Archive | April, 2014

Machismo by any other name smells just as bad

27 Apr

“They totally admitted that machismo is wrong, but that basically it’s convenient for them, so they couldn’t be bothered to change it.” I reported back to Lili, swaggering back into the house a little too triumphantly. In the moment, it felt important. I felt special for being “let in” to the boys’ club. It seemed like their grand admission in front of the enemy (aka me, a woman) was bound to redraw the lines of the battle ground, if nothing else. Plus, they’d given me some of the tequila they’d been drinking out in the air conditioned car, which might have added to my social optimism.

Drinking and diaper changing are equal opportunity sports in our house ; )

Drinking and diaper changing are equal opportunity sports in our house ; )

Don't tell this papa that taking care of the baby is women's work!<Don’t tell this papa that taking care of the baby is women’s work>

Yet the next day, nothing had changed. The other men in the area continued to be allergic to the stove, not even approaching it to serve themselves the food prepared by someone else. They continued to be appalled at the thought of touching a dish- “I’d rather cut my ear off than wash dishes,” one of Conan’s cousins shared with us once (a Van Gogh fanatic? Perhaps, but the sentiment is similar among most men around here). Women continued with all of the clothes washing, many of them washing by hand. Many women continued to ask permission to go anywhere or do anything, and many men continued to keep them under lock and key. Women still got hit by their partners, and many still thought they deserved it. In other words, I was forced to face the fact that absolutely nada had been changed by their admission that machismo is wrong.

Now don’t be confounded by this term machismo, dear reader. Before you act like you don’t have it in your country, in some form or another, to some extent or another, pause and observe for a moment. It’s not unique to Mexico; it’s not some latino thing. It’s the same old patriarchy, the same old outrageous and yet accepted idea that men are magically better than women, that what we act like and do and hope for is determined by what’s between our legs.

I hadn’t run out to the car to talk about machismo, though. I’d run out because we’d been talking in the kitchen, Conan and two friends and I, and then they said they were leaving. Instead of leaving, however, the goodbye with Conan became prolonged, and the next thing I knew I noticed they were sitting in the car sipping on tequila. Without me. I ran out, Lucia on my hip and all, and jumped into the car. “Sorry I’m late to the meeting! I’m ready for business!” I told them, giggling and boisterous, ready to forgive them for not inviting me.

And the next thing I knew we were talking about women drinking in the US, and other such cultural differences, and then Esteban was telling me, “Look, I know machismo is wrong, but that’s how it’s always been here, and that’s how it’s gotta be.”

“Just because it’s always been like that doesn’t mean that’s how it has to be,” I argued.

“Sure it does. I mean, that’s how we’re born. That’s how we’re raised. That’s how my dad taught me. He told me, ‘look, you’re gonna provide for your family, and your wife’s gonna take care of the home, the food, the kids, the ironing, the washing, all of that.’ And I have to say, with my first wife I loved the way she took care of me like that.” From his description of it, and the age he and his wife were when they got together, still teenagers, it made me think of kids playing house.

“Right, but you can decide to change.” I challenged him.

“Nooo,” Simon*, younger and less travelled, piped in, “you can’t change how society is.”

“You can’t change all of society, but that doesn’t mean that you, personally, can’t change. You can change how you act. How you treat your partner. How you raise your children. You totally have the power to change yourself and your family. And as more and more people do that, society changes.” I continued, ever the social activist.

“No, not here,” Simon insisted. “If you tried to act like that, the woman would walk all over you, and everyone would just make fun of you.”

“So everyone makes fun of me and Conan?” I asked, glancing at Conan in the seat next to me, who was patiently letting me do all the talking, and seemed, as usual, completely unperturbed about what anybody was saying about him and his gender roles.

“No, you’re from there. It’s different.” ‘Finally, being an outsider pays off,’ I thought.

“Hey, is it true,” Simon started, “that there,” and “there- allá” always means in the U.S.- el norte– “there, women go out drinking and the men stay home?”

‘Aha!’ I thought to myself, smelling the fear in the car- that fear of screw or be screwed. The fear from whence all violence comes, according to my humble suspicions. ‘If I’m not the boss of her, she’ll be the boss of me.’ Same old same old. Alas.

