Our immigrant Latin American mothers have endured so much, from the economic, political and/or violent strife that forced them to flee their homelands to the racial, xenophobic and cultural discrimination and abuse they face in the U.S. This painful reality often makes it difficult for us, their daughters, to speak up when they hurt us. We don’t want to add to their suffering — and we shouldn’t — but if we want to break the cycle of intergenerational trauma, we must accept and confront that many relationships between immigrant Latina mothers and their daughters are strenuous.
This isn’t exclusive to Latinas. In her essay “The Strained Relationship Between Black Mothers and Their Daughters,” MadameNoire writer Arah Iloabugichukwu explores the way many Black women have normalized maternal abuse as a manifestation of love through discipline. According to Iloabugichukwu, Black daughters know their mothers love them even if it doesn’t always feel as if they like or accept them. To prove this, she breaks down common maternal sayings in the Black community and analyzes their problematic nature, discussing how this mindset is keeping a cycle of maternal toxicity in a constant forward motion.
As a Black woman, I resonated with Iloabugichukwu’s argument, but, as a Latina and daughter of an immigrant, I noticed some additional factors that could lead to strained relationships between mothers and daughters in our community as well. After exchanging stories with many of my Latinx friends, I felt affirmed that while the plight is similar, we face a distinct kind of strain with our immigrant Latin American mothers.
In our community, there is a heavy emphasis on what others will say or think about our appearance. “Y qué va a decir la gente,” our mothers usually ask us. Often, when impoverished immigrants enter the United States, they are made to feel like they are nothing. In response, they set out to create value for themselves based on how the world views them. They work tirelessly to blend in by acting like the white Americans they see on TV, a sort of assimilation on steroids. This is not to say that this problem is strictly a result of immigration. There is a strong emphasis on appearances in Latin American countries as well, often in comparison to those of a higher economic class. It’s also possible that appearances are the one thing our mothers felt able to control, as opposed to the many situational experiences they could not. But regardless of the reason, our mothers’ constant worry of what others will think — instead of addressing or accepting circumstances — puts an immense pressure on daughters to perform and people please over living an authentic life.
Even more, while gender roles aren’t exclusive to the Latin American community, almost-everyday sayings, like “Eso no es cosa de niñas,” show how prevalent they are in our families. Some common “ladies don’t” rules include sitting with your legs uncrossed, wearing pants, playing in dirt or hanging out late. Along with them are several rigid “ladies must” requirements: keep the house clean, stay in the kitchen, serve the men and children before serving yourself, smile and always be pleasant. There is a certain way girls should behave, look and even think. And when the status quo is challenged, it is disconcerting for both parties.
Then, of course, there are the always-occuring moments where many of our mothers belittle our own crises, using stories of the deeply horrific struggles they have endured to discount our experiences. The extreme conditions our mothers faced are traumatic: they were forced to walk miles to access a basic education, when it was available; they faced corporal punishment for the simplest of mistakes and there were times when their young bodies starved. All of this will often lead to the mindset behind, “Yo a tu edad no tenía nada de lo que tú tienes.” It is not uncommon for our mothers to list the hardships they endured as a way to justify their continued cycles of toxicity. The classic, “look what I went through and I’m just fine” attitude lends to them having a difficult time seeing the validity of our struggles. Growing up, whenever I would try to point out something not feeling right, my mother’s response was always a sharp, bitter reaction, like, “Ya lo se, yo soy una madre terrible.” And so I was conditioned not to say anything because I didn’t want my mom to feel like she was a bad mother.
None of this is a critique on how immigrant mothers should handle trauma better — not by any means.
We cannot disregard the courage and strength our mothers needed to leave their home in search of a better life, and we must acknowledge the lack of mental health resources they faced both here and in their native land. They were never provided with effective ways to deal with their pain. As a result, our moms are burdened with their mothers’ traumas while holding onto their own lost childhood and relinquished dreams.
It is possible to both appreciate and honor our mothers’ sacrifices, to be empathetic to their heavy past, while also working to break the chains of shame we carry for wanting more or doing things differently.
This is a reminder that the shame that accompanies intergenerational trauma is real. It is an encouragement to seek support when it is needed.
Young Latinx girls don’t need to be worried about how others will view them as they grow into themselves. They don’t need to adhere to strict gender roles with sole aspirations of getting married and having children. And they don’t need to be made to feel like their emotional and spiritual struggles are irrelevant if their physical needs are being met.
Above all, they need to understand that their voices matter and have power. They need to be raised to see conflict and dialogue as a bridge to deeper understanding and more intimate relationships.
Nowadays, when I talk to my mom, I mention my therapy sessions as casually as I would a nail appointment. Recently, she called me to apologize for an inconsiderate comment she made. Our relationship is growing because we are learning how to have open, honest exchanges — we are learning how to hold space for one another.
I cannot promise that every mother will be as receptive as mine has been. I wish I could. But knowing that we’re not alone, grappling with the complexities of maternal toxicity, setting boundaries as we move forward and cultivating a strong sense of self that is not tied to the stigmas from childhood is a good place to start.