by California Dreamin’

GUILT. I feel this emotion often in my life. A lot of it has to do with my being Latina more than anything else.

A poco no? Many Latino parents lay it on thick as a way of controlling and disciplining their kids, keeping them close. I remember my mom telling us growing up, “After everything your father and I have been through in this country, you’re going to go and bring home a C in Math!?” The guilt! How could I have let them down like that!? Or, “Mija, why are you moving out, do we not feed and house you well? What did we do wrong!??” My mother was yelling this, as my father shed tears in the background–the first I ever saw in my life! More guilt!!

I usually accepted it like a defeated person. I wallowed in it and saw it as a feeling that was as much a part of my life as Sabado Gigante. Sometimes I felt it more than happiness or anger or any other feeling. Heck, I thought perhaps it would be a feeling I would someday pass on to my kids, like a tradition, or like a recipe for posole or tamales.
It’s just part of our culture. Who am I to challenge it? After all, it wasn’t that bad really, as long as there was something I could do to make it go away. Usually that meant beating myself up first (mentally of course) and then by doing well and making my parents proud.

However, with my most recent change, I found I couldn’t apply my formula…The feeling came out of the dark, bigger and stronger than ever and blanketed my whole being. It started with my having to move to the other side of the country, where my husband received a great job offer. We made the announcement and within a matter of months I uprooted myself and left.

Typically, in many families this wouldn’t be an issue. There would be a congratulations on hand and perhaps a toast with bubbly. But imagine coming from a Latino family; all of us living within a 30 mile radius of each other, very tight knit, causing no big waves, always visiting our parents or each other at least two to three times a week, sometimes five. And here I was, leaving not just to a different city but a different state, and on the opposite end of the country no less! I was breaking the “family circle.”

Well, with that kind of news guaraches started to fly, so to speak. This time I had upset both my parents AND my siblings, they were crushed. Hey, I figured I’d go for the gold.
They didn’t have to say much. They mastered the silent infliction of guilt, and I had the finely tuned receptor to make sure I got the signal.

I got on the plane with what seemed 10 pieces of luggage and only one had clothes in it. You can imagine what the rest carried. Guilt! The violinists were out. Nothing I did was making the monster go away. It didn’t matter that I called everyday or visited every 6 weeks. It was not the same. Soon, the tips of my shoes were worn out from kicking rocks and wallowing in the guilt.

A few months later, after having had enough of the “when-are-you-moving-back?” phone conversations, I decided to sit up and take the feeling head on.

First I looked up the meaning of “Guilt” on

guilt –noun
1. the fact or state of having committed an offense, crime, violation, or wrong, esp. against moral or penal law; culpability
2. a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.
3. conduct involving the commission of such crimes, wrongs, etc.: to live a life of guilt.

I thought to myself, “Hmmm, why do I feel ‘guilty’ if I have not committed a crime–a violation, especially against moral or penal law!” And then I saw the second definition, “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, whether REAL or IMAGINED.” Bingo. In my mind, I had committed a couple of offenses; one was to have caused emotional distress to my parents and the second was to have displeased them. But are those really genuine offenses? Well, in our culture they are. See, growing up Latina my number one job is to please my parents, to make them happy–not to cause grief. If I did cause trouble then they would lay on the guilt as a way of controlling me and getting me back in line.

Now three thousand miles away I find myself asking at what point do I draw the line? Especially if that feeling affects important decisions in my life…do I pack up and move back just because I feel guilty?? And what am I, 15 again? It seemed like I needed some of those guilt trips growing up so I didn’t get into too much trouble, but now I’m married and fully independent.

I made a change and the way I look at it, it’s a positive one. Why should I feel guilty about that or any changes or decisions I make in the future? Have I really offended them, or am I just imagining the offense? I came to the conclusion that this feeling of guilt has been something that I have mindlessly accepted all of my life, and on most occasions for trivial and imagined offenses. It controlled my life more than I cared to admit, and even affected some of my past decisions. Who knows where I’d be now had I made those decisions. But that was the past, I was now thinking of the future. Did I really want to have that feeling be so pervasive in my life? It was emotionally exhausting; it defeated my spirit and denied my happiness. A true monster!

I decided NO MAS! I knew that my parents only wanted the best for me. Talking to them about it would only give me answers that I already knew, like “we’re proud of you no matter what” or “it’s your life, we can’t live it for you” etc. But that still didn’t eliminate the guilt.

Then I talked to a wise friend, who said that my continuing to feel “guilty” was a way to stay CONNECTED to my parents across the miles. I decided that I didn’t want to connect with my parents in this way anymore. I soon figured out that by deciphering the feeling I was able to outsmart it and lay it to rest. I no longer fuel it with things I feel are offenses thereby giving it power. It worked. Since then, I now feel grateful more than anything; grateful to have opportunities in life, grateful to have a loving family and husband, grateful to just be healthy and be able to feel. I’m also grateful that I gathered the strength and knowledge to switch the tables; I still want to please my parents, but I come first now.

Now when I talk to my parents over the phone and they ask why I haven’t visited in a while, I don’t feel guilty. I don’t start figuring out when I can jump on a plane next. Instead, I turn the question around to them, and say “I was thinking the same thing, when ARE you going to come visit?? After all I’ve been out here several months and you have yet to see our new place.” Then I’ll get a pause and a “okay Mija, we’ll see, soon, very soon, si Dios quiere.”

It truly is amazing to discover that all along, we’ve had the power to control our feelings versus letting them control us. Some of us recognize this earlier in life, some of us never.

I hope by reading my story you can discover the same.