Unpacking My First-Generation Guilt: I Travel for Work and Play—But My Mexican Parents Have Only Traveled as a Sacrifice

Photo: Courtesy of Natalie Arroyo Camacho; W+G Creative
My earliest memory of traveling is visiting my parents’ home country of México when I was six years old. Because they were unable to afford airfare for our family of six, we caravanned with four other families, making a 36-hour pilgrimage from Los Angeles to my dad’s home state of Colima.

For this trip, my parents saved all year, took unpaid time off work, and sacrificed their sleep. In the more than 20 years since, I’ve taken approximately 25 flights to 10 countries and three continents. My parents, on the other hand, have been to five countries in total between the two of them, if you include both México and the United States.

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In her 40s, my mom (who is now 58) traveled to Canada, Italy, and El Salvador—all trips for which she used a significant sum of her life savings, spent time away from her family, and ate mostly sandwiches to save a buck. My father, on the other hand, has only traveled to México and El Salvador, always to visit friends and family rather than to relax or enjoy a vacation.

It’s been almost 20 years since either of my parents has gone to a country other than their homeland, where they now visit primarily when a family member is ill or has passed. Their travel has always been out of sacrifice or necessity—but mine? Always for leisure or in luxury.

My parents' travel has always been out of sacrifice or necessity—but mine? Always for leisure or in luxury.

You see, I’m a well-being and lifestyle writer who covers travel. As a result, I am often invited on press trips, which are all-expenses-paid trips to new and noteworthy hotels and other destinations offered on the basis of potential coverage. I’ve taken a wellness trip to Las Vegas (paid for by MGM Resorts) and visited Morocco (thanks, Moroccan National Tourism Office!). At the end of August, sportswear company HOKA paid for me to go to France.

In addition to these press trips, I’ve also taken vacations on my own dime. In 2019, I spent three weeks in Europe, visiting Croatia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Belgium, and France. In 2021, my cousins and I partied in Cancún for a week. That same year, I celebrated my birthday with friends in Atlanta, Georgia. And a year after that, my sister and I took a four-day vacation to Puerto Vallarta, México, where we swam with dolphins and spent a lot of time on boats.

Whenever I’m able to go on these press trips or vacations (especially the international ones), I can’t help but think to myself, Holy s**t—this is amazing!!! I’m so grateful that my hard work paid off and that I have these opportunities. I just wish I could bring my parents…

And then the first-generation guilt pours over me: I feel guilty that I can enjoy traveling the world for work and play while my parents still don’t have the money or paid time off to do so. I feel guilty that my parents' sacrifices helped me gain access to education they didn't have, which has helped me build a career and earn money that they also don't have. But, most of all, I feel guilty that I get to travel as a luxury instead of having to do it as a sacrifice.

Why I feel first-generation guilt while traveling luxuriously for work and play

My mom left México when she was 14 years old. She often recalls that she had to run away from hounds that chased her along the U.S.-México border. At least she had family here and was able to get a job with those connections. My father may not have risked his life to emigrate from México, but at age 20, he left his family behind and had to start from scratch here.

They didn’t leave México by choice. My dad tells me, with tears in his eyes, “I never wished to be away from home—but I felt hopeless.” They left for the same reason that plenty of people leave their home country: to have better economic prospects. Even as a teenager, my mom could see the time and monetary burden on her family. She was the eldest child in a family of 14; diapers for a dozen kids don’t change themselves, and dinner for just as many doesn’t cook itself, either. Both my parents also wanted their future kids to have access to a better life than they one they were living.

So, if that’s exactly what I’ve accomplished—having a college degree, making more money, and being able to travel leisurely and luxuriously—why the f**k do I feel so guilty for doing so?

At its core, the first-generation guilt I feel about enjoying luxurious trips and traveling for fun is tied to having the kind of financial freedom that my parents don’t have (and haven’t had). There’s also a layer of feeling like I get to enjoy travel as a direct result of their travel—of a different and deeply unenjoyable sort.

This sense of guilt isn’t a rare occurrence among first-generation children, according to clinical psychologist Lisette Sanchez, PhD, host of The First Gen Psychologist. “It’s possible you’ll feel guilty having any luxury that your parents don't [or didn’t] have access to,” says Dr. Sanchez. “Resting is a big one. Documentation status is also on the list. You might also feel guilty if you work an office job in air conditioning while your parents are doing hard physical labor,” she says, adding, “I could probably make a list of the top 100 things that first-generation children feel guilty for.”

Neither one of my parents has a particularly physically demanding job. They’ve also been U.S. citizens since the ‘90s, so my guilt hasn’t stemmed from any mixed-status issues. However, they still can’t travel much. They need virtually every penny they make at work for food, their mortgage, and household expenses. My parents just can’t afford to be away from work and not making money. Whereas, they see me as a bonafide globetrotter—and don’t hesitate to point out the differences in our respective lifestyles. Though they mean well, they often say things like, “You’re leaving again?” and “¡Mírala!” which means “Look at her!” in Spanish.

