In the interest of disclosure, let me begin this book review by saying that Rosie Molinary, the Davidson, N.C.-based author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina (Seal Press, 2007) was my roommate in the Goddard College MFA program we both attended. We have inside jokes about airplane bathrooms, and I know how long it takes for her to dry her hair. (A very long time.) My point is, I can’t be totally subjective about this book, so I’m not even going to pretend.
That said, Molinary’s debut is a thoughtful and informative investigation into what it means to have grown up as a Latina amid American culture. And, at a time when Latino populations come increasingly into the public forefront (due to political posturing about immigration law in an election year, due to Latino celebrities gaining face time, TV and film exposure, and due to first- and second-generation American-born Latinos finding their way in the U.S. melting pot) it seems an excellent time to gain understanding of where our Latina friends, coworkers and neighbors are coming from.
“None of us are pura Latina Americana, either,” Molinary writes near the beginning of Hijas. “We are hybrids of a new world order, multiethnic children of Latino parents and an American upbringing, learning to take what we need from our cultures to balance what we want for ourselves.” The author is of Puerto Rican heritage, herself, but her research extends to included voices from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Her original idea for Hijas came from her Masters’ degree thesis — a collection of personal essays. From there. Molinary conducted a survey, asking Latinas across the country to speak on their experiences growing up with both Latin and American cultural pressures.
“My friends from school, who are Latino, told me that I sounded like a white girl, a valley girl,” one woman says. “I still get that now, even from white people. ‘You don’t sound Latina.’ I didn’t know we had a sound.” It’s a telling passage, speaking to many of the stereotypes Molinary hopes to explode. The Latina accent seems a small concern beside the expectation that Latinas are overtly sexual, hot-tempered, prone to teen-pregnancies and motivated toward baby-rearing instead of careers.
In fact, these stereotypes are only as applicable to Latin women as they are to any group. As the U.S., still a young country, continues to evolve, we as a populace see similar racial profiling come and go. When my parents were in high school, Italians were the group the shun. At the turn of the 20th century, it was the Irish. I grew up among a swell of Puerto Rican immigrants and their American-born children (my classmates), some who dropped out of high school to raise babies, some who continued on to post-graduate work.
Most readers won’t be surprised that Hijas tells us as much. What the book does reveal is the cultural conditioning behind why Latinas make the decisions they do, either fulling generations-old pre-determined roles, or breaking (sometimes painfully) with tradition. In these cultures, deeply rooted in family and religion, breaking the pattern proves to both brave and revelatory.
“There are other women who wonder how their sexuality can have a place in their spiritual practices,” Molinary writes in a chapter dedicated to unraveling the dichotomy of Latin sensuality and Catholic-imposed chastity. The women she’s polled run the gamut from those who prescribe to traditional values to those who identify themselves as lesbians or bisexuals. Women also speak out who have children out of wedlock, or leave unfulfilling relationships, or choose to pursue careers and educations instead of settling into marriage and child-rearing. And while these issues are of major consequence among Latinas, sexual identity and choices are no less important for all women. So Hijas (Spanish for “daughter”) gives voice not only to the daughters of the Latin diaspora, but also to all women who struggle to balance culture, tradition, media influence and personal choice.
Perhaps this is most evident in the passages about body image, a subject about which Molinary is passionate. “In the United States, where every bite of food is loaded with guilt or critique, being called La Gordita feels like a social death sentence,” she writes. Sure, magazine-standard stick-thin, cellulite-free, youth-driven beauty must be oppressive to curvy, darker-skinned Latinas. But who among us hasn’t felt less than gorgeous when compared to a Kate Moss, a Giselle, or any number of glamazons? I suspect that any reader of Hijas will see within herself a reflection of some part of the American Latina’s struggle for place within image-driven American society. I also suspect that readers will find themselves cheering the Latinas of Hijas as they do find voice, break barriers and rise to challenges.