Redefining Our Latina Identity in the Face of Gender Expectations

Do housework, be beautiful, and start a family — those are the expectations many Latinas face, and a recent study proves it

Latina gender roles

Photo: Pexels/ Chelsi Peter

Do housework, be beautiful, and start a family — those are the expectations many Latinas face, and a recent study proves it. According to a poll survey by the Pew Research Center, these are the gendered expectations that most Latinas in the U.S. experience. This is in addition to the pressure to provide for their loved ones at home, as well as their own families, or succeed in their jobs. I wish I were surprised by these statistics, but in my work as a therapist, I have learned that these are common expectations and pressures that many of my Latina clients are learning to navigate. These pressures have their roots in gender role expectations and cultural values such as marianismo—the expectation for women to prioritize their families and loved ones over themselves. A comment that one of my family members said to me when I was younger encapsulates this pressure: “Yo te imagino que cuando termines tu carrera, vas a tener un buen trabajo con buen dinero, pero una casa sucia porque solo te enfocaste en tus estudios y nunca aprendiste a limpiar,” which translates to “I imagine that when you finish your degree, you will have a good job with good money, but a dirty house because you only focused on your studies and never learned to clean.”

This is just one example of the messages that Latinas are constantly exposed to about how much of a priority housework should be. It may seem like a common chore that everyone wants to and needs to do, however, it is accompanied by rigid expectations that it should be done in a specific manner and assumptions are made about a woman’s ability to maintain a household depending on how clean their home is. Be beautiful. Common dichos like “antes muerta que sencilla” (which roughly translates to “death before being basic”) or the one I hear all the time, “if you don’t take care of yourself, then you will be giving your husband an excuse to look at someone else,” reinforce this expectation. The underlying message is that your worth is only defined by societal expectations of beauty.

In my work as a therapist, I work with many Latinas who feel that they are not enough because they may not fit the Eurocentric standard of beauty. This can lead to low self-esteem and challenges with confidence. It’s crucial to understand that beauty comes in many forms, and everyone’s unique features should be celebrated.

Questions about children are synonymous with “y el novio.” I have been told how important having children is, and in fact, I want children; however, the pressure is overwhelming. The day I got engaged, several people asked me and reminded me to start trying for a baby as soon as possible since I got married “older.” That said, not everyone wants to have a child and that wish should be respected. Again, a person’s self-worth and purpose should not be based on whether or not they want to have children.

As if the pressure to start a family and be beautiful at all times is not enough, there is also the expectation to care for and/or support parents and other elderly family members, whether financially or through physical caregiving. This expectation continues even after Latinas have their own families. These family pressures are often more intensely experienced by eldest hijas, who are predisposed biologically to mature earlier to better support their families, even while they are still children themselves. For example, many eldest daughters experience parentification, a phenomenon where children take on the roles and responsibilities typically meant for adults. This can involve managing household chores, caring for younger siblings, or acting as interpreters for non-English-speaking parents. This added responsibility not only accelerates their maturity but also places an emotional and psychological burden on them from a young age, which can impact their own development and future aspirations.

These are not necessarily bad values to have, but these expectations represent messages that are part of an intergenerational cycle of trauma. The cycle that your worth is measured by how clean you can keep a home, how you can keep up with a beauty routine, or how good of a caregiver you can be. However, when I read the Pew Research Center survey results, I found that a majority of Latinas are satisfied with their family life and happy with their personal lives despite the pressures. This high level of life satisfaction is not surprising to me, as everyone I work with is making a concerted effort to challenge these narratives and break these generational cycles of trauma. We are learning that while these may have been the norms in the past, we are creating a new narrative and breaking the cycle of having our worth be defined by these standards. That said, although most Latinas are satisfied and happy with their family and personal lives, I would like to share some strategies that have helped my clients and myself change the narrative and break the cycle:

: Regularly practice positive affirmations to reinforce your self-worth and capabilities. For example, start your day by looking in the mirror and saying: “I am worthy, I am capable, and I am enough just as I am. Soy poderosa.” or try in Spanish: “Soy valiosa, soy capaz y soy suficiente tal como soy. Soy poderosa.”

: Give yourself grace and understand that it’s okay not to meet every expectation placed upon you. For instance, if you didn’t get to all the housework today, remind yourself that it’s alright and that your worth is not defined by these tasks. Your best looks different every day.

Boundaries: Establish and maintain healthy boundaries to protect your time, energy, and mental health. This could mean setting specific times for work and personal life, or saying no to additional responsibilities when you feel overwhelmed.

Support: Seek out and lean on a support network of family, friends, or professionals who understand and uplift you. This might involve joining a support group, regularly talking with friends who share similar experiences, or seeking therapy.

As always, ¡sí se puede!

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Dr. Lisette Sanchez Featured Gender roles Latina mental health latinas marianismo Mental Health
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