Growing up Dominican meant growing up with an endless family; I grew up enveloped in love; a tía for every dish, a tío for every problem, a cousin for every adventure. We had the biggest parties, tables lined to capacity with aluminum trays of the greatest sazón ever, speakers blasting Los Hermanos Rosario, Wilfredo Vargas or Milly Quezada until the wee-est of hours.
I grew up so Dominican that when I first arrived in New York at age 4, I insisted on wearing shorts in November because I didn’t understand the cold. I still do not understand the cold.
Growing up Dominican wasn’t all glorious; our culture uses respect, obedience and acquiescence almost interchangeably. The word “no” feels like an insult, and politeness is mandatory.
I was taught to value and prioritize family, by any means necessary, even if it meant I was neglecting myself. I was also raised to understand womanhood and motherhood as an immense responsibility, one I had to approach cautiously and execute perfectly.
There’s not a lot of room for autonomy in obedience; there’s also not a lot of foundation for building self-confidence when children are discouraged from expressing themselves or when their opinions and ideas are minimized.
I loved my family gatherings, but the “esto no es para muchachos” (“this isn’t for kids”) whenever I walked into a room full of adults conditioned me into shyness and silence.
Growing up Dominican meant that sometimes our parenting style bordered on authoritarian. I was raised to be obedient and, in some cases, acquiescent. For the sake of context, a 2010 study placed the Latinx parent’s version of respect into a framework, and it was my childhood on paper.
“Obey parents no matter what, never express disagreement with adults, stay quiet when reprimanded, accept parental authority without questioning it, offer to help elders, defer to adult wishes, avoid a rude tone of voice, never talk back.” These were just some of the behavioral expectations of respect indicated by a group of Latinx mothers.
My Dominican parents, aunts and uncles meant well. But they forgot to teach me when it was OK to talk. They forgot to teach us when it became appropriate to start participating in conversations, to formulate our own opinions, or, at the very least, when it was all right to question.
“I was taught that saying 'no' to an adult was disrespectful, and disrespectful is the last thing I wanted to be. So, I never said no, even if I didn’t want the food, even if I was uncomfortable, even if I was unhappy.”
I internalized inadequacy as a child, never knowing if I was thinking, saying or doing the right thing, not really confident enough to speak up, unsure about my capacity to make decisions or have opinions and without the slightest clue how to set a boundary.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and some intense unlearning and reparenting, I was sitting in my office conducting my last family session of the day as a therapist, in front of a mom who looked like mine who told me her daughter was depressed.
She almost cried as she looked at her daughter and said to me, “She has low self-esteem! She doesn’t think she’s pretty.” She almost had me, until I looked at the 11-year-old across from me, staring at her feet, shaking her head with a smirk on her face.
“Do you think you’re ugly?”
“No, I don’t,” she giggled as she looked up.
The almost-crying mom almost yelled this time. “Just this morning, I did her hair, it took me such a long time to pick it up and she took it down a few minutes later.” At this point, the giggling 11-year-old started to laugh.
I sighed, “Do you like your hair picked up?”
“Not really, it looks much prettier down.”
I closed my book and crossed my legs, and at that point, the almost-crying mom likely realized that she was staring at the 30-year-old version of her little girl.
“Your daughter doesn’t have depression; she has a preference.”
I sat in my office for another 30 minutes after the end of that session, more aware than ever of the little human growing inside me who was, at this point, just a little bigger than a peach. I saw the biggest role of my life unfold before me.
How do I raise this little girl? What do I want her to learn? What do I want her to see? Will I really care so much about her hair? Will I forget to listen? Will I forget to ask? Will I remember that she deserves a say even at 11, even at 5, maybe even at 2? I called upon my own childhood; do I raise her how I was raised?
Our culture has certain expectations of little girls because it is very invested in the women we grow up to be — wives, mothers and homemakers — more often than not giving these roles so much importance that any deviation is considered a failure. My aunts and mother wore their exhaustion like a badge of honor, withering themselves and busying themselves while inherently neglecting themselves.
Today, I sit across from so many women, and I’ve asked them in my best therapist voice, “So why do your needs come second?” Sometimes they pause, sometimes they smile, and other times they frown at the first time someone has actually asked them why they aren’t putting themselves first.
When they look like me, I suspect the answer, because a culture that teaches us “Calladita te vez mas bonita” (“You look prettier quiet”) is quite problematic. In telling us that the quieter we are, the prettier we are, we’re conditioned to silence and taught that what we have to say isn’t really that important, and therefore we come second to others.
I was taught that saying “no” to an adult was disrespectful, and disrespectful is the last thing I wanted to be. So, I never said no, even if I didn’t want the food, even if I was uncomfortable, even if I was unhappy. Besides, “Calladita te vez mas bonita.” It was people-pleasing but dressed up as respect; I was encouraged not to make people uncomfortable, even if I was unhappy.
I’ve decided to gift my daughter the word “no” and allow her to make her own decisions and set her own boundaries. I honor my daughter’s “no,” and because at 2 years old her “no” is respected, that will become her baseline; respect her no, hear her voice.
“My daughter will know that she has a right to boundaries without guilt and that her extended family will understand.”
At any given gathering, I hold my child as the tías and the tíos attempt to greet my quarantine baby with their usual request for our bendición that’s sealed with the Dominican cheek kiss. My little human then shakes her head or verbalizes her “no” as she squeezes me a little tighter. I squeeze my daughter back and reiterate “dijo que no” (“she said no”) as I shrug. “Maybe she’ll warm up later.”
In doing so, I’m reinforcing my place as my daughter’s firmest ally. The tíos and tías might think I’m enabling my little girl, and technically, I am. Enabling her to be assertive.
I decided to set some boundaries and pass them down, boundaries about space, opinions, involvement and presence. Our Dominican families love so hard that their response to everything is to be immediately present and involved, which is amazing, except for when they forget to ask if it’s welcome.
My daughter will know that she has a right to boundaries without guilt and that her extended family will understand. See, we love our big familias, but she’s going to learn to honor herself first and most.
I had to teach myself how to be OK with disappointing people, which is challenging if you’ve been taught to defer to adult wishes for most of your life. My daughter will grow up knowing that she comes first, and that we’re so hardwired to love that her family will love her no matter what boundaries she sets, like they had to do with me.
The beauty of our extra-large family is that they remain ever-present, even when you’re changing the script a little bit. They adapt and love us anyway.
I’m refraining from passing down the idea that marriage, childbearing and exhaustion are a part of womanhood. I watched my mother and my tías wear all the hats and do all the things. Our mujeres are the heart, the head, the backbone and the feet of every family. They took on housework and child-rearing, and then came to America to work outside the home as well.
Our mujeres are tired, and they’re not resting, because nobody has told them that they need it, they deserve it, or that they’re worthy of it, and when we do, they don’t believe us.
My daughter will witness my self-preservation. She will learn that she deserves rest, that takeout is OK, and so is sending out laundry, and that there’s no prize for wearing ourselves thin.
As for now, my 2-year-old is assertive and autonomous. She says her yeses and says her noes, she picks her shoes and picks her toys, and gets asked what she wants when it isn’t clear. Sometimes she has tantrums, and I remember how much of me is in her, and I take my deep breaths and wait.
I was raised so Dominican-respectful that I had to build my own confidence from scratch. Our generation of Latinx parents know what it takes to empower our children, so we encourage autonomy and self-expression. Since we now know better, we do better, and we raise our little humans to feel comfortable and confident with their choices, to be curious and to feel secure in whatever space they choose to occupy.