Tag Archives: feminism in mexico

Mother’s Day Homage to my Feminist Bad-Ass Hombre

14 May

I’d like to thank my husband, first and foremost, for never, ever giving me Mother’s Day gifts related to cooking and cleaning. No new broom or Tupperware, and heaven forbid it- no iron for me, thanks. Probably he guessed that I would spend my life in jail for murder if he gave me housework-related things as a personal gift. So despite the hundreds of stores and street vendors hawking such appalling things for Mother’s Day each year, he has not once in these 4 years of my motherhood in Mexico fallen prey to such nonsense.

He also doesn’t mind that I insist on celebrating twice a year- both on May 10, the official day in Mexico, and again on the second Sunday of May. I mean, we’re a bicultural family, right, and this is what it’s all about. Double holidays for everyone!*

What I most love about my coparenting partner, though, is that he’s a total radical around these parts. Not only does he see my point on all of my culturally distinct ideas on gender and parenting, but he’s also right there with me and has my back about it. I suspect he actually cares even less than I do about what people say about us, our parenting, our family gender roles, and our children. Which means he has not one single turd of caca to give on the matter.

From the get go, he shrugged off people’s shock about baby Lucia not getting her ears pierced upon birth. “But it’ll hurt her later!” They said, as if the baby doesn’t feel it when she gets her ears pierced, and with the assumption that she’ll want to get her ears pierced later. “But people think she’s a boy! She doesn’t even have hair!” Folks complained, and he not only shrugged but started calling her Pablo on the days she wore “boy clothes.”

Then we did some big-time role switching. I went back to “El Norte” to work and save up some money, and he stayed down here to get our house built. That switch was more of a funny cultural thing, since it’s much more typical to have a young Mexican family in which the man goes off to the states to work and save money to improve the situation for the family and the woman stays home. So okay, I took our kid with us, but it still sounded funny compared to the normal narrative here.

It wasn’t quite as funny, though, when I got a full-time job here and Conan became an official stay-at-home dad. He was the only stay-at-home dad along the entire coast of Oaxaca, if not the entire state. You can read all about the peer pressure and shaming that he put up with for that brave endeavor, right up till last November (read about it here a bit). It was a situation that was really practical and beneficial for our family, especially for our children, and yet even other moms acted like he was being lazy, despite knowing how much work it is to raise a family, what it takes to stay home and care for small children. Through all the criticism and gossip, he just kept on doing the best he could for his family.

While some people thought his whole Lucia-as-Pablo joke was pretty cute, folks are much less forgiving about boys breaking out of gender roles. So I was nervous about what Conan would think when our little boy wanted to wear a dress on a family outing one day. Do you know what he said? The same thing he says on the days Khalil picks out shorts and a t-shirt. Nothing. I momentarily underestimated Conan’s rebel streak. I forgot that he is just as fierce as I am about living life outside of boxes (although he might be less belligerent about it than I am).

There are countless other examples of why Conan is a badass feminist partner and father. Every week there are new things that I realize about him, or things I see as the norm in other people that make me realize how distinctly cool my husband is. Just this week, a female coworker of Conan’s gave him a hard time the other day about the staple he keeps putting in his shirt to make up for the missing button. His coworker says to him, “Conan, your shirt is sad! We can see who’s the boss at your house.” Obviously, if he had a good wife, she would fix his shirt. (No, his coworker didn’t say that part out loud.)

When Conan repeated this to me I turned red- not from embarrassment, because I do not feel the slightest bit bad about not being an on-call button-sewer. I am already fulfilling my inordinate amount family responsibilities to the best of all my abilities, and I furthermore have full confidence in Conan’s ability to problem solve and figure out his own remedy to a missing button. Nope, I turned red from fury. Why? Why do other women buy into the patriarchy so much? Do they so desperately need validation that they think you need to put me down as a woman and further imply that my husband isn’t a real (aka bossy) man because he doesn’t force me to follow my assigned gender role thoroughly enough? Barf. “What did you say?” I asked him, appalled. “I didn’t say anything,” he replied- as usual, ignoring his way around ignorant and annoying people.

Not only does he not expect me to sew on his buttons, but he also believes that I am a full-fledged human being, deserving of personal time and even occasional social time that doesn’t include him. I wish that I didn’t even have to include this as part of what’s awesome about my partner, but compared to so many other people’s relationships, this belief system of ours as equals is akin to something like folks trying to build an igloo right on the beach.

