Hijas Americanas

Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina


By Rosie Molinary

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In Hijas Americanas, author Rosie Molinary sheds new light on what it means to grow up Latina. Drawing upon her own experiences, as well as interviews and surveys collected from more than 500 Latina women, Molinary provides a powerful understanding of the inner conflicts and powerful triumphs of Latinas. The women profiled in this book are Caribbean, Mexican, Central American, and South American. These first, second and third-generation Latinas have all grappled with the experience of coming of age within not one but two cultures: that of the United States, and that of their familial homelands. Hijas Americanas addresses experiences that are uniquely female and Latin, focusing on themes of body image, standards of beauty, ethnic identity, and sexuality. In doing so, Molinary gives voice to the struggles and successes of Latinas across racial, sexual, and cultural identities, emphasizing that the challenges inherent in growing up between two cultures can positively shape Latinas' lives.


"Hijas Americanas gives voice to the many influences that go into making strong, talented, beautiful Latina women. Molinary contributes to a much-needed conversation about what defines Latinas as a community as well as what challenges us as individuals, sending an affirmative message that is bound to resonate with Latinas of all backgrounds and ages."
Julia Alvarez
author of In the Time of the Butterflies and Saving the World
"Molinary has written a powerful and meaningful book that candidly explores the many stereotypes associated with growing up Latina and the quest to accept this vital identity."
Marjorie Agosin
Professor of Latin American Studies, Wellesley College
"Hijas Americanas canvases the diversity of the Latina experience frankly and compassionately. Molinary's subjects are candid and generous, sharing the most intimate details of their experiences. I was stunned by how many times I thought, That happened to me, too!"
Michelle Herrera Mulligan
coeditor of Border-Line Personalities: A New Generation of
Latinas Dish on Sex, Sass, and Cultural Shifting

To Latinas of every generation—
those who have traversed the beauty and body landscapes and
those whose journey has just begun—
because your presence is illuminating and your voice empowering.

Language is a very complicated and personal thing. Words are like fingerprints: On the surface they may look the same, no matter who's using them—but if we burrow into the details, they are much less universal than we first thought. We use and interpret words in a way that speaks to who we are. They become our own, filtering into our consciousness in different ways based on how and where we've been raised, and how we see the world.
Because words are so powerful, it is important—particularly in a book that's sharing the experiences of such a diverse group of women—to clarify the choices I've made about usage in this book. Since we'll be talking about body image, beauty perception, and Latinidad—concepts that are highly individual—it needs to be said that my choices will not necessarily be the same as yours.
The women who responded to the survey and who participated in the interviews that contributed to this book often had very different takes on what it means to be Latina. They also used different descriptors and labels to describe their identity, their heritage, and their experiences. Though the majority of the women in this book self-identify as "Latina," I chose to retain the use of the word "Hispanic" when survey respondents, interviewees, censuses, and articles made use of the word. I did not feel it was my place to edit their use of identifying labels, and thus they will appear on occasion within the chapters.
Though I'm aware that the coopting of the word "America" by the United States is a point of contention among those who think of "America" in terms of the Pan-Americanism of all of the collective Americas, in this book, the words "America" and "American" are used specifically in reference to the United States and its influences.
