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Blazing Trails Between Clashing Cultures

Books: In 'The Maria Paradox,' Carmen Inoa Vazquez and Rosa Maria Gil examine the contradictions Latinas face with assimilation.

September 06, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cristina Riegos is strong-willed and self-assured, traits that helped her earn a scholarship, then a degree, from an Ivy League school. But in many ways, she's still Mama's little girl.

"I call my mother every time I go out," confesses Riegos, 25. "My friends think it's weird. It's not that I have to, it's just the way I was raised."

Riegos was raised with two cultures: the paternalistic Latin American one her Cuban-born mother and Mexican father brought from their homelands, and the more progressive one she grew up with in Southern California. And that split, she concedes, has led to a number of contradictions. So while Riegos enjoys the freedom of living alone, which her mother couldn't have done in Cuba, she still feels compelled to call home before going out, a quirk her native friends find quaint.

"It's a cultural negotiation," she says. "It is a constant battle."

And it's a common one among immigrant women, says Carmen Inoa Vazquez, director of clinical internship in psychology at Bellevue Hospital and an associate professor at New York University's School of Medicine.

"Mothers come to us expecting that their children will view life the same way they did," says Vazquez, who is also a practicing psychotherapist. "But that is not the way it is. So if you want to function in any society, you can and should learn . . . to adapt."

To aid that adaptation, Vazquez joined with Rosa Maria Gil, a psychotherapist and assistant professor of clinical psychiatric social work at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, to write "The Maria Paradox" (Putnam). But the book, published in English last spring and re-released in Spanish last month, is as much a guide to female self-empowerment as an examination of cultural assimilation, urging Latinas to hold on to the best traditions of their homelands while enjoying the self-esteem and relative equality women have in this country.

"You cannot empower anyone. But they can self-empower," Vazquez says. "So the woman will say, 'This is what I want. This I don't want.' "

Simply getting some women to acknowledge their right to an opinion is a breakthrough, the authors say. Frequently, Latinas are made to feel uncomfortable expressing such desires. The conservative, machismo attitude of male supremacy still permeates society in much of Latin America and its female counterpart, marianismo, has come to idealize the passive, sacrificing and long-suffering role of women in traditional Latino culture.

"To many people, the very term 'independent-minded Latina' is a paradox," the authors write, explaining the title of their book. But blindly following the old traditions can be costly.

"Domestic violence," Vazquez offers as an example, "is perpetrated because there is an inequality. It is viewed as an issue of control on the part of the aggressor. Marianismo . . . has exacerbated the problem."

Each woman should define what is right for herself. And that definition is often shaped by the surrounding cultural environment. In some parts of Latin American, for example, women are not encouraged to go to college or to aspire to a career outside the home. In this country, however, it's just the opposite, leaving newly arrived immigrants in the difficult position of having to reconcile competing sets of expectations.

"The message that you get is a double message," Vazquez says. "[But] things have changed tremendously, even in Latin America. . . . You really should begin to think of yourself as an autonomous, deserving person who is entitled to make her own decision."

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It's a subject with which Vazquez has firsthand experience. Born in the Dominican Republic, she came to New York with her family at age 16 to escape the Trujillo dictatorship. The culture clash began soon thereafter.

"When I was 18 I wanted to start dating, like every other 18-year-old North American person would do," she says. "Well, of course, my mother would not hear about that because that was not something . . . she was used to. She could never adjust because she was not used to this culture, while I began to acculturate because I went to school.

"In a way, I became her mother in the sense that I knew more about things, began to learn certain cultural aspects of North American life and how to manage the system. So I would then be the one that would translate for her and all of those things."

At that time, 1960, immigration levels were just a fraction of what they are today, so newcomers who had problems adjusting hardly posed a problem for the society at large. Today, however, with California poised to join Hawaii and New Mexico as the third state with a nonwhite majority population, cultural integration has become a major political topic.

Latinos have borne the brunt of nativist attacks spurred by these demographic trends, not only because--at 25 million--they make up the largest nonwhite immigrant group in the U.S., but also because many of them never fully assimilate.

"I think that all Latins, at the unconscious level, have the belief that they are going to go back," Vazquez says. "And because of the closeness and the technology--it takes less time to go from New York to Santo Domingo than it takes to go from New York to Los Angeles"--it's easier to reinforce traditional cultural norms during visits home than it is to learn new ones here.

And while Vazquez takes issue with much of the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country, she sees little gain in refusing to assimilate.

"Precisely what we would like people to understand is that, whether you are here to stay or not, you are here," she says. "You don't have to lose who you are. We have wonderful, wonderful cultural values as Latinos. Let's keep them. But let's also adapt and learn the values in the country where we're at. Let's do both."

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