The Power of Culture

My view of being Latina has evolved

Posted Apr 04, 2013

I grew up in a home where my father—whom we called Popi—could speak only Spanish, and strictly allowed only Spanish to be spoken around him. My Mame spoke English but with a strong accent, and my brothers and I learned to speak English only once we started school.

So we grew up in a traditional Latino home. Well, sort of. We spoke Spanish, we ate the food of my mother’s Caribbean upbringing, and we learned the importance of familia. We understood that the only thing more important than family was God. We went to church every Sunday and took lessons from nuns at our local Catholic school.

Looking back, I’m not sure what Popi meant by familia. Some summers, he went away for weeks. We were told he had travelled to South America to visit his brothers and sisters but he ever took us with him to meet them, never talked about them, and they never visited. Only as an adult did I discover that my father had been married twice before, so we were at least his third family. It all may seem strange now, but I knew then only to pay very close attention and ask no questions.

But my mom’s sisters and brother, along with their children, came to see us once or twice a year. They always sent a representative to important events like my first communion. This is who I thought of as family.

Both Popi and Mame taught us the importance of treating them with respect—con respeto. The problem was that Popi’s view of respeto changed like the weather and it was very hard to anticipate. Clearly he was the head of our household, and he often restated the importance of this role when he beat Mame. He ruled all of us with the back of his hand, his fist and his belt. His punishments were swift, painful, and unpredictable.

We also learned to respect our elders in general, and priests and nuns in particular. They were wiser than we could ever be, Popi explained, since priests and nuns are close to God and elders acquire wisdom simply from age.

This lesson would be especially important to me. Without knowing, Popi created for me a hierarchy of values that helped me to survive the terror he inflicted on his family in the name of culture and in the name of respect.

Our next door neighbor, with whom I stayed during the day when Mame started working, was 72 years old. I loved every minute I spent with her. She was full of wisdom, indeed. She told me that I was a good person—smart, creative and capable. She told me that God loved me and would not approve of what Popi did to me.

By making me part of her family, I learned the value of loving and caring for those close to you. By giving me small things to be responsible for, she built my resilience. By giving me my very own rosary and teaching me to pray when I was afraid, she gave me a deeper sense of spirituality than I had learned in church. She expanded my understanding about God’s role in my life. It wasn’t all about the rules, but about finding ways to love and care for others.

Nuns from Central and South America lived in the convent connected to my school, and when I was in second grade someone made the very wise decision to keep me after school every day so that I could learn to read and write in Spanish. The nuns talked to me in Spanish con cariño—with love and caring—and in this way helped me to grow into and appreciate the ways in which I was different from the other students.

So at home, when my father twisted our cultural values of familia and respeto into an excuse to beat and rape me, when he said that what he was doing made me a bad girl that even God couldn’t love, another frame of reference helped keep me afloat. After all, he had said that age and nearness to God gave you wisdom. The nuns and my next door neighbor had given me a different notion of our culture, language and spirituality. And I believed them.

Now years later, I believe that valuing familia means loving the people who are close to you. I believe that respeto works both ways. Parents respect children and children respect parents. Spouses and partners respect each other.

My view of being a Latina has evolved as well. The Latino culture is no more inherently violent than any other culture in which some men regularly use physical and sexual violence against women and girls. Men interested in doing so will use any convenient justification—notions about respect, or the importance of gender roles, or even higher causes like war and justice. The power of culture can be used for violence or it can be used to build strong families and communities.

Machismo means being a gentleman. In homes where traditional Latino values are present, it means that men provide for and protect their familias. They respect their partners or spouses. And they treat their children con respeto and con cariño. Today, there are Latinos and Latinas all over the world who believe this and who are working to end violence in families. I am proud to be one of them.

Visit to learn more about Olga Trujillo and New Harbinger Publications to find out more about her memoir, The Sum of My Parts: A Survivor Story of Dissociative Identity Disorder.