Below is a short glossary to shed light on what meanings I am working from when I use particular words or phrases, and to offer an understanding of critical diction and word usage throughout Hijas Americanas.
ACCULTURATE/ACCULTURATION: A gradual process in which people, without dismissing their native cultures, begin to adopt aspects of the dominant culture as a result of exposure. For example, being bilingual can signify acculturation, as it shows a desire to maintain one's native tongue while developing the language of the dominant culture.
AMERICAN: Many people in Latin America refer to the entire American Continent (North, Central, and South America) as "America." Therefore, for some Latinos, it feels redundant to say that they are, for example, Venezuelan American. However, in this book, I wanted to identify whether or not a person was born in the United States. To do this, in most cases I referred to people who were not born in the United States as "Peruvian" or "Cuban," for example, and to those who were born in the United States as "Chicana," "Latina," "Mexican American," "Cuban American," or "of Panamanian heritage/descent," for example. The one exception is that, given Puerto Rico's commonwealth status, women are described as Puerto Rican, and then their birth location, if it is of note, is identified.
ASSIMILATE/ASSIMILATION: A process in which people leave behind their native culture in order to adapt to the new culture (contrast with "acculturate/acculturation"). For example, those who are assimilated often make the choice to be dominant in the language of their new country and not their mother tongue.
BLACK/AFRICAN AMERICAN: When referring to blacks or African Americans, I am identifying the race of someone who is black but non-Latino.
BODY IMAGE: The subjective way that people perceive their own bodies and physical appearances in reference to themselves, their identities, their environments, and the reactions of those around them.
BORICUA: A woman of Puerto Rican heritage.
CHICANA/CHICANO: A person who is of Mexican descent but was born in the United States (at times, "Mexican American" is also used in this context).
HIJAS AMERICANAS: "American Daughters." This book title is an homage to both Latin American and North American cultures, which together unify each Latina.
HISPANIC: This word was first used by the U.S. Census Bureau in the late 1970s to identify people in the United States who have ancestral ties to Latin American countries, Spanish-speaking Caribbean nations, and Spain. Rather than identify a race, this term identifies a group unified through a commonality in culture and language. Not all people of Latin American descent approve of being called "Hispanic," and I opt for "Latino" and "Latina" unless I am directly quoting someone or referring to governmental figures, ideas, or policies.
LATINA/LATINO: A person who is of Latin American heritage and lives in the United States. Many people of the younger generations prefer "Latino" to "Hispanic" as a label. It's not uncommon to see the bisected usage: "Latino/Hispanic." As a reminder, this is a term that technically describes ethnicity and not race. If I want to clearly identify a person's race, I will differentiate by using such descriptors as "white Latina," "black Latina," "white non-Latina," or "black non-Latina."
LATINIDAD: This term indicates a pan-Latino identity for all Latinos that is rooted in a shared language and common immigrant experiences. This is the notion of a Latino identity that is not individual in nature.
MACHISMO: Behaviors among males in the Latino culture that display their masculinity. In today's context, it's often viewed as a negative behavior that is excessive in nature.
RETRO-ACCULTURATION: A process that happens when people who have assimilated to their new cultures begin to search for elements of their ethnic identities to incorporate into their new lives. They might embrace traditions they never had before, or learn to speak their native tongue for the first time as adults.
SELF-ESTEEM: The way people regard themselves. A person who has positive self-esteem has the ability to be authentic and is accepting of his/her skills, worldview, and cultural identity.
WHITE: In this book, when "white" is used as a descriptor of race without any other qualifiers, I am indicating that the person is a white non-Latino.

