Manam, Papi. No es así
“Women really do have the power, but it is hidden in the house …” or so I have been told in more than one South American country.
Manam, Papi. No es así (no, friend, it’s not like that). Recently a young girl in El Salvador was charged with murder after miscarrying a pregnancy she was unaware of.[i]
Ecuador’s populist, leftist and proudly catholic president, Rafael Correa, threatened to resign should abortion be decriminalised.[ii] Even broaching the subject of homosexuality causes unease – so I love bringing up gay marriage in Canada.
Yet television, print and pervasive advertising parade half naked, often blond and improbably large-chested sexual symbols in front of the masses continuously. If only the loving and ubiquitous statues of the holy virgin could speak up in real terms for women’s dignity and corporal rights.
In light of the contradictive bundle that is Catholic morality, mixed with the painfully misleading Latin ideal of beauty, deeply rooted gender roles, false (and here I am controversial) free-spirited, self-identified Latino cultural, along with an apartheid-like class structure, it is a pleasure to be living merely on the margin of Latin America – in a society much older.
Cusco is the longest inhabited city in the Americas and there is no doubt first contact with Eurasia wasn’t particularly pleasant or helpful to the local inhabitants. The population up here in the Andes remains overwhelmingly Quechua (Inca). Further south and and at an even higher altitude the population is Aymara speaking and certainly Aymara culturally. So unless I am in a restaurant with a television, or read a publication (or see the local beer and carwash advertising), I really do not feel notably exposed to Latin American culture.
On a daily basis we meet women with babies on their back, wrapped in colourful blankets – and our comments are as follows: “what a beautiful baby, what a beautiful mother. Is that mother even 14?” Or, at the other extreme; “That must be the baby’s grandmother!”
We see fathers carrying babies, walking their children to school and playing with the neighbour kids.
In government meetings, I was told country women would be shy and not make eye contact, yet I have stopped the car for more women hitching to the nearest community that I have for men (and not by design). The young girls in the neighbourhood play with my son and certainly assert their rights to choose the activity!
I am a straight, somewhat educated, white guy from the north. I like women and I have my own ideas about beauty – undoubtedly shaded by my cultural upbringing. So let’s not be too confident about my ability to empathise. It is easy for me to criticize, because I can leave. I know enough about human rights to be offended by subjugation, abuse and de facto slavery. I also understand some models of economic empowerment and have read the micro-credit studies of empowering women as a pillar of poverty reduction, but I must admit to a nagging suspicion that for those from different economic classes, everything just has to be worse for the Indians.
As per my article about garbage collection and management; a senior government official actually told me: “If we install garbage receptacles, the Cusqueño will simply overfill them.” So build enough asshole.
These people – mothers and fathers – do not want to walk through garbage every day. While gender roles clearly exist, both genders interpret style in personal ways and both genders do hard, labour-intensive jobs. From road works to conducting busses, men and women – of almost all ages – toil equally for poverty-line wages.
Somehow the many challenges here seem so often excused due to a lack of education – rather than governance or corruption. When it comes to poverty, the predominantly rural, or agricultural regions will certainly appear poorest on paper. Here, 53% of people work in agriculture, yet that sector only represents 12% of the regional economy, therefore pure math suggests a higher level of poverty than in more urban areas. But is their life actually defined by poverty?
- At this point, it is important to have a sidebar discussion about happiness. Us, we – those who visit – must resist the urge to say: “..but if they’re happy..” I most certainly hope people are happy, but if I can afford to visit their communities and they cannot afford to visit mine, we have distinctly different levels of economic empowerment. They do not have to want to visit my home, but that freedom of choice is empowerment – so please, let’s leave the Noble Savage where it belongs – in ponderous colonial British and French literature. Poverty should be understood within the regional and national context as well as along absolute terms of life expectancy, child mortality, nutrition and opportunity.
Indisputably the process of urbanisation has been particularly puissant in Latin America. A third of Peru lives in Lima and half of Chile in Santiago. There are more people living in slums around Rio De Janeiro and San Paolo than the entire population of well know cities elsewhere. The outflow from the provinces to major urban centres has been encouraged by military and colonial centralization of power and above all else, opportunity – bright lights, big city. Implicit in this focused urban migration, is the reinforcement of economic centralisation and an incipient form of urban poverty that must weigh more heavily than that in these dramatic mountains.
And thus, back to women. We are told of shockingly high levels of domestic violence and I am not about to dispute such figures.[iii] Reported rates of gender-based violence are higher in Cusco, than anywhere else in Peru. This is a conservative culture where home life is private, so it is difficult to really know what goes on behind closed doors.
Yet as any first-year philosophy class should teach us – we need to understand the source. Could it perhaps be in the interest of the class system, the economic system, the church and certain organisations to paint the story the way they see it, rather than the way it really is? Honestly, I’d say the answer is somewhere between the two. Domestic violence goes hand in hand with poverty, but so does substance abuse – and the effects of alcohol or drug abuse is notably less obvious here than in many communities I can think of.
Up in the informal mining camps, there is sexual slavery and single mothers remain among the most notably poor segment of the population – but such profound poverty and oppression is found the world over. I intend to further explore the crime of modern indentured servitude over the coming weeks, but I hope not to assign to the Quechua women a state of subjection we simple assume they live in.
I suspect the women of these highlands have a pride and identity beyond that of an oppressed underclass. After five hundred years of conquest, they choose to wear the colours of their culture and to speak in their own language. There are as many young women in the universities as young men (at least according to a visual poll) and young women in the country will wave down any vehicle for a ride – imagine that Western Europe or Buenos Aires.
I remain deeply concerned with poverty and injustice and will worry out loud about the final eradication pre-Colombian identity. Not so long ago, a Peruvian expat living in Canada explained to me the Peruvian Indians are simple stupid. I have not met the untainted noble savage, but nor am I surrounded by stupidity! After all the evangelising and revolutions and dictatorships, perhaps the Quechua people can find their own solutions through economic development and government transparency. Perhaps their historic memory may allow women a more equal role in decision making and maybe, just maybe, they can say Manam – no – we don’t have to do it your way.
If the women of Cusco have somehow found the strength and ability to report and address violence in a manner other Peruvian women hove not, than these confident highland people can be leaders in a continent where womens’ voices have been censored for far too long.