Being the unconventional family that we are, what could be more perfect than appreciating my children’s father on Mother’s Day? I wouldn’t be the same mom that I am without his revolutionary beliefs and back-up. So thanks, Conan, and thanks to all the radical men and dads, to all the trans and gender-nonconforming folks and parents, everywhere. Let’s keep making this world a better place, and backing each other up, and, in honor of Conan, giving zero fucks about what other people have to say about it.

Happy Mother’s Day- to us, and you, too!

*I would like to point out that I think it’s sexist and crappy that Father’s Day here is always on a Sunday, just like it is in the US, and yet Mother’s Day falls any old day of the week, presumably because moms are not in the labor force, which is less and less the case all the time.

Fearless Mother/Fathering, in the Bedtime Battle and Beyond

20 Jun

My dad just about drove my mother crazy with his saying that he was “both mother and father” to his children. It kind of made it sound like he was a widower, a single father, taking care of his poor motherless children, which was not at all the case. But I think what he was trying to say was that he did- and was willing to do- whatever was necessary to give his girls the best life possible, the best that he could give, without concern about whether it was a Daddy role or a Mommy role. For example, he cooked dinner- often and well. He coached our girls’ sports teams. He took us shopping for our before-school shoes. He taught us photography (and was pretty successful with my sister, though not as much with me). He grew up without a father, and was therefore extra determined to do right by both of his children, totally off-script, making it up as we went along. Maybe it was a bonus that he didn’t have a role model to copy; maybe it left him freer to invent his own role, to just be the kind of dad that he might have dreamed of.

Conan is a triply fearless soul. First off, he agreed to be the stay-home parent when Lucia was two. We all know that this is a rewarding but also frustrating, usually thankless, and sometimes mind-numbing job. He gets double points because he devoted himself to this in a time and place where it’s completely unacceptable, socially, for a man to be a stay-at-home parent. I could beat around the bush and say it’s just not common or something, but that would be excessively polite, even for a Kentucky girl like me. It’s shocking and threatening to the entire patriarchy of Southern Oaxaca, and yet somehow he not only rocks it but also still has a bunch of male friends. (“He seems so laid-back,” people think, totally unsuspecting of his big ole feminist streak.) Finally, his triple crown is due to his supreme perseverance in stay-at-home parenting even when the new baby came along. He is being  both mother and father to his kids, as my dad would say- something many moms already do, too, something that gay parents and other nontraditional families are already negotiating, but that’s not quite as common among straight fathers, even in more liberal areas of the world. He’s survived and grown (and kept our kids surviving and growing) for two years now as a stay-at-home dad.

We’ve been experimenting with our roles from the get-go, and today, I want to applaud him a little more specifically. I’m ready to state, out loud, that my husband is a much better parent than I am- at some things. (For sure, absolutely, he is a fabulous papi, all comparisons aside, and I’m a damn good mama, if I do say so myself. No need to put anyone down.) Even though I’m a gloriously subversive feminist, he is good at some things that I thought would be my role, and I’ve been surprised by how much of a challenge it is for me to let go of some of my expectations for myself and encourage those traits and actions in my partner.

Bedtime is one of the things that he is a natural at, although neither of us realized it until recently. The Bedtime Battle in our household has been almost as epic as the striking teachers’ drama here in Oaxaca. Since my 4-year-old was 5 months old, I’ve been fighting the good fight to attempt to calm her excited, joyous, curious mind enough to nap and sleep every day. I’ve spent ungodly amounts of time online, searching for solutions. I’ve read books and consulted experts.  I’ve cried my little heart out, tears of desperation and frustration and anguish. I’ve thrown my own tantrums. I’ve blamed genes (Conan’s insomniac genes and my overactive-mind genes). I’ve blamed our (my) parenting and tried to instill and reinforce routine, routine, routine. I’ve done everything I could possibly do for these two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed children, and half the time I still fail at my mission of helping them sleep enough or go to sleep at a reasonable hour.

The scheduling drama due to my job certainly wasn’t helping matters. With my 8-1 then 4-7 shift, I’d spend my lunch break trying to cook, get chores done or run errands and spend some scant amount of quality time with the kids. I’d attempt to put them both down for a nap around 3 or 3.15- Lucia in the hammock, Khalil in my arms. Then I’d go back to work.

