La Cantaleta: The Hidden Cry for Help
“Recógeme eso! ¡Ponte a limpiar coño! ¡Muchacha de mierda! ¡Levántate! ¡Ahora! ¿Y porque tu no estás? ¡Tu amas a tus amigos mas que a mi! ¡Si te tengo que decir otra ves! Me duele la espalda. Hazme un té.”
Of all the things I remember about my childhood, one distinct recurring memory I have is my mother’s nagging. This is not uncommon to most of the Latinos I know: a barrage of commands and complaints ranging from a household chore to body discomforts to angry outbursts over something. We waved them away or got up and did what was needed, rolling our eyes and feeling annoyed that the woman kept repeating herself constantly. It wasn’t until I went to therapy one morning and la cantaleta came up in conversation that I realized why this was a part of my life.
“They speak in a steady stream of quejas and nags, repeating themselves like scratched CDs until you get up and comply
But don’t dare tell her to shut up unless you want another litany to start
Mami repeats herself and repeats herself and repeats herself until someone hears her
In hopes her screaming and nagging will translate into attention…”
I can only speak from experience when I express the following thoughts. For the last couple of centuries under the stronghold of patriarchy, Dominican women and men have had a co-dependent relationship. Dominican men normally are the providers of financial stability for women while the Dominican women keep the house clean and take care of basically everything else. This is the way things have been for a while, but with migrating to the United States and the changes in collective consciousness, the process of shifting this dichotomy has been jarring. Before coming to this country, women in my family have been expected to take on the role of housewife. I remember that it was watching my mother and all the work she had on her that discouraged me in my younger years from becoming a mother myself. She had to take care of everything: the upkeep of the house and the emotional well-being of everyone. Except herself. I noticed that my grandma has always been a nag too and figured it was just the way things were and have always been. That’s actually one of the most dangerous sentiments in human nature – that something just is what it is because it’s always been done that way.
My therapist is a Dominicana, so when I reflect on my life, she understands the context in which it was created. I was speaking on my relationship with my mother when she gave me something to consider about the cantaleta. The nagging, bitching, and moaning that got under my skin was perhaps the only way Dominican women knew how to communicate. It struck me in the heart strings because I had developed a habit in my early twenties of repeating myself until I felt heard. The therapist went on to flesh out the traditional male-female relationship, and what women have had to endure. Dominican men are allowed to have mistresses and other women without the same stigma that would be applied to women if they did. They are mujeriegos. They are able to flex their misogynistic muscle, which often also includes domestic violence. It’s just how things are. Aguanta eso. Endure that. Dominican women are told this by family and society out of the need to normalize the trauma and maintain their financial stability. It was not normal to me for a married couple to separate. What I didn’t know is the host of abuse that hid behind some marriages.
“In a system of relating to a man who can feed your children but not your soul
Turn a blind eye to his infidelities as long as he provides
Let him conquer your body while you offer your heart as his spoils of war
When he comes home late, his children asleep dreaming of a father who was present
Neglected wives turn into personal tyrants, forcing their kids to ensure her loneliness
As she cooks dinners that go cold, made bitter by her tears
She shrieks so that someone in the house can enjoy her warmth…
Ahi va la cantaleta
Vengan a comer antes que se ponga fria!
No me dejen nada en el plato
Leave nothing as evidence that you might not care
She needs to be heard above the static of her emptiness
Teaches her daughters to follow suit and inherit this legacy
This mop and broom
These pots and pans
This mandate from machismo to wait on him hand and foot…”
Upon coming to this country, life changes so drastically, including the reality of having Dominican American children who find it hard to fall into traditional roles. I remember rejecting the notions that I had to learn how to cook and clean to take care of a man. I used to get so annoyed that my little sister and I would have to do household chores while my younger brother and much less my father were not forced to do a thing. While Dominican men carry on with the other women and emotional absence they have been entitled to, Dominican women suffer the brunt of the harsh reality of the United States. They can no longer expect their children to look after them the way it is back en el campo. Their children may not always put family first, and the culture that the Dominican mother barely understands and that the child may experience difficulty expressing drives them apart. It is then that the claims of their children not loving them and the guilt trips become worse, as the Dominican woman finds herself in isolation far away from home and now in her older age, left with a man who is still either cheating on her and/or completely emotionally unavailable. The children are now adults and there is nothing for her. The old ways in this new country were no longer working. This conversation with my therapist opened my eyes to understanding my mother more and more.
It hadn’t occurred to me that the nagging of the women in my family and culture were in some ways cries for help and attention. They were also a desire to control their children’s lives, at times either shaming or scolding habits or choices the mother did not agree with. Because of the work I do with women as a midwife, I have an idea of the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical sacrifice women must make to be mothers and wives in a patriarchal system. The impact of immigration has made it worse. Reflecting on la cantaleta, it became clear to me that los nervios were the anxiety and stress of having to live under a centuries-old way of being, of the expectations demanded from a Dominican woman. Even the cooking and the distress that not eating a Dominican woman’s food would send her into began to make sense. It was a slap in the face because of how hard she worked to make it for her family. Food was one way to show her love and also “duty” as a woman.
I moved out of my parent’s house shortly after college for what used to be irreconcilable differences that I now understand as the struggle between expectations and my life as a Dominican American. Being on my own made me realize the work it took to upkeep a household which certainly changed the way I felt about helping my mother when I was in her home. I can only imagine what it is like to clean up after four or more other people who don’t want to lift a finger to help her. How lonely a Dominican woman must feel. How unloved and unappreciated she must feel. It breaks my heart and brings me to tears if I think about it too long.
“Wrap your tears inside your uterus until it becomes a fibroid
Until it becomes a tumor in the breasts that fed too many
Start the complaints and start the nagging
Never learning how to articulate needs without hurting herself
The children carry the burden and process the pain of their mother
Trying hard to listen and losing her message in the screams.”
My mother a couple of years ago suddenly stopped in her tracks as she was cleaning the dining room and I was having breakfast. “Maybe the reason I buy things,” she said in a faraway voice, looking out the kitchen window, “is because something is empty.” I try to imagine what my mother’s life has been like with the bits and pieces of it I’ve collected through our conversations and shudder at the thought of asking her to tell me her entire life story. I worry that I won’t be able to handle it.
Beautifully written piece, and an excellent and accurate analysis of how psychoanalytic realities manifest in the lives of Dominican women under patriarchy. Thank you.