“Well, no.” I responded, smiling gingerly. “Women have much more liberty- if they’re childless, anyway- to go out where they want, when they want. Including going out drinking with their friends. And maybe they go out drinking with their partner. And sometimes women go out with friends and men stay home, and sometimes men go out with friends and women stay home. And some women don’t drink at all, and some men don’t drink. But it’s not like women are there keeping their boyfriends locked up in the house.” ‘Not like some men treat women here,’ I thought but didn’t mention. “The idea is equality, being side by side, not someone being above someone else.”

“No,” he told me. “Someone’s gotta be on top.” ‘Suspicions confirmed,’ I thought, and avoided sighing again.

“Listen, Julia” Esteban started again. He lived in the U.S. for several years, so he had the smiling, knowing grin like he knows exactly where I’m coming from, what I’m thinking. “It’s different for you because you’re from there. But people here are not going to accept that. If a woman acts like that here, no one will accept her. Yes, it’s different when you have a woman who’s been educated, who’s been outside of her town. Then it’s a little bit different. When she’s contributing money, too, and you ask her to make you some food, suddenly she’s like, ‘ah, you do it.’ You gotta adapt a little bit for women who’ve been educated, been outside of their little towns. But you can’t let ‘em tell you what to do, either. Like the other night, my girlfriend she says, ‘oh I wanna go out dancing at this place,’ and I was like, ‘hell, no.’ I didn’t let her go. But I go wherever I want and she better not say anything to me.”

“Really, Esteban?” I sighed, raising my eyebrows at him. “So,” I said, with a smile on my face, “basically you guys are telling me that you recognize that it doesn’t have to be this way, and that machismo isn’t right, but you don’t want to change it because it’s beneficial to you. Right?”

“Well, yeah. And because that’s the way it’s got to be. That’s the culture here.” And round and round we went until we finally changed the subject.

I had tried to tell Simon, who hasn’t lived in the US, that there it’s not some matriarchal world of female domination. I explained that we also have domestic violence, that women still earn less money than men, that women are still usually more responsible for childcare and housework, etc. etc. That we could’ve been having practically the same conversation with a lot of people in the U.S. But here, of course, the details are different. Like when I tried to explain to my best friend in the states that one of my girlfriends here was not going to be allowed to go out with us. “What do you mean, ‘they won’t give her permission’?!?!” She questioned me.

“Ummm, I mean, her husband’s gonna say she can’t go,” I said, awkwardly, racking my brain to see if there was a better way to translate “no le dan permiso.” It definitely sounded worse in translation.

“What? Are you serious?” She continued, shocked and outraged.

“Welcome to Oaxaca,” I told her.

In the U.S., I think the same thing happens, but nowadays we mostly call it abuse when someone is controlling like that. I am grateful that much of the violence that is acceptable here is at least less accepted and more likely to be prosecuted in the U.S. For example, I hear some people from here who have lived in the U.S. say things like, “Yeah, allá, you can’t even hit your wife or the law’s all over you!** You can’t even hit your kids to teach them right!” Not to say that everyone here hits their wife and children, by any means, but it is more socially accepted in general. Most people in the U.S. wouldn’t feel comfortable making that statement in front of just anyone. I’m not sure how much rates of domestic violence have dropped since we started enforcing (somewhat) laws against it***, but I do think that changing the culture around violence and sexism correlates with how people behave, to an extent. (And no, correlation is not causation.)

I think that culture and behaviors change due to many factors, and at the end of the day, this conversation about sexism was significant. It was not particularly significant because they said out loud, to me and to each other, that patriarchy is wrong. I suspect that lots of men and women (here, and everywhere) already know that. Maybe we all know already, on some level, but feel too helpless or scared or lazy or comfortable to change.

I think what was significant is that Esteban said “education makes a big difference.” Higher levels of formal education for women mean more opportunities to earn money and not depend on men, for one. That is one of the biggest differences that I think keeps many women stuck in relationships where they don’t feel they can demand more for themselves. Especially here where it is so normal for women to drop out of school and get married before they finish high school, or sometimes even before they finish middle school. But as Esteban said, if a woman has studied and has a career, when both partners are working and she might even make more money than you, it’s hard to justify why she should do all of the housework. I also think that it’s probably not a coincidence that a lot of the men I know here who have equality-based attitudes and behaviors with their partners have often had higher levels of education themselves, whether or not their partners have.