I’d get home by 7.20. I’d throw together or reheat something for dinner (cooking is not something that Conan thrives at, unfortunately.). We’d sit down and eat (often at 8pm by the time I got the table cleared, got the drinks, got hands washed, etc.) Then it would be the mad dash to try to bathe both the kids and myself at the same time, get everyone in pajamas with brushed teeth, prep my coffee to survive the next morning, and usually attempt and fail at some other needed chore like getting diapers out of the washer, hanging up clothes, etc. I spent my entire evening after work running around like a chicken with my head cut off, neither taking good care of the children nor myself, trying to do everything and thus accomplishing nothing. I was hurrying at everything to get the kids to bed at a reasonable hour when I already knew it wasn’t really possible.

Meanwhile, Lucia’s fight against her nap was becoming more and more intolerable, partly because her nap was happening too late in the day, after she was way too exhausted, because of course I wanted to see her for as long as possible before I went back to work. I couldn’t put the kids to bed until I was also ready for bed because Lucia was often able to stay up for ages, thanks to her late afternoon nap. Khalil was falling down with sleepiness by the time I could get him into bed. My showers, dearly anticipated in this heat and humidity, were not half as enjoyable as they should have been, because I was scrambling to bathe the three of us all at the same time, as quickly as possible.

I was torn, because I wanted to see my kids as much as possible, but it was getting more and more painful for everybody to work with my schedule. I was getting resentful, comparing my life against that of dads living with stay-at-home moms. Why didn’t the stay at home parent in my life cook dinner? Why didn’t the stay at home parent in our household get the kids ready for bed? Why didn’t he institute clean-up time? Why didn’t he do x, y, and z like moms on TV? If I were the stay-at-home parent, then I would (fill in the blank with whatever I was resentful about in that moment).

Some of the problem was poor communication on our parts, but in part, too, I didn’t want him to do all of that. I wanted to be the one to read the kids their bedtime story and sing them their lullaby. I wanted to do all the things that my mama had done, things that I still cherish tenderly in my memories of childhood. I wanted to be responsible for the jobs and roles that I had so anticipated in the time between when I decided that, yes, someday I wanted to be a mom, and when I actually became a mom. I had imagined that I would be a stay-at-home parent for a while when they were really little, and then work part time for a while, and then someday get a full-time job. I had it all planned out in my dreams.

Of course, though, plans are often shattered by reality, especially with children involved. I work full-time, and Conan takes care of the kids full-time. It’s not exactly what either of us had in mind, but our kids are not only surviving but thriving. Us grown-ups are constantly learning and adapting to our lack of gender roles. When you don’t have a typical gendered family structure, negotiations are required on a regular basis, so everyone knows what the hell they’re supposed to be doing and what the other person is going to take care of.

The thing is, Mommies and Papis are not exactly the same. There are a couple of differences we can attribute to physical sex, such as the ability to produce breast milk or to carry a baby around in your uterus (yep, you need a uterus for that one, although you can identify as male and have a uterus, of course). The rest of our differences, however, are all about character- how you were raised and who you are that’s not determined by your sex. The rest of our differences- between Mommies and Papis- are on a similar plane as the difference between two different dads. They’re different people; they were raised differently; they have different values; they have different ideas about their roles.

That said, it seems like there are more differences between Moms and Dads than between different moms because to some extent or another, two people raised as the same gender are likely to have been raised with very similar expectations for how to behave.

I’m a much better cook than Conan is, but it’s not because I have a uterus; it’s because I’m actually willing to cook (first and foremost) and I have a passion for healthful, sensuous indulgence. I’m pretty sure we can’t attribute that to my fallopian tubes, although people do so every day. I don’t parent our kids in exactly the same way that Conan does. We don’t give our kids exactly the same things. For example, I’m much more permissive about letting them try something for themselves even when I know they can’t do it yet. I’m much stricter about how much junk food they ingest. Mommies and Papis aren’t exactly the same, just like no two dads are the same and no two mamas are the same. It’s not about our maleness and femaleness, and it’s not just about our gender roles, either.

I’ve been saying all these things, to anyone who will listen and also to myself, but I guess I only believed them about 80%. Or maybe I believed them fully as long as they applied to everyone else, because the reality is that I did not / do not want to give up my role of Most Intimate Parent- which is typically a Mommy role in every realm of the universe. Surely I would get to witness all their firsts, first steps, first words, give them their first food, etc. I wanted to be the one to kiss most of their ouchies. I imagined I’d be coordinating their outings. I insisted on going to all their doctors appointments. And I really, really wanted to be the one to tuck them in to bed at night, to read the bedtime story, to pat the backs, to sing the songs passed down from my mama.

