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I’m Eschewing the Machismo, Homophobia & Other Toxicities of My Cultura & Raising My Kids Differently

Ask around at any prima’s quinceañera, and you’ll learn that the adage, “Parenting doesn’t come with a manual” doesn’t really apply to Latinx familias — it comes with a whole Biblia of do’s and don’ts. This anthology of dogmatic rules is different depending on a number of factors such as whether you were born a niña or niño, have light or dark skin, or your birth order. And here are more examples in this unwritten but universal book:

Niñas need their ears pierced within .43 seconds of being out the womb.

Niños should never wear pink or play with dolls.

Don’t you dare go out into the sun if you’re dark skinned.

Gay? Not okay.

Make sure you marry someone lighter-skinned than you.

The eldest sister should always take care of the younger siblings.

Rules are rules.

Children should never, ever talk back to their elders.

Revere the holy Chancla [a form of corporal punishment] for it is solely because of its use that we turned out okay. 

As a first-generation first-born to two immigrant parents from Mexico, I understood these cultural mandates. I was the obedient child, the niña buena, the one who didn’t want to make my parents mad because well, that was scary.

So I lowered my eyes, bowed my head, and made sure I was the most polite and grateful, siempre agradecida, for my parents’ sacrifice. My life was a gift from them and a privilege that I should never take for granted.

Wouldn’t I have to choose between my culture and my children if I wanted to parent respectfully, not with an iron fist?

However, when I became pregnant with my daughter a decade ago, a flood of memories occupied my consciousness, day and night. And I couldn’t escape the emotions that these memories brought up, ranging from anger, to confusion, and grief. At the root, they carried an invitational message that I know many of us who grew up studying the reglas heard: Do it differently. For her.

Do it differently? But won’t that dishonor my parents, my family, my culture? These questions became my divine assignment. I knew enough about what kind of mother I didn’t want to be, but I didn’t know enough about the alternatives. So I immersed myself in parenting books. Lots and lots of parenting books. White author after white author spoke of empathy, boundaries, attachment styles, brain development, and a child’s right to their sovereignty and autonomy. All of it sounded good in theory. Maybe I could do this … secretly and without my family knowing, because certainly they would either laugh at what they considered absurd or cry a los cuatro vientos at what they considered a criticism of their parenting.

Wouldn’t I have to choose between my culture and my children if I wanted to parent respectfully, not with an iron fist?

And then I looked at this brand new baby, and she looked at me, and I immediately knew she was me. And she carried every bit of innocence and potential within me. Seeing her as a sacred human being reminded me that I am one too. However, fully accepting her was going to take fully accepting myself. And then the questions came: didn’t my parents also love me this way? Why did they throw me into an ocean of rules without a paddle? The teenage scars on my wrists proved that so many of them caused me to nearly drown.

So I resolved to do it differently. For her, the little one still within, and for my daughter.

More learning happened: I discovered that I couldn’t stay angry at my family because they weren’t the root of the harm. The root was machismo, marianismo, adult supremacy, white supremacy, and, at the deepest level, colonialism. Our culture has been parenting children with these expectations, with a Chancla in hand, and with survival in heart. And it’s still happening.

As a result of European colonization and the Spanish conquest, so many of our ancestors learned that in order to stay alive, men needed to be dominant, women needed to be subjugated, children needed to be silent, and all our people needed to stay as heteronormative and white as possible. This is how the historical becomes the cultural and then the personal. So when my Tia sends me a link on Facebook to the Bible verse that, in her mind, justifies the abuse her children experienced, I extend compassion without engaging in a debate. When there are whispers that our cousin is gay but will never come out to her  family, I understand that it’s deeper than her mother’s assured disapproval.

It isn’t about choosing between our culture and raising children in ways that honor and preserve their sacredness. Binaried thinking is also divisive and derived from a colonial mentality. It’s about holding these dualities:

Our parents did love us AND they may have caused us harm.

We are a brilliant, passionate, emotional people and we still have cultural and ancestral wounds to heal.

Many of our cultural norms allowed us to survive and also not thrive.

We can be Latinx and accept gender fluidity, understand that our liberation is not one separate from Black liberation, and celebrate the whole spectrum of each child. And we can hold the beautiful parts of our culture and move away from those that keep us from flourishing.

Here’s the truth: People evolve. Relationships evolve. Families evolve. And cultures evolve. As the saying goes, the only constant is change. If our goal is to raise children who are healthily connected to themselves, to others and to their first mother, Madre Tierra, then we have to acknowledge the changes that need to occur in order for that to happen.

I can promise that building a new world will take more than just our generation. But we are passionate, hard-working, and resilient and can plant new seeds in the garden of our own familias. Poquito a poquito, these semillas will become beautiful massive trees under which our children and descendants will rest.

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