Tefi Pessoa’s Life-Changing Advice to Children of Immigrants
Tefi Pessoa, otherwise known as @hellotefi on Instagram, is a Miami girl through and through.
Sure, there’s her ever-expanding fame as a social media personality with biting wit, her gig as InStyle’s TikTok host examining everything from Julia Fox’s outfits to the beauty of canceled plans and the fact that she’s made at least 98% of her followers consider dyeing their hair the perfect shade of bubblegum pink (or “The Fifth Element”-esque orange).
Yes, Pessoa is quickly becoming a bonafide star — but although she lives in Brooklyn now, there’s no doubt her Miamian, Latina roots are still her spiritual center.
mitú sat down with Pessoa to discuss everything — as an Instagram personality that will post hilarious videos defending “basic” girls’ love of quotes like “live more, laugh more, love more,” or even about a very relevant topic coined “bad b- charity” — and our conversation did not disappoint.
Pessoa grew up in Miami bracing the traffic of the US-1, eating pizza from Casola’s, buying “400 aguacates” from Sedano’s with her abuela, watching VH1’s “Behind the Music” and driving by Estrella Insurance every day.
Born to a Colombian mother and Brazilian father who split up when she was young, the social media star “mainly” grew up with her mom and grandparents. Living in Miami until 2012, when she decided to pick up and move to Bogotá and then Brooklyn, Pessoa explains she was “too sensitive to the cattiness” that she “threw herself into,” and although she wanted to be a “nice Colombian girl,” it’s clear she was destined for something greater.
Referencing “just Miami things” like the now-defunct Arts & Minds High School and the taxidermy decor of Mr. Moe’s bar, Pessoa talked about how although she grew up in “the warmest, brightest place in the world,” she wasn’t in the right headspace. Experiencing “deep issues” with her body image and creeping unhappiness, the social media star explains that she “created” these pressures in her own mind, on top of insecurities related to dropping out of college.
“Needing to be enough” is something the TikTok-personality struggled with, but she also found a still-present love for all things skincare, makeup, fashion and at one point, looking like 2000s-era stars like Paris Hilton. She explains, “That’s why representation matters so much, because the only people that Latinas really had were J.Lo and Salma Hayek.”
Plus, Pessoa craved seeing Latinas on screen that were portrayed actually enjoying their lives; she described how at one point, being Latina in the media meant tragic stories about immigration, being a drug mule or worse.
Looking back, Pessoa said, “The representation I had, in my mind, it was like, ‘If you want to be successful, you have to be white, skinny, blonde and rich.’ And I fit zero percent of that.” Not able to deny eating una bandeja paisa if her “Scorpio, Colombian” mother caught wind of it, she experienced an “identity crisis” stemming from body image issues and more — so she moved to Bogotá, Colombia, for six months when she was 22.
Living with family members in what she describes as the “healthiest” and “happiest” time of her life, Pessoa ate “homemade, incredible meals,” learned Bogotá’s bus system and healed her relationship with her body and Latina identity. Eating the “best foods” like the ever-glorious queso blanco and taking Spanish classes at the local university, Pessoa met people that “accepted” her even though she didn’t speak the language perfectly.
“It was a huge insecurity of mine growing up,” describing how at friends’ houses she would make certain mistakes like “la agua” and immediately be cast off with, “tu no hablas español.”
She felt “not welcome as much” in the Latino community due to her struggle with Spanish, but her time in Bogotá taught her more about customs than verb conjugations — and she realized she was always very much Colombiana.
New friends told her that the way she loved people, laughed, expressed joy and even dated was inherently Colombian. She might “not know how to dance cumbia,” but it was clear her culture was ingrained in her all along, going much further than language.
Coming back from Bogotá, Pessoa moved to Brooklyn, and began to think about what she was “going to do.” It turned out to be a lot. Going on to host “The Tefi Show” on YouTube, she soon joined TikTok and amassed 1.4 million followers, talking about everything from depression to wondering if her cute hat gives “cumbia” vibes.
Now an internet sensation, we went ahead and asked Pessoa advice for us children of immigrants — and let’s just say, her answers are funny, wise and even life-changing.
1. So many of us Latinxs struggle with imposter syndrome. Have you ever felt that? And how do you navigate it?
I remember somebody asking me, ‘Are you a capitalist?’ [and I replied], ‘I have to be, I’m first-generation. I have to make this worth it for them, they left everything.’ I [feel like] I have to be successful, or else they left everything that they knew to watch me fail. I can’t do it. [I feel] pressure to constantly work and constantly figure out how to make them proud.
I also had imposter syndrome socially in New York because it was the first time in my life that people were calling me a ‘spicy Latina.’ I had no idea what that meant. For the first time in my life, I felt a real pressure to provide because I moved away from my family, and I was being faced all the time with the invalidation of my feelings. [I thought], it must be ‘I’m spicy’ or ‘passionate’ because of where I come from.
Finally, I had to sit down and think about, ‘How many times are you going to let people tell you who you are when you’ve been living in your body your whole life? How many times are you going [to let people] tell you what you’re good at, or what you can and can’t do? How many times are you going to let men that don’t know you decide your value?
It is a decision, though. Us first-generations are being pulled all the time to be American, to be from our parent’s culture as well, to be successful, but also humble and teachable, but also a leader. But you have to sit down and think, ‘If I was the only person in the world and I could do anything, and I knew I couldn’t fail, what would that be?
