Mi Mamá Taught Me to Take Risks, Grow From Bad Experiences, and Embrace My Puerto Ricanness

Mellanie Perez
Mellanie Perez

Growing up, the image I had in my head of my mother changed throughout the years. My first memories of her are as a sweet woman who would reach for the sky, stars, and moon if I asked her to. As far as I can remember, she was the working parent in our three-person family as my dad retired when I was six years old. I remember the smell of her perfume — it was exactly like roses, but stronger. She radiated elegance and I wanted to be just like her.

When I hit middle and high school, I had completely forgotten who she was in my childhood, and she suddenly became enemy number 1 — as it is for most teenage girls. We were in constant war, and it took me moving 1,500 miles away from Puerto Rico to NYC for me to understand my mom just wanted what was best for me, and realize how precious she is to me.

When I moved to NYC she, along with my father, gave me the most important life lesson: never forget who you are, especially in a sea of women who are all trying to fit in. "When you're surrounded by people who have similar aspirations," she said, "pick the one trait that makes you different and use it to your advantage."

Mellanie Perez

For me, it's how proud I am of being Puerto Rican. My hair, my curves, my taste in music, the food I love, and even my way of dressing. But then I noticed that I wasn't just dressing in island colors — atypical from the NY black that seems to be the uniform — but I found myself getting inspiration from my mother's old pictures and trying to copy her style, or buying similar pieces of clothing she had in her 20s just so I could try to be an ounce of the woman she was and still is.

Another thing my mother taught me was that I have the courage and power to stand up for myself. Throughout my life, so-called friends took advantage of my kindness and would leave me in the dirt when they got what they wanted. I lost all of my childhood friends but one, and often I'd cry into my mother's chest about it.

She'd ask me to look inside me to see what went wrong, and even if it hadn't been my fault, I needed to grow from that experience. These days, I pride myself in my ability to pick much better people to be surrounded with, and also apply it in my professional life. Whenever an issue arises, I look inside of me and see how I can can become a better person because of it.

Mellanie Perez

Every day now I'm reminded how much I look like my mom when she was my age, whether by my tías and tíos, or by things I catch myself doing. My mom even describes me as a braver version of herself because I stepped out of my comfort zone to follow my dreams.

I left home at 18 to go to college. I moved to two different cities in New York, and put myself in some rather uncomfortable situations simply because I want to succeed in my career. I take risks that my mother in the '70s and '80s didn't take because it's not what women did.

She stayed home with her parents until she married my father at 32. She was their primary caretaker - despite having more than a handful of siblings - until they both passed away. She worked the same job for 30-something years until she retired.

However, she always encouraged me to think outside the box, to stop at nothing, and to follow my heart. Only a perfect mom would do that. I just hope she remembers how perfect and important she is to me this Sunday even though I won't be by her side to tell her face-to-face.