Last month after a dinner, I was sitting in my friend’s car, and for the first time in our two-year relationship, we discussed our shared experience of growing up with abusive fathers and abused mothers who did nothing to save us. Recently, I’ve been making an effort to be more transparent about the experiences I had growing up, opening up in ways that go beyond the obligatory statement that my dad isn’t a nice man.
“How do you explain this to people?” I asked my friend. “How do you explain that you were terrorized by your parent when you were a kid, continue to endure their abuse as an adult, and still go out of your way to help and care for them?”
My friend, who finds himself in oddly similar circumstances to mine, replied, “You can’t explain it. It’s cultural.”
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I am a 28-year-old Latina feminist who lives with her dad. Every day, I pack his lunch for work. Every day, I make him dinner and literally serve him his meal. I buy all of his groceries. I give him money. I help him pay the mortgage and utility bills. I can afford to move out and live on my own, but I don’t because I feel an obligation to look after my father.
Everything I do is with the hope of making him proud, making him feel loved, and trying to repair whatever is broken inside of him that causes him to be abusive. But the thing that makes him so unkind and me so invisible in his eyes is that I am not one of his sons. I am the same knobby-kneed kid who cowered in a closet, covering my eyes with my hands and praying for the slapping to stop. I am the seven-year-old girl who ran as fast as I could through my childhood home, trying to avoid the belt licking at the backs of my legs. I am the tiny child with long hair and big brown eyes whose mom clutched her against her chest, whispering, “Tell your daddy to be nice to me.”
There is a big part of me that still plays the role of peacemaker. Despite my dad being a small man, he seemed to tower over me and my mom. Even though I was terrified as he stood shaking with rage, I would still speak up and tell him to be nice to my mom. On those days, I saved her at the expense of myself.
Now, 20 years have passed, and my dad is not the same man he used to be. Time has mellowed him out, and he is more light-hearted. The smiles come a little easier, but he still rarely has a kind thing to say about anyone and still knows nothing of gratitude. My dad doesn’t hit me anymore, but I still remember the countless times I’ve wished he would disappear to deny him the satisfaction of my tears and knowing his barbed tongue had once again hurt me deeply.
I am fully aware of how crazy my actions seem to those who grew up in families that shared a healthy love, cultures that don’t emphasize caring for one’s elders, or with parents who demand that respect be earned, not given. I want to be more than the “good Latina daughter” who did everything she was supposed to at her own expense. It is my hope that I will one day learn to love my father in a healthy way, even if he is unable to do the same in return.
My first step has been to have honest conversations in an attempt to unravel the connections between Latinas and family and violence. When I recently interviewed artist Favianna Rodriguez, who has struggled immensely with the expectations thrust upon her by her family and community, she told me that the most important and transformative work we can do is within our own families. You can love your people and your culture, but that doesn’t mean you can’t openly address their shortcomings.
For me, loving my culture means wanting to embrace it and smash it at the same time. It means I am proud of who I am and have immense love for my family, in spite of the machismo and patriarchy that was deeply ingrained in my home. It means I have so much work to do, so many chains to break, and so many generations of abuse to unlearn.
Growing up in Mexico with an alcoholic, abusive father, a complacent mother, and 15 siblings he felt responsible for, my dad never made the connection between hitting me and my mom and the violence he experienced as a child. Despite knowing the tragedy of being beaten by someone he loved, he couldn’t understand how to spare us from experiencing the same. Although they possessed the virtue of being born male, my brothers did not escape our father’s beatings, and they inherited some of his vices.
In some ways, writing these words feels like a betrayal to my father and brothers. I am finding the courage to speak about the things we’ve been taught not to publicly discuss. But it’s a crucial step for my health and my healing. Attempting to unravel what it means to be a Latina in a violent and unhealthy family is vital not only to my own recovery, but it is connected with the recovery of a culture that understands we must unravel our pain together.