Hola a todos. I was going to post this entry last week, but felt like I needed to sit with it a little longer. However, it hasn’t really gone anywhere, and I am still just as uncomfortable with it as I was a week ago.
A theme that has been building on itself since I arrived, and of which I was reminded before I left, is the machismo culture present in many Latin American countries. Back in the states, a friend of mine noted a few times that she was curious to see how I would respond to it. It was almost as if she felt like she needed to remind me that it was something I would experience. I know of course the associations and the stereotypes that come with this topic, but to be honest, I didn’t really think too much about it. I didn’t really consider it to be something I would need to prepare myself for. Well, even if I had tried, I don’t think I would have been able to. Because it is not so simple. It confounds me, surprises me, frustrates and confuses me in very strange, subtle ways, sometimes without me even knowing it.
Machismo (misogyny) is of course a stereotype, and as with all stereotypes, it makes a broad, general statement without really looking at the complexities of the many elements, the environment, or the idiosyncrasies of a person, a culture, a race, etc. True, stereotypes come from somewhere, perhaps a common or prominent characteristic. Maybe you could say they are based in a semi-truth — a semi-truth because there is no truth without exceptions. And I want to first say that stereotypes make me uneasy, because they do nothing to contribute to actually understanding someone or something.
That, and I have to remember that my lens, the lens through which I see the world is a very small and specific one. Influenced by my personal experiences, my culture and the relationship that I have with that culture.
So, there’s that.
And then there’s this.
The other morning, during my 20-minute walk to school, I received about 13 catcalls in various forms, the most common of those being kissing noises, whistles, grunts and honks, often mixed in with men shouting things like linda or belleza out their windows, or even, in the case of that morning, as they pass by on their bikes. I am constantly aware of the male-gaze and how it lands on my body. It’s piercing. There is no escaping it. I just have to keep walking and look straight ahead.
At first, I just sort of tried to ignore it, without even realizing it. And looking back from where I am at now, my unconscious deflection was somewhat successful. Because recently, in the past couple weeks or so, the catcalling and the stares and the head turns have seriously started getting under my skin. I’m bothered by it and I’m reacting to it — getting angry, really. And I do not want to be reactionary. But suddenly, it is requiring a lot more effort and energy to ignore it.
(And it’s not as though I’ve never been catcalled in the states. I have, sure. But there is a strange realization that dealing with harassment in the states is not at all the same as dealing with it here. And maybe if I lived in New York rather than Portland, OR, I would also be dealing with this differently right now.
This past weekend, a few girlfriends and I were talking to some Chilean men about it. They listened to us, I think they heard us, but they returned again and again to the point that it is meant to be a compliment.
It doesn’t feel like a compliment.
Ok, so. Chileans are more forward than people in the States. In general. People aren’t as apologetic here. I’ve found — and I’ve been told — that they are not shy when it comes to talking about subjects we consider to be sensitive in the U.S. — things like race, weight, age, etc. In fact, the other day, I met a Venezuelan woman and while we were talking she brought up PC language in the states. Said it absolutely baffled her. Here, I somehow draw a connection between this difference in language and the difference in personal-space bubbles and boundaries, which tend to be a lot smaller in many Latin American countries compared to home.
Anyway, I guess this means that men, in expressing their attractions, their desires so-to-speak, are also more forward here.
So, again, there’s that. I’m trying to understand.
But to reiterate, in no way whatsoever does it feel like a compliment. And I want to ask them to reconsider their approach. And then I circle back to this isn’t my culture and I’m not going to come here and tell them how to do things. Circle back to but I am a human and my feelings are valid. Circle back to I am a outsider in a foreign culture and there’s so many things I don’t understand, like the most basic context of any of it. And back again to NOPE.
Because how do you reconcile this with the fact that just a few months ago, women across Latin America were out on the street protesting femicide?
I don’t know.
And it goes beyond the catcalls. Machismo materializes itself in subtle ways. And it has taken me two months here to recognize it, to be able to call by name that certain discomfort I sometimes feel interacting with male-bodied persons here. I can’t go into all of the details, because that is an essay in and of itself, but it is usually really simple things. Faceless, nameless things. Like men putting their hand on the lower of your back when crossing the street or going up stairs. Is this an issue of culture, of personal space? Yes. Is it an issue of machismo? It certainly feels like it. But I say that in the context of how it feels being a woman here. Because it seems harmless, gentlemanly, right? But in a lot of cases, and I won’t say all, it feels anything but gentlemanly; it feels uncomfortable. And it feels condescending (see below). And here, some people might assume that I am some woman who won’t let a man hold the door open for me. That’s silly. I appreciate the door being held open, no matter who is doing the holding. (The other day, a chileno opened the car door for me, and when I got in, I leaned over and opened the door for him from the inside. He said “Oh, you are a feminist!” What?)
It manifests itself in how men present themselves in my presence. I constantly feel like I am on the defense, like I have to make myself big, as if I just saw a bear. It manifests itself in how certain men speak to me. The condescension is both subtle and blatant. How they lean in over me when they speak. And how they speak to me as if I were a damsel in distress, needing to be rescued from myself.
It manifests itself in bachata — an incredibly sensual dance that originated in the Dominican Republic. I’ve come to dread this part of dance class, and I think, hopefully, we have moved on to the tango. (Related: there was a guy in our dance class who really wanted to follow, wanted to learn the woman’s steps in the dances, but the instructor wouldn’t let him; she always made him lead. He’s no longer in the class.) So in bachata, the man basically gets to whip the woman around however he wants, and the woman always always always has to follow. “But the woman gets to do her thing, too,” the chilenos tell us when we protest. By “do their own thing,” they mean squeeze in a few arm stretches, twirl their arm above their head and run it down along their face and body. Basically, the woman has an opportunity to be sexy. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being sexy. In fact, I really like bachata when I am doing the moves solo. But when it comes to partner dancing, I want to dance. Not be whipped around like a rag doll. And, sure, if I were not having this conversation with myself right now, if I were in a different context and setting and saw a pair dancing bachata on the television, I would probably think it was beautiful.
So then, here I am, asking myself, am I overreacting? And that. THAT.
It isn’t all Chilenos. That is for certain. It isn’t all latinoamericano men. That is unfair.
It’s cultural. It’s global.
It’s confusing and I can’t figure it out. Because it is complex. Because it also ignites an issue of race and of the startling realization of the racism here, which, for the sake of length, I will go into another time. Because it also ignites a conversation about religion and about history. Because it also ignites the conversation about gender that is occurring in the states, as well as my personal experience with and role within that conversation. Because it also illuminates the power of context to change everything. Because it also ignites an awareness of my own inner masculine/feminine struggle.
This discomfort, I don’t really know what to do with it.
P.S. I apologize that there are no photos. But what photos would you post for this topic, really? (Actually, that just made me think of a series of advertisements I’ve been seeing on the metro for some fashion company. I will take a photo next time and add it in later.)