The harsh reality, however, is that I can’t be out of the house, during the daytime, more than 40 hours a week and still do and be all of that (and all of you who somehow do so are to be worshipped). Slowly but surely I started to let go and rely on the Papi. Even though the nurses interrogate him about the child’s shamefully absent mother, Conan takes them for their vaccines. Conan learned really fast how to warm up the milk for a crying baby and feed him. Conan has proved himself perfectly capable of taking the kids for doctor’s visits. Conan can put the baby down for naps just fine. Slowly but surely, I am giving up the hidden, patriarchal complex that I carry in me, that ideology that teaches all of us that men cannot adequately take care of their own children.

It’s that same sexist message that teaches us to say things like, “Dad is babysitting tonight,” although babysitting is taking care of children that are not your own. It’s demeaning to men to assume that they can’t be loving, responsible caregivers. No, most of them have not had nearly as much training in it as most women have, but that doesn’t by any stretch mean that they can’t or don’t want to learn. But we’re all profoundly influenced by our culture and these intense messages in our world. Even if you question everything and your heart rejects obligatory gender roles and stereotypes, those messages still seep through the cracks.

So finally, one day, there was one desperate, tearful nap time struggle that broke the camel’s back. There had been too many nightmare-ish bedtimes. Finally, I broached the subject with Conan. What if we cut out Lucias nap time and Khalils second nap? We could put them to bed earlier, I suggested, waiting for his cynicism because I’m always talking about getting them to bed early and it never worked. I wanted him to think about the possibility of getting the kids ready for bed. But I would still put them to bed! Me, me, me- dont worry, I told him. You just give them their dinner and bathe them. Ill come home and immediately read their story and whisk them off to bed. He agreed with a minimum of cynicism (extra point for Conan). So it began.

I am brilliant at bedtime, in my way. I’m an excellent story-reader, adding hand-gestures, putting emphasis on the most interesting parts, making different voices, letting Lucia ask 10 thousand questions and make 500 comments about every page. I’m not bad at teeth-brushing. I’m a terrible singer, but I know a lot of good sleepy songs. I rock at bedtime in certain ways.

But I’m not patient. I don’t feel relaxed when I’m trying to make my kids relax and go to sleep. The longer my kids take, the more tense and angry-feeling I become. Then they sense my irritation and agitation, and it surely doesn’t help them relax. Lucia always asks for a drink of water right as she’s about to fall asleep, just to fight the sandman off a little longer. Or she’ll have really, really pressing questions, like, “Why does fire burn, Mommy?” One night I successfully reminded her that it was sleepy time, and therefore we weren’t going to talk. She let it go- until bedtime the next night. “But why, Mommy?” she repeated. “Please tell me!” She urged, like it was a pressing need to be resolved in that moment. Bless her little heart. I can’t shrug off her familiar mix of anxiety and curiosity; I feel the need to answer her. She reminds me so damn much of me, which I both adore and abhor.

The reality is that I’m not the best parent to put my children to bed. Conan is, hands-down, a better choice for the job. Even with him getting them ready for bed and me coming home and attempting to get them to sleep right off the bat, they were still going to sleep at least an hour later than I wanted. It wasn’t working, but instead of him saying, “I told you so,” he took it upon himself to get them to sleep himself before I got home from work.

It worked so well that we decided he would do it like that all the time. Still, I kept checking in / questioning him. Did you remember Lucias medicine? Did you brush Khalils teeth? Did you really read them both a book? I didn’t really think about the fact that I was questioning his ability to handle the bedtime routine, and thus questioning his ability to parent them equally. I was needlessly worried about the transition. Maybe he didn’t do everything perfectly, all the time, at first- but I certainly didn’t either when I was the one putting them to bed.

Once Conan took over the responsibility for bedtime and we put their early bedtime into effect, I suddenly had happier children. Lucia doesn’t get bags under her eyes, and is much less cranky than before. Khalil is falling asleep easier. There are fewer meltdowns all around. And my life is 60 billion times better because of it. My evenings are calmer. I can prep the food I’m going to cook the next day at night, and shower in peace, alone. I don’t feel half as exhausted when I wake up in the morning, although I’m sleeping the same amount of time. My kids wake up happy and rested, and therefore I am able to spend pleasant moments with them before I go to work instead of fighting with them. I can get Lucia dressed and read a book while I brush her hair, for example. So I’m not missing out on all her reading time. I can give Khalil his first meal of the day and maybe chase him around the house for a bit, starting my morning off with giggles and delight instead of tantrums.

