“Dale un abrazo,” my abuela would whisper in my ear. “Go give them a hug.”
Shaken by fears over the coronavirus, close-knit Latinx families like mine have been forced to hold back one of the fundamental ways we interact with each other. Physical displays of affection are our love language. But what happens when you have to show your love from six feet away?
For me, not being allowed to have that physical contact — along with the fact I live in Washington, D.C., and my family is in Miami — makes the desire to touch them more pronounced. I’m grateful to still have my abuela with us, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to hug or kiss her again. I last saw her over Christmas. She has asthma, and it’s not clear when it will be safe for me to fly home to see her. Checking on her over the phone is just not the same.
I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that she has family nearby. In addition to my mom and uncles, my grandmother has neighbors who, before the coronavirus outbreak, would stop by regularly for a cafecito. They now knock on her door, checking to make sure she stays indoors.
Latino cultural values center on affection and establishing warm interpersonal relationships, said Cristalís Capielo Rosario, an assistant professor in counseling and psychology at Arizona State University who focuses on the Latinx community. Although Latinx people aren’t the only culture to say hello with a peck on the cheek or hug, it’s not a custom as widely seen between acquaintances in the United States as it is in Latin American countries.
“Two Latinx people kiss on the cheek as a way to express that value of wanting to establish a more personal relationship and connection,” Capielo Rosario said.
To not hug or kiss someone on the cheek on greeting would be considered rude at best or frio, cold, at worst. Where some Anglo Americans might see value in a stiff upper lip and stoicism, Latinos tend to put value in expressions of affection.
Since moving to Washington, where I don’t know many Latinx people, it’s rare that I get that physical contact with people outside of my husband and close friends. I value the peck on the cheek now because it reminds me of home.
For family oriented Latinos, being told you have to be apart from relatives is especially hard because they tend to be the main support system. While feelings of isolation, depression and anxiety have been seen across racial and ethnic groups during these times, Latinx communities approach dealing with those issues differently.
Capielo Rosario said that, normally, therapists might advise Latinos struggling with mental health issues to spend more time with family. Right now that is not possible.
Social distancing is a challenge even for some public health experts. Mariana Sanchez, an assistant professor in the college of public health at Florida International University, is well aware of the importance of social distancing, but she said it’s difficult to not socialize in the way that she is used to. She’s made up for it by having an occasional virtual cafecito happy hour and multiple calls a day with family.
While keeping separated is painful, experts have reason to believe that Latinos are taking the dangers of the virus seriously. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 39 percent of Hispanics see the coronavirus as a major threat to their health, compared to 21 percent of white Americans.
“While [kissing] is a cultural norm under regular circumstances, I think that Latinos are taking the proper precautions, particularly since they have an elevated concern about it,” Sanchez said.
I have made sure to call home more often since the outbreak began, and some Latinos are coming up with more creative ways to keep in touch.
Nury Castillo Crawford, 49, now finds herself having to push away instead of hugging and kissing her 5-year-old grandson, who doesn’t quite understand why they have to be apart.
“It’s heartbreaking to have to look at him,” Castillo Crawford said. “He understands, but he doesn’t understand. His little face was sad … but it’s for his own protection because I don’t want to get him sick.”
Castillo Crawford has turned to creating a kind of secret handshake greeting with her grandson, a gesture that involves waving with your index finger based on a catchphrase from an old show, “El Chavo del Ocho.”
“It’s our little secret,” Castillo Crawford said. “But I think it’s important to make sure we have something special and they feel special so that we feel connected.”