Most of my family lives in Chile, so growing up, I spent Christmas and New Year’s passing the phone from my mom to my sisters and answering endless questions from cousins, aunts, and uncles. These queries were often based on chisme they had heard in the past 12 months. Inevitably, a narrative formed about me, my sisters, and my cousins. By the age of 14, my teenage angst secured my recurring role as “la malcriada.” “She never listens” and “she’s always talking back,” my parents told my tías in Santiago and Valparaiso as they sipped black tea and twirled the phone cords around their index finger.
Looking back, I can identify why I was unruly—or at least considered to be as such. At the time, I had undiagnosed anxiety, depression, and ADHD. I would escape by hiding at my friend's house. My loved ones didn’t understand; they thought I was rejecting them and didn’t want to be part of the family. I was also spiritually sensitive and questioned everything, like why my parents kept us from certain relatives or why no one seemed to ever talk about the past. I pushed back on a lot of things my family told me I should just accept; for that, I was labeled “la malcriada” of the family, and still am regardless of how much I’ve healed, grown, and changed.
In Latinx families, it’s common for each relative, especially the women and girls, to have an assigned role. We put each other in boxes to distinguish between people and know what to expect from them; oftentimes, those presumptions, rooted in racist, sexist, and homophobic stereotypes, turn into self-fulfilling prophecies that further support the labels. As a now self-aware adult who has undergone years of therapy and self-reflection, I see the insidious ways this assigned part negatively affected my self-esteem and my relationships.
For years, I internalized that I was “bad” and “difficult,” verbal jabs directed at me my entire life, and that my sister was “good” and “uncomplicated.” Anytime I found myself in any kind of trouble, I was given lectures that included lines like, “I never have to tell your sister twice” or “why can’t you be more like your sister?” Intentional or not, this caused a rift between my sister and me. Anytime she received positive attention, I’d grow angry and jealous and wanted to act out. But it wasn't my sister’s fault. The real culprit was the rubric Latinx families use to measure what’s good and what’s bad. She was younger, thin, and fair-skinned, while I was older, heavier, darker (though still light-skinned), and had curly hair no comb could tame. Moreover, I always questioned ideas I was supposed to accept and voiced when something was unfair; on the other hand, she did what she was told. While my existence presented a problem, her's provided the solution.
"When we are identified as 'malcriadas,' this is often a result of someone in the family going against the grain of the family norms or is setting boundaries around toxic behavior."
According to Dr. Sandra Leon Villa, a Baltimore-based licensed psychologist, this benchmark that Latinx and Latin American parents use to assess and compare their offspring is a byproduct of colonialism and white supremacy. “The ones who are selectively called the ‘pretty ones’ are likely to be those who have a closer proximity to whiteness, have European features, and are thin,” she tells Refinery29 Somos. “Similarly, when we are identified as ‘malcriadas,’ this is often a result of someone in the family going against the grain of the family norms or is setting boundaries around toxic behavior that have been passed on for centuries.”
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized how much my families’ words impacted me—and that their criticism, tied to their own traumas, actually had little to do with me or how I behaved. For my family, invasive questions, hurtful labels, and unrealistic expectations were used to shame me into becoming the respectable woman that they were taught women needed to be for their own safety and success. For the matriarchs in my family, obedience decreased the chances that they or their children would be battered by their husbands. Their worth and wellbeing, they were taught, were based entirely on their ability to find a man and keep him happy. Knowing this doesn’t stop me from hurting—and it certainly doesn’t excuse their toxic language and behavior—but it does allow me to make sense of the patterns that I’m breaking.
For those resigning from their assigned roles, Leon Villa recommends that they set constructive boundaries with their families. “When we are compared to the ‘pretty one’ or ‘smart one,’ we can respond by saying something along the lines of, ‘when you compare me to someone you believe is more attractive or intelligent, I feel that you are suggesting that I am less attractive or intelligent. Please refrain from comparing me to others based on your opinions of beauty or intelligence,” she says.
In Los Angeles, graphic designer Breana Quintaro long lived with low self-esteem after years of hurtful comparisons to her cousins and siblings. After finding her voice and recognizing her self-worth, she decided to set boundaries with toxic relatives to protect herself. “I don’t surround myself with people who make me feel less than, whether they are blood-related or not,” she tells Refinery29 Somos. “It’s a little hard when I see people with traditional family relationships, but I’m learning what’s best for me and my mental health.”
I know who I am, and no one—not family, friends, or society—can define me again.
Like elder-child relationships, ties among the siblings and cousins who were pitted against each other suffer, too. Sometimes, these relationships can be amended through honest and respectful conversations. For instance, my sister and I are gradually rebuilding our relationship by learning to accept each other as we are and trying not to jump down each other’s throats when we feel triggered. But other times, the relative labeled as the “pretty,” “smart,” or “well-behaved” one has also internalized messages of their inherent goodness; as a result, they may thrive off of their reigning position or fail to see any flaws in the metric system. For New York-based business systems strategist Joy Valerie Carrera, the constant comparisons between her and her cousin caused so much harm to their relationship that it often feels irreparable. “I had to cut my cousin off,” she tells Refinery29 Somos. “This was the second time. I realized that our relationship was entirely fueled by competition. Maybe it was playful for our parents, but as kids, we were always in competition and needed to be better than one another.”
Still, even with boundaries, Leon Villa stresses that change, internal and external, doesn’t happen overnight. “In order to repair this within ourselves, we need to understand generational trauma as it relates to parenting, colonialism, and gender roles, and begin to decolonize our minds and heal ourselves,” she says. “When we do this, we begin to shrink less and take up space, knowing and embracing who we truly are and living authentically.”
That’s what I’m trying to do today. I’ve realized that I could break free from the role my family has cast me in, even if they continue to spread the same narratives. I’m not going to be controlled by other people’s anxieties and projections. I’m not going to let their traumas dictate my own self-worth; I'm not “bad” because I don’t want to do things the same way that they do. At the end of the day, I know who I am, and no one—not family, friends, or society—can define me again.