The implication is that I’m leaving them behind while I jet around the world, which makes me feel especially like I’m failing them. It’s a sentiment that trauma therapist Adriana Alejandre, LMFT, founder of Latinx Therapy, says may be heightened in first-generation Latinx children who enjoy luxuries they can’t share with family members because of the ways we especially value family.

“Especially as first-gens, we feel that silent obligation to help our parents once we reach our milestones.” —Adriana Alejandre, LMFT, therapist

“One of the foundational pieces within our Latinx community is that we come from a collectivistic culture. More particularly, we value familismo,” says Alejandre, referencing the Latinx concept of putting family first. “Especially as first-gens, we feel that silent obligation to help our parents once we reach our milestones,” adds Alejandre. “I think [the guilt] stems from familismo and the feeling that when we climb the ladder, we should bring our family members with us.”

One of my biggest dreams is to take my family with me on a press trip or vacation and put them up in a five-star resort where they can order whatever they want without having to pay for it. That’s familismo in action. Though I feel lucky to be able to provide these experiences for myself thanks to the career I’ve built, I still can’t share them with my family—and so, I feel guilty.

Part of that guilt may also stem from a “deep sense of gratitude [to your family] and not knowing how to show that gratitude,” Alejandre adds. Indeed, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that if my parents didn’t make the sacrifice of leaving their families, communities, and culture behind in México for the chance to start over in the United States many years ago, I may not have been able to experience any of my recent trips, whether for work or play.

Not to mention the ways in which my parents have continually sacrificed since arriving in the U.S. in order to build a better life for me and my siblings. My dad sacrificed going out to lunch or drinks with friends because he had to walk around to solicit employment when he first got to the States. Then, he had to sacrifice part of his earnings because his family back in México also needed his support. For a while, he couch-surfed until he could find a steady source of income.

All the while, my mom sacrificed living with her siblings and watching them grow up, which pains her, she tells me, since she was essentially a second mother to them. But her biggest sacrifice, she says, was giving up her dream of becoming a doctor. Once she got to the U.S., she had to work around the clock to make ends meet; there was no time or money for medical school.

Paired with the humble nature of my upbringing, all of these sacrifices my parents have made (largely in the name of my livelihood and lifestyle) have led me to feel like an imposter on my recent trips—like I don’t actually deserve the luxury I’ve been lucky enough to experience.

“When you're raised in a culture that highly values humility and staying true to your roots, anything that is contradictory to that—like taking a luxurious trip or having a fancy dinner—can create cognitive dissonance,” says Dr. Sanchez, referencing the unsettling feeling that happens when you hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs at once. It’s common to feel guilty for having nice things when that seems to go against your core values, she says.

How I’m working to replace my guilt with gratitude

Much of my guilt lies in my perception of my life as more luxurious than that of my parents—as evidenced most apparently by the different ways in which we’ve experienced travel, respectively. But Dr. Sanchez says it’s important for me to consider my parents’ perspectives, too.

“We look around and see the ease of lifestyle that we have in comparison to theirs, and we want them to have what we have, but that may not always be what they want,” says Dr. Sanchez. “They came here in search of a more peaceful life, in search of relief from what they were experiencing. And in many ways, they may have already achieved that.”

By the same token, the necessity I feel to share my good fortune with my parents, to bring them on these trips with me, may be more a factor of my perspective on the situation than theirs. “You may expect to earn a certain amount so that you can bring your family on vacation, but who is putting those expectations on you? Most likely, it is just you,” says Alejandre. “It’s important to reflect on how the silent expectations you may be placing on yourself are feeding the guilt.”

But no matter how much I try to distance myself from my own stringent expectations, I may not be able to totally absolve myself of the first-generation guilt I feel while traveling, says Dr. Sanchez. And that’s okay.

“It’s hard to stop feeling the guilt entirely, so you have to find ways to honor that in the moment.” —Lisette Sanchez, PhD, clinical psychologist

“It’s hard to stop feeling the guilt entirely, so you have to find ways to honor that in the moment,” says Dr. Sanchez. “Self-awareness is key, as is understanding that there’s a reason why you’re experiencing discomfort.” And as for the feeling that my lifestyle is at odds with the way I was raised? Dr. Sanchez says it’s helpful to recognize that “you can hold your new values and still make room for your parents’ values [at the same time].”

I’ve also taken solace in the fact that, again, my parents initially moved to the States so that I could do all the things I’m doing—even (and especially) if they stretch beyond what my parents themselves can afford to do now or ever. Perhaps I can feel grateful for the sacrifices that they’ve made for me to have a better life without also feeling guilty to be, well, living that life.

When I shared my recent guilt with my parents, they confirmed as much. “I feel bad because I wouldn’t have any of this without you,” I recently told my mom. “I’m sorry I can’t bring you with me.” She swiftly responded, “Nombre. Estoy súper orgullosa de tí y yo estoy feliz viendo a mis hijos felices y bien.” (“No way. I’m super proud of you, and I’m happy seeing my kids happy and doing well.) Plus, she knows I always find any way that I can to share my luxuries with her. And my career is still growing. Who knows what I’ll be able to share in the future?

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