“Rosi, you have to wash your armpits or else you are going to stink,” my mom said, raising my arms over my head and grumbling to herself in the pungent, humid air of the Disney World public bathroom. 

It was a hot May day in central Orlando; I had left the house without putting on deodorant earlier that morning; I was nine years old washing my armpits in the public bathroom and wading through an emotional pool of pure, exquisite shame. My mother stood to my right in the mirror’s reflection, vigorously scrubbing with the cheap neon hand soap. I stared with squinted eyes and scowled with dutiful detestation at her figure. 

Noted. Never leave the house without deodorant. And never, EVER speak to Mami again.

I thrived in 9-year-old naivete for a whole five minutes of silence before promptly realizing I would, in fact, have to speak to my mother again if I wanted her to buy me Dippin’ Dots. 

Ever since the Disney Incident, my relationship with my mom has gone relatively uphill. My mom is my go-to for advice, my confidante and chisme blabber, my favorite cook and raging Ross shopper, my best friend and walking embodiment of home. She has been the mold for how I understand my womanhood. My mother is the woman I aspire to be in all walks of life. 

She’s Dianelys to all besides me and my brother, who adhere faithfully to the trinity of “Ma,” “Mami” or “Moomy.” To me, my mom is caramel frappes from McDonald’s and turquoise blouses. She is her numerous editions of “Les Misérables,” sitting on the garage bookshelf as living artifacts she acquired during her teenage years, her favorite novel and famed piece of literature that she’s begged me to read for years — and thanks to HUMS 366, I finally did! 

My mom is sewing needles and vintage machines, she’s homemade clothes and the cheery yellow sundress she fashioned for me when I was six, she’s the thick glasses that help her thread needles with transition lenses that sometimes help but often overly obscure her rich brown eyes. When I think of my mom, I think of waking up on Saturdays to clean and I think of washing the dishes as I’m cooking and our odysseys to TJ Maxx and unscripted “woops!” and yelps and seemingly endless Facebook scrolling and overused TikTok sounds. 

But I also think of her spurting wisdom, an oracle in her own right—my mom never fails to anticipate my issues, even months before they occur, always with sound advice to follow. I often wonder just how many of my experiences are truly my own, since she seems to have every situation logged in her memory book — that friend, C*******? Yeah, she likes your crush. Your boyfriend, ******? You don’t even like him that much, but it’s okay, we all go through it. 

I don’t know when I stopped asking her about all things practical and shifted toward the more … spicy. Abstract, even. Sure, I remember the trials of my late girlhood, begging her to let me wax my eyebrows and shave my legs at thirteen. These would’ve been blessings for the hairy, Hispanic pubescent girl that I was. I remember asking her if we could drive to Hot Topic or go to the movie theater or how to not wobble in my heels or how to apply lipstick without smudging it all over the place and — oh, how do I use a tampon?

And sure, I still often ask her silly strings of questions and watch her sigh in dumbfoundedness, but now there’s a hazy sense of comfort, of equal understanding in our speech. Our words bob in between the blaring rhythms emanating from the Facebook reels she watches, spanning from neighborhood chatter to questions about love and life and the things I couldn’t understand as a child that I suppose I now have the maturity and experience to know. 

I came to my mom for all the firsts of my girlhood. Besides the natural issues — see tampon above — associated with coming of age, it was in her arms I cried when I broke up with my first boyfriend, when I felt the twinge of betrayal from childhood friends, when I thought my life’s worth depended on my final exams. 

It was also to her I cried when we entered the supermarket and drifted toward the grocery section, and I didn’t know how to explain to anyone else that the Walmart pineapples reminded me of my grandpa’s farm in Cuba, and how I still felt guilty because when we went to visit Cuba in 2016 my grandpa offered me pineapples he grew — widely known to be the sweetest and juiciest pineapples people would ever taste, it was his pride and joy to offer them to his grandchildren — and I refused to try them because I didn’t like pineapples. He looked sad, but he brushed it off. But then I started to feel bad for refusing his offer, but it was too late and we were already eating lunch and I took his kindness for granted and then he lost his farm and now he’s too old and he lives with us and now I’ll never have the chance to try his pineapples again. I recognize that that’s a bit of a stretch, but even through my delirious sobs, my mother sighed gently and held my hand as I finished letting go of my grief. She’s the only person who would understand. 

I admire my mom for her resilience. As I’ve matured, my hazy memories of our first years in the United States have been sharpened by my mother’s recountings. 

It was only recently that I realized she didn’t just work hard during our first few years, she worked 70-hour work weeks receiving scrappy, minimum-wage McDonald’s pay and biking miles each day to get to work and back. Yet, she still managed to bring me and my brother M&M sundaes after every other work shift. 

My mom didn’t just struggle to learn English, she spent hours of her week attending night classes and suffered ridicule from coworkers for her grammatical mistakes. She nearly lost her job for not understanding the dress code; the instructions were in English. 

I also didn’t realize that my mother felt the loneliness I too felt when moving over — this realization was only solidified when — digging through the garage shelves in search of art supplies — I found the hefty bag of years’ worth of letters sent back and forth to Cuba. There were mounds of handwritten letters sent to my grandma, chronicling the plight of our first years in the U.S. and searching for the strength to continue. Only now can I begin to fathom the humility it must’ve taken to admit these hardships and look for support, knowing that ultimately, my mom had no choice but to continue away from her family, with two small children, and push. 

When I got into Yale, my mom was the first person I called. She whooped and cheered and I could hear the echoes of “My daughter’s going to Yale!” resonating through the phone line, no subtlety in her revelry. I could picture her dancing around her work office, singing familiar melodies I’d heard in celebrations past, that relentless, unforgiving joy that only she could conjure.

I admire my mom because she knew how to be harsh when she needed to be, like when her 9-year-old daughter began to reek of rancid onions and endanger public health. But she never failed to sit with me when I felt sad for no reason, and she always knew the difference between scripted smiles and genuine grins. She made sure I learned the life skills necessary to ensure that I can thrive on my own — like deodorant — even at the expense of my being angry at her, though that usually lasted little more than a few minutes.

When I was little, I promised my mom I’d buy her a boat when I was older and rich and full of money, that I would buy her a boat and a house next to mine and we could continue to be best friends and we could gossip together and cook together and be happy together, the way we always did. Although I am persistently changing and weaving new plans for my future, that one goal has remained sound in my mind. I’ll never be able to thank my mom enough for always being there for me, for giving her physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy to her children, and devoting her life to making sure we could enjoy ours to the fullest.

My mom was the catalyst for my sound maturation, and what I like to think is my somewhat stable adult state. My mom and surrogate mothers — namely, my abuelas, my Tia Belkis, my aunt Iris, my best friends’ mother Iraisy, my mom-away-from-home and advisor Mme Koizim — along with the other women I’ve been lucky to have in my life have inspired me to grow into the woman I am today. I am continually fascinated and inspired by the strength, compassion, and love these figures have shown me, and I can only hope to embody them someday.