The other thing that Esteban mentioned that I find significant is that women challenge the status quo “once they’ve been outside of their small towns.” When we have the chance to see that there are other possibilities for life, if we’ve seen with our own eyes that it doesn’t have to be this way, then we can expect or even demand that things be different. And there are women doing this, here, and there, and everywhere! If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t be here, because I wouldn’t be with Conan if he believed in patriarchy. And who knows what he would believe if he hadn’t travelled, if he hadn’t studied, and if he didn’t grow up with a mama who looked around and decided she wouldn’t continue to accept the way things were. Paulina, his mom, found ways to make it on her own, to demand more for herself, and to educate both of her sons to be feminists. And more and more women can and will and are doing the same. Slowly but surely.

So it’s all just a matter of time until someday, somebody’s kids, somebody’s grandkids will be asking, ‘So people really used to think that men were better than women? You mean some men didn’t even know how to change diapers? And it was rare for women to have jobs as things like doctors and scientists? That’s crazy, Papa!’

Until then, let’s keep educating ourselves, taking ourselves out of our little or big towns, out of our comfort zones. Let’s keep educating our kids; let’s teach them to question everything, and to demand respect and give respect in each measures. Let’s keep challenging ourselves and our loved ones, until equality is the norm and everything else is unacceptable.

Until then, pass the tequila! I’ll still be busting into your boys’ club!


*names changed to protect privacy
**domestic violence can be prosecuted but the law is rarely enforced
** Hmm I’ll have to investigate this soon! Unless any of you lovely friends of mine working in this field have this info already? I am really interested in these kinds of correlations, which, of course, don’t prove any kind of causation, but are interesting nonetheless.

A blind man and a deaf man meet… there’s a joke waiting here somewhere…

20 Apr

“What are you doing here?” we asked each other when I finally met the other gringo in my neighborhood. Not that there aren’t plenty of gringos in Puerto, both visitors and expats, but not so many in neighborhoods like ours. In neighborhoods (colonias) like ours, we’re far from the beach and even a ways from the market, kind of on the outskirts. It is not where there are shops filled with foreign goods and English-speaking manicurists and real estate agents, to say the least. So far I’ve never even seen another gringo on the bus with me, so Conan and I were really curious when we noticed a tall white guy who did not appear to be a Jehovah’s Witness in our area.

“So you´re from the hills” he said when I told him I was from Kentucky. “Ha! And you’re from Arkansas” I thought, laughing on the inside. If you’re from the U.S., you already know about the reputation that both of those states have for being backwards, uneducated, underdeveloped, poor. (It’s like someone from San Juan meeting someone from Yaite, Conan says, if you’re from Oaxaca.) And here we are, both of us, from states where folks imagine us so poor we don´t even wear shoes, living in a poor state in a “developing” country where people really are lucky if they’ve got a pair of sandals, sometimes. And we’re sizing each other up, discussing our situations, both of us thinking “that poor man/woman,” but poor in the other sense.

I looked at his one-room tin house, where he lives with his wife and nearly-grown stepson, and I compared it to our big four-room concrete house with indoor plumbing. I felt sorry for him and his small grasp of Spanish, for his adaptation process, which I figured must be rougher than mine, since he’s only been here a couple of months and he’s considerably older than I am. He told me he can’t get used to the diet, he’s lost so much weight his pants are falling off of him since he’s used to eating meat all the time. (And here I am, always fighting to keep from gaining weight from all the tortillas around here!) He’s still trying to figure out the process to get his permanent resident card, and I got mine quickly and painlessly (Oh if only immigration officials in the U.S. could come get some training on how to act like humans from my buddies in migración down here! They even say hi to me and smile when we see each other around town!) All in all, I was thinking I really had life made compared to him, and wondering if I could translate his documents for immigration or give him some Spanish lessons or something.

Meanwhile I was answering his questions about us, and when I told him we’ve got a small child and no electricity, he must’ve thought, “that poor family.” He immediately asked what he could do to help us out. He volunteered his refrigerator to make ice for us for our makeshift fridge, he let me know we could recharge our lamps at his house. I was impressed by and grateful for his instant offers to give, despite the fact that he was currently jobless and didn’t seem to have a giant nest egg hiding in his outdoor shower stall.

But is it really impressive? Nice, yes, but rare? Nah. I think that one of the things that is true for most people most of the time is that we want to be useful, contributing citizens of our universe. If you are helping someone, it reminds you that you have something to offer, even if you don’t have a whole lot else. In the U.S., particularly, we put so much importance on our paying jobs, that being jobless is practically the same as useless in society’s eyes, and so the need to feel useful is even stronger when you’re unemployed (in my personal experience).

