Taking Back My Culture

My father, or Popi, as I called him when I was a child, did not speak English, only Spanish. My mother (Mame) also spoke Spanish as her first language, but she could speak English, too--even though she had a strong accent. My brothers and I learned Spanish first and only later learned English in school. We grew up in a traditional Latino home - well, sort of. We spoke only Spanish at home, ate foods that reflected my mother's Caribbean roots, believed in God, went to Catholic Church every Sunday, and our earliest teachers were the nuns of our local Catholic School.

My parents taught us about familia ("family"). According to my father, only one thing was more important than familia, and that was God. It wasn't until much later in my life that I noticed that my dad didn't really have any family besides us, really. He would travel to South America in the summers to visit his family, but we never met them. He never even told us who they were, never told us stories about them, and they never visited. That seems strange to me now, but back then, I did as I had been taught: pay very close attention and never ask questions. I didn't even wonder why or why not, for that matter.

My mother had two sisters and one brother, who were also married and had children. They visited once or twice a year and always came to celebrations like my first communion. This is whom I thought of when I first thought of familia. My father only thought of us: his children and my mom, his wife.

Respeto ("respect") was also very important to my parents. The problem was that Popi's view of how we should show him respect changed almost constantly. Because it was so hard to know if something I was doing was disrespectful to him, I also learned to watch his every expression, every movement. I hung on his every word. In this way we learned that he was the head of our household and that he ruled our house. We saw and felt this as he taught us respect with the back of his hand, a closed fist, and the use of his belt. His punishments were swift, unpredictable and very painful.

We also learned to respect our elders and the priests and nuns at our church and school. They were wiser than we could ever be, Dad had explained. The priests and nuns were close to God and our elders were wise from age and experience. In this way, my father inadvertently created in my mind a hierarchy of authority that I could turn to--people more powerful even than he was--to survive the terror he inflicted on his family in the name of respect.

Our next-door neighbor, with whom I stayed during the day for a few years when Mom started working, was just such an elder. Doña Graciela was in her seventies, and even at the young age of three, I could tell that she was Popi's elder, too. I loved every minute I spent with her and relied on her love and kindness. When I was with her I felt good, smart, creative and capable. She made me part of her familia and through her I learned another meaning of the traditional concept--one that I carry with me still. She had some idea of what went on in our home and, in her wisdom, she built my resilience by giving me things to be responsible for. She gave me a rosary and taught me prayers, instilling in me a deep sense of spirituality that could develop in my years in Catholic school. My relationship with her wasn't all about the rules; it was about sharing, love and care.

The nuns at my schools and at church furthered my budding ideas of spirituality and helped me to honor how I was different than the other kids in school. The nuns from Central and South America in the convent connected to my school taught me to read and write in Spanish. They talked to me in Spanish with love and caring, very much like Mom and Doña Graciela had done.

Back at home, I was able to hold on to the values of our culture, language and spirituality when my father used his values of respect, gender roles, and the entitlement that he thought came with family as a reason to beat and rape me. I had learned another view from those he said were wiser: nuns at my school and the convent, and our neighbor. They helped me to survive and now, when I consider familia, I know it means to love the ones close to you. When I look back at what it means to have respect for others, I know that it works both ways - parents respect children and children respect parents. Spouses and partners respect each other--each others' bodies, each others' sense of self and dignity. Respect is a gift that should not be taken advantage of or abused.

In the years I have grown and healed from the violence I suffered in the name of familia, my view of being a Latina has evolved. Ours is not a violent culture. Abuse and cruelty are no more inherent to our core values than they are to any other cultures. The power of our culture can be turned inward and used against us or it can be used to build strong families and communities.

Machismo means being a gentleman. It means in homes where traditional Latino values are present, men show their pride and honor by providing for and protecting their families. They respect their partners or spouses. They respect their children. And they raise their children with care and kindness. This is what our values mean and what I saw modeled by the strong women who shaped me. There are Latinos and Latinas all over the world who speak out and work against violence and who simultaneously embrace our culture's strength of familia and community. I am proud to be one of them.

Olga Trujillo, J.D. is an attorney national trainer, speaker, and advocate for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. She is the author of The Sum of My Parts: A Survivor's Story of Dissociative Identity Disorder, which tells her story from the time she began to split into parts, through her courageous struggle to put herself back together and finally develop a whole picture of her life for the first time.