August 18, 2009 / Sexism, Unity, Youth

Cultural Expectations


Growing up, there was a distinct divide between the sexes in my family.  It is something that I didn’t really think about as a child, but I do remember watching as my aunts served my uncles their meals.  The men would sit around the table and eat while the women waited on them and put off eating their own meals till after the men were done.  At a very young age I was made to serve my single uncles who didn’t have wives yet.

At the time I thought nothing of it; after all, this was how things had been all my life and there was no reason to question it.

I also did not question the fact that my brother did not have a curfew whereas my sisters and I were rarely allowed to go on social outings (school activities were different).

While I cannot speak to the experience of all Latina women, I know that this experience was not unique to my family and that many other girls in my area actually had stricter rules in place.  I remember that many of my classmates had parents that did not allow them to pursue extra-curricular activities at school and on more than one occasion I heard about girls who had to turn down scholarships because their parents felt that they should stay home and pursue a higher education locally.

In many cases, girls and young women have certain cultural constraints that limit what they do and what they can become.  A son will have more freedom while a daughter is expected to stay home and help her mother with household chores and childcare.  Unfortunately, I still hear of cases where parents have this antiquated idea that their daughters should go to college to gain their “MRS” rather than to gain knowledge.

 In many ways I was fortunate because my parents encouraged all their children, daughters and son, to go to college.  And, while my immediate family is proud of my accomplishments, I know that my extended family and acquaintances from the area in which I grew up disapprove of the fact that I am 32 and unmarried.  In their opinions an almost Ph.D. with a good career is nothing without a husband and family in tow.  “Ya se me paso el tren.” The train has passed me by.

 Their opinions on this subject really don’t bother me much, but other cultural expectations do.  As the only unmarried daughter many individuals in my culture expect that I will be the one to be the caregiver to my mother as she deals with a disability.  That I am the one that can be called on to do things because my sisters have husbands and children to take care of while my own personal aspirations (which do take time, I assure you) are not as important.  On a similar note, my brother is never bothered with any of these things because of his gender.

So what is the key to changing things?  I believe that it starts with the next generation.  I like the fact that younger girls in my community can look up at me and see what can be achieved.  I like the fact that my cousins, whether male or female, sit at the same table and enjoy a meal, not bothering with gender lines.  My family has learned that women no longer have to serve the men. As one of my aunts put it, “We’re just as hungry as they are.”

 Things are changing at the family level as well as the national level.

 Young girls in my area are seeing that there are other options available to them.  They see figures on the international stage such as Diana Lopez who is a taekwondo champion right along with her brothers.  They see figures such as Sonia Sotomayor on a national, political stage.  These are women that are like them, women that are like me!  If girls and young women see figures like this that they can admire, there is a possibility that families will begin to see that their daughters can achieve greater things than they ever imagined.

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  • marile

    I can relate to the restraints by such expectations quite well, having grown up on the countryside in Europe in the 70ies. Just as you described I aimed for a professional career instead of family and as single women was called upon when elderly relatives got sick.
    I am not sure whether these expectations have gone with our parents generation. I think these type of expectations contribute to the glass ceiling, they contribute to make family duties an obstacle for women’s careers so that even today for many of us it is either career or family.

  • kaija

    I read recently that it takes an individual 10,000 hours to become an expert at something – that translates roughly to 5 years of working 40 hrs per week on one thing.

    It made me think about how we have told boys to go out and play while we have asked our daughters to stay and help with the housework. If the boys had that extra 2 hrs a day to work on something they would become experts at it more quickly than the girls. Often, being an expert translates into being able to support yourself financially.

    I am not saying housework is bad, but that our gender-oriented expectations on who is supposed to do it is unfair. Level the playing field, starting at home.

  • Sasha, CA

    Good post. Who wrote it? How come The New Agenda is no longer publishing the names of contributors?

    I was very fortunate in that my parents treated my brother and me exactly the same when we were growing up: same rules, same curfew, same chores, same expectations. I wonder how common that is these days. My mom doesn’t call herself a feminist, but she definitely is one. She’s also one of the strongest, most independent people I know. My dad may initially have had some slightly more old-fashioned ideas about raising girls, but she wasn’t having any of it. :)

  • Karen

    Welcome back, Sasha! I had not seen your comments in a while. The lack of names is only on the page for the individual article. On the blog home page, you can find the names listed.

  • Bes

    It is impossible to treat all of your children the same because they are not the same. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking male children do not have family expectations placed on them too. I have a single sister who refuses to participate in the “women’s work” associated with family gatherings, she misses out on women’s culture which I find interesting and very valuable. She also does not join the men’s family work groups that take place at other times,(putting a new roof on Grandmas house, helping family move, etc). So she seems distant from the entire family. So how does she stay connected to family if she refuses all roles she could participate in because she finds them sexist? And is it her responsibility to initiate new ways to interact or should everyone else in the family be responsible to come up with interactions and roles that meet her standards? I think it is a struggle for every person to be all they can be, these struggles are one of the things that unites us all.