As a culture, we often spend a lot of time and effort exploring how others impede our progress, set obstacles in our way or are simply less than welcoming. But I strongly believe that we should spend the same amount of effort, if not more, introspectively delving into what we ourselves do within our culture to limit our community. After all, we have more control to change the negative elements within our own culture than we do in changing how others perceive and interact with us. As the Latino Leadership Council, we aim to create leaders from within our community, and since leadership comes from within, our community needs to be honest with itself and address its shortcomings.
Working with youth, one of the things I come across over and over is the discrepancy in the way we treat our sons and our daughters. From birth, our children are set on paths that are defined more by their gender than by their individual capabilities, ambition or interests.
I see young Latino boys being given the freedom to go out, stay out late, drive the family car and more, while the daughters are expected to stay home, be proper, help with the housework and essentially ready themselves to be future mothers and homemakers. Boys are allowed to be rambunctious, loud and even aggressive, while girls are expected to be demure and deferential.
A 2004 study at the University of Nebraska conducted by two researchers, including one from UC Davis, studied how young Latinos and Latinas were raised by their families, and explored gender-related socialization in our culture. To illustrate my point, here are a couple of quotes from Latina women who were interviewed in the study:
“He (her brother) had a very much later curfew than I did. He got a car, got to drive a car and then he also got his own car and I never did…I could only go to school-related activities and he could do about anything, he could go anyplace he wanted and so I always felt like I was the one that she (her mother) just didn’t ever let go, she always kept control over everything that I did…”
“Well, my brothers were able to do a lot more than us girls…we had to make sure all the housework was done before we even went to school…we had the responsibility of the house-work and taking care of the younger kids and whatever and the boys didn’t have to worry about that, they didn’t have to worry about cleaning, they didn’t have to worry about anything like that, they could do pretty much what they wanted just as long as they were back at home by a certain hour or whatever.”
It’s easy to look at the way our culture treats our children and chalk it up to machismo as the sole culprit. And while machismo obviously plays a role, I was really surprised to see in the study that it was primarily the mothers who limited their daughters by placing them in this rut. I’m sure there’s a cyclical relationship in that mothers are raising their daughters the way they themselves were raised, but it also places the onus on them to be the change agents and break this cultural chain.
The incongruity in which we raise our children and the gender roles we cast on them have long-lasting impacts. Our daughters grow up thinking that they are inferior to their brothers and all other male figures, they feel their career and lifestyle options are limited and it sets them down a path of lowered expectations.
Our sons see how their sisters are treated and it reinforces in them the idea that the genders are not equal, which leads them to repeat the cycle, disrespect and in some cases even abuse our women. The permissiveness afforded our sons fails to set boundaries, responsibilities and consequences, giving them a false sense that they run the show. This lead to our sons getting in trouble, clashing with authority figures, failing at school and pretty much marring their future before it even begins.
These are harsh words and assessments, and it hurts me to even type out the words, but it’s a reality that if we, as a culture and a community, do not address, we can’t successfully move forward.
What do you think? Are we compromising our culture by addressing and changing these aspects of it, or are correcting its flaws and enhancing it for generations to come? Will our culture be impacted in unintended ways by making these changes? Can we expect others to give us opportunities and a leveled playing field if don’t afford the same courtesies to our daughters? There are a lot of questions to be addressed, but in my mind, at least, one thing is clear—we are currently doing a disservice to our children.