Reconciling Two Realities
I never had Latina girlfriends growing up. I only knew two Mexican American girls at my high school. In college, there were two older Cuban American women whose beauty and classiness intimidated the hell out of me.
I have had Latino guy friends. Not boys I dated. Well, one. Almost. They were mostly just friends who understood me and helped me ease into a feeling of home. Two who stand out in my mind are Braulio and Christopher. Christopher was my almost (I'll share a little more about him later); Braulio was like immediate family. When Braulio and I first met, it seemed as if we had already been together for a lifetime. He came home with me during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks. He completed our family, and the way he recognized me made me feel more complete. Before Braulio, I had no idea what feeling at home meant, really, because I'd spent so much time feeling like "the other."
Once, on a visit to New York City when I was in college, someone called out to me. "Hey, Boricua, over here!" a young man yelled from his apartment stoop. I looked around, wondering whom he was yelling at. Then it dawned on me: He was talking to me. Intimidated, I sped up. Later, I considered why I ran, why the Boricua in me did not march over to that stoop and ask, "¿Qué quieres?" But I had grown up in South Carolina. Besides my sister, I was the only Puerto Rican girl I knew.
In college, I was still the only Puerto Rican girl I knew—and the only Puerto Rican girl most anyone else knew. A counselor in the admissions office assumed I was a Spanish major; she looked at me with a knowing glint in her eye—an obnoxious look that told me she believed that studying Spanish might indeed be the only way I could succeed. She proceeded to tell me that I'd been granted admission not because I was an academic powerhouse, but because of what I could add to the campus. I felt the weight of needing to act polite, to be good, to play nice. I said nothing. Instead I let her offensive comment hang in the air between us. I walked away from her that day, just as I walked away from the guy in New York City. I wasn't sure where I fit in or what I was. I was someone who knew what it was like to be seen, but not valued or heard.
I'd also been told plenty of times that I wasn't Puerto Rican enough, or even Puerto Rican at all—despite Spanish being my first language, despite the fact that I had no relatives living in the United States. Once, in a college committee meeting about diversity, a woman I knew well looked right past me as she asked the group why we didn't have any Latinos on the committee. What I came to understand was that sometimes, despite my own reality, I was considered Latina enough to take care of every quota under the sun and other times not Latina enough to fulfill a single one.
Thinking back to that summer afternoon in New York City, I now realize that I hurried away from the guy who yelled out at me not because I was scared of him, but because I was scared of what he would find in me. What if I had stopped and talked to him? What if he told me that I wasn't Puerto Rican enough? What if my own compadre chose not to claim me? Where would that leave me in my understanding of myself? There I was, being recognized as Puerto Rican—perhaps for the first time without trying—but the possibility of being denied that I belonged was too much to bear. I've often wondered what would have happened if I had risen up and claimed an identity that was mine for the taking. But it would take a while before I could finally revel in the joy that the Latina in me had been so easily recognized.
My high school in Columbia, South Carolina, was diverse enough—despite the lack of Latinos—to keep me from feeling too isolated. I was relatively self-assured and had serious boyfriends, and while my home life was dramatically different from that of my peers, I felt more lonely because of my ideals and values than I did because of my ethnicity, class, and looks. Now I understand how much my ideals and values were shaped because I am Puerto Rican, and not in spite of it.
It was college that made me more sensitive to where I stood on the continuum of ethnicity, class, and beauty in America. Going to an upper-echelon liberal arts school in the South heightened my awareness about white America much more than I heightened anyone else's awareness about Latinos. I once had my intelligence both insulted and questioned by a professor who didn't even have me in his class. I typed my papers on a Brother word processor, and didn't learn the difference between a Mac and a PC until after college. Among my peers, I was thin, but did not feel thin enough. My hair was black, thick, and unruly in a sea of blonds with the popular Rachel (from Friends) haircut. A friend's father actually had an FBI buddy look into my family when he found out that we were hanging out. And my friend was the one who mentioned it.
Through college, I struggled with not belonging, with feeling alone. Some of my isolation was just the routine isolation that so many feel during a new stage of life, but most of it was about ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and being so distinctly different looking and different feeling from everyone else on campus. In those years, I wanted desperately to break the barrier I felt between myself and others. I wanted to leave a favorable impression on people. I wanted to matter.
My junior year, my college roommate—a close friend—watched me while I put in my contacts and said, "You would be so exotic looking if you just had different-colored eyes."
That comment, as much as it mortifies her now that she ever said such a thing, summed up how I felt in college. I was not exotic enough to be considered rare and worthy, and I was just different enough to not be considered.
I remember a letter I wrote that same year. A friend had written me and asked whether I felt I had chosen the right school. My response is still crisp in my mind. It wasn't the perfect school for me, I wrote. It wasn't a natural fit, and I didn't always feel comfortable, but it was the right school for exactly those reasons—because of what it taught me about survival, about standing up for myself, about existing in a world that I had never before experienced. Only now can I look back and recognize how precocious and accurate that assessment was. Because it was only later that I fell in love with the sense of not belonging, with the idea of not having just one place to call my own. Eventually, I could just be who I set out to be each day. Some people would like it, some people would not, but at the end of the day, I could still meet my own eyes in the mirror.
