For Latino Dads, it’s Extra Hard to be a Great Father

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In my Latino world, it’s universally understood that from the time we’re born, our lives will revolve around mama.  Oh papi matters too, sure – sorta, maybe, sometimes – but mama?  Well, in general, mama is our Goddess, lo maximo y los mãs profundo de nuestra vida.  (Mama is the max and the most profound part of our life).


My culture’s reverence for mom stems from the universal influence of Catholicism in Latin America.  For centuries Mary, earthly mother of Jesus or heavenly mother of God, (depending on your beliefs) has been the archetype by which most Latina moms are measured and measure up, even when they don’t intend to.

This has not been bad for us but the flip side is that Latino fathers don’t influence families and children as much as I think they should.  In some ways I even think it’s unfair to Latina moms because they shoulder a bigger responsibility (the hard part of the cultural reverence they get) and it also sets men up to not be as accountable as they ought to be as fathers.

In the Bible Joseph literally disappears (he apparently died) from Jesus’ life around his teen years and it seems that similarly in our culture we’re unintentionally allowed to not be full fathers from the start.  When my son Jonathan was born 11 years ago, I recall being a slacker dad.  I didn’t change his first diaper until he was 6 months and I ALWAYS skipped all his friends’ birthday parties.  Three children and another marriage later I’ve wizened up since then but I can tell you that the reason I feel I even felt a license to slack like that at the time was because there is little expectations for Latino fathers.

The “Modern Josephs”, the Modern Latino Father, is generally treated with both lax and very low expectations.  The troubling message I see a lot of Hispanic kids get about their fathers is: “what matters is that you’ve got your mom; you’re dad’s around when he can be; he’s doing the best he can but don’t count on him.”

Through the years, I’ve seen three sad instances in the lives of dear friends and family where the idea of allowing a dad reintegrate into lives of their children after a couple years of complete absence became unacceptable to the moms.  “It’s too late.  He hasn’t done anything for this child and at this point I don’t think my child needs a father.  They’ve got me.”  In each of these instances our Hispanic families have universally resisted the father’s reintegration. It’s almost as if a Latino dad blows it once, he gets three automatic strikes.  Except where a formerly absent Latina mom is a clear danger to their child, the opposite life disbarment from parenting a child would NEVER happen.

A cultural backlash against men – and even manhood – seems to be at an all-time high and it’s not uniquely about Latino fathers.  The horrible, sordid tales of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. John Edwards and even Charlie Sheen contribute to the notion that men are pigs who just plain suck.  For the Latino father, things are even worse.  We get the baggage about being womanizers PLUS we’re also labeled with generally being a bunch of “machistas”.

Even though most of the Latino fathers I hang out with are not like that at all, I think a lot of the criticism we get for being “womanizers” has some merit.   We Latino men love women and sometimes, when we’re married, we still love them too much.  I don’t think we hold each other accountable in order to make our marriages and our families stronger.

I’ve been a recipient of the pressure Hispanic boys face about losing their virginity at a young age.  Sexual experimentation is not only accepted in our culture; it is expected and strongly promoted.  Having multiple girlfriends is considered a very cool thing as if the same habits one helps their children embrace at a young age will somehow magically disappear when they’re married with children.

The strangest thing of all is that oftentimes, ironically, Latinas moms themselves contribute to the problem.  I know many divorced and married moms who to my astonishment actually brag – YES, BRAG! – to each other about the prowess of their boys with women and how they have “tons of girlfriends.”  Whenever I see this it tells me that the old saying “boys will be boys” is not only accepted but embraced in those homes, a travesty that perpetuates the tragedy.

I’m not holier than anybody else and I don’t have my life perfectly together by a long shot.  My life is as broken and dysfunctional as everybody else’s.  What I’m saying plainly is that Latino fathers have it tougher than most but unless we cultivate boys who are accountable and unless we help them expect more from us as men we will not have stronger families.  My hope is that we as Latino fathers – AND mothers – married and divorced, will work towards keeping stronger family values.

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