So, back to my question: Isn’t it more like the norm than the exception for people with less material wealth to be richer in many other ways, and more generous? Research says yes. (check out this article for a nice summary of some of the research and links to more details if you’re interested:

I could cite lots of personal experiences that speak to poor people being more generous than rich people, too. For example, Paraguay is the 2nd poorest country in South America, and yet so much in their culture is based around giving and sharing. Whether they’re drinking terere (their national drink, a kind of tea) or beer, you don’t drink it alone; it’s always passed around, shared. When I stayed in Paraguay for a few weeks, I was completely adopted and taken care of by an entire neighborhood of amazing and materially poor people.

I don’t want to glorify poverty, by any means. When you are so poor you don’t have options, when you can’t feed your kids (or yourself), when you can’t send your kids to school, when you have to decide between buying gas to cook or going to the doctor- well, there are lots of really ugly things about poverty, especially in it’s more extreme levels.

But maybe being rich is nothing to aim for, either. Maybe it’s enough to live in our neighborhoods and keep on struggling and helping each other out. Even if I think he’s from the sticks and he thinks I’m from the hills, even if we each think the other has a rougher situation, at least we are reminded that we’re both here because we love and value our families more than whatever material comforts we’ve given up to be here. I am reminded that whether we’re deaf or blind or Mexican or ‘Merkin’ or from Kentucky or Arkansas, we’ve got a lot more in common than we think. And no matter what we’ve got or don’t have, we’ve still all got something to contribute.

So look out for the gringo invasion in colonia la perserverancia*!

*okay, okay, this is not really the name of our colonia; it’s a joke between Conan and Lili and Uriel and me that you’ll have to come visit to get it all… or maybe next blog piece…

Building My Own Yellow Brick Road

14 Apr

“Envy has some pretty major flaws,” I thought when folks expressed that they’d love to be in my shoes. I was pretty sure that none of my friends would kill to be in my dusty, worn-out Chucks, scrubbing their family’s clothes on a washing board with a scrub brush, constantly trying to sweep the sand and dirt and dust out of their sleeping and living area, battling the onslaught of mosquitos at dusk so intense it sounds like an oncoming freight train, spending like 3 hours just to make coffee and breakfast in the morning because only 1 burner on the crappy camping-style stove works at a time. Although if you are, indeed, dying for that authentic Mexican* experience, by all means, come on down to my house.

my lavadero (washing board)

my lavadero (washing board) – with my bike in the background!

In fairness, I think my Facebook friends and family must’ve seen one of our pictures from the beach (the few times we’ve gone to the beach) and mistaken our life here in Puerto Escondido for the life of some of the gringo bloggers I read before moving down here, the people writing (and living) stuff like it’s so great to live in Mexico because we can afford all the domestic help we want for practically nothing. Or maybe they imagine us as semi-retired snowbirds, drinking some cafe con leche by the beach in the morning, spending the suffocating afternoon hours in the pool or the air conditioned house, and then… um… what else would we be doing? Lounging around? Biding our time till we go out to dinner with the other ex-pat friends? Getting our nails done? …Have you guys met me?

But the truth about my life here lies somewhere between these lines, neither in the depths of abject poverty nor in the blissful ignorance of material wealth. I could feed you all kinds of anecdotes to wash away any twinges of jealousy, tell you all the gory details about things we’ve had to do or things we’ve had to do without in this journey of moving and building a house, but really I want to tell you about all the things that make me head-over-heels happy with my little space in the universe. Today I am gonna revel in the confidence of knowing that I am exactly where I need to be.

So lemme tell you that yes, it is sunny and hot most of the time (while you’re freezing your butts off, dear gringo compatriots), and then even after that it’s still hot and mostly sunny with a bit of rain or a couple hours of coolness. This means I can wear skirts and tank tops most any day of the year, which already practically proves I was meant for this place.

And lemme tell you that I, the walking-talking PSA for seatbelts, have discovered that it’s exhilarating to ride in the back of a pickup truck, with the wind blowing my hair everywhere (and my skirt, too, a la Marilyn Monroe if I’m not careful), seeing all the scenery up-close-and-personal, grabbing leaves off of trees in a contest with 7 year old Emmanuel. (Yes, seatbelts save lives still. They are also mostly not an option here, so you might as well enjoy it.)

