It took me having a daughter to understand my mother’s strict “no sleepovers” rule. Sleepovers in middle school and high school is where cliques are formed and power dynamics are settled. It’s where everyone establishes your popularity potential and how cool you are. If you missed out on sleepovers, you were an outsider, or at least you felt like one. Your peers would have new inside jokes that don’t include you, new friendships were made, and girl cliques were starting to shop for the BFF necklaces. While deep down, I never cared for sleepovers, I understood the school social life politics behind attending them. Unfortunately, I was never allowed to go to sleepovers. I wasn’t even allowed to participate in overnight school field trips.
My first sleepover invitation came from my private school class when my 4th-grade class was taking an overnight field trip to Blackberry Farm, which is essentially a big park and camping site in California. We were invited to camp out and learn about the different types of trees and banana slugs living in the forest. It was going to be the most adventurous thing I had ever done, and it was going to be the first time I had ever been away from family. As a nine-year-old, I was eager to prove myself to my family and my peers. I wouldn’t miss out on this crucial milestone that impacted my young social life. But while my primary caretaker, my aunt, approved my field trip slip, my mother did not. And since I was not legally my aunt’s child, the school needed my mother’s permission for me to attend. My mother’s disapproval and ultimate refusal to let me go caused a massive fight between us. It impacted our relationship throughout my adolescence. Every argument we got into was always deeply rooted in my belief that she was trying to control me.
When my mother and I fought, I agreed with my aunt — my mother’s youngest sibling — that my mother was “old-school.” She was stuck in her own culture and didn’t adapt enough to the American culture. I believed she was “too Latina” and that her Peruvian roots and traditions ultimately prevented her from understanding me as I grew up in a seemingly healthier environment than she did. The fights got louder, more disrespectful, and more toxic as I got older. My mother believed I was out of control and ungrateful. I was a “malcriada”.
As an adult, I can understand my mother’s frustration as she tried so hard to tell me, without actually telling me, that the world was far crueler than I ever knew it was. That there was no safe space, particularly for young girls. She never told me that she wasn’t trying to control me. Instead, she was trying to save me. She couldn’t properly articulate her vulnerability. Instead, she called me names, hit me a couple of times, kicked me out of the house, and called the cops on me.
By the time I was 13 years old, I was rebelling so much that I’d barely see my mom and decided to live full-time at my aunt’s house. But I was a good kid. I was always a good kid. While I was introduced to drinking and drugs at a young age, I didn’t get into it. I was shy and introverted, and while my friends had grown accustomed to their harsh lifestyles, I was still innocent. However, at 14-years-old I was sexually assaulted by an 18-year-old man I was dating. He put a date rape drug in my drink, and hours later, I woke up to him raping me. Until recently, I never really spoke about that, and to this day, I don’t think anyone in my family knows — and that’s part of the problem.
In our community, we have not created safe spaces for family, friends, and community members to discuss when they are afraid of someone or if something terrible has happened to them. The Latinx culture values community and familismo, creating a complex misunderstanding of loyalty when reporting sexual assault by someone close to the victim. In our culture, sex, abuse, rape, and assault are usually taboo topics that leave the victim feeling more isolated once they share their experience. Cultural values and upbringing can contribute to the lack of dialogue in our community. While Latinas consider not reporting their assault due to family and community response, numerous factors threaten the probability of reporting sexual assault crimes in our communities: fear of authority figures, distrust for the criminal justice system, and immigration status concerns.
The reality is that we are barely starting to build a safe space within our community to talk about our own experiences as victims. For decades, I believed my mother’s disapproval of sleepovers was cultural instead of a real-life concern. This whole time, I felt my mom was being very old-school Latina and didn’t understand the American culture enough to approve of sleepovers. To this day, I don’t know if she is also a victim or if she knows a victim. It no longer matters because it took me having a daughter to know my mother was right. I realize how important it is to be vigilant with our children. I also recognize that being a vigilante means allowing them insight into where our concerns come from and why they are real. We shouldn’t just vocalize our fears; we should also share the painful realities of our own experiences. In my case, I wish my mother had sat me down to tell me why she felt the way she did. Maybe then I wouldn’t have interpreted her concerns as needing control. Perhaps then, we could’ve built a stronger bond.
Sometimes we fear traumatizing our children with our own horror stories. Sometimes, as parents, we think we protect them by withholding certain truths. But our children are a lot smarter, wiser, and empathetic than I think we give them credit for. When my daughter is age-appropriate, I will be honest with her about my experiences. She will know what my fears are rooted in, and I will show her courage, strength, and reasoning in my vulnerability. I won’t rely on keeping things comfortable, and I won’t choose to power trip by saying, “Porque digo que no.” Instead, I will show her my vulnerabilities. I will allow my 14-year-old self to come out in our conversation, and I will share with her everything I learned and why my rules on sleepovers are a hard “no.” If she disagrees, then maybe we argue. Maybe we fight. But either way, she will know that I know first hand that it’s true: Uno nunca sabe.