Wanna go into a time warp to experience what it must have been like to be a woman in the 1960s or 1970s? Just spend some time in Latin America. Being a woman in the United States carries so much independence. When I was away, I took this position in life for granted or didn’t really think about how being a woman in another country would affect me. For my Day 23 post, I’ll be sharing a small sampling of experiences and thoughts that I have been wrestling with from my time in Guatemala.
1) Yoga pants and shorts causing mayhem in the streets.
In Texas, I lived out of my yoga pants especially when I no longer had to report for duty in the cubicle world. And, yes in most big cities in the US, it is common for men to make comments, but somehow it was just more aggressive when I was living abroad. In Guatemala City, I thought the no shorts and yoga pants rule was a bit excessive until I started making my daily walk to the yoga studio for taking class or teaching class. The constant yelling, whistling, and hollering became a nuisance to me. Eventually I just got tired of being called “amor”, “muñeca”, or “mamacita” every day. Sometimes, really assertive men would just grab my arm when I walked by.
I’d wear sunglasses, long jackets that covered my butt, and headphones to create a shield around me. But, after constantly being picked on, I became pretty salty. So, I started to vent my frustrations. Maybe not the smartest thing, but I did respond to some men shouting at them to leave me alone. One guy who was always yelling at me ended up standing in line with me at the same convenience store. It was pretty awkward staring at my tormentor in the eyes while I realized that he was just a scared 14 year old boy.
2) Where’s your boyfriend? Where’s your husband?
When it came to marital status, I always thought Americans were annoying about this category, but in Latin America, this is probably the first or second question people will ask you. Complete strangers (cab drivers, clients, the maid, etc.) wanna know about your marital status/ life choices and they are not shy about divulging their opinion.
This whole concept of being a single woman with no children was strange for my Spanish teachers to understand. And if you told a local Guatemalan man, I live alone. Their faces would perk up with glee. Even when I was in a relationship, teenagers would look at us with disbelief saying blunt nonsense like, “En serio? Ella no es tu novia. Ella es demasiado linda.” (Translation: Seriously? She can’t be your girlfriend. She is too pretty.) If satisfied with knowing you were in a relationship, the next question was, “Why don’t you have any children?” I was never going to please these people.
3) Be prepared for the macho man. Don’t offer to parallel park the car. And, don’t be surprised when you are taller than your dance partner. I learned the hard way that the machismo culture is still real in Latin America. While on a date, my companion was having a tough time parking his car on a crowded street. I offered to switch seats with him because I have gotten pretty good at parallel parking. Somehow being helpful was taken as an insult and really soured the mood for the rest of the evening.
Another emasculating experience is when you are a lot taller than your dance partner. Being 5′ 4″, I’m considered short by American standards. The last time my height was a disadvantage was when I was an aspiring 7 year old gymnast. I was kicked off the team because I had a growth spurt that made me too tall.
In Guatemala, I sometimes felt like a giant. I’d like to believe I am a pretty easygoing dance partner, but I never really knew what to do when my dance partner was shorter than me. I found it difficult to do certain moves so I would end up crouching down or just letting go of my partner’s hand to ensure I’d have enough room to pass through arms and other tricky twists and turns in salsa. I oftentimes would have disagreements with locals who needed to be with a more traditional or conservative friend, partner, or companion. I’ve learned that my open-mindedness, outspoken opinion and assertiveness can be a bit much.
Overall, I never really liked the narrow view and options for many women in Guatemala. My Guatemalan friends assured me that things are changing, and that a lot of women are just now feeling more independent. Now that I’m back in the States, I definitely don’t take my upbringing, my career and my education for granted. If I ever want to change any aspect about my life, as an American, I have so much more choice and have access to so many more resources. I know the system isn’t perfect here, but living in another culture really showed me how much power, independence and opportunity we have here in America.