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Byline: Colleen O'Connor Dallas Morning News

Sylvia Silva, a successful Dallas businesswoman, grew up in a traditional Latino family in which women were not encouraged to pursue a career.

Her triumph over the old ways could fit right into a new book called ``The Maria Paradox: How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions With New World Self-Esteem'' (Putnam; $22.95), which aims to help Latinas live successful bicultural lives.

As a child, Sylvia and her three sisters were taught to serve their nine brothers.

``We girls were taught to make homemade tortillas and sopas, all the traditional foods, and to feed the men,'' she says. ``We girls cooked and cleaned for our brothers. We served them first, and ate after they ate. We drew their baths, we washed their clothes, we ironed for them. It was normal. The male was respected as the breadwinner.''

When she married at age 17, these traditions continued. Her husband worked hard as the family provider, and she stayed home to raise their three daughters.

``We had a very traditional marriage,'' she says. ``The kids would greet him at night, saying, `Hola, Papa!' and I'd make a traditional dinner with tortillas and sopas.''

But about 12 years into the marriage, crisis forced a change. In a freak accident, her husband fell 23 feet and shattered both arms. His arms were encased in casts, armpits to fingertips.

``We almost lost our home,'' says Silva. ``I had time to reflect, `If he had died, what would I have done? If he'd become disabled, how would I support the family?' ''

She enrolled at Richland College, studied real estate, eventually landing a real estate job making almost $100,000. From the emergency came personal growth - but not without great cost.

``I became a different person,'' she says. ``My husband told me, `You're not the girl I married.' It was true. I was like a butterfly.''

They separated, then reconciled. She quit her real estate job.

``I was willing to give up my career to have him back again,'' she says. ``But we both realized I could not go back to being the subservient wife.''

After their divorce, Silva bought a temporary personnel agency called AmeriTemp, which she repositioned for a bilingual market. She now has 67 employees, and a new sense of self.

``I've matured a lot,'' she says. ``There's no one I depend on, emotionally or financially, as a partner and companion. It's allowed me to have more faith in God, and to really bring in that inner strength deep inside my well.''

Silva's life dovetails with those described in ``The Maria Paradox,'' written by Dr. Carmen Inoa Vazquez and Dr. Rosa Maria Gil, therapists with a largely Latina clientele.Both have private practices that specialize in helping Latinas with common acculturation problems. ``The Maria Paradox,'' filled with self-help exercises, covers all areas in which acculturation can cause difficulty: career, family, sexuality, domestic violence, sexual harassment, in-laws and housework.

Their work is based on a concept they call ``marianismo,'' a centuries-old belief system that uses the Virgin Mary as a role model. Its ideals are sacred duty, self-sacrifice and chastity.

Marianismo might benefit women in the Old World, giving certain power and protection. But ``in today's North America,'' they write, ``marianismo is the invisible yoke which binds capable, intelligent, ambitious Latinas such as many of our clients, friends and colleagues to a no-win lifestyle.''

Some Latinas in Dallas say the concept of marianismo is familiar. In a speech to the Mexican-American Business and Professional Women, Brenda Reyes recently warned against perpetuating traditional gender roles.

``We can't make men see us as their equals unless their mothers instilled in them as children that everyone is equal,'' said Reyes, owner of her own business, called Innovative Computer Group Inc.

``I challenged the Latinas in the room,'' she says. ``I asked them to look into their own selves and see if they were perpetuating the traditional role of Hispanic women staying in the household. If they were, then why?''

Reyes was born in New Orleans to Latino parents who emigrated from Honduras in the 1950s. Her mother, she says, grew up in a ``thatched hut with dirt floors.'' Her father worked from age 12 to support his family and had an ``extremely macho attitude.''

She says she escaped marianismo dictates because her maternal grandmother died when her mother was only 6.

``My mother learned survival skills, I don't really know how. But she was very assertive, very much the type who felt equal to any man. As a result, you have me - I have no problems asserting my independence or equality to any man.''

Reyes, who once served in the U.S. Marine Corps as a public affairs officer, was highly influenced by her mother's attitude.

``My father tried to be the macho guy, but she didn't let him get away with it,'' Reyes says. ``It was a big turning point for me to see that, even though it caused some friction in the household. When I raise children, I'll raise them as equals.''

Reyes' life is a good illustration of a principle discussed in ``The Maria Paradox'' - that ``marianismo is embodied in the mother's role.''The mother, write the authors, ``is the most important agent, although not the only one, instilling in her children the principles of marianismo and machismo.''

Many Latinas raised in the traditional ways plan to teach their daughters new ways.

Says Silva: ``If I die tomorrow, I'll die a happy woman because my daughters have something to look at as a role model. I've maintained a home and husband, been a good daughter to my mother and have my own business. My daughters can say, `If my mother did it, I can do it.' ''

Although Silva has not yet read ``The Maria Paradox,'' ``it's very much needed,'' she says.

``We Latinas need to know it's OK to step outside the box, and that it doesn't mean negating your own culture. I feel very much a Hispanic woman, deep in my faith, my culture, my music and my roles.''

But other Latinas, like Catalina Garcia, stress that not all Latinas suffer from marianismo.

``I think people who are more acculturated have less trouble,'' she says.Garcia, born in the United States, started the acculturation process when she was in first grade.

``My family moved to a neighborhood where I was the only Latina in my first-grade class. Then later, we moved again to an Army base, where all kinds of groups were. I joined the multicultural crowd early.''

She contrasts this with some Latinas new to Dallas, women she introduces to various women's groups.``Many young women were born and reared in South Texas towns in Latino neighborhoods,'' she says. ``It's a real different process here. When I try to get them involved here, some struggle with it and get there. Others are not comfortable with it, and aren't as involved with women's issues as I would like.''

Garcia personifies the acculturated Latina that the authors of ``The Maria Paradox'' promote as happy and successful. They advocate ``the merging of Old World values into a competent, assertive, self-assured and empowered Latina - into la nueva marianista.''

The balance they describe is echoed in the words of Garcia, as she talks about how she lives her bicultural life.

``I'm more Anglo when I'm with my Anglo friends, and my husband and his family,'' she says. ``I'm more Mexican when I'm with my mother's side of the family and all her relatives. You learn to shift between the two worlds. I feel the difference, when I'm shifting, to make both worlds be in balance with me.''

In ``The Maria Paradox,'' Latinas come from all walks of life. There are doctors, stockbrokers, supermarket owners and social workers. Some are married to Latinos, some to white men. Some are born in the United States. Others were born in such countries as Ecuador, Peru, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela.

But even if a Latina is born in the United States, marianismo can be a force to contend with.

``It takes three generations to change,'' says co-author Vazquez. ``Second-generation women have problems with first-generation parents and grandparents.''

Expectations and pressures may be deeply buried - and therefore confusing.``It's not conscious to them that certain anxieties and frictions they might be feeling could come from a certain remnant of culture,'' says Vazquez.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 2, 1996

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