When I was a little girl, my mom had a tight-knit group of friends that we would always spend time with. One of my mom’s closest friends out of the group was Aileen. Although we often visited and spent time with Aileen, I had never learned much about her background. Because of this, I was excited for the opportunity to interview her and learn more about her origins, family, and experiences in life.
Today, Aileen lives in Chicago and has a daughter of her own. She currently works as a mortgage loan processor, but has a strong passion for fashion, art, and traveling. With the inability to travel during a worldwide pandemic, she is still incredibly passionate about her job and finds joy in her ability to help families find and buy their dream homes.
Family Origin and Early Life:
On December 30th in the early 70’s, Aileen was born in the city of Chicago, Illinois. Aileen grew up on the west side of Chicago, in a catholic family of eight. She was born into a family of six; her parents, her three older half-sisters and one older half-brother. When her parents married, they had two more kids, that of which Aileen was the first. Her mother grew up in Texas, identifying as Texan or “Tex-Mex,” and her dad grew up in Santa Barbara, Mexico. At the age of 18, Aileen’s mother moved to Chicago, having been her big dream. After a marriage that resulted in the birth of Aileen’s four older half-siblings, Aileen’s mom met her father and they fell in love. Together they had Aileen and her younger brother, and both worked to support the family of eight.
During the day, Aileen’s mom worked at a Chicago school cafeteria serving food to kids in special education and her dad worked long hours at a Chicago steel company. When telling me about her parents’ hard work to support their six children, Aileen explained how she was hardly able to see her dad because of how much he worked. She explained, “He was mainly working, he would leave at like five in the morning, wouldn’t come home until like seven, eight, at night, so, but he was a great provider, always left money on the table. If we needed anything, um, for school like, you know like, if we wanted to buy a cookie at school, or if it was picture day, or if there was a field trip, we’d leave notes on the table.”
Learning about her parent’s different origins and the sibling makeup of Aileen’s two brothers and her three other sisters, I was curious to learn more about their family dynamic and the types of traditional expectations or values brought upon her and her siblings.
In Gloria Anzaldúa’s “La Prieta”, she tells her story of the different treatment she and her brother received from her family. A prominent part of Mexican culture that manifests itself in a lot of families is “El machismo,” or the idea that men should dominate women, and in turn, women be submissive to men. Anzaldúa explains the way her brothers, the men, were placed on a pedestal and determined the only kids deserving of power. She writes of the relationship between her mother and her brothers, explaining, “they were male and surrogate husbands, legitimate receivers of her power. Her allegiance was and is to her male children, not the female” (Moraga 201). Anzaldúa not only explains how her mother demonstrated more appreciation for her brothers, but also about how she expected Anzaldúa to clean the house, “scrub the floors and cupboards, clean the windows and the walls” (Moraga 198).
When asking Aileen about the types of expectations and values her family raised her with, I found that while her mother never demonstrated the same preference towards Aileen’s brothers in the way that Anzaldúa’s mother did, it was very much still expected of her to take on what society considers the traditional role of a submissive woman in the household. I asked Aileen if she felt there was a difference in the expectations of her as a woman in comparison to her two brothers and her confident response of “Absolutely!” was explained by her understanding of the machista expectations of her family.
“My dad being macho, Mexican, um, the woman has to do all the cleaning, the man doesn’t have to do anything.”
She further told me about her family’s logic, and her defiance to their justification, explaining, “cause they’re like, ‘well you’re the girl, you need to do it, you need to do the laundry, you need to fold the clothes, you need to wash the dishes,’ I’m like, ‘no, you can do it too.’ So that, growing up, it-it-it- there was a lot of fighting with my brothers.”
Not only is this idea prevalent in the machismo culture of Mexican culture, but we see its prominence in the United States through what Bell Hooks describes many times throughout her book, Feminism is for Everybody as the country’s “White supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” This oppressive system led women in early feminist movements, to fight for the acceptance of women in the workplace. While women were always present in the workplace, women then and now, have fought hard for the ability to earn an equal wage to that of men, all to defeat the idea that men were superior and that women were inferior, and that women were meant to be submissive and men dominant.
Taking note of this pervasive norm, and her family’s influence on these patriarchal and binary ideologies, I was curious to ask about her educational path and her family’s role and support on her journey to where she is now.
Shifting to Aileen’s educational career and her family’s role in it, Aileen explained that while there were certain aspects of her education that her dad did not believe were necessary, she explains that her father was Americanized in his approach to raising his kids, due to having come to the United States at the tender age of eleven. She explains that her dad raised them with the traditional American mindset that “You go to school, you work, you try to get your kids to go to college, you try to better your life.” Both her parents were supportive of her education, but she expressed the way in which her mom was more supportive of paying for things like piano lessons or tutoring, both of which Aileen believed her dad’s machista ideas kept him from supporting. She explains, “I think my mom was more, like, reasonable with that. Like, she didn’t care what she had to do, she was gonna sacrifice for what- for us to get tutored, or let’s say, take a lesson? like a piano lesson, he didn’t think we needed that” but that besides that, “he let us go to school, do what we wanted to do.”
