U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor shows students at the Berkeley Unified School District one model of Latina success: her own. Photo via flickr.com.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor shows students at the Berkeley Unified School District one model of Latina success: her own. Photo via flickr.com.

This short essay was part of a CCF series published in February 2013 in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

Latinas are often described as being either too devoted to their cultural values or not sufficiently connected to them. They are often told that they must choose “one of way of being,” either Latina or American. This expectation not only implies that there is an “authentic” Latina femininity and American femininity, but that their success depends on enacting the “right” femininity.

A prevailing mystique facing Latinas is that their “culture” holds them back from success and fulfillment. More specifically, they are told that machismo and familismo, respectively referring to an exaggerated expression of masculinity among Latino men and sacrificing Latina femininity. There are certainly aspects of Latinas’ cultural backgrounds that privilege men, but this is not unique to Latinas/os. Yet, this is the persistent narrative about Latinas’ challenges. This powerful mystique conveys to Latinas that they must reject their “culture” to be successful.

But numerous Latinas have demonstrated that rejection of their culture is not a prerequisite for pursuing professional and personal ambitions. U.S. Latinas have consistently described themselves as being caught between two worlds, that of their particular communities and that of the dominant society. And it is precisely because of this that Latinas can challenge the idea of an “authentic” Latina or American femininity. Latinas that resist the dichotomies imposed upon them understand that “culture” is not fixed and that they can create new cultural meanings and practices. For instance, some Latinas do not interpret their professional goals and their family as mutually exclusive. Instead, they sometimes link them together as a strategy for success. This way, a desire to “give back” to their families and communities fuels their motivation to persist despite the structural barriers they encounter, such as racist-sexist workplace practices.

In my interviews with 2nd generation working-class Mexican and Puerto Rican girls about their understandings of and approaches to safe sex, I found that the mystique that Latinas’ “culture” impedes their progress was also a condition that shaped how they made sense of their choices and those of other young Latinas. For instance, they interpreted the predicament of teen mothers to be caused by their willingness to adhere to cultural expectations of femininity that had prevented them from enacting sexual self-protective behaviors, such as condom use. The teen women I interviewed saw themselves as being more critical of aspects of their culture and therefore, “not like those girls.” Nevertheless, they still identified as Latinas, rejecting the notion that their sexual behavior reflected their Americanization. Their negotiations of their culture and future goals were connected to their awareness of the damaging stereotypes about Latina women.

There is no denying that culture plays a role in defining Latinas’ lives, but it is not the only factor. We must also pay attention to how misrepresentations of “Latino culture” are utilized to produce this contemporary mystique facing Latinas because of the misrepresentations’ power lies in shifting responsibility for success or failure solely onto Latinas, obscuring the social forces restricting their opportunities.

Lorena Garcia is in the department of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is the author of Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself: Latina Girls and Sexual Identity.