After I graduated and began teaching in the inner city, where my mosaic of students had last names like Rosario, Nguyen, Chang, and Perez, I experienced other difficulties. All of a sudden, boys found me sexy and beautiful, alluring and free game. Not because I was those things, but because I was ethnic—a girl from the Island, a Latina who could show them love in a whole new way.
In my twenties, as a teacher who preferred long skirts and baggy sweaters, the mention of my ethnicity sometimes elicited sexual reactions from students. When I was twenty-two, on my first day with a new class, a group of boys slapped high fives and affectionately started calling me their "Puerto Rican Pecan."
Later I overheard one male student whisper to another, "Man, our Puerto Rican Pecan makes me want to blow a nut." It stunned me, numbed my understanding of my ethnicity, made me wonder whether I should go on embracing my roots or ignore the part of my identity that made me seem sexy instead of intellectual.
As I became a bolder authority figure, I learned how to shield from my students the side of me that was hip, young, and vibrant. As a teacher, I wanted to claim my ethnicity in order to empower my students to celebrate their own heritages. Maybe I could pass as white, but I had never wanted to pass. I wanted to foster a forum where, with my lead, nobody would have to pass. We could all just be who we were, or who we wanted to be.
In the teachers' lounge, I started to hear the stories of the other young, single female teachers. These women were attractive, intelligent, and fun loving, but they never mentioned that their students called them by sexual nicknames, or that they were propositioned the way I had been on occasion. I was too embarrassed to mention my own experiences. Perhaps the delineation was based on race. My colleagues were white; my students, mostly African American, Asian, and Latino. In my students' eyes, it seemed I represented two things: the crossroads between the white and black worlds, and a local version of the sexy women they lusted after in hip-hop videos filmed on location across the Caribbean.
To them, I was a myth and not a woman, Wyclef Jean's Maria to all these wannabe Don Juans. It seemed as if my womanhood meant sex and sensuality more than other women's; as if I could simply exhibit my breasts and never my mind and no one would be the lesser for it; as if by merit of my ethnicity I was promiscuous and born to procreate.
I'm not certain whether they were enraptured by my ethnicity or by my candor. I only know that my experience with those propositions and chants, those questions and challenges, forced me to look at my Boricua in a way I never had. I learned that I can straddle multiple worlds, that I do not have to belong—and that I won't ever belong—to one place. "Belonging" is not what I was born into; it was not how I grew up; it is not who I have become.
The point is not that I belong now. It's that I'm free from the notion that I must. That maybe if I were more desirable or beautiful it wouldn't matter to people that I was Puerto Rican or poor. I came to terms with the fact that I have no control over how much my ethnicity, class, looks, or body size matter to someone else. I can only control how they matter to me. Where I used to think that belonging was a prerequisite for affection and care, I now realize that the only prerequisite for those things is my own willingness to give them to myself. Coming to terms with not belonging was indeed difficult for me, but through those difficulties and challenges, I found the best parts of me. I am better off knowing that I'm comfortable and capable most anywhere I end up. In that way, the isolation of being "the other" has been a provocative classroom.
Perhaps the most revolutionary part of my evolution is that I am no longer just looking at my own Boricua for answers. I am a woman who, until recently, had few Latina peers. I am a woman whose struggles with ethnic identity, beauty perception, and body image opened up a Pandora's box of questions. I am a woman who sought out the answers to my own questions by choosing to connect with the wider Latina community and by choosing to find out how other women have grappled with the same challenges I've confronted. This book has been my own reconciliation with that isolation, and through my interaction with more than five hundred Latinas, I've found comfort, solace, anguish, and, most important, understanding.
Among the topics of conversation I address with the women whose stories grace the pages of this book are the following: How do we Latinas in America straddle the inherent duality of our experiences? How do we reconcile what we hear our parents tell us in the home—to not get tan, to eat more arroz con pollo, to get curves but not get fat, to do chores they would never ask our brothers to do, to not use tampons because they're just for slutty girls—with what we hear in the America we live in, where the messages, opportunities, and experiences are drastically different? The answer is simply that we do—but each of us does it in our own way. Every day, we navigate a world not created with us in mind. We confront our two cultures, our varying traditions, the different values before us—and we try to carve out a place for ourselves.
For Latinas, there are many struggles in reconciling our two realities. But my own experience—growing up in a home in which the Puerto Rican essence opened out into an American playground of possibility—didn't just make my life harder. All the resulting bumps and bruises made my life better. Almost universally, the women who share their stories with me agree.
Hijas Americanas exists because Latinas share an understanding of the tension and complexities that result from the duality in our experience, and because there is a range of truths and experiences among Latinas in America that is not often explored by mainstream media and culture. My own story and the stories of the handful of Latinas I've come to know in my adulthood were not enough. I wanted a chorus of experiences. I wanted the volume to be loud and significant.
