The first time I told a man that I loved him I did it with pen and paper. I was an 18 year-old freshman at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and I was shamelessly ‘in love’ with the biggest slut on campus. So I did what any 18-year-old virgin would do. I wrote him a love letter, asking him to break my hymen. I signed the letter off with, I love you.

The letter didn’t go over well. The campus slut never called. He never reciprocated or expressed any love for me, or my pepa. I was devastated. Saying, ‘I love you’, even in writing, was the hardest thing I had done in all my life. At 18, and with serious abandonment issues (thanks Papi), I had grown into a tough girl who never expressed vulnerability. I was uncomfortable with the L word, even when friends told me how much they cared. I didn’t know how else to be because I was never shown anything else.

Growing up, I never heard ‘I love you’ from anyone but Papi. However, his words didn’t mean much. My father would always disappear and then come back, only to disappear again. Maybe he said it because he was never there.

Mami was my rock. I knew she loved me because she was there. Always. She cooked my favorite meal (fried chuletas with fluffy white rice), washed my clothes, and rubbed Vivaporú on my chest, and stuck it up my nose whenever I was ill. That’s how Mami showed me love.

But she rarely said, “I love you.”

Apparently, this is a common trait among Latino households. Lisa Quiñones-Fontanez, 37, said the word ‘love’ was lacking while she was growing up in her Puerto Rican home. “It’s not that my parents did not love me,” Quiñones-Fontanez explained. “They just had difficulty expressing it. I don’t even think I heard my parents say, ‘I love you’ to [each other].”

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How does this affect Lisa in her role of wife and mother? She has made it a point to verbally express her love as much as she can, especially to her son, Norrin, who has autism. “As a wife and mom, I tell Joseph and Norrin every day that I love them,” she said. “My case is a little different because obviously Autism plays a factor. Last year I kept a record counting the times that Norrin has independently said ‘I love you’ to me. I cherish each and every single time.”

Other mothers also take Lisa’s approach. Though Ana Flores, 38, heard “I love you” very little as a child, she shouts it out to friends and family. “I have a hard time saying those words to my own parents, but can shout it out to anyone else—and mean it—with no problem,” Flores admitted. “My girl hears it a lot and I hear it back from her too.”

I have also slowly learned to be bolder with the word love. Like Flores, it began with friendships. The first time I said, “I love you” out loud was to my friend, Teresa. She’s a social worker and a lover of love. Since the beginning of our friendship, Teresa has always signed off with, ‘I love you’ whenever we speak on the telephone. I would reply with, ‘Uhuh’, or ‘Yeah, that’, and even with the infamous quote from the movie Ghost, ‘Ditto.’ However, the more I heard it from her, the more comfortable I became with accepting those words. I realized that since I had never heard “I love you” from my family, I didn’t feel I deserved to hear those words at all. If I didn’t deserve it, neither did anyone else in my life. Then, one day, I just blurted it out. Teresa and I said our goodbyes, and just like that, I said, “I love you!” I could feel her smiling at the other end of the line. My eyes grew as big as saucers, shocked at my sudden openness.

It felt good.

So, it seems there is hope for me yet. It seems the campus slut didn’t stop me from expressing my love again. Sure, the next time I said, “I love you” to a man was by email, but the following declaration of love was written in a birthday card that I handed to my then boyfriend, Johnny. I was sitting there, face to face, expressing my love. I was terrified he wouldn’t reciprocate and he didn’t. But I didn’t die of shame. Now, little by little, my heart is opening. I’m releasing my fear of vulnerability. I am relinquishing the lessons I was taught inadvertently as a child about the L word. I know that one day I will shout, I love you!