I knew it was too good to be true. Two hours into this year’s Thanksgiving gathering, and I thought I avoided being asked the most intrusive question of all. Then, just as I got ready to leave the dinner table, a family member piped up: "Y el jevo?" Oh, boy.
Jevo, for mainly Caribbean Latinx communities, is a slang term that often refers to boyfriend, boo thing, or at times, a casual sex buddy. But my family member’s question is one many Latinx people will recognize: "Y el novio?" (translation: where's the boyfriend?).
Many of us have come to culturally understand this season as a series of unfortunate events in which boundary-stepping family members, mostly aunts, grandmothers, and older cousins, feel the need to interrogate single women — or couples who have yet to get married or have kids. The discourse transcends generations, as seen in the thousands of tweets by bicultural Millennials and Gen-Z, who've been shaped by the dualities in their upbringing — sandwiched between collective and individualistic cultures.
Being Latinx, our collective culture focuses on personal relationships and group goals. While living in the states, we are motivated to fight for our dreams, individual aspirations, and rights. Our experiences here in the U.S. play a considerable role in our identity. Though we may grow up with our family's culture at home, we attend school, social events, and work outside of that bubble. These differences between being Latinx and American manifest in family gatherings when questions about our future plans and relationships are put on the spot.
It's important to see how harmful and problematic this "el novio" question is, especially in these trying times we call 2020. Rooted in societal expectations, we have to note the role of cultural and generational differences at the root of this inquiry, especially if you are bicultural or a child of immigrants. "There's a lot more expansion, more options. You have more choices if you develop your career here, and sometimes that's just something our parents and grandparents won't understand," says licensed therapist Josie Rosario. Known for her ancestral healing, relationships, and cycle-breaking advice on Instagram, she works from an anti-racist/oppressive stance and trauma-informed lens.
The reality we face as cycle-breaking pioneers is a gift and a curse. The work is essential, and while these aspects are crucial for generational healing, it is mentally and emotionally draining. On the same note, it also inspires other family members to question if their idea of happiness relies on a personal purpose or goal. Or, if it's motivated by what I like to call a "societal checklist": earn your degree, get a well-paying job, find a boyfriend, marry that boyfriend, buy a house, and have children — all before your 30s.
I never felt this particular sense of overwhelming pressure and fear during this time, as the internet discourse became popularized while I was in a long-term relationship. However, the days leading up to the holidays this year were and still are filled with social anxiety. Truthfully, my anxiety spawns from multiple realities. First, I'm three months post-breakup, currently still processing and healing emotions that I am just now learning to unpack and identify. Rosario compares the "Y el novio?" question during a breakup to "picking a scab that's healing." While the breakup was a healthy, mutual understanding, I'm still vulnerable and don't care to share our reasonings for splitting.
While I mourn that relationship, I also need to focus on my mental health, especially as I navigate my early stages in therapy and mental diagnosis. For years, I neglected my mental health, and though I stressed to my community the importance of seeking help, normalizing therapy, and advocating for those with mental health disorders, a part of me still held onto the negative stigmas and outlooks that exist within our culture. I didn’t want to be seen as weak, broken, or damaged and I didn’t want a diagnosis to be weaponized against me.
As a result, I recently found myself in a crisis center, later being diagnosed with severe anxiety and depression — developed over years of masking untreated and undiagnosed ADHD. Naturally, I’m currently in a state of grief and anger. Four months into my mental health journey, and through unpacking my childhood traumas, I've come to understand that I am triggered by many of my family members.
Revisiting these memories also made me realize how my symptoms of ADHD held me back from planning, organizing, and executing things effectively: these are qualities that are deemed important to have in a collective culture like ours, especially if you’re the eldest sister. As a young woman who didn't fit into the gender role society that my family expected of me, my lack of initiative came off as lazy and unorganized. It's estimated that by age 12, children who have ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages from parents and teachers compared to those who don't have ADHD. Add the negative comments from the older doñas in your family, and you have a bruised self-esteem and an identity formed on not feeling good enough. It’s painful, and when a family member picks at my inability to focus, lack of leadership, and then my romantic stability on top of it all, it further opens unhealed wounds and adds to the shame and guilt that I’m already struggling with.