2. You recently shared to your Instagram story the definition of marianismo: the role of Latinas in so many families centering on self-sacrifice. Have you felt marianismo in your own life? How did you combat that?
You know there’s always one kid that’s the most like their mom? I think it’s me, because I think I’m the one with the most memories of my mom’s work ethic. I grew up in a single-parent home, and I look at my mom, and I have always wanted to be like her — especially when I was younger.
She was hyper-social, she had a life of her own, she had a group of friends, she was successful, well-respected, well-liked, the people in her office loved her. But as I got older, I realized she must have been so tired, and instead of asking for a break, she put on more. So there’s a work ethic that I’ve observed that I want to reach, but I look at my mom now, and she’s cultivated a life that she’s always wanted. But at the same time, she did that so I don’t have to.
Our parents worked so hard to give us opportunities so we would not have to, but for some reason in order to be grateful, we want to work twice as hard — when that’s exactly what they didn’t want us to do. Parents want us to enjoy our lives and to know the meaning of a dollar. They want us to acknowledge their sacrifice, but they want us to enjoy our lives. They want us to be happy but they also don’t want to be left out, because a lot of their lives were dedicated to us.
I feel like everything that I do now, even if I feel like I can do more, I try to tell myself, ‘Never let good get in the way of perfect. Because good is good enough.’ And I feel like I wish somebody would have told our mothers that. Like, ‘You don’t have to do this’ or ‘you can ask me for help.’ Most of them have husbands — my mom didn’t. I feel like there are a lot of homes where the dad is like ‘where’s my food?’ My mom would have been like, ‘Stand up, I’m going to smush it into your face.’
3. Moving away from family is always hard, but in our community, it feels even more difficult (many of us know guilt-tripping very well!). Did you ever feel guilt for moving away and making your own life?
Rosalía’s song for her 10-year-old nephew ‘G3 N15’ talks about working so much, and basically explains, ‘I’m sorry I work so much… I’m sorry I can’t be there but I’m doing it because I love you.’ It made me bawl, and it’s because I’m traveling and working so hard to make [my family] proud, but I don’t see them.
I talk to my mom every day on Whatsapp, and I go to Miami twice a year, but it’s not enough. My family is on my mind all the time, but I hardly see them. The ‘guilt’ that they give me is about not going home for ‘Sansgiving,’ but other than that, they say, ‘I know you’re working, we love you, we’re proud of you, we want you to travel.’
But for me, it’s getting to the point where I’m asking myself, ‘Why am I not going to Miami every two months to see my family?’
4. You’re also a relationship guru at times, such as in this Instagram video that we’ve seen around 200 times. How do you recommend dealing with dating right now? Dating apps, ghosting, it all can feel exhausting — whether you’re 20, 30, 40 or older.
When I was younger, I wish somebody would have told me: ‘You’re going to start dating. You’re choosing to have this person in your life. You don’t have kids, you’re young, you’re healthy, you don’t have financial issues. You’re starting your life. One, if you’re not having a good time, this isn’t worth it.’
If you’re not having fun anymore… I’m not saying relationships aren’t hard work, but you should enjoy each other. Meaning, you can love somebody, but if you don’t like them, it doesn’t matter. You can love them all you want, you can want the best for them, it doesn’t mean that you have to sit on the prayer mat with them. Because they aren’t working on themselves, they don’t know themselves. Especially if you’re young, it should not be so serious. If you guys are going to be together forever, it’s going to get serious eventually, so enjoy it while it’s not.
Two, if that person doesn’t know who they are, you’re talking to somebody who’s a paint by numbers. You never want to be with somebody who’s so impressionable, lacking in morals and values, that they’re mirroring the people around them. You don’t want the person you’re dating to make other people’s mistakes.
What are some values of mine? Humor, compassion, independence, justice and family. A moral of mine is being monogamous. I’m not saying to date people who are like you, just date people who want the same things as you, and have a good time. But you have to ask people what they like, don’t like, want and don’t want. You want to make sure you’re with somebody who knows who they are.
5. You also have hilariously talked about being a Latina whose parents never taught her salsa (we definitely relate!). What’s your advice for not feeling “Latinx enough,” especially for anyone who grew up here in the U.S.?
You can’t change blood. To not get to know your roots is to deny a community that’s already waiting to love you. There are places you don’t know that you already belong to. And there are people in any community that are going to be more judgemental, but there are also people that are so excited to share culture with you. So to deny your Latinidad, or to be like, ‘I’m not Latino enough,’ it’s definitely being a little sassy to your ancestors who fought tooth and nail to survive so you could exist. The only way they don’t matter is if you decide that they don’t.
So there are parts of you, your roots and identity that have yet to be discovered, so if you’re late to that, the good news is: how exciting is that? If it’s speaking Spanish that you’re concerned about, how many times in your life have you met somebody foreign and they say, ‘I’m sorry, my English isn’t so good’ and you reply, ‘What are you talking about? You’re fine.’ It’s the same for you.
You don’t have to be perfect to belong anywhere. Much less Latinos, because if there’s one thing we’re going to do is make sure that you love being Latino. What I love about Latin American history, is that to exist today, we have survived so much — you name a corruption, we’ve experienced it — and even before we were born, our parents decided they loved us so much that they were going to leave everything they knew.
They left their favorite coffee spot, their cars, their careers, diplomas, friends and family, all because ‘One day I’m going to have a kid and I already love them enough to ensure they don’t feel the way I feel when it comes to lack of opportunity and freedoms.’
We have the freedom to be both — which is something our parents and ancestors didn’t have. So freely be both.
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