Traditional gender roles, marriage, and the reason I write

I locked myself in the closet. They were fighting again. I barely heard what they were arguing about this time, but the muffled screams filled the air drowning out El Cantante’s Hacha y Machete. The radio was on and mami was in the kitchen cooking when papi arrived from work.  The smell of pernil and arroz con gandules squeezed its way into the already cramped coat closet. The closet was mami’s storage place for everything that didn’t have its proper place in our cozy 2 bedroom apartment.  It was also my safe place. For years I’d been locking myself in the closet whenever I wanted to escape mami and papi’s arguing. I nestled into the corner finding a space between the boxed up Christmas tree, mami’s beach chairs, and papi’s old Hector Lavoe records.

“I told you already that you are not getting a job,” papi yelled. “Your job is here, taking care of me and the girls.” “I’m tired of being locked up in the house all day”. Cici is already 14, una señorita” mamí said.  “When I was her age I was already cooking, cleaning, and taking care of my brothers and sisters.”

“I don’t care what you did when you were her age” papi barked back. “No daughter of mine is going to end up a housewife taking care of children. Cici needs to focus on school.”

“I want to work Carlos. I want to make my own money,” mami retorted.

“Make your own money? What do you need money for?” papi said. “So that you can go whoring around like that puta from the 5th floor?” he yelled.  “Is that what you want?”

Mami had been on some independent woman quest ever since she started hanging out with our neighbor Carmen. Carmen was recently divorced, unemployed, and had too much time on her hands. Lately she’d been filling mami’s head with tonterias and telling her of all the things she was missing out on being stuck in the house all the time. During the day while Papi was at work she would come over and brag to mamí about her freedom and how good it felt to not have to answer to a man and make her own decisions for a change.

“I’m sick of always having to ask you for money like I’m one of the girls. No soy tu h’ija Carlos. I’m your wife,” mami countered. “That’s right you’re my wife and no wife of mine is gonna be out there working as if I can’t support my family. You think I bust my ass selling cars working 12 hour days, 6 days a week so that my wife can work? I’m the provider for this family. Punto!” Papi’s voice exploded.  In short measured breaths he said, “¿Quieres trabajar? You wanna be the man of the house? You want to go out and provide for this family while I stay home raising the girls? ¿Eso es lo que tu quieres? I’ll show you what being a man is”.

End scene.

While that exact scene never actually happened it is very representative of what I witnessed growing up. I grew up in a family where the men made all the decisions and the women were just passive supporting characters. Women did not have a voice in matters of their own life. They were relegated to the home as mothers and wives. Generational conditioning had acclimatized the women in my family to do as their husbands, fathers, brothers and male figures said and never question them about anything. As a young girl being raised by a man who at all costs wanted to raise educated, confident, and independent women, what he instilled in my sister and I and how he treated our mother was very contradictory. As a result, I learned to believe that my mother and women like her were voiceless; powerless even. To me, they were similar to trophies and expensive pieces of art to be hung on display. The message I received was that they were to be seen and not heard.

My paternal grandmother played her role well, she was quiet, and though not a petite woman she had a diminutive air about her. I don’t recall her ever speaking much.  My paternal grandfather was a charmer, a big spender, and knew exactly how to court a woman.  From stories I’ve heard passed down from family members, my grandfather had a wandering eye. If he was out at a nightclub and there was a woman who caught his eye he’d send over a round of drinks and food to her table. Other times, when he was feeling particularly cocky he’d invite the woman to join him. My grandmother would be sitting quietly on one side of him and his prospect would be sitting on the other. For a poor man who migrated to the US from Puerto Rico without much, he knew that as long as he had money there was nothing he couldn’t get.

My father was like him in that sense. He too knew that with money came power and status. Both my dad and grandfather were generous givers, always picking up the tab whenever the family went out.  My dad was the younger version of my grandfather mirroring everything about him from his name, to his flashiness, to how he pursued and treated women; equating the number of sexual conquests to their manliness. The more women they slept with, the manlier they were perceived to be.

My mother admits that it was my father’s nice car and flashy style that she was initially attracted to and although my father wasn’t as brazen as his father there were rumors of infidelity. I recall one time my mother finding the telephone number of another woman in the pocket of his pants after a night out.  When she confronted him about it, all he said was that the number belonged to my uncle (my mother’s brother).

As I got older and started gaining a better understanding of gender roles (both traditional and non-traditional) I began to wonder why both my mother and grandmother allowed themselves to be disrespected. For a very long time it affected how I viewed relationships and marriage. By the time I was 17 I’d decided that I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t want a relationship nor did I want to get married. My fear was that I’d lose myself in a relationship; I equated being in a relationship with loss of freedom.

For years I had seen my mother ask my father for permission for everything as if she were a child. If she wanted to go out with her friends or sisters she needed permission. When she wanted to go back to school (an endeavor that my father supported) she needed permission. When she finally started working (after being a stay-at-home mom for 10 years) she’d hand her paycheck over to my father and then have to ask him for money when she needed it. To this day she has never paid a bill, lived on her own, or made any major decisions on her own. If my sister and I wanted to do something or go anywhere it was my father who we needed to get permission from. In my eyes, my mom had no power as a woman, wife, even mother.

After years of successfully avoiding a serious relationship I eventually met and fell in love with the man who would become my husband. When I got married I started doing the very things that I’d sworn I would never do or put up with.  Little by little I saw myself metamorphosing into my mother and while my husband didn’t cheat (not that I’m aware of) there were other similarities. I found myself asking for permission to do basic things like go out with my sister and girlfriends.  As a married woman I thought it was what I was supposed to do. That was due in part to my naiveté as a young bride and what I saw between my parents growing up.  Subconsciously it had been embedded into my psyche.

My desire to be a good wife (whatever that meant) as well as be an independent and progressive woman, clashed. I did not know how to reconcile the two, resulting in my husband and me separating many times. I was continuing the cycle. I was repeating everything I had witnessed in my parents’ and grandparents’ marriages. My grandmother eventually divorced my grandfather and although she re-married a couple of times she died alone with no spouse or partner.

My parents however, have come a long way since then and now have a healthy and loving marriage. Still, it did not come without hard work and sacrifice from both of them. They realized that in order to make it work they would both have to give up some of the things they had conditioned themselves to do. This was true for my marriage too. After many separations my husband and I realized that if we wanted our marriage to survive we had to be willing to change years of cultural conditioning and what we had been taught –either directly, or indirectly on gender roles. We needed to decide if our marriage was worth it or if we were going our separate ways. In the end we decided it was worth it. Our marriage now is the best it’s ever been and just celebrated our 13 year wedding anniversary. I am fortunate that ours was one of the marriages that survived.  He is my partner, my best friend, and the biggest supporter of my dreams.  Without his support this writing dream of mine would be so much more difficult to pursue.

A while ago in a writing workshop I was asked what my origin story is. Initially I didn’t have an answer. After giving it some thought, I realized everything I witnessed as a child has influenced my writing. My desire to write comes from the things I wished my grandmother, my mother, even I would have said all those times we conceded to our husbands.  I realized that I write so that I never lose my voice or power. I write so that my daughter does not repeat the cycle. I write so that I can tell the stories of women who are not brave enough to tell their own. I write because I refuse to be anyone’s trophy, porcelain doll, or piece of art. My writing is my revolution. I write so that I can be heard.

-NAR-

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