Growing up, there was a distinct divide between the sexes in my family. It is something that I didn’t really think about as a child, but I do remember watching as my aunts served my uncles their meals. The men would sit around the table and eat while the women waited on them and put off eating their own meals till after the men were done. At a very young age I was made to serve my single uncles who didn’t have wives yet.
At the time I thought nothing of it; after all, this was how things had been all my life and there was no reason to question it.
I also did not question the fact that my brother did not have a curfew whereas my sisters and I were rarely allowed to go on social outings (school activities were different).
While I cannot speak to the experience of all Latina women, I know that this experience was not unique to my family and that many other girls in my area actually had stricter rules in place. I remember that many of my classmates had parents that did not allow them to pursue extra-curricular activities at school and on more than one occasion I heard about girls who had to turn down scholarships because their parents felt that they should stay home and pursue a higher education locally.
In many cases, girls and young women have certain cultural constraints that limit what they do and what they can become. A son will have more freedom while a daughter is expected to stay home and help her mother with household chores and childcare. Unfortunately, I still hear of cases where parents have this antiquated idea that their daughters should go to college to gain their “MRS” rather than to gain knowledge.
In many ways I was fortunate because my parents encouraged all their children, daughters and son, to go to college. And, while my immediate family is proud of my accomplishments, I know that my extended family and acquaintances from the area in which I grew up disapprove of the fact that I am 32 and unmarried. In their opinions an almost Ph.D. with a good career is nothing without a husband and family in tow. “Ya se me paso el tren.” The train has passed me by.
Their opinions on this subject really don’t bother me much, but other cultural expectations do. As the only unmarried daughter many individuals in my culture expect that I will be the one to be the caregiver to my mother as she deals with a disability. That I am the one that can be called on to do things because my sisters have husbands and children to take care of while my own personal aspirations (which do take time, I assure you) are not as important. On a similar note, my brother is never bothered with any of these things because of his gender.
So what is the key to changing things? I believe that it starts with the next generation. I like the fact that younger girls in my community can look up at me and see what can be achieved. I like the fact that my cousins, whether male or female, sit at the same table and enjoy a meal, not bothering with gender lines. My family has learned that women no longer have to serve the men. As one of my aunts put it, “We’re just as hungry as they are.”
Things are changing at the family level as well as the national level.
Young girls in my area are seeing that there are other options available to them. They see figures on the international stage such as Diana Lopez who is a taekwondo champion right along with her brothers. They see figures such as Sonia Sotomayor on a national, political stage. These are women that are like them, women that are like me! If girls and young women see figures like this that they can admire, there is a possibility that families will begin to see that their daughters can achieve greater things than they ever imagined.