The cat woke up from her nap to greet me as I walked in the door for an unexpected visit to my multi-generational two-story house in southern New Jersey. The faint smell of cilantro and onions wafted through the kitchen, and sunlight poured in through white, crocheted curtains my abuela made by hand. My mom and uncle were waiting to catch up with me in the living room. I felt the warm embrace of home.
“You've gotten so flaca (skinny),” my small, fierce abuela shouted from her perch at the kitchen table. The warm embrace went stone-cold. My stomach dropped. The momentary happiness was punctured and I was reminded of what being home in my grandma's house really feels like.
When my college moved classes online indefinitely and my part-time retail job temporarily closed all its stores because of coronavirus, my mom started calling me every day, saying, “You need to get here ASAP, I’m not letting you get stuck up there for quarantine!” At the time, there were fewer than 100 coronavirus cases in New York City and Mayor Bill de Blasio had not yet closed public schools. But I knew the safest option was to self-quarantine back at home in Jersey, even if that meant being stuck in the house with my abuela.
I'm a 22-year-old Latinx woman living in New York City. I have my own shoebox apartment complete with a green velvet couch, I’m a vegetarian, I look forward to a night out at my favourite dive bar with friends, I wear whatever the hell I want (mostly black and mostly cropped), my curfew is non-existent, and I’m dating someone who I don’t know if I’ll marry.
Being home hasn't been easy for me for a long time. As a member of the Latinx community who was raised by immigrants, I have my feet in two worlds: my Chilean familia and my American surroundings. This has left my identity split in half as I navigate what being both means to me. The patriarchal values omnipresent in Latinx culture, which my abuela has so persistently tried to instill in me, have consistently clashed with the progressive values of my upbringing — the high school friends marching for abortion and gender equality and the blue part of the country I grew up in. Not to mention, my own mother still regrets that she wasn’t old enough for the hippie movement.
I love when my grandmother calls me “Mayita” and makes my favourite rice. We've talked on the phone once a week since I’ve been living in the city. But when our worlds collide, it’s not always pleasant. In fact, I was dreading this quarantine.
In many Latinx households, the kitchen table is sacred. Every meal, we gather there to eat and talk and linger for hours. It’s our communion of sorts, at the heart of the house. So I was looking forward to a little family time and some breakfast on my second day home, when I came downstairs wearing a cropped T-shirt and sweatpants, a typical quarantine outfit.
My abuela took one look at me and immediately sighed as her hands tensed up around her coffee mug. “You’re showing everything with that shirt,” she said, eyeing my slightly exposed stomach.
I couldn’t take it this time. “Abuela, por favor. It’s just a shirt. And it doesn’t make me feel good when you judge me like that.” I put up boundaries when I was home for Christmas and figured it was time to start reconstructing them. Criticisms like this brought back the memories of when my abuela had called me a slut for wearing shorts that were too short in high school. I didn’t deserve to be hurt, even if it meant she was trying to help me stay “respectable” in her eyes. She looked at me briefly through her thick, brown-framed glasses before turning to my mom and changing the subject.
My abuela moved to the U.S. with my grandpa in the late '60s, led a successful career as a cartographer, tasted the American Dream, got divorced in the '70s, and dedicated the rest of her life to raising her two kids. At 86 years old and 4'11'', she still commands a formidable force. She holds her traditional values close to her heart and you can see her strict upbringing glinting from the gold Virgin Mary on her neck.
She was raised in a Catholic Chilean household with a draconian father in the '50s — never failing to remind me that it was a very different generation. Back then, a woman’s life revolved around finding a man, getting married, and popping out kids. Smoking cigarettes was sternly prohibited, wearing anything but a long dress deemed a young woman a puta (slut), and talking to boys was an unfathomable sin. At that time, Chile was living through a conservative political era in which an ex-dictator was elected president. My grandma’s upbringing was not only entrenched in her father’s right-wing politics, but in the deep-seated classism that flowed through the streets of Santiago.
My second night at home, when I informed my abuela I would be spending the night at my boyfriend’s house (a three-minute drive away), I was terrified.
She closed her mouth tightly upon receiving this news. I could see her trying to swallow her judgment as she stared at the TV in her room playing telenovelas. Anxiety started crawling up my arms. I have always hated the moment right before I left the house because it usually resulted in an explosive argument. When my abuela gets mad, she starts yelling so fast her words sound like a machine gun.
“You’re staying the night?” she asked, her voice becoming increasingly piercing.
“Yes, abuela.” I tried not to roll my eyes. We had both been here before, too many times.
“Fine. Just know his father probably thinks you’re a loose girl,” she snapped.
This wasn’t that bad, she didn’t even scream. So I dropped it there and left without another word. I tried to fight back tears and push away the memory of her yelling her head off when I first told her I was staying the night at my boyfriend’s. To her, sleeping over confirmed that I wasn’t a virgin anymore. And that meant I was a failure.
It helps to remember that her opinions are skewed by outdated belief systems and to remind myself I’m not a failure — I’m a strong, autonomous woman helping redefine societal norms. I try to remember that in her mind, she is trying to protect, not hurt me. But sometimes it feels like the attempt to empathise and understand only goes one way. My abuela doesn't seem to want to understand how life has changed. If I told her about Tinder, she’d drop her crochet knitting needles and faint. She doesn’t get that many women lead different, freer lives now without archaic bullshit patrolling our every move.
I try to remember that in her mind, she is trying to protect, not hurt me. But sometimes it feels like the attempt to empathize and understand only goes one way.
But in the past couple weeks of quarantine, as we spend more time together, I've seen subtle changes. I’ve noticed that my abuela is trying her best to find peace with the way I am. I've watched her stop to listen to me when I set boundaries, rather than think of her next retort. While the sassy comments still come every now and then, I’ve seen her attempt to stay silent sometimes and, thankfully, succeed. I’ve even noticed flashes of my abuela’s feminist side, like when she advised me not to take my boyfriend’s last name, should we ever get married.
She’s admitted that the fighting makes her tired, and that she doesn’t want to live her golden years with bitterness. A few weeks ago, on her 86th birthday, she even declared, “I’m not going to talk bad about anyone from now on.” Given the circumstances of the world around us, I absolutely believe her. She holds me tighter when we say goodnight now.
The lockdown orders are not going to lift anytime soon, and I won’t be getting back to the independence of my NYC apartment very soon either. Just like my abuela, I’ve grown exhausted of constantly defending my way of life. But we're finally learning to coexist.
And if my abuela can try, then I can, too. By being patient with her, bringing snacks up to her room, helping her finish jigsaw puzzles, and listening to her recount memories of Chile at the kitchen table. But most of all, by learning to listen and grapple with my roots while I have the privilege of this quiet time with her.