How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

When Familism Hurts

Episode Notes

Ody's grandmother lived with her family when she was growing up. The expectation of always putting family first created a toxic environment due to emotional abuse from her grandmother, whom she suspects may have had a mental illness. An expert on Latino cultural values breaks down the concept of familism and how it shapes the dynamics at home.

Our expert this week is Gabriela Livas Stein, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Learn more about her lab here. If you loved this episode, be sure to listen to When Mamí and Papí Fight, and Papí and I Don't Talk, We Argue.

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Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams:

Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming back. This is How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything. Hey, hey, new listeners. I’m Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. Today, I’m speaking with Ody. She comes from a Cuban American family. Her grandmother lived with them when she was growing up and she was difficult, even toxic at times. Talking to her parents about it never really helped. Much of what they said only enforced the entrenched notions of familism that governed their household. Now as an adult and with a family of her own, Ody’s beginning to understand the hurtful dynamics in her immediate family and trying to heal. Let’s get into it. 

Odalys: Hi, I’m Odalys Quevedo. I’m a mom of two. I use she/her pronouns. And when I was growing up, I called my mom and dad mamí and papí, but then when we got older.. We called them Lady and Sapi. So, I called my mom lady because she had the tendency of calling quite a bit when I was out, and it was embarrassing as a teenager to say, “Yeah, mom. Okay, mom.” And so, I started just calling her lady. “All right, lady. Fine.” And then my dad always referred to people as sapingo, so we just started calling him sapingo and we shortened it. We made it Sapi. 

I grew up in Hialeah, Florida. I have two immigrant parents. Well, had. My dad passed away in 2011. I grew up pretty happy. Strong family ties. That was kind of the primary focus. A lot of familismo. My grandmother lived with me from the point where I was three years old until about 25, after my dad passed away. My grandma watched us in the afternoons because my parents both had to work. She would pick us up from school after we were done for the day. That was always a really rough time for me, because I would never know what mood she would be in. Just a very tense kind of relationship. Mostly it was a lot of emotional, a lot of insults, and a lot of threats. Her favorite threat was, “Te voy a dar por la cabeza con un palo. I’m gonna hit you over the head with a stuck.” She never did it, but the look in her eye, it was just a whole change in her face and her eyes would shine with malice. 

I can remember it starting from the point where I hit puberty. That’s when the real hard abuse started. I don’t know if it’s because I looked more like an adult, or I don’t know… I really don’t know. She always had a preference for my brother. She clearly would say he’s a male, he’s a boy, so you have to pick up your room. Even though it was a shared space between he and I. 

Everyone in the house had issues with my grandma. Every time I talked to my mom about my grandmother’s behavior and the arguments that we would get into, she would just try to pacify the situation. She just encouraged me to respect my elders and I feel like a lot of that came from Marianismo, the idea that you have to sacrifice for family. Especially when the arguments were extremely out of hand, my dad would have a stern talk with her and voices would be raised, and she would end up going into her room and slamming the door almost like a child. It was like their roles were reversed. 

I think my father, he had a very soft spot for people. He would always say, “Pobrecita, pobrecito.” He would take pity on people a lot and even though he threatened to kick her out of the house, he never did it. He just didn’t want to leave her in the streets. And we didn’t have a lot of money, so she would contribute also financially to the household, so that may have been another reason that she stayed. 

I do believe my grandmother suffered from mental illness. She never wanted to see a therapist. She never wanted to go on any medication or see a psychiatrist. There was just too much of a stigma around that. 

The way it impacted me, I can only speak for myself, was that I had very low self-esteem and also I didn’t feel like I had a voice, so I’m still healing. I stopped taking all of her calls and things about three years ago. The only thing that motivated me to keep her in my life after my dad passed and after I got married and moved out of my house was that my father was an only child and the only ones left were my brother and I to care for her, and I do it… I don’t know. I guess for familismo. And now she’s elderly. She had some health issues last month and I had to make decisions for her because she lost the ability to speak about… I would say about three years ago. And part of me was like, “Oh, this is her punishment.” But you know, I’m nobody to judge or say that, but the petty side of me, the petty side of me came out. That’s how I know I haven’t fully healed, you know? It’s still there. 

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Like Ody, many of us first gens grew up in immigrant homes where family comes first and respect for our elders is enforced, what the experts call familism. Add in possible mental health complications and it’s an emotional powder keg. To help us understand the concept of familism and its consequences, I called in an expert. 

