Chisme Is a Life Force, but How Can We Spill the Tea Without Spewing Hate?

You might’ve been in a situation where you’re at the Dominican hair salon, possibly getting a chic blowout or touch-up on your roots. Under the dryers, you see two señoras catching up on the latest drama. Whether it’s who’s with who or who’s been spotted where — you know the tea’s hot. Or maybe you’ve been at the Nochebuena celebration chilling with your primas, sharing your takes on whatever family gossip or rumor is circulating at the moment.

Without a doubt, chisme is a pillar of Latinx culture. I grew up in a Puerto Rican household in a Latinx-dominated neighborhood in The Bronx where chisme is a way of life and vehicle for cultivating community or affirming one’s cultural identity. There’s been countless times in which my mom has hour-long phone calls with my tia, followed by her entering my room and starting an inevitably juicy conversation with, “You’re not gonna believe this…” And while I admit that I indulge in these gossip sessions, I also got a bone to pick with them. So much of chisme culture is toxic, and further perpetuates hate and ignorance in Latinx communities.

Before y’all raise your pitchforks at me, I want to emphasize that we should not get rid of chisme culture. For “Glamour,” Ana Escalante makes a powerful case for chisme, articulating that it’s more than just talking shit:

“Since the beginning of time, chisme has been a form of oral communication and storytelling. Within ancient societies in Latin America, Indigenous people would come together to share information about what was happening within their communities. Leyendas, epic legends and tales of gods and spirits, were traded alongside coffee beans and cacao pods as careful warnings about what could happen if you didn’t respect your ancestors. Years later, chisme as oral tradition still serves as warning — instead of your crops burning down because you didn’t pray enough, it’s your only child not getting into the best and brightest academic program.”

Chisme is not just cultural, it’s spiritual.

And, a lot of the time, what we’re saying isn’t necessarily harmful. Sometimes we’re even celebrating the accomplishments of those around us, validating each other when much of the world couldn’t care less about us. Chisme is a life force, but on the other side of that coin is damage.

So much of chisme culture is toxic, and further perpetuates hate and ignorance in Latinx communities

Screengrab, Telenovela Betty la Fea

One of the most popular subjects of chisme are romance and sex. Chasing after the telenovela storylines that have so many older Latinas in a chokehold, relationships and other people’s sex lives are topics that never get old.

However, when discussing the individuals in question, it is nearly always the woman who receives the harsher criticism, as if it’s her fault for how things go down. Puta. She’s fast. She got no business being with that dude. Didn’t her ma raise her right? Isn’t she too young? My question is: how are we told to be respectful of the matriarchs in our communities but also slutshame and belittle so many of the other women?

In “A Conversation with Queer Xicano Chisme”, writer Paula Pacheco Soto describes chisme as something feminized, exploring how our well-beloved aunties, abuelas, mothers, and overall matriarchs use chisme as a “crucial component of their survival.”

Latinas’ notoriety for spilling the chisme, or the term “La Chismosa,” has evolved to be a meme laughed about on Facebook or Instagram. Shit is so hard for many Latinas. From being assigned as the backbones of our families and communities to institutional discrimination, the last thing we need is for us to put each other down. We can’t survive if we’re allowing hate to infiltrate our spaces, if we don’t critically evaluate the practices we partake in.

Am I making my ancestors proud? Am I honoring them and using the space they fought so hard for me to be in for good?

Here are other questions I have: how can we heal from the damage chisme can create? How can we practice chisme without practicing hate?

One step I think we should take is to listen to our ancestors. With every action taken, every word spoken, we must ask ourselves, am I making my ancestors proud? Am I honoring them and using the space they fought so hard for me to be in for good?

Another step, one that is much harder to take and definitely comes with consequences, we should take is bearing the role of the generational cycle breaker in our communities and families. An individual cannot change the world, but an individual can change themselves and inspire others to do the same.

Audre Lorde once said that your silence does not protect you — when you are silent, you are doing an injustice to yourself. Silence is also complicity. If you hear something that may support the oppression and marginalization of another person, speak up. If the people around you are unable to change, you do not need to partake in the chisme and create even more harm.

We need to remember our roots and honor what our ancestors have built from struggle

Chisme culture is so dear to my heart, but I cannot blindly support it. I envision a better, love-driven foundation for Latinx communities. Chisme, at its core, is a tool for perseverance and binding us together through storytelling. We need to remember our roots and honor what our ancestors have built from struggle. 

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