I remember calling my mami from an inflatable mattress in a dingy basement I had just moved into. I remember the self-nurturing and self-assurance I had to do just to dial her number. I was calling my mami to tell her about the demise of my marriage, and I feared her response to my decision.
It is devastating to reflect on that phone call, because not even my own decision to leave my ex-husband felt as difficult as my decision to tell her what I was going through. I remember trying to keep my voice from shaking when I told her what I had done. If you are sure of something, you do not need to mourn that decision — that was one of the more formative mantras in my household.
I also remember losing my composure and breaking down in tears. Everything still felt so raw, and I was in so much pain. None of that meant that I was unsure about my decision. But any sign of weakness meant getting bulldozed by my mom. In between my own cries and gasps for air, I could hear her rail against me and against this very hard decision I had made about my life.
I remember hanging up on her, because I could not carry her disappointment on top of my broken heart.
When I got divorced, years ago, I had to go through that experience without any support from my own family. Thankfully, I have wonderful friends who held me and helped me move into a new place and even went as far as to sleep in the same bed with me, since I had not slept alone in years. But my family stood afar, often judging me and pushing me away.
As the oldest immigrant daughter, I shouldered a lot of expectations. Now, as my older brother is experiencing his own divorce journey, he is receiving support from my parents. Even my sister is confused. She asked my parents why they felt so compelled to help my brother during these tough times but weren’t available to me, their oldest daughter. Priscila, they told her, is stronger.
I’ve been sitting with those words since I heard them, waiting to find the comfort they were maybe meant to provide. But I’m finding more questions instead.
I have a mami who insisted I grow up to be a strong woman. I have a papi who often praised my mami for being so strong and taking no shit. A woman with strong convictions and the will to demand those convictions be respected — in my home, that strength makes you valuable. A strong woman who is able and willing to disarm herself in front of her man — that is the goal. Quite frankly, the sign of a good, strong man is to be able to attract a strong woman and not be overtaken by her.
As a child, my crying was mocked and punished as a sign of weakness. When I would cry, my mom would tell me that I reminded her of her sister, whom she viewed poorly because to her, she was a weak woman.
I say all this because it is the foundation of a lot of my own adulthood today. As a child, my crying was mocked and punished as a sign of weakness. When I would cry, my mom would tell me that I reminded her of her sister, whom she viewed poorly because to her, she was a weak woman.
When I finally figured out how to receive praise, how to properly mirror the strength that was revered in my home, I became a force. And I have fought tooth and nail to be heard, seen, and respected at every turn.
I think mamis who have lived hard lives simply want their children to have better tools to manage their own tough lives. The strength I was told to harness was important to mi mami because in her life, to be strong meant that you could protect yourself.
However, it is that strength that has begun to erode my relationship with her.
I view my relationship with my mami as a constant ebb and flow. Sometimes we are so synced up that it’s like I am looking in a mirror. We laugh in the same ways and we show discomfort in also the same awkward ways. Sometimes sitting with her, at this stage in my life, where I am 35, feels like sitting with an old friend, a confidant. There is an intimacy that comes with migrating to a new country, a close singular family unit attempting to reimagine family from the large gatherings we were accustomed to in our home country to quaint ones in America.
Immigrant families can often become co-dependent because we all have to rely on one another. We have adapted in different ways.
Immigrant families can often become co-dependent because we all have to rely on one another. We have adapted in different ways. I absorbed the culture and language through intimate exposure that I received from going to public school in this country, and she learned the social norms that come with navigating the health care and immigration systems as an adult. I have been her translator, her advocate, and, in some ways, was one of her closest friends.
But as I have gotten older, I find myself pulling away from my mami for reasons far more complicated than I can explain. I have investigated my resistance to tears, softness, and tenderness. And to heal that resistance, I have needed to isolate myself from one of my dear friends, my mami.
In the last couple of years, my intentional boundaries have felt like a personal attack to most of my family. They seem to hurt my mami the most. Strong women do not need boundaries, and maybe that is why my boundaries feel like a personal attack.
I have lived in another state for almost an entire decade now, and my family have all gathered memories without me. Sometimes people in their own church do not know that they have a third child, because I have become invisible in their lives, pictures, and memories.
But I come from men who have managed to kill women’s spirits not with their fist, but with their words. So what that means is that I come from women who move, react, and nurture differently. They teach you how to survive, which can stunt your ability to thrive.
. . . I come from women who move, react, and nurture differently. They teach you how to survive, which can stunt your ability to thrive.
The distance I’ve created from the strong mami I know and love is the coping mechanism I have picked up to nurture myself and all my tenderness. Because unfortunately, learning to perform strong is not a useful tool. It’s more like a bandage, and bandages cannot and will not stick long term.
The strength that people often perceive in me is just a performance, and learning to be soft is how I can be kindest to myself, even if that may seem like a rejection.
I learned from a young age to behave in ways that mi mami praised, as many children do. As an adult, I have shed a lot of those expectations in my own journey to self-determine.
Today I have to parent myself and tell myself that crying is not weakness.
Today, I have to create barriers to keep one of the most important women in my life away from my tenderness, because she does not always hold it with the softness that it deserves.
But when I am done healing, I hope to be able to create spaces for her tenderness to also shine, even if I have to find my way back to her in the dark. Because mi mami taught me to be strong, and that strength got me to seek help.
A woman with strong convictions and the will to demand those convictions be respected — in my home, that strength makes you valuable. So it turns out that maybe I am a strong woman. Strong enough to ask for help and strong enough to create the space for myself. Sometimes the lessons our parents teach us are half-written, meant for us to etch in the rest — and maybe even defy.
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Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez is a feminist, theologian, the founder of Latina Rebels and author of the newly released For Brown Girls With Sharp Edges and Tender Hearts: A Love Letter to Women of Color.
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