It’s a miraculous change for all of us. It’s something that I dreamed of, that I didn’t think could happen, because I secretly didn’t want to give up one part of my prescribed gender role. Because I didn’t think Conan would be willing to take on even more of the parenting responsibility, when he’s already the one who’s with them 24/7 most of the time. Even though he volunteered for the job of stay-at-home parent. Even though he’s a perfectly capable and loving father. It’s amazing what can happen when two people are both finally willing to let go of their gendered expectations and be the most practical, best parents they can they be.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there who are giving it their very best. You’re amazing, and imperfection is part of the deal, so just roll with it. Happy Father’s Day, to my dad in the Great Beyond, who wasn’t afraid to do some Mommy jobs, who was way ahead of his time. Happy Father’s Day to my partner, Conan, who is so quietly but steadily radical in his thoughts, words and deeds. Who is doing his very best and even teaching me. Conan, you are a fabulous, fearless father, for bedtime and beyond, and my dad and yours are surely both so proud.

To Serve or to Self-Serve, That is the Question

20 Mar

This is not an urban legends, guys, but a true story. In Kentucky, back when we lived there, there was this one lovely lady’s husband who insisted on an extreme version of being served by his wife. We’re talking about being served everything ingestible; if his wife’s hand hadn’t passed it to him it was not yet worthy of his mouth. He’d be sitting next to the pitcher of water and he’d call his wife in from the other room to come pour it into his cup. Unable to get his own silverware from the drawer. He didn’t have any sorts of abilities lacking to cause such behavior- just a big ole case of over entitlement.

That couple was from somewhere in Mexico, but I’d never have called that behavior a cultural phenomenon. My male friends from Mexico weren’t like that. My partner from Mexico was nothing like that. I chalked it up to a case of extremist patriarchy, which is tragically common worldwide (and yet none of these anti-terrorist organizations are doing anything to stop it).

Fast forward to us living in small town southern Mexico. I’m planning kid #2’s first birthday party and decide I want it to be different from the norm. I don’t want to serve typical party food (here that means tamales, pozole, barbacoa). I thought it would be fun to have finger food in honor of my birthday boy who eats everything with his hands. So I made sandwiches of varying types and cut them into cute triangles like I do for Lucia’s lunch, so people could mix and match with different kinds. I made cream cheese and cucumber, cheese and avocado, and peanut butter and jelly (on both white and wheat bread). Conan grilled some hot dogs to give carnivores something to eat. I cut some fruit and some veggies, too, to appease my own standards of giving my kiddos healthy things to snack on. To drink we did rely on the standard agua de jamaica (sweetened iced hibiscus tea) because it’s easy and cheap to make a ton of it (and good for you if you don’t add too much sugar).


Pozole- A soup with chicken and/or pork, hominy, cabbage and other “fixins” on top… Delicious, but not what I wanted for the birthday party.


Barbacoa is nothing like barbeque, although it is meat. It’s often goat or beef, and the seasoning is not sweet at all like BBQ sauce. It’s slow cooked and delicious. Also not what I wanted for the party. 

The radical part wasn’t so much what we served but rather how we served it. We laid it all out on the table and let people serve themselves. I was stoked to mix it up a bit from the normal boring party thing. Because that set-up, in my little potluck-loving Kentucky heart, is so dull and restrictive. You end up not talking to anybody; there’s no mingling. It’s all business. You sit down, get served, eat your food, get up and wait for the cake or the piñatas or whatever the next order of business is. Done. Half the time people can’t even be bothered to stay and eat the cake. They take their plate of cake with them as soon as it’s served, because apparently their quota of socializing is all used up for the day.

So I was determined to do something different. Yet I suspect that some people were as appalled by our style of self-service as I was back in Kentucky by the extremist husband. Going to the table and getting their own food was probably like they hadn’t even been invited at all, a sort of anti-hospitality. But it wasn’t on purpose! It didn’t even occur to me that it could be offensive to people. I thought it would be pleasant, so that people could pick and choose what they ate instead of being served things they might not like. I thought it would be more fun than the traditional style. Some of our crowd liked it, for sure. But there were definitely some that were far from impressed. There were women and men alike at the party who felt embarrassed to go up to the table and serve themselves. That’s just not how the roles are supposed to go at a party. That’s not what hospitality looks like here.

