Chisme Isn’t Just Petty Gossip — It’s a Lifeline

“Why did I let this happen to me? Why did I not fight hard enough? I want to forget. Please God, help me to forget.” These are the words I muttered under my breath as I sank into my bed. I  still remember the shame of that night, crawling silently on my skin. Yet, no amount of soap washed away the vivid memory of getting raped during my study abroad in Argentina. 
After the incident, my bedroom became my sanctuary. It was the only place I felt safe. I told no one what had happened because I was ashamed. I was afraid to be judged by others. It was easier to shut down and withdraw from the world. I found myself sinking deeper and deeper into my depression. Life looked dull. Social interactions felt forced. I felt overwhelmingly empty inside. A dark cloud followed me around everywhere I went. I didn’t know it then, but silence and solitude wouldn’t save me — of all things, chisme is what would help me process and heal. 
Two months after my arrival back in the States, my best friend and I were sitting in her living room drinking Starbucks and sharing laughs while chismeando about her boy drama. The guy she was seeing was a fuckboy — a walking red flag. She was not ready to accept it, though, because the sex was too good. As we laughed about all the sexual positions he would put her in, I shared with her what had happened to me while abroad. The mood instantly changed. 

"Chisme is what would help me process and heal." 

Lizeth Gutierrez
Terrified of what she might say, I dismissed my feelings and assured her that things like this happen all the time. She did not judge me or question my silence while I was abroad. She simply listened actively to all that I shared. I felt no judgment, which made me feel safe, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. 
I remember her kindly asking if she could hug me because she knew physical touch made me uncomfortable. I reluctantly agreed. When I felt the warmth of her arms wrap around me, the tears came down my face. My body tightened, resisting the feeling of unbearable pain I had worked tirelessly to numb. But I wept. Uncontrollably, I sobbed in her arms. I finally had permission to cry all the tears I did not allow myself to feel after the rape. 
For so long, shame held me hostage to my own thoughts of unworthiness. That’s what shame does: It silences us into perpetual isolation. In Spanish, we call shame “vergüenza.” For Latinas, vergüenza is rooted in the history of the Spanish conquest, Spanish colonialism, and in the structural legacies of Catholicism. In her essay, “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess,” writer and author Sandra Cisneros shares how “the guise of modesty” that was forced upon her by her culture “locked [her] in a double chastity belt of ignorance and vergüenza, shame.” Similarly, I held on to the shame of being raped because I believed it was my fault. I punished myself in more ways than one because of that belief.

"For Latinas, vergüenza is rooted in the history of the Spanish conquest, Spanish colonialism, and in the structural legacies of Catholicism."

Through chisme, I’ve learned that the best way to challenge shame is through telling our stories. In “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t),” author and researcher Brené Brown says this is how we build shame resilience. In fact, when we don’t share our shame with people whom we feel safe with, we risk internalizing toxic belief systems that reinforce our feelings of powerlessness. Instead, the reciprocal nature of chisme, especially in the context described above, creates the feeling of being heard and seen by the people around us, which can fulfill our desire to feel viscerally safe in our own bodies and with others.
Chismeando builds shame resilience. Through chisme, I could process what happened to me out loud, no longer in secrecy. My mind heard it differently. My body felt it deeply. I reframed the story I would tell myself about who I was because of what had happened to me. I was no longer defined by the feeling of powerlessness. The bond I had established with my best friend over the years helped cultivate a mutual space of love and care. In that space — with all its laughter and tears — I felt safe enough to be vulnerable. I may not always have known whether that vulnerability would be met with judgment or empathy, but I learned to have the courage to place trust in the latter. 
Chisme, however, sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s often framed as a frivolous, gendered practice that only happens between women during leisure time. The false assumption is that women spend hours chatting about their personal lives or other people’s lives. Yet, how many of us have witnessed our mothers, our abuelas, and our tías share salacious chisme as they simultaneously clean their homes and cook grandiose meals for celebratory gatherings? Leisure donde? 

"Chisme creates the feeling of being heard and seen by the people around us, which can fulfill our desire to feel viscerally safe in our own bodies and with others."

Another common misconception is that women are the only ones who practice chisme. The gendered word chismosa, for example, is considered an undesirable label. The term is often applied to women who engage in chisme to devalue their information and castigate their knowledge. Rarely are men labeled as such, and when men who participate in chisme are labeled chismosos, their castigation functions to feminize their behavior. It distances the very practice of chisme from the idea of masculinity. But let’s be real: Men love chisme, too. The whispers. The laughs. The secrecy and pleasure of it all can be so entertaining. Who wouldn’t be enamored with a little chisme every now and then?
And in the age of social media, chisme is increasingly impossible to avoid. TikTok accounts like @dayanechrissel, @panchodoesitbetter, @youmeandchisme, and @ana_rios_ distribute the latest chisme across platforms. Meanwhile, popular magazines like Vanidades, !Hola!, and People en Español have made millions circulating and spreading celebrity chisme. 
But the chisme I’m talking about does more than entertain. Chisme is a feminist practice that empowers Latinas to cultivate communities of mutual care and belonging. It’s affirming to be vulnerable with another person as a way to speak truthfully about our experiences, all the while holding each other in the pain and even in the joy. 
Through chisme, Latinas learn to survive their daily circumstances by creating alternative, supportive ways of coping. For some Latinas — who are perhaps single-parents, low-income, deal with abusive partners, and/or have experienced discrimination in their workplace (to name a few examples) — chisme helps them confront their pain while also giving a name to their truth. A truth that bell hooks believes “... is not simply about naming the ‘bad’ things, exposing horrors. It is also about being able to speak openly and honestly about feelings, about a variety of experiences.” 

"Chisme is a feminist practice that empowers Latinas to cultivate communities of mutual care and belonging."

When women are enabled to feel their truths in a space of mutual care, the confianza established becomes a transformative place for communal healing. Unlike other forms of communication, chisme is a cultural tool practiced among a selective few since an already established bond is required to safely share information. That kind of shared information can look like hotlines, shelters, and legal resources. 
We must cultivate, protect, and nurture the relationships that foster spaces of vulnerability, realness, and deep love. These spaces are sacred. Think about it: How often do we truly sit with our pain when survival mode feels like our only option? But it is not. Chisme for Latinas invites us to not only name our pain, but to define ourselves beyond the pain, and without judgment.
I invite you to acknowledge your life experiences — good and bad — with the people you love and feel safe with. I invite you to see chisme as a powerful tool that has the power to heal through human connection. And I invite you to speak up against shame and trauma, and assert your own self-worth to the world because you matter. 
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). 

More from Living

R29 Original Series