El Blog

How to Be a Dama

Growing up, mi mami had often told me that she dreamed of having a daughter. She yearned to have a little girl who would inherit her cooking skills and live to clean. Mami wanted me to be a damita – a lady.

The requirements to be a damita grew each year: master mole, crochet a bedspread, cultivate violets and dahlias, play the violin in a mariachi band, speak proper Spanish and of course, bring home a nice Mexican boy.

This list made sense for a damita who grew up in a rancho in 1950’s Guanajuato, Mexico, but I grew up in 1980’s Chicago. Knowing how to use a computer was more important than knowing how to use a stove. As a result, I don’t know how make mole, but I do know how to set up a wireless network.

I asked several women about their mothers’ expectations for them and whether or not they were able to meet them. Regardless of the culture or place of birth, each woman I spoke to said she knew her mother was trying to give her a better life. Some methods were stranger than others, but they all got results.

Take August for example. She was raised by her Filipina stepmother. Whenever she strayed or rebelled, her stepmother got her back in line in no time. “She would tell me to stop being a slut and get back to my homework.” According to her, a “slut”’ was a girl who did not do as she was told. Unfortunately, she never explained that to August, who thought she was using the traditional definition. As a result, August didn’t date anyone until college.

Lorena’s mother expected her to be a modern, educated and sophisticated woman. When a close relative became ill, Lorena was taken out of school and sent to take care of them. There was even talk of postponing college. Eventually she was allowed to continue school, but even after moving away from home and establishing a career, her family obligations always took precedent.

Elena is the oldest of four and her mother had only one rule : “Take care of your brothers.” Elena explains, “It didn’t matter if I had homework to do or plans to go out with my friends, my little brothers came first.”  When Elena started dating, her brothers tagged along as chaperones. “They ate guys alive! If he survived the first date, I knew he wasn’t a d-bag.”

Every woman interviewed said that despite everything, there were certain things her mother did that she would repeat with her own daughter. August’s stepmother emphasized the importance of self-reliance. Lorena’s mother showed her that there was more than one side to every story, and it was important to hear those sides before making a decision. Elena’s mama taught her that a good man would embrace her – and her family – and not ask her to do things she didn’t want to.

Why the need for the weird rules? Why couldn’t our mothers just explain these ideas calmly and honestly?

I think August said it best: “Our mothers want us to be independent women, but don’t want us to be independent of them.” They want the very best for us and truly believe that their way is only way of getting there. That’s why they get so upset about our clothes and grades; they think that when we make our own choices it is because we reject theirs. It’s our job as daughters to follow the spirit of their directions as we blaze our own path. This is not rejection; it’s reinvention.

I have decided to revisit mi mami’s list. Making mole can’t be that hard. Mami did it. Her mami did it. If it goes well, I may just make my daughter do it – after she learns how to set up a wireless network.

[Photo by  Paul J Everett]

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