The result is more than I could have ever hoped for. Included here are the experiences (individual and collective) of hundreds of Latinas who grew up throughout the United States and navigated not just U.S. ideals, but also the ideals of their homes and home countries, to become the provocative, bright, passionate, and beautiful women they are today. This book explores the myriad ways in which growing up Latina and American has molded and impacted these women. Their stories show the significance of each individual's unique coming-of-age experience, but they also examine the universal truths that are part of all our experiences. As Latinas, we face our personal difficulties—and sometimes our impenetrable insecurities—with an individual honor and dignity that allows us to define who we are in the context of so many things: family, community, ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and more.
I used two methods of research to explore the themes this book addresses. First, with the support of two research assistants, I created a survey featuring 157 questions regarding body image, beauty perception, sexuality, and the influence and impact of family, faith, media, and social norms. This survey, which will be referred to as the Growing Up Latina Survey throughout the book, was completed online by 521 women who learned about the opportunity to participate through professional, educational, or women's organizations—or from other Latinas they knew. (The survey questions can be found in Appendix A, page 279.) In order to participate, the women needed to self-identify as Latinas and had to have lived in the United States since they were at least ten years old. Participants were between the ages of eighteen and forty.
In addition to the surveys, my research assistants and I conducted more than eighty interviews with women who reflected the same demographic. (These interview questions can be found in Appendix B, page 301.) All of the women were voluntary participants, and interviews were conducted in person or by phone. The interview participants are identified at first mention by name, age at the time of the interview, self-identified ethnicity, and hometown (sometimes a city, sometimes only a state). The survey participants are not identified; their voices contribute to the broader picture of what it's like to grow up Latina. The survey participants helped me gain statistical information, and oftentimes their stories are included because what they wrote moved me or served as a particularly interesting and/or universal example of the Latina experience.
My goal in conducting the interviews was to highlight the information from the survey with richer, more personal, and more detailed information. The interviews provided the context for how the lives of these women unfolded in America. Questions ranged from "What do you love about being a Latina?" to "What have been the triumphs of being a Latina in America, and what have been the challenges?" The interviewees gave voice to their self-conceptions, and to the perceptions they have and have had of themselves as they moved through a world that was sometimes familiar and friendly and sometimes foreign and cold.
Over the course of the research, my assistants and I marveled at these women. We were honored by their honesty and their ability to give voice to difficult experiences. Their contributions here will help someone else—some wonderful girl who is just approaching adolescence somewhere in middle America—know that she is not alone in her struggles. These women were forthright not because they themselves had something to gain from it, but because they wanted the world to gain from it. These are Latinas who see the world evolving and have something meaningful to contribute to that evolution.
As I wrote, I was struck by how my own sense of self and identity was changing in the process. My self-perception as a Latina was formed out of a fairly solitary existence. Often people have expressed things like, "I don't see you as a Latina at all"—a sentiment that's clearly meant as a compliment, as an indicator of inclusion and acceptance. I'm struck by the way people move toward connection by saying they do not see my color. After a lifetime of feeling like I do not belong, being accepted is a wondrous feeling. But by being told that I am not seen as a minority at all, I am denied a significant, difficult, and yet meaningful part of my experience. It's neither a favor nor a courtesy to ignore someone's ethnicity, culture, or reality. It's an omission, a negation.
So here is a book that gives me and the women whose stories are shared an opportunity to call it out clearly: We are Latina—in all our colors, styles, looks, mixed variations, heritages, and ethnicities.
Hijas Americanas gives you the opportunity to learn about and admire the women I was so privileged to get to know in the process of writing this book. And it does much more than that: It encourages you to acknowledge the way we beat ourselves up, and the way we're conditioned to do so because of the messages we get from the larger culture. And for Latinas, this is often coming from two, even three, different frames of reference. It's imperative that these voices be heard. These women's struggles are struggles that many of us are familiar with—born of the schism that results from living between two worlds, complicated by the ways that diverging cultures don't meet in the middle. When we can recognize this schism, see where it comes from, and take matters into our own hands to effect change, we can approach the world with a sense of confidence in ourselves as proud Latinas, in all our diversity.


On Sale
May 10, 2007
Page Count
320 pages
Seal Press

Rosie Molinary

About the Author

Rosie Molinary is an author, freelance writer, teacher, and editor. Her award-winning poetry and nonfiction have been published in various literary magazines and books, including The Circle, Anthology, Caketrain, Snake Nation Press, Jeopardy, Coloring Book, Waking Up American, and Wishing You Well. Her articles have appeared online and in magazines, including Latina, Teen Vogue, Skirt!, Health, Women’s Health, Ms., and Lifetimetv.com. She is the author of Hijas Americanas: Beauty, Body Image, and Growing Up Latina. Rosie teaches a body image seminar in the Gender Studies department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and travels the country to teach body image, self-awareness, creativity, journaling, social justice, and writing workshops.

In addition to holding a degree in African-American studies from Davidson College and an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College, Rosie is a certified high school social studies teacher. She lives in Davidson, North Carolina.

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