Lili -pictured with Uriel- demonstrating how I feel riding in the truck

Lili -pictured with Uriel- demonstrating how I feel riding in the truck

And lemme tell you that my sense of accomplishment is off the charts when I arrive somewhere on my bicycle, without hitting any sheep or goats, or being bit by disgruntled dogs, or flipping over on any of the plethora of speed bumps that I may or may not have seen first, or having been discouraged by the sand and dirt and rocks that is my road. I feel like me when I get home from the supermarket (“Me hunter/gatherer,” I grunt at Conan), my thigh muscles pounding from the uphill first half of the ride with umpteen pounds on my back, my heart racing and my smile plastered on crooked from the downhill second half of the ride, bathed in equal parts sweat and triumph.

And lemme tell you how I smirk at the Julia of four months ago who couldn’t get to and from her own house by herself, not even by taxi, much less any other way. Because the Julia of today goes all over town by micro (bus) and colectivo (shared taxi, 3 people in back and 2 in the front seat), by bike, by foot, or haggling with taxi drivers trying to charge me the tourist price. This right-at-home-here-thank-you-very-much Julia can tenderly make fun of the anxious woman who thought Puerto was so big and complicated, when it’s really so much smaller than my small hometown city of Louisville, Kentucky.

And lemme tell you how I marvel at subtle cultural things that contrast so sharply with Juquila, things someone who hasn’t lived in a town that’s like an emotional and intellectual coffin would surely take for granted. For instance, many people rest on Sundays. You have to go farther away to get tortillas because even the women that normally make and sell them give themselves a little break. Brilliant! People often walk down the street together as a family; it’s not just women and children doing their thing and men doing their own thing. Miraculous! Friends and family randomly drop in on each other for visits on a regular basis. Amazing! Strangers mostly refrain from unabashedly gawking at you and asking pertinent personal questions about you, addressing questions about you to persons whom are not you. This is madness, I tell you! Here in Puerto, there are universities and poetic graffiti and playgrounds and a million other things that add meaning and spark to life, and every time I notice all these beautiful details it adds to my sense of belonging here.

And lemme tell you how I feel tsunami sized moments of joy when I stand outside on our (still-in-the-works) porch and look at the incredible amount of stars in the universe that I can see right outside my door, when Lucia says “home” as we’re coming up the path to our house, when I can hear the giant waves from the comfort of my bed (even though we’re relatively far from the ocean), when Conan and Lucia walk around our yard calling out to all the lizards to come out and play, when I eat a hot pepper or a watermelon from our magical garden (that sprang up from spitting seeds without any work on our part), when I’ve got fresh mango or papaya or pineapple juice dripping down my chin, when I spend 100 pesos at the market and come home with an overflowing bag of vegetables, when Lucia makes a b-line for the ocean and screams giddily as she is nearly carried off by a wave, tethered to the land only by my arm. In all of these moments and many more, I feel sure and secure in our decisions to come live here, to raise our family here. (So secure, in fact, that I won’t even edit my run-on sentences! Take that, perfectionism! Ka-zam! Right in the kisser!)

the first ripe tomatoes from our magic garden

the first ripe tomatoes from our magic garden

And lemme tell you, sometimes my battle with the ants in my kitchen feels like it could devour me, sometimes the lack of electricity makes me bleak and weary inside, sometimes I miss people and past routines so much that I stumble, unsure of my path. Some days I want to turn back. But the real problem with envy, even envy over your own past, is that it distracts you from this adventure here and now, from forging ahead on your path, rugged and unpaved as it may be. And lemme tell you, some things and some days are horrendously miserable, and some moments are astoundingly fabulous, and then there’s everything in between. In the end, it’s just like your life, except it’s mine. So don’t be jealous, ‘cause my Chucks wouldn’t fit you anyway, and you’ll get your sunshine when it’s your time.

*I don’t mean this is the experience of all Mexicans in all of Mexico, by any stretch. Mexico is a vast and diverse country. I mean that it is a singular experience taking place in Mexico and that it is not like a tourist’s experience in Mexico.

an iguana visiting our house... Conan using the banana to show to-scale size of iguana, not to feed the beast ; )

an iguana visiting our house… Conan using the banana to show to-scale size of iguana, not to feed the beast ; )

beautifully  melodramatic poetry on the street

beautifully melodramatic poetry on the street

more graffiti makes me happy

more graffiti makes me happy

my chile tusta

my chile tusta from the garden

the beginnings of our porch

the beginnings of our porch

the view from a truck one day

the view from Arturo’s truck one day

holding on tight as Lucia prepares to throw herself into another wave

holding on tight as Lucia prepares to throw herself into another wave

a float from the carnaval celebration

a float from the carnival celebration- another reason Puerto’s great