Growing up a Latina in a religious and cultural household, there were things that were expected of me. I was expected to know how to cook and how to clean. For example, one time there was a small family celebration we were having at our house. Everyone was going to go, so we had to prepare food, clean the house, get things from downstairs, etc. I was in my room reading a book when my mother came to get me. She told me that I should help with the cooking, instead of reading. However I didn’t want to cook, I found it a chore.
I told her this and she told me, “Cómo piensas que vas a conseguir un marido si no sabes cocinar,” How do you expect to find a husband if you can’t cook? “He can cook for himself,” I said, “ I am nobody’s maid.” Yet my mother still argued with me saying that it is expected that I should learn. That day, I learned that cleaning, cooking, and tending to kids were all major tasks associated with womanhood and that my being a woman, I had to do these things without complaint. I was ten years old.
Very early on in my life, I found things like cooking and cleaning unenjoyable. “Cómo piensas que vas a conseguir un marido” (How do you expect to find a husband) and “no vas a poder vivir sola” (You won’t be able to live by yourself) were phrases that I continued to hear from my preteen year up until today. As the years progressed, I became annoyed with the traditional expectations my Dominican culture placed on women. I started to rebel. I didn’t cook, didn’t clean, didn’t do anything a ‘typical woman’ would do. I wore clothing that was deemed boyish, talked back, never wore nail polish, or makeup.
Family members would always tell me that I would look better if I wore makeup or that it’s not too late to learn how to cook. I would tell them, “I am going to school for science to get rich and hire a personal chef.” However, they would tell me that life is not that easy because “you’re a girl” and these types of things should come “naturally.” This is how the older relatives in my family think. They grew up learning how to make different Dominican dishes or mending clothes, and finding the best ways to clean. These “typical women things” bore me.
When my mother was younger in the Dominican Republic, there were barely any jobs for women. There were jobs for women, but people would hire men over women, so many women turned to prostitution to earn money. Many of the women my mother grew up with viewed sex workers as lower than they were and instead went into housecleaning. But they didn’t help the women who were sex workers get jobs in houses or other jobs they deemed “respectable.” They talk badly about each other instead of helping each other. In addition, there were women with jobs and women who stayed home. They were all fighting for an opportunity to find a job but instead of joining together, they separated themselves from each other.
That is how these toxic gender norms became engraved in my family. From generation to generation, these messages were passed down to the girls and boys of the family. Men should have better jobs and do work that was more physical, while women should have so-called easier domestic jobs and maintain looking pretty. These rigid gender roles hurt the people within the community and instead of combating them, we as Latinos continue to perpetuate these notions.
I have always had a problem with the restrictions that these gender roles in Dominican culture have placed on me. I could either be a woman or Dominican and these two things never really intersected. In my high school feminism class, we read “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression“ by bell hooks. It opened my eyes to what feminism is:
Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. Its aim is not to benefit solely any specific group of women, any particular race or class of women. It does not privileged women over men. It has the power to transform in a meaningful way all our lives… Feminism as a movement to end sexist oppressions directs our attention to systems of domination and the interrelatedness of sex, race and class oppressions.
The Latina women I know in my family don’t want to advocate for feminism because they are not sure what it means. They don’t realize that for me, being a woman and Dominican, come together. What I have learned in my high school feminism class is that there are so many things that Latinas and other women of color are fighting against such as sexism, racism, classism, and more, not only in society but within our own families and cultures. As Latinas, we face discrimination along racial, ethnic, and gender lines. This to me is what feminism stands for.
In our class, we read parts of the book Sister Outsider, a collection of essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. The line, “Your silence will not protect you,” from “The Transformation of Silence Into Language and Action“ let my mind be open to a different way of thinking. It taught me that staying silent about my ideas would not solve anything, it would just make my opinions not be heard. Many people don’t have an opportunity to voice their thoughts. If you have the privilege to speak your voice, it’s best to share it.
I have learned that no matter if it’s in my culture or in my family, that I can speak out. I lost my backbone to speak on the thoughts on topics that oppose my family. I thought that the conflicting ideas would soon go away and the conversation would be over with it. Yet they still kept coming. I have learned that my silence will not protect me. That I have to keep voicing my ideas if I want something to change.