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Sad Señoritas
Girls feel unfairly treated in Latino families
Darlyn Rodriguez

“When you have your own kids, you’ll understand me,” my mother always says. But I want to understand her now.

Lack of understanding between a teenager and her parents can sometimes become a dangerous problem. In fact, the special difficulties that Latinas like me tend to have with their parents may be the main reason why Latina teens attempt suicide at a higher rate than any other ethnic-gender group of teens in the U.S.

Dr. Luis Zayas, a professor of social work and psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, has studied the lives of suicidal Latina teens for many years. When Professor Zayas worked at a Manhattan hospital in the 1980s, he noticed that Latina girls were admitted to the emergency room for suicide attempts at a much higher rate than girls of other races. (Things haven’t changed since then: According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, published by the Centers for Disease Control, 11% of Latina teens have attempted suicide, while only about 6% of youth overall have done so. In New York City, about 15% of Latinas have attempted suicide.) Professor Zayas wanted to know what was driving Latina teens to this point, and he made that question the focus of his career.

Torn Between Cultures

I interviewed Professor Zayas about his work, a lot of which is described in his new book, Latinas Attempting Suicide: When Cultures, Daughters, and Families Collide. Professor Zayas believes that suicidal Latinas usually feel pulled between the different expectations of Hispanic and American cultures.

On one side, Latino culture—and Latino parents—expect a girl “to behave well, to take care of her family, to be obedient to the uncles and the grandparents, and to remain a virgin and not go out with too many guys,” he explained. Meanwhile, in the U.S. we’re surrounded by a more modern culture that encourages girls to enjoy a lot of freedom. “So that really creates a pressure between what the parents are saying at home, and what the girl wants to do and what she’s seeing at school, on TV, on the street,” he said.

Although the issue is cultural, Latino boys don’t feel the same pressures because, as Professor Zayas points out, “The boys get a lot more room to experiment.” It’s true that boys are given much more freedom in many Latino families. Since I became a teenager I’ve noticed that my mother treats me differently than my brothers just because I’m a girl. She expects me to be like her—to take care of my house and my family, and to be a good girl.

My Brother, Papi II

This has always seemed unfair to me and made me angry. I’ve noticed the same thing in my friends’ families: The boys get to go out and have fun, while the girls have to stay home and help their mothers. Based on everything I’ve experienced and heard, the typical pattern in Latino families is that the men and boys are protective of their daughters and sisters, which results in girls not being allowed to have any independence.

For example, my friend Julia, who is 16, said her brother Julian, who is only one year older, acts like her third parent: “Every time I ask them if I can go out with some friends, they all say no—including my brother, who I now call ‘Papi II.’”

When I asked Julian to respond to what his sister said, he answered, “She is exaggerating. [Our parents] do treat her differently, but we are just taking care of her. We want her to be a good woman in the future. I don’t want anybody hurting her and if I don’t know where she’s going or with whom, she’s just not going at all.” Julian is contradicting himself when he says this, because he clearly states that “we”—he and his parents—want to control Julia, so it seems Julia is not exaggerating.

His comments made me think about my own older brother, who’s just as protective as Julian. Every time I ask for permission to go outside with a friend or with my boyfriend, my mom says to ask my dad. If my dad can’t decide either, they go and talk to my brother—and just like Julian said, if he says “no” then I’m not going. I find this infuriating. My brother is only a year older than I am; the only reason he is given this authority over me is because of gender.

image by Yu Xu

‘They’re Hurting Me’

Not all Latino families have the same problem. Daniela, 17, says she has no complaints about her position in the family. “I haven’t noticed any difference in the way my parents treat my brothers and me. We are really united,” she said.

But I think Daniela’s family is an exception. Katherine, 15, said, “They think I’m a slave. I have to do the chores while my brothers are playing video games.” She added that she fights often with her mother, who blames her for causing all the problems in the family. “I wish they could see how much they’re hurting me,” she said.

This time I also questioned Katherine’s parents to hear their point of view.

“That’s stupid—I don’t treat her differently, although she does have to learn how to be a señorita,” Katherine’s mother said. Being a señorita (young lady) means learning how to act in front of a man—how to walk and how to talk so that he will be attracted to you, and how to do things like cook well and clean in preparation for marriage.

I don’t accept Katherine’s mother’s denial: Expecting her to be a señorita obviously means expecting all kinds of things from Katherine that she doesn’t expect from her sons. Katherine’s dad, on the other hand, didn’t deny treating his daughter differently. “We do that because girls and boys are different,” he said. I asked him what he meant, and he said that girls are supposed to stay home and take care of the men in the house.

I absolutely do not accept this, and I don’t think he gave much thought to his statement. Sure boys and girls are different, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to make women into servants for men. It’s unfair because we are all humans and we should have equal rights.

Search for Understanding

I don’t think Katherine’s dad realizes that his daughter is unhappy. It’s when Latinas and their parents are out of touch like this, according to Professor Zayas, that girls are most likely to feel hopeless. On the other hand, Latinas who somewhat understand why their parents are the way they are tend to deal better with their stress.

However, I’ve found it’s hard to put aside your frustration enough to understand the other side of the argument. Sometimes parents just don’t want to listen, and that makes it really difficult to control your anger.

To relieve the stress of your relationship with your parents, Professor Zayas recommends finding someone to confide in, someone you’re close to and can trust—maybe an aunt, a grandmother, or a close friend. “There’s always somebody who will listen to you, even though you feel nobody understands you. Find that somebody,” he said.

If you are experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, don’t keep it to yourself. Life Net is a toll-free, confidential, 24-hour hotline run by the Mental Health Association of New York City. It offers counseling and referrals to professional resources where needed. Call 1-800-543-3638 (English) or 1-877-298-3373 (Spanish). Latinas between the ages of 12 and 17 may also be interested in Life Is Precious, a Bronx-based program that offers individual therapy and is tailored to the specific concerns of Latina teens. For more information, call Beatriz Coronel at 718-364-7700.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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