Aileen’s family’s support and emphasis on education pushed her to take advantage of opportunities that were presented to her at school. She explains that she loved school and dedicated herself, recalling, “I took a lot of honors courses, to see, you know, to better myself! And to get scholarships! And then I go to Erie House Youth Center after school, for like tutoring and just needing extra help, or just to do homework.”
Learning about Aileen’s love for education, I thought about Kit Yuen Quan’s, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing, and her experience being bilingual and learning material in school. She tells stories of how she struggled to understand what was being taught and to participate in class, explaining, “while other kids moved freely around in school, seeming to flow from one activity to the next, I was disoriented, out of step, feeling hopelessly behind. I went into ‘survivor mode’ and couldn’t participate in activities” (Quan 14). Curious to know if Aileen had felt the same difficulty learning material in school, I asked her if her identity had negatively affected her. She fortunately explained that this was not the case for her, she did not feel this struggle because the primary language at home was English.
On the other hand, when I asked her if she ever felt her voice was not heard, being a woman of color, she expressed, “Oh yeah, absolutely! Because I’m Latina! Again, because I’m not White, I’m brown. My skin color is brown, it’s not White…Yeah it was, it’s always, it’s still to this day a problem.” In our conversation, Aileen expresses that she did not feel that being bilingual burdened her in the way it did for Quan, however, she could relate to the way in which Quan often felt ignored and dismissed by others because of her identity.
In attempting to explain to her feminist group the way she felt oppressed, Quan explains that “they did not listen to the point I was trying to make…Instead of listening to why I felt that way, they invalidated me” (Quan 16). Quan felt invalidated because the women were not understanding of her language barrier, and Aileen felt ignored because she was not White. The sad reality is that both Quan and Aileen’s experience is still very common today. Women of color have been silenced, excluded, and invalidated throughout history. The early feminist movement for example, concentrated their efforts on White, heterosexual, middle class women and excluded women of color completely. Today, Latina women specifically, are perceived to be less competent and less intelligent than White people and this contributes to the large wage gap that persists today.
Role Models and the Future
Despite these struggles, Aileen has worked hard to achieve her goals. When she finished high school, Aileen traveled to Arizona for school before then going back to Chicago to study graphic arts at Columbia. When confronted by limited career opportunities, she accidentally stumbled into the mortgage industry where she remains working today.
Aware of her success, I was curious to ask her about her role models and who she really looked up to throughout her life. In terms of looking at representation of women of color in the media, there is very little. For a long time, the prevailing images in stories and films have been and remain to be that of a White protagonist and other fair skinned side characters. For example, a 2020 study of popular films found that only 4% of STEM characters in streaming TV and Film were Latin X (Smith et.al). Knowing this and taking note of Aileen’s adoration for her mother throughout the interview, I was not surprised when she expressed that her mom was in fact, her biggest role model. After pointing out her apparent adoration, she responded, “Right! Because my mom was like my rock, she was my role model.”
Aileen did everything with her mom. She reminisced on her mother taking Aileen and her sisters shopping, getting their hair done together, and consistently being motivated by her mom to take the extra classes and lessons at school. Her mother continuously encouraged Aileen to live her life to the fullest. Aileen explains that she “told her all the secrets. She was a wonderful woman, a wonderful cook, she was just, um, she was just, a Jane of all trades. She did everything.” She further expressed her admiration for her mom having a job and not being entirely dependent on her dad, explaining that “She worked. And I loved that about my mom because that, me as a woman right now, um, as a divorced woman, I feel very, very independent. I take care of myself, and I am not relying on a man to support me.”
Now, being a mother herself, Aileen credits her catholic faith and core values she was brought up with to the heart of gold that both she and her daughter has been raised to have. She credits her religious background for understanding the importance of giving and helping. Looking forward into the future, she hopes that this is something that more people grow to value and put into practice. Analyzing the polarization of the world and the country today, she hopes that people will unite, see, and treat each other as family, and reach a state of bliss together.
Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library, 2016.
Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldúa. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Persephone Press, 1983.
Quan, Kit Yuen. “‘The Girl Who Wouldn’t Sing.’” Making Face, Making Soul = Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, by Anzaldúa Gloria, Aunt Lute Books, 1990, pp. 13–21.
Smith, Stacy L, et al. University of Southern California, 2020, pp. 1–33, The Ticket to Inclusion: Gender & Race/Ethnicity of Leads and Financial Performance Across 1,200 Popular Films.