As a multicultural community, Latinxs often exist in an in-between. We are "ni de aquí, ni de allá." In many ways, this identity has shaped us into intermediaries of culture and interpreters of language, but so much gets lost in translation. Relaciones is a monthly series that helps Latinxs navigate interpersonal relationships by unpacking the tough but necessary conversations that come up in our communities.
When I received my acceptance letter into New York University, I knew there would be a hefty debt if I decided to accept. But student loans were just one of my financial obligations and, honestly, it wasn’t the most pressing one. As a first-generation, U.S.-born Latina, greatness was not only expected of me—it was demanded. Since the moment my freshman year began back in 2016, every holiday family gathering turned into a full-fledged panel on how my grades were and what my plan was to ensure my success. When I would respond confidently with how I was doing with my studies and brag about the latest celebrity I interviewed as part of my internship, my satisfied grandmother would smile and simply say, “Nos vas a sacar de la pobreza.” (Translation: You’re going to take us out of poverty.” Welp.
Each holiday season comes with a slew of prying questions—from the heteronormative “y el novio” interrogations to the fatphobic food and body inquiries. But for career-minded young people who are crossing off items on their family’s “the first to” achievement list, we’re also met with queries and comments that put pressure on us to save our families from debt or poverty with meager post-grad salaries, if we’re lucky enough to land a job.
It’s a story as old as the U.S.’ Thanksgiving tradition: families migrate to the U.S. from faraway lands to build a better future for themselves and their children. The formula goes: sacrifice everything, and ensure your kids graduate high school, go to college, find a well-paying job, get married, settle down with kids, and then finally give back to the people whose sacrifices paved the way for your “happily ever after.” My family and I are stuck at stage three.
I’m well-versed in my family’s struggles migrating from Mexico. I’ve heard their stories and grew up watching them hustle, and I am both in awe and grateful for them. But their sacrifices also loom over me. Attending and graduating from a top private school like NYU, there was a return on investment the minute I stepped through the violet-painted doors. My family worked so hard so that I could realize my dreams—but my pending career, threatened by a labor crisis that followed the coronavirus outbreak, also comes with the unrealistic price tag of ensuring my family’s financial security as they get older. And I’m worried I won’t be able to pay up.
In many ways, my family’s impractical expectations make sense. Like other immigrant communities in this country, they were sold the myth that through hard work anyone is able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and realize their own American Dream. Even more, having come to this country with no more than a foreign language, they often look at me as if I seemingly have it all. But this combination of capitalist fantasy and my very real advantages as an English-speaking U.S. citizen has been misleading. “This often makes them believe there will be a higher chance of economic advancement for the family,” Yuritzy Gomez Serrano, a marriage and family therapist, tells Refinery29 Somos. “Also, because Latinx families usually tend to be collectivist, there is this idea that if you ‘succeed,’ the family will succeed.”
"There is this idea that if you ‘succeed,’ the family will succeed."
But as we know, it takes more than speaking English and being your family’s proudest achievement to secure a job. After I graduated, I dedicated my summer to working four internships simultaneously—hoping it would make me stand out among my peers who were also desperately searching for a full-time gig amid the collapsing job market. But as I applied for jobs, every day was met with a new panic as I received one rejection letter after another. When crying to my mom, her well-meaning remarks that my alma mater would undoubtedly secure me a job only made me believe that I was to blame for the setbacks. Eventually, one of my many internships evolved into a full-time role. While the job offer wasn’t exactly in the industry I was hoping to situate myself in, rejecting it wasn’t an option. The alternative would have been to remain unemployed—and that terrified me even more.
The pressure placed on the children of migrants feels like a harrowing life sentence. Being a first-generation Latinx comes with the baggage of representing your family well in all aspects of your life. While it’s common for people who are unemployed to feel anxiety and depression, my melancholy deepened knowing that my family was also impacted by my joblessness. When your wins (and losses) reflect on your loved ones, there’s no room for doubt or second-guessing yourself; the carousel must keep turning—bendiciones to those who fall off. But this inherited cycle can also lead to resentment, especially when we put our passions aside to land lucrative jobs so that we can support our parents.
“Latinx families' value of familismo, which means dedication, commitment, and loyalty to family, can set up a dynamic where there is an expectation to give back to your family in some way,” Serrano says. “This can be done in explicit or more implicit/passive-aggressive ways.”
Personally, as I scramble to find another job after a recent layoff, it feels like all I’m doing is disappointing my family, that all their sweat and tears have been in vain. Misconceptions that a college degree, even from a prestigious institution, will lead to a so-called good job are harmful. Moreover, it’s unhealthy for families to place their financial burdens onto their children, whether they demand it or casually bring it up. This messaging can cause shame when we don’t reach their idea of success quickly—or ever.
"The pressure placed on the children of migrants feels like a harrowing life sentence."
However, setting financial boundaries with Latinx families can feel impossible. According to Serrano, navigating tough conversations and working through the emotions that come with setting boundaries is a step-by-step process. “First, you need to acknowledge and believe that you are not your family's savior. There has to be a personal understanding and sometimes emotional processing of this belief in order for you not to put that burden on yourself,” she says. Next, Serrano suggests having an explicit conversation with relatives about what they expect from you. “Sometimes, we expect more from ourselves than what they actually expect,” she says. From there, you can get real with your loved ones about what you can and can’t do. “For example, you can say, ‘I won't be able to contribute financially for my first year after I graduate college because I will be focused on paying off my loans’ or ‘I can contribute $200 a month for the next six months,’” Serrano says. It’s also OK if you can’t financially support them at all, today or tomorrow.
While pressures around money and careers exist year-round, families are more likely to probe when everyone is gathered together face-to-face. So, as we set boundaries around which topics are on or off the table during the holidays, it may be worth it to add work and money to the off-limits bucket. After all, we are so much more than college degrees, job titles, and how much money we earn—and there are so many ways to support, celebrate, and share gratitude for loved ones that don't require a financial exchange.