Telling Latinas That Familismo Is All We Have Is Toxic — and Not True
If you grew up in a Latinx family, being told "family is all you have" isn't always a comforting phrase to hear. In fact, if you came from an unhealthy, combative, or abusive home, it can feel like quite the opposite. And it can be further compounded if you are LGBTQ+, neurodivergent, disabled, or just what your family would consider different. Healthy love and support are more than just words we throw around — where is the action? Family that purposefully (consciously or not) misunderstands, mistreats, and abuses us is in no way resonant with the way most of us want to live. So why is Latinx culture so obsessed with forcing us to believe that "family is all we have"?
As Latinas, we are raised to be selfless mothers and wives. But we are not raised to step out of the confines of domesticity and service in a way that supports the growth of our individual desires and dreams. "In general, Latinas are often expected to meet certain gender roles and wear different hats while sacrificing multiple parts of our individual identities and personal needs," licensed marriage and family therapist Katheryn Perez says. "From a very young age, we are told that we have to cater to the men in our homes, give up our own personal dreams to raise a family, and never step outside these specific gender roles. This toxic idea then gets passed down to multiple generations, leaving Latina women to believe that their own needs are not as important as their family's needs, which can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, resentment, and isolation, to name a few."
Growing up the black sheep in a tumultuous household made it really hard for me to feel like I was "a part of the family." As a teen and young adult, believing that an unsupportive and emotionally abusive family was "all I would ever have" led to depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. It made me feel like things would never get better because, more often than not, in Latinx households, being loved and accepted is linked to how well we perform, conform, and obey.
"Our family can often be the ones causing the most harm through physical/emotional and/or psychological abuse."
"Our family can often be the ones causing the most harm through physical/emotional and/or psychological abuse. We start confusing and normalizing this source of 'love' or 'support' as the only type of affection that is available to us," Perez says. "Most importantly, we may begin to believe that we are not worthy of more or better. The most vulnerable people are women; individuals with low self-esteem, mental illness, [or] disabilities; and members of the LGBTQ+ community." This can also lead us into toxic and abusive romantic relationships and friendships in the future.
You Can Be Grateful and Still Not Put Up With Abuse
As women, we need to know that relying on family is not the only way for us to find support, love, and validation. We need to be open about choosing happiness and fulfillment over cultural expectations. As a teen, rejecting family meant I was "ungrateful" for the life I had, for the clothes on my back, for the food on the table, for the privileges I had, for not being physically abused, when in reality, why should I have to be grateful for the bare minimum? Latinx culture tells us "things could be worse," because historically, they have been. But our parents don't get extra points for providing food, clothes, and shelter for the children they brought into this world. It's their literal job. It has strangely become socially acceptable for parents to throw that in their children's faces, but parents are not just supposed to provide things, they're supposed to provide emotional support, which can be difficult when it's something they never experienced themselves.
In the US, the obsession with Latinx struggle narratives and seeing everything our parents did as a great and noble "sacrifice" definitely adds to the dysmorphic way in which we see our parents and family by extension. For many, it's difficult to even decipher what is abuse and what is "tough love," and it's easy to make excuses for people who have gone through horrible things themselves. Whether or not our families had the resources to unpack and heal from the things they went through does not give them the right to continue the cycle of abuse, even if they are "trying their best." It's not enough, and it's OK for it to not be enough. As adults, we have the choice to no longer pretend it is and the choice to prioritize relationships that are healthy and that feel good.
It's OK to Set Boundaries With Your Latinx Family
"We can start by surrounding ourselves with people that we feel safe and comfortable with," Perez says. But if we were raised in dysfunction, figuring out what is healthy could mean seeking out talk therapy, energy work, reiki, jin shin jyutsu, hypnotherapy, EFT treatment, acupuncture, breathwork, and limpias. There are so many healing modalities that can be used to help us find what makes us feel safe and supported. Something that worked for me was creating trusted relationships with elders other than my parents, whether it's a friend's mom, my tia, a teacher, or an older friend. I also found things like breathwork, limpias, and reiki helpful in learning to regulate my feelings and how they show up in my body.
I had to put a hard stop to certain situations and conversations with family members. I've been intentional about how I work with my therapist, and I always look for other alternatives when talking it out isn't giving me the results I'm looking for. What I have worked on with my therapist has been communicating in healthy ways and how to redirect messy energy. When I have an argument or situation that I feel could have gone better, I ask how I could better show up. Because I can't change anyone. I can only work on myself and then hope it inspires people to take action, but that's not my prerogative, either. I'm working toward myself so I may attract the types of connections that align with where I am at in life right now and where I want to be, not who I was expected to be or who I'm remembered as.
When we are taught to value toxic family over everyone, we miss out on opportunities for connection and to show up for friends the way we'd like them to show up for us. Treating nonbiological trusted friends like family is the best way to make them family, and it's the best way to live a life that honors our needs. I know people say it's hard to find friends later in life, but if I can do it, so can you. Accepting that some of my biological family won't change has been the hardest pill to swallow. But taking my happiness into my own hands by not expecting people who can't even see themselves clearly to meet my needs has been incredibly empowering. It's still hard and hurtful at times, but my entire emotional health isn't riding on how my parents react to my ideas and goals anymore, and that's a huge step. We are grown, we can do this, and remember that you don't ever have to put up with people or situations that make you feel hurt, small, and unheard.