Self-Care Translates to Selfish in Spanish

For the future of our community, we need to learn to start caring about ourselves, even if our abuelas say its selfish.

(Article originally written for Substack Hispanic•ish)

Historically, Latin women have overworked both at home and within the structures of society and often times, not by choice. The pressures of motherhood, work, education, partner duties and familial responsibilities, fall on the shoulders of Latin women in full force and at the cost of our mental health.

In the US, Latinos are experiencing a growing mental health crisis. According to Mental Health America (MHA), about 8.9 million Latinos living in the country have a diagnosable mental illness. However, data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) show that just 10% of Latinos who have symptoms of a mental health disorder actually seek specialized treatment.

The reasons for the disparity are abundant and point to systemic and financial barriers but it also reveals the several cultural myths and stigmas that hinder our ability to reach out to health professionals - especially, therapists.

While the Latin culture is not monolith, there are underlying expectations and pressures that move rampantly throughout our cultures. Sayings like “La ropa sucia se lava en casa,” - in English: “The dirty laundry is washed at home” -prevent us from seeking help and guidance from outside our home. It is a way to force us to internalize issues and maintain a fake sense of control.

“What the stigma does is it shapes us and turns us inward in a way where we are literally unable to express ourselves. Or, when we have a thought, we shut it off because it's not supposed to be there. Instead, we’re supposed to be able to overcome it and be resilient in our own behaviors and thoughts. We’re supposed to be in control,” Adriana Alejandre, a trauma therapist and speaker, tells Chopra Global.

For us to acknowledge anything other than the needs of our forced societal roles, makes us seem weak and selfish.

But Mijo/Mija, I am here to tell you, self-care does not translate to selfishness.

The World Health Organization defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.” It is a broad concept that embodies behavior to include general and personal hygiene, the quality of foods eaten, sports, leisure, physical activity, social habits, income, and self-medication. In other words, self-care is all about doing what makes you feel good and promotes a healthy lifestyle that is unique to you.

The concept of taking care of oneself has become a part of everyday conversations and according to Google Trends, the number of online searches for “self-care” has more than doubled since 2015. A quick search on Instagram pulls up more than 64 million results highlighting both men and women enjoying physical workouts, practicing yoga, forest bathing, meditating, sharing healthy food recipes, going for hikes, and reading.

For me, self-care is about trying to function in a world filled with distractions and trying to remind myself of who I am while the world begs of everything from me. For me, it is about not giving so much away of myself to the world for free. It is about creating a balance between demands and feeding into my personal passions and curiosities. Whether it’s a weekend trip without the kids to recharge for moment of peace or simple practices like reading and keeping my phone on “Do Not Disturb” while avoiding the dishes, self-care is a vital piece of my lifestyle and has been in recent years.

But, if I had to explain this concept to my family - some members, not all - would tell me I am being selfish. They would go to great lengths to describe their lives and their sacrifices for their family - and for me - and how it was all done without taking a break for themselves. They would explain to me that the new generation - starting with mine - is only after breaking away from the demands of responsibilities. “Que fácil es olvidar tus responsabilidades…” (“How easy it is to forget your responsibilities”) is all I can hear in the background after explaining to a family member that I went to dinner and a movie on a Tuesday night and left the kids with a sitter and enough money for pizza. “Pizza? Is that what the kids are eating? Not even a homecooked meal before you leave them behind?”

For Latinos, the world of family lays heavy on the shoulders of women, and we are expected to do it all without a single complaint, help from others and without a drop of sweat. We must remain externally happy at all costs because our roles in life are to ensure that our family’s wellbeing comes before our own. We are to take a back seat for the family without discussion. We are to show up in our heels, red-lips and dress ready to take on the day without flinching.

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Although, my family is incredibly important and in many ways, do come first, I also believe that if I am unable to feel healthy and at peace within myself, then I will be unable to provide a sense of happiness, comfort and safety for my family, therefore, I must come first.

I must be present to fully provide for my children both physically and mentally and I have chosen this time and time again, against all odds and judgement from family. I have realized that my cultural history was killing me and keeping me trapped in a cycle of cultural trauma that would lead to no end. From burnout to exhaustion to medical illness to hospitalization, my Latin culture was running me into the ground and breaking away from family judgement was the only way out.

What my family tends to forget is that before we decided to take on the world, we were simply humans with needs and that can not be eradicated once we are labeled mothers. We should not be demonized for wanting 5 minutes of quiet, a long hot shower, a day of rest and disconnection, or even a meal consisting of frozen pizza and zero veggies. After years of unpacking the realization that my culture was the root of my migraines and my absolute need to show up for everyone despite my crippling health, I began to pursue my personal interests and my passions. Over the years, I have redeveloped my pursuit of writing, and taking time for myself. I drop off my kids at their friend’s house or their tennis camps/art classes and I go for walks and spend time daydreaming. I write my substack articles in the midst of the day while the baby finds ways to entertain herself - this newsletter is a deep form of self-care and one that I am grateful for. I hang out with friends and book hotel rooms for one-night stays. I ask my husband to watch the kids for me to practice new interests and spend time in reflection. I use Instacart to do the groceries, instead of tacking on an extra hour to my long days of work. I take personal days and drive two hours away for my favorite pizza. I leave the dishes in the sink so I can work on a passion project. I watch movies based on my wants and never based on the days of the week - growing up, leisure activities were left for the weekend and never something that was mixed into the workday. In short, I do what speaks to my soul. I respond to my needs just as I respond to the needs of my family.

If Latin women united we could start a revolution about reclaiming ourselves as humans first. We could disengage from the trauma of our heritage and take real control of ourselves for the betterment of our mental health and that of our children. We could encourage ourselves and others to seek out our hobbies and indulge ourselves. We can laugh with your children. Dance in the rain. Paint on the beach on a Monday morning and wake up each day asking ourselves, What do I need to be my best self today?

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