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Khalil is like, “Are they going to give me that thing? Or are they just teasing me?” You can see our buffet table there in the background.

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More of the set-up: laid back! Relaxed! Chairs here and there for socializing! I had a great time, anyway.

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Finally! Cupcake deliciousness- banana cupcakes with nutella on top… I think it was a hit with the birthday boy.

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Here he makes sure to devour it all while being on the lookout for anyone coming to take it away from him.


So I got to thinking some more about the whole concept of serving and hospitality. Y’all that know me know that I pride myself on making sure that guests and visitors feel welcome and taken care of. I’m from Kentucky, after all. And I’m also a feminist (aka believer in equality).

Thus I think that serving food can be anybody’s job. Usually, if I cook something and I’m stoked about it, or we’re having people over for a sit-down dinner, I want to serve it, because it’s a matter of pride. But sometimes I just reheated some frozen soup and I’m in the middle of nursing the baby so just go help yourself, please and thank you. I refuse to believe that other adults should not eat when the person who cooked is obviously busy and they’re perfectly capable of adding their own finishing touches. Furthermore, I know that men can cook. Men can serve food. I have confidence in men. My dad was a great cook, for example, and when he cooked, he served the food. Ideally, I believe that everyone should be able to cook at least some things. Everyone should be capable of serving themselves, too. This is a basic and important skill, folks. I learned to pour from a pitcher of water in kindergarten, and you can do it, too.

I also think that being in charge of the food and the serving of food is both a tedious, never-ending chore and also a serious power. Anyone who’s ever been a server in a restaurant knows this. There are always some customers who lash out and treat you poorly, trying to make you feel little or unimportant. They confuse server with servant, but really the customer is at your mercy. They can’t eat their soup if you don’t bring their spoon. They can’t do anything useful for themselves; they rely on you for everything. It’s almost like them being a baby all over again, except most customers have better communication skills than babies (most, but sadly not all of them).

Here, it’s like all meals are restaurant meals, and some woman or the other (mom, grandma, oldest daughter, whoever) is the server. Men become these helpless creatures. There’s the food, right there on the stove- so near and yet so far, because there’s this invisible barrier preventing them from getting their plate and piling it on. Seriously! Okay, not all the time, not everybody, but more here than I’d ever seen on any of my travels or my time in Kentucky. Sometimes it makes me outraged, and sometimes it makes me sad for the helpless men. Because ye who wields the serving spoon wields part of the power of deciding who eats what!

But this avoidance of self-serving is not just a patriarchal thing. (Do I think that overly defined and restrictive gender roles are at the heart of it? Yes, mostly. But that’s not the only factor.) At its best, it’s a case of meal time being a special time for family and sharing. It’s the antithesis of microwave dinners in front of the TV. And I love that aspect of it. It’s nice to be served sometimes, just like it’s lovely to serve, when it’s a show of welcome and love. It’s a case of a non-individualistic culture, where it doesn’t always matter that you want less vegetables and more rice, you get what gets put on your plate because that’s what everyone’s eating. It’s about community, and feeling taken care of, too. There’s a lot of good things to be said for this style of eating together.

Self-service is just not a phenomenon here, and I can respect that in a culture. I can appreciate it lots more, though, if the roles of serving changed equally- if everyone took a turn and not always only women. If it weren’t the case that at giant neighborhood parties, for example,  it’s filled with women in aprons doing all the work, and men with their beer and mezcal enjoying the party. So while we work on that (in every culture), there’s an extra present for my son on his first birthday: I promise to teach him equally the basic life skills to take care of himself and others. Everyone can pour the pitcher of water! Cheers to that!

My First Quince Años

13 Dec

I had always thought I might barf from disgust if I went to a quince años, but this one was unavoidable. A quince años is a birthday party for a fifteen year old girl, and it’s a really, really huge deal. It’s sort of like an old fashioned “coming out” party- you know, coming out into society, being presented to the world as marriage material- mixed with being princess for a day, mixed with enough ceremony to be its own pagan ritual almost. It’s long, it’s intense, and parts of it are precisely the melodramatic patriarchal moments I envisioned. But I not only refrained from throwing up, parts of it also made me tear up (What can I say? I’m sensitive. Don’t take me to the movies.)

On one hand, I emphatically and voraciously love the idea of celebrating a girl’s coming into womanhood, and a boy’s coming into manhood, for that matter. It’s a crucial, trying, and beautiful part of our lives and we need family and the rest of our close community to stand by us, to teach us, to bring us into the fold. It’s something that’s seriously lacking about US culture (and many other cultures these days). So I love this idea of officially saying goodbye to childhood and it being this giant celebration.