Gabriela Livas Stein: 

My name is Gabriela Livas Stein and I’m an Associate Professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina in Greensboro, and my research and clinical expertise are on Latinx families and in particular, the role of familial cultural values, like familismo and how it serves to protect youth, and understanding how it influences just developmental trajectories. And finally, I do work as well on mental healthcare access and reducing stigma, as well as providing services to the Latinx community that are culturally based, and nuanced, and in language that they can understand. 


When you listen to Ody’s story, what do you hear? 

Stein: Well, I hear a story that I hear in many Latinx families of the resilience of the familismo values. At the start, when she started talking, you could hear the warmth in her voice talking about her happy childhood and how she even described her relationships with her parents, Lady and Sapi, believe. But you also see the double-edged sword that sometimes these values can have, in that they also can expose us to family members that might be struggling. 

So, some of the work that’s been done, this was work that was done in New York City by Esther Calzada and her team, has found that familismo can become a little bit more negative. It’s in the context with family that has mental health issues or have other stressors in the home. And this story, I think it encapsulates exactly that, that familismo is a strength for us in our community, pero a la misma vez, or at the same time it also can sometimes sort of put us in harm’s way a little bit. 


All right, so help those of us who are not as familiar but might be living in familismo understand some of the key traits of familismo. 

Stein: So, familismo, Ody’s talked about the obligation you had to the family, the respect that you have to have with elders, and sort of the family ties. Those were the words that she used and those are the ones that really encapsulate that value, so it really is the obligations we have to provide emotional, social support, instrumental support, like with money, and living at home, and sort of places to live, that we have to our family. One thing about familismo that’s true is that it’s not just our immediate family. In this experience, she really talked about her grandmother, but we have these obligations to our cousins, to our extended families, our tias, our tios, like everyone in our family. 

There’s also a loyalty that we have to our family. We want our behavior to reflect well on our family. We don’t want it to bring shame to our family. And we also just sort of have that respect that we have for our elders and the hierarchy of a family. And even as an adult, how we are still… sort of have these values that influence how we interact with our older family members.


Okay, so that all sounds reasonable, so where’s the line where it becomes unreasonable?

Stein: We know from the research that actually this value is really protective for kids and for families. It keeps us connected. It keeps our families being well functioning. I think where it becomes unreasonable or when it becomes harmful is if someone is damaging us in a psychological way, so I think the unreasonable place that sometimes you have to think about where, how… You know, the goal of this is to keep our family united and working together, but sometimes you do have to draw that boundary to say this person is really being unhealthy and what’s a way that I can live up to this value in a minimal way while protecting my own self-esteem and my own well being. 

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Okay, I’m just gonna say it. She was a kid, right? So, of course she was uncomfortable when it was happening, and then much later as an adult, she gained the perspective and understanding, but what can adults do when this dynamic is becoming damaging to a child who is powerless in many instances? What can other adults do? 

Stein: I think the important thing that an adult can do is sort of A, one thing you can think about is where you can build that resilience for your child, so what are ways in which you can bring in other family members, have positive experience with other family members you have access to, and really think around the pride messages you can give your kids, and just that… validating that experience. I think sometimes she sort of said, “Well, es tu abuelita, what can you do?” You know, so important to really sort of talk with your kids saying, “No, you’re right. This isn’t an okay way for her to treat you.” Maybe give some insight to give some protection of like what can you do in those moments when she starts talking to you like that, give them coping skills of what they can say or do that’s appropriate, that is within sort of the values of the family, and then to give them some skills to cope with it. 


Thank you for that. In Ody’s situation, there was a very material, complicating factor, which is that grandma was contributing to the household, so in the instance where the relative who might be causing damage has also become necessary for the household to function, what are some strategies that families can put in place? 

Stein: Yes, and I think that encapsulates perfectly this pros and cons of familism, right? So, in some ways it was helpful. One of the things we know, especially for immigrant families, is that familism is the way that they’re able to cope with all the things that are happening in terms of those instrumental supports like childcare. That’s the one that comes up the most as being the most useful as families are working multiple jobs, so this is very common in what we see, and I think the strategies to put into place is to sort of maybe think about are there other contexts that you can put your kid in if part of that conflict is when you’re not there and after school? 