"We can make sure to acknowledge their positive intention while also reinforcing that our personal business and decisions need to be respected."
"Y el novio?" is also one of many sex- and gender-centered questions that creates an uncomfortable environment for queer or gender non-conforming people in Latinx communities who already face ongoing discrimination within their own cultures, which in turn can take a toll on their emotional and mental health. For some people,"Y el novio?" looks more like "Y el bebe? This same anxiety and fear of not living up to expectations also follows couples who choose not to have children or who might be struggling with infertility. Culturally, some women in Latinx communities have been discouraged from speaking about their fertility journey, imposing shame on them while simultaneously reinforcing psychological turmoil and reduced self-esteem.
All these invasive questions can lead to one feeling: a sense of not belonging. "We're human beings; we exist in community and families. Belonging is essential to our connection, and we're hardwired for connection. It can be very anxiety-producing to fear that you're not going to belong," Rosario said, adding: "We get our identity from our families. That's where everything starts. You could be, however old you are, you're always going to want to please your parents."
So how do we graciously navigate these uncomfortable moments? Is it even possible to come off as gracious when setting boundaries? For many of us, our own opinions and thoughts as children or even as young women were automatically dismissed as rude or improper under toxic standards of machismo — hence the popular saying, "Calladita te ve más bonita" (You look prettier when you're quiet).
Understanding and setting boundaries with family is difficult. There is always a possibility that you may be gaslighted or dismissed by those who feel attacked. "They may get in their feelings. They may call you out of your name. Just remember you're changing the rules," said Rosario. Something my therapist has me actively practicing is "defensive vs. protective." Am I being "la defensiva," or is my boundary and reaction to a statement a form of protection? Am I protecting my feelings and showing up for myself, or am I defending lousy behavior?
A preventative solution that Rosario talks to her clients about is "bubble wrapping," a form of mentally preparing ourselves with a protective shield and personal boundaries before heading to any family function. She also encourages a sidekick. "I'm a big fan of having someone on your team, in your family," she shared, meaning having your favorite prima, sister, or family member — one you get along with the most — coming to the rescue and advocating for you when necessary.
This method is especially important if the dialogue may cause you to freeze or intimidate your thinking process when responding. Most recently, a best friend of mine naturally assumed this sidekick position. As her family gathered around my sister and her newborn, they all looked at me and said, "Jenny, y tú dime?" ("Jenny, how about you, tell me?") — questioning when I'd become a mother, too. It wasn't long until my best friend, who is a mother of two, stepped in and made sure to set that boundary for me, saying, "Jenny doesn't need to have kids right now. She has enough on her plate."
In your family circle, this could look like your favorite cousin crashing a conversation to say, "I understand that you want the best for my cousin or have the best intentions, but she chose a specific path and is extremely happy with her decision. She deserves our support." You can even have a code word (or a text signal) when you need assistance in exiting an uncomfortable situation or conversation.
Realistically, we can't control how others speak to or treat us, but we are in control and responsible for how we react, how we respond, and how much space we let a person take up in our personal business. This is why having agency is crucial for navigating any upcoming parrandas or get-togethers. "We have power in how we interact with our families. Doing this type of family work is hard because we feel disempowered. We feel that we have to do things because that's family," shared Josie. "You have a choice, and you have options. You can choose how you interact with your family."
If it's coming from a well-intentioned place, we can make sure to acknowledge their positive intention while also reinforcing that our personal business and decisions need to be respected. If it isn't, we ultimately have a choice to engage or not.
Advocating for our decisions shouldn't make us feel less than, and doesn't make us less part of a specific culture. We can be the ones to break the cycles that hold us to romantic and familial expectations. As I prepare myself for any virtual or small gatherings left in December, Josie's final thoughts continue to replay in my head: "It's really important to always think about and reflect on how you honor both: How do you honor your family, your Latinx culture, with who you are and this other (American) culture that you are a 100% part of?"
I do hope to one day build a family, own a home, and practice the longstanding traditions I love in my family. However, I want to be a better version of myself that day. At this current moment, my happiness is rooted in my personal growth, career, and liberation sin novio; and that's completely ok.