On the other hand, I hate the idea of presenting a girl as marriage material, as if she were a thing being put on offer. Not that it’s exactly saying, “cool, go get married tomorrow,” and definitely not, “you’re ready for sex now” (this is a Catholic country, after all). But that is where it comes from.

According to Wikipedia (not the best source in the world, but I was curious what the interwebs had to say about it), “Quinceañeras originated from Aztec culture around 500 BC. At age fifteen boys became warriors and girls were viewed as mothers of future warriors, marking the age in which a girl became a woman.” While we don’t have Aztec warriors running around, it’s not at all uncommon for teenage girls to become mothers, or to “get married” in the unofficial way of going to live with their boyfriend. Here, if you run off to live at your boyfriends house (called robbing you, which also makes me want to vomit), you’re as good as married as far as society sees it. I certainly don’t think it’s morally wrong or any of that crap. The “problem” of teen pregnancy, for me, is not that you’re a teen who’s sexually active, or even that you’re not “grown up enough” to be a mother (who is?). For me the only problem is that it’s likely to drastically limit your options and your independence and mobility in life, and you are potentially more likely to get trapped in an abusive or otherwise awful relationship.  Becoming a mom in your 20s or 30s has a similar effect, you’ve just had a little more time to maybe get your act (and finances) together. But enough of that diatribe.

Wikipedia goes on to say that with the changes over time, the quinceañera is now a party for girls who “are honored for having maintained their virginity up to this point in their lives.” Ick. It’s 2015 and we’re still all about girls’ virginity? Enough said- you can see why I was hesitant about this whole quinceaños thing.

Down here, I think it’s also acknowledged that it’s the biggest celebration for them that they’ll ever get in their lives. Girls dream about it the way that some girls dream about their weddings. In a way, it’s cooler than a wedding, because it’s just about you. You’re not waiting around for Prince Charming or Mr. Perfect or whomever for your big day. Lots of girls know they might not get a big wedding (or any wedding at all, since when you move in with someone people say that you’re married), so if your family has enough money to give you a quince años party, this is as good as it gets.

Which brings me to my other drama with it: Part of me hates the idea that this is your crowing moment in life. I mean, if somebody told me that life at 15 was as good as it was going to get, I would have been fairly likely to go ahead and slit my wrists. Thank goodness, I wasn’t buying that bill of goods, and my life is leaps and bounds more enjoyable now than when I was 15.

Regardless, this type of celebration is definitely not anything anyone could have talked me into at 15. No, siree. I would have preferred more of a walking-over-hot-coals / vision-quest (preferably with drugs) / let’s-just-sit-around-and-drink-wine-with-my-womenfolk (and plot to change the world while laughing hysterically) kind of coming of age when I was 15 years old. You couldn’t have paid me to act out my goodbye to dolls and get lifted into the air numerous times by 8 teenage boys.

Not everybody gets a quinceaños, even if they haven’t shacked up with someone by then. It’s too outrageously expensive for many folks. But let me tell you about how this one went before I get distracted with more social commentary.

First, everyone got fed: barbacoa, which is like slow-cooked meat in a sauce that’s nothing like barbeque. Some waiting around, and then the elaborate, hours-long ceremony begins. There’s a crowning ceremony that the grandmothers do where they put a tiara on her. There’s a lot of dancing with the special boys called chambelanes. I especially liked one dance where they each bow and give her a rose, she bows and graciously accepts before tossing it aside carelessly for another boys’ rose. There’s a changing of the shoes where her cousin takes off her Chuck Taylors and puts some high heels on her. (I also loved that she wore this crazy princess dress with some Converse for most of the night.) There’s a weird doll dance where they give her her last doll. There was a thing with her dancing in front of a mirror. There were fireworks and confetti galore. A waltz with different family members, similar to the wedding waltz. I loved that at the end, she came back in a mini-skirt and did some fun dancing with one of the boys. And I loved the cake at the end, because her mama makes the best cakes.