So, as they get older, are there other places that they can go to access support and help, like any after school activities where that might be useful to sort of minimize that contact? And then thinking through, yeah, what other spaces are there? You know, she mentioned her brother having a good relationship or a better relationship with her grandmother, so how can the brother be helpful? The other thing you can potentially do is really thinking through those pieces and give messages like, “No, in our house everyone contributes,” and give the son some tasks. Or bring the son in in a way to help sort of facilitate that. 

You know, in some ways, women are in charge of maintaining the family well being. She talked about Marianismo, and maintaining that well being of everyone getting along, but I think we can do a lot to teach our sons that it’s just as much their responsibility and bringing them in to help with that I think can be helpful, too. 


So, again, as an adult, Ody came to recognize that her grandma might have suffered from some level of mental illness, right? Which of course with perspective, and with her own experiences as a mom, became really apparent. But we don’t talk about mental illness in our families, so how can we possibly begin to address the consequences of familismo when there might be a latent mental health issue with the person? 

Stein: Yeah. I think you get to a really important question in terms of when does familismo hurt, and we know it hurts in conditions of extreme distress. So, if there’s suicidality, if there’s a lot of financial stress, if there’s a lot of conflict in the home, that’s when this value can turn into sort of a more negative value, and in the context of mental illness, one thing we’ve found for example is that with moms who had higher levels of depression, actually familismo was protective. So, for some types of mental health difficulties, like depression, there could be something useful about it, because in some ways it gives us purpose in life. It gives us meaning. And that’s actually a very powerful, potent thing as why familismo’s so protective. 

But at the same time, when there’s more extreme kinds of mental illness or that extreme dysregulation, I think that is sounds like her grandmother had, I think if they knew that, having that conversation with your child about how that person isn’t in control of their emotions, how that person’s history has led them to be this way, and again, coming back to those skills of how do you still love someone and help someone who’s suffering, and then helping them sort of find a support group. So, it doesn’t have to be a mental health intervention. 

So, there’s been some interesting research that has been done out in San Diego in just with immigrant women going just to support groups, just talking and hearing and being along with other immigrant women can be really powerful as a place for healing and support that isn’t even necessarily a mental health intervention. Whether through church, or through various community organizations that they might be able to belong to, that’s more just about, “Hey, go have a cafecito with someone, or go spend time with someone,” can be protective, too. 


All right, last question. What are the signs to look for if you think that you might be in a toxic familismo dynamic with one or two relatives in your own family? 

Stein: Yeah. I’m always a big fan of really thinking about how do I feel when I’m with this person, right? How does this person make me feel about myself? How does this… and in familismo, what’s wonderful about familismo even if it’s hard, or we’re sacrificing, ultimately that feels good to us. That it’s hard, but we know we’ve done something right. But if every time you’re interacting with a family member you don’t feel good about yourself. I think that’s a sign to say that there maybe needs to be a bit of a boundary that needs to be put up. But I would really trust how do you feel in that moment with that family member, and if you’re always feeling worn out, tired, it’s always like you’re giving and not getting anything, but in a way that’s not filling you, then I think that’s the sign I would really listen to. And then think about who else can you go to to get that support and how can you set up boundaries that are still culturally engaged and appropriate to give people those messages? 


Thank you so much. That was wonderful. 

Stein: Thank you! No, thank you so much, and I am just so honored to be here and excited for the invitation. 


All right, let’s recap what we learned from Gabriela. Recognize when familism serves you and when it doesn’t. Our family ties, the respect, loyalty, and obligations we have to our family can be very protective and beneficial, but familism can also do harm in the presence of financial stress, conflict in the home, or mental illness. Distribute the responsibility. Make sure the burden of maintaining the family well being, cohesion and harmony doesn’t fall on the same person. And definitely don’t follow traditional gender roles. And remember, check in with yourself. If spending time with a family member always leaves you drained, upset, or uncomfortable, it probably means a boundary is being crossed. 


Thank you so much for listening and thank you for sharing us. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Virginia Lora produced this episode. Michael Castañeda mixed it. Micaela Rodríguez is our founding producer and social media editor. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. I’m the show’s creator, Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. On Twitter and Instagram, we’re @TalktoMamiPapi. Please subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody. Same place next week. 


Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “When Familism Hurts” 

How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything, 

Lantigua Williams & Co., November 2, 2020.