Our conversations on the topic now sometimes end with me trying to make a joke out of it to stop myself from getting too invested. I don’t think she understands how much this hurts me because she’s always seen me as rebellious or “mal portada”; my response is always seen as an exaggeration or me acting “lorenza”.

Like the title of the film implies, another theme addressed is that of body image and the perspective of Carmen on her daughter’s body bears a striking resemblance to my mother’s. When looking back at family photographs my mother always remarks on “que bonita te veias, estabas hermosa” but as I’ve grown into my body comments on my appearance have evolved into critiques on my choices and who I am. For as long as I can remember, me reaching for food has been associated with being a bad choice while the times when I have withheld from eating enough were praised. The rests I took from school were me being lazy but me overexerting myself was deemed worth cheering for. Dressing rooms at stores were nightmares when the clothing didn’t fit my body because I didn’t look right in it. Instead of finding clothing that did suit my body at the time, my mother’s suggestion was that what I needed was to lose weight in order to make myself fit the clothes.

Similar to the film, my mother wanted me to start working toward modifying my body to make myself more desirable to potential partners. The hypothetical scenario my mother loves to bring up is “que vas a hacer cuando quieras tener novio”.While not explicitly stated, when she says that I need to start thinking about what I am going to do in the future when I want a boyfriend, she is saying that the body that I am in right now is not worthy of being loved by someone. It’s always about looking to the future because in the present, I could never compare to other girls my age. Prior to hearing these kinds of comments from my mom, I had never once considered or thought about dating or positioned myself in comparison to other girls.

Having first experienced body shaming from my mother is an upsetting juxtaposition to the previous praise and love that I received as a child. I still can’t make sense of having the first person to lift me up also bring me down in such a way.

The generational divide between myself and my mom has become beyond obvious as I have made moves to become more independent. Being the eldest daughter and being a first-generation college student, I am experiencing a lot of firsts on my own and working continuously to live up to the expectations my parents have of me. My mother comes from a generation that is always attentive to their parents and is available to them whenever they need it. Throughout my entire life, I’ve been next to her as she makes calls to Mexico to talk to my grandparents and relatives, so it was always made clear that that is something that is valued. Moving to college, I thought I would be the same. At first, I would call them often and always kept them up to date on everything. Soon enough as the workload increased and my responsibilities at school became my focus, the calls lessened and when I was finally able to talk to them I was not met with consideration. When I’d talk to my mom and explain everything going on at school I could hear her in the background telling my dad that it wasn’t that I couldn’t talk, it’s that I didn’t want to. Similar conversations are commonplace now that I am in my third year of college, as I try to explain that I have many things going on I am called “mal hija” for abandoning my family. Whenever my brother has issues at school or they need help translating a document they go to me, being the oldest I have always been like my parents’ right-hand man. When I lived at home, it was so much easier but now sometimes I can’t respond as quickly as I’d like and then I’m called to be reminded that I have forgotten about them.

As I look back at Real Women Have Curves, I see myself as that rebellious girl trying to put herself first but also being aware of how that affects her relationship with her mother.  Mother-daughter relationships are layered with generational expectations and generational divides and my mom and I are no different. I love my mother, she is my mother after all and when I have needed to talk about important moments in my life she has been there for me. Yet the tension has kept us from having a close relationship and seeing that very dynamic depicted in a film made me feel less alone in this.

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