15 dance

a princess in all respects

15 dolls

part of the doll ceremony

15 dance2

ceremonial dance with her chambelanes, the boys who dance with her


And I really did almost cry a couple of times. It was sweet and touching to see this lovely girls’ parents publicly acknowledge that their baby isn’t a little girl anymore, even though she’ll always be their baby. The father of the non-bride shed a couple tears during his speech. The quinceañera balled on her mama’s shoulder during their dance. And in this case especially, I know just how much her fabulous mama worked to give this to her daughter. She stayed up all night making the fifteen cakes. She made ALL of the recuerdos by hand- fake flower arrangements made out of mostly recycled material, dolls with green dresses like the one her daughter was wearing, the dolls encased in glass (did I mention the parents are glass makers?). I can’t imagine all the lost sleep and the debt creation that went into this party.

15 mesa

Handmade table decorations that people take home as souvenirs

15 pastel

Fifteen cakes, made by her mama the night before (the best 3 leches cakes ever)

No matter what I would have wanted or not wanted,  I think it was worth it for everyone concerned. Even though the fifteen year old is still a fifteen year old, and had an angsty, pained, and/or self-conscious look on her face half the time- that’s par for the course when you’re 15, even when you’re getting something you desperately wanted. You guys know I’m already planning Lucia’s alternate version to welcome her to womanhood when the time comes. I’m crossing my fingers she won’t want princess dresses and dances with dolls, but no matter what I’ll shed the same bittersweet tears as these parents.

15 my nena

Me and my future 15 year old, all dressed up



LTR Piropos

6 Sep

My relationship with the construction worker down the street is advancing to whole new levels these days. I see him every day on my way to and from work, ever since they started construction there. It’s been at least a month, so we’re already into long-term relationship mode.

We were taking things slowly. First he just whistled at me. Then one day an older man was walking down the street at the same time as me, in the opposite direction, and I told the man, “Creo que le está chiflando a Ud.”- I think he’s whistling at you. I thought he’d laugh, but instead he nodded seriously. Maybe he didn’t get it. I don’t know if he went to complain to the construction worker or what, but soon after that the construction worker started yelling, so I’d know his whistle was intended for me and not other old men, or, say, the dog walking by at the same time.

“Guera!” he calls out after the whistle, “guera” meaning something like “light-skinned person, feminine” (guero being the masculine version, and both words being slang only in Mexico, I’m pretty sure). Still I ignored him, because, well, I didn’t have anything to say to him. Without getting into all the personal-political ramifications, I’m pretty convinced that catcalling of this type is much more about posturing for other men than it is about expecting any response from the woman.

But Friday morning he stepped it up a notch. He whistled a couple times, and then shouted, “Guera! Te amo!” Wow! He loves me! He said he loves me! Considering the fact that I’d never even turned to look at him, it’s a pretty drastic statement. If he’s already capable of loving me and we’ve never even locked eyes, imagine what could happen over dinner and a movie!

Even though I don’t respond to his unsolicited attention, I have to admit that his declaration of love brought a smile to my face. First of all, it’s beautifully absurd. He didn’t even say “te quiero” which could imply wanting me as much as loving me. No, straight to the verb amar, pure love. Did I mention we’ve never been closer than 10 feet to each other? So it’s pretty funny.

Secondly, it kind of reminded me of the piropos – the catcalls- in Paraguay. There was never any crudeness to it. Paraguayan men would whisper things like “Qué hermosa sos”- how pretty you are, or “Bonitos ojos”- nice eyes, or the really outlandish, “Hola, linda”- hello, pretty. They’d say stuff like this as they passed me, not being hostile or intimidating. Or they’d invite me to drink tereré, the national green tea beverage that people share from the same cup and straw. I even did stop and drink tereré with strangers a couple of times. That’s how comfortable I felt in the situation. (Granted, I don’t know if all men in Paraguay always catcall in this polite, respectable manner or if I just got lucky in the couple of months I spent there.) Of course, there’s still underlying sexism and rape culture in the fact that men feel entitled to comment on women’s bodies/attractiveness constantly, which is anger-inducing and wearisome when it builds up on you. But if it’s going to happen anyway, let it be Paraguay-style, please! Or let it be someone professing their love to me like the construction worker down the street!

It’s much better than some of the straight-out-of-a-porn comments I’ve gotten in the U.S. It’s much better than hostility. It’s much better than the aggressiveness, like the young guy on the scooter the other day, who asked me where I lived and tried to insist on accompanying me home.

So on my way home on Friday, when my construction worker yelled “Guera!” at me, I actually turned in his direction. I laughed a bit, because I was still thinking about his great love for me. He waved from the roof and said “Adios! Guera, adios!” There’s a piropo I can live with long term.

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.