Generational Trauma in Latina Finances

Woman looking worried

In 2020, I went from being a full-time, in-person employee to being a professional work-from-home sweatpants-wearer. It was a year of personal growth and financial reckoning as I went from living in one of the two spare rooms in mami’s house to buying my own home. Though it was only five minutes away from my mom’s home, a home for myself seemed like a good idea as a new college grad at 24 years old. It was something I had on my mind for a while, I had no debt, a steady job, my sister as my realtor, and the money/salary to qualify, so why not? I contacted a mortgage home originator, got my pre-approval letter, and set my sister loose to find my future home. Not even one week later, I was under contract for a modest but nice home close to my family.

When signing the closing papers about two months later, I realized a part of me was really nervous to not only leave home but also to put my money into something like a house. I didn’t buy the house with the intention of it being my forever home - I definitely thought of it more like an investment property I could AirBNB in a post-COVID world. This made it more palatable to me than accepting that I would simply be moving out. I didn’t wait for marriage or a boyfriend to depend on to move, I wanted a house so I bought one. So what was this weird sense of shame of achieving something on my own that I had over me? After some honest self-reflection, I was able to identify it as what it is: this was the culture of poverty.

Poverty is hard to get out of, and when you do, you feel like you don’t deserve to not be poor. While I’m not an immigrant, I think my childhood experiences are similar to that of first-generation immigrants. My parents moved from Puerto Rico when I was about 3 years old to the mainland US with less than three thousand dollars in their bank account and 3 daughters under the age of 6 in tow. They worked hard, my mom at the county library in a professional role, and my dad at a construction company in their lumber yard during the day, while also delivering pizzas and taking classes at the local high school to learn English at night. They scraped together the funds to buy a house when I was in elementary school, only for us to lose it later after their divorce and the 2008 recession. We always rented after that, until years later when both my parents became homeowners again, each on their own.

Financial difficulties have an adverse effect on the children of immigrants: you grow up knowing the value of money since you hear the conversations about it at home, so you have an odd sense of guilt spending your own even if you have the money to do so. What if my mom got sick and needed my help paying for the house? What if my parents lose their jobs and need me to step up to contribute? What if I get fired or lose my job? So many of these questions swirled around me as I signed my closing papers on my house, something I felt again months later when I signed the papers to get my second car. I justified this purchase to myself in the most unnecessary way: I was a grown up now, my small sports car that I got at 19 didn’t fit my lifestyle as a small business owner at 25, I needed more space in a bigger car! Nevermind the fact that I always hustled to have the money to pay my bills, graduated without debt, and had my own car paid off for over a year now. Nevermind that my parents never asked me for a cent aside from some small bills (my focus was on school and work, theirs on providing the roof over our heads). The shame over investing in myself as an adult was still there. I felt guilty over potentially not being able to help my family in a financial time of need, some imaginary future emergency I wouldn’t be able to help with because I’d be paying for my own house and car instead. My family played zero part in it, too. In fact, both of my parents were my biggest cheerleaders of my becoming a homeowner and new(er) car owner, none of which they co-signed or gave me money directly for. All of these feelings were completely internalized.

Women of color have the most unique relationship with money and finances: we carry the generational trauma of worrying about money with us. This trauma response is one we have been programmed to have, passed down to us from generations of low-income living without equitable access to well-paying jobs, higher education, and homeownership. Add the immigrant component with a language barrier on top of it all, and there you have it. As women move to become the breadwinners of their families in minority communities, the insecurity of the Latina wage gap looms over us, making it hard to battle not only imposter syndrome but potentially toxic work dynamics as well. With the COVID-19 she-cession disproportionately affecting Black and Latina women the most, I worried about not being able to pay my bills despite being in my role for years and no notice of a COVID-19 layoff in sight.

So how do we effectively combat this generational trauma with money? As Latinas, we must make the realization that investing into yourself as a woman of color is an act of defiance in a society where you’re determined to be a statistic before you’re ever even allowed to access your greatness. Investing into owning property and becoming homeowners? This is gaining assets, not losing money for family emergencies. Generational trauma is best combated with knowing your worth, and surrounding yourself with other women looking in the same direction of success as you. Being financially savvy and doing the research to achieve financial success is another piece of the puzzle, but so is exclusively gaining this knowledge from other Latinas. Having not only my sister, but a Latina homeowner herself, walk me through the process with complete knowledge of the real estate market calmed my nerves in a way that buying from a non-Latinx stranger wouldn’t have.

This reminds me of another form of guilt I often encountered as an adult: the accusation of thinking I was better than other members of the Latinx community because of the things I had despite my working my ass off to have them. It didn’t matter that yes, I had a slightly nicer car than people my age, but I worked 3 jobs to pay that and for school at the same time. It didn’t matter that I put in the work to have the things I wanted to have and bought basically everything on super clearance, always looking for a discount or a deal (which I still do!). This is where the Latinx community can fail us: signs of success are punished. We buy out of necessity, not wanting things. Buying Jordans working a part time job? Unacceptable. Saving up to get a nicer car? Why would you do that, when you have an older, but still reliable car? Again, a trauma response. We as a whole are fully capable of overcoming these responses by building community around our successes instead of punishing ourselves for achieving things.

When you see someone breaking those bonds of generational trauma, it is important to acknowledge their success. Support your fellow Latinas growing their own businesses, buying homes, and moving up the career ladder. Invest in your fellow Latinas professionally, hiring them to be your real estate agent, and more. With community comes continuity, and with shared success no one ever loses. We got this!

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