“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I cannot accept, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
~ Reinhold Neibur
Interrupting the normal schedule of Sunday blog posts, I wanted to share with all of you something that I’ve been really struggling with.
Every time I leave my house, I brace myself; because the moment I step out of my door, I have to endure a day filled with catcalls. Everywhere I go men will shout after me, “güerra, güerrita!” to get my attention. They’ll comment on my body, they’ll ask for my number or where I live, they’ll snicker to their friends and say something sexually suggestive.
I know a lot of other people have had this experience. If you haven’t, I hope I can communicate how absolutely frustrating and aggravating it can be. It makes me want to scream. It makes me want to key someone’s car. Because when men act this way, it takes away my independence; while my male cohorts in YAGM could probably walk alone at night or do a solo trip, that’s something that–as a woman–will carry more risk and danger.
Now, if you’re a friend or family member in the US and thinking “Mexico’s such a sexist country,” ~ that’s NOT what I’m trying to communicate. I used to believe a lie that “sexism only happens in certain countries and thank goodness we’ve moved beyond that.” Toxic masculinity happens everywhere around the world: and the recent Supreme Court appointment in the US solidifies the difficult reality that it happens at home, too.
When men whistled and shouted at me in Mexico City, I made all sorts of excuses for it; “oh, it’s because it’s a big city,” or, “it’s Machísmo culture,” or, the worst of all, “It’s probably because I’m wearing a short skirt today.”
I think I wanted to believe that last lie–that the attention I got from men depended on what I wore–because I wanted to believe that I had some control and agency over it. So after consecutive days and weeks of the same catcalling in Tepoztlán, I stopped wearing what I wanted to, but what I thought would attract less attention. But the catcalling continued: regardless of whether I wore dresses or jeans–if I had ton of makeup on or went out without any mascara–even in sweatpants or old t-shirts. Because it has never been about how a woman looks or what she wears. Catcalling always has been about proving masculinity via objectifying women. Period.
The second lie I tried to believe was that it was a cultural difference; that many people perceived it as a compliment. … A compliment? … Sorry, but when a group of teenage boys follow you asking for your number after a sex ed workshop and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer–or when a group of mariachi style-singers serenade you on the street and kiss you in public without your consent–or when a man older than your grandfather touches your hair when you least expect it and comments on your body … how is ANY of that flattering?
When I tried to explain to people in my host community why it bothered me so much, people awkwardly responded, “Oh that? That happens all the time.” “It’s nothing.” “Don’t let it bother you.” … So I stopped bringing it up. I shut the door and tried to pretend that I wasn’t frustrated, upset, and devastated. After a particularly difficult day when I had to shout to get a couple men to back off, I came to work nearly in tears. My only male coworker opened the door, and I remember groaning to myself, “You are the last person who would understand what’s going on right now.”
That, too, was a lie.
That’s especially what I want to tell you about.
The next afternoon the same coworker, Gabo, sent the taxi back early so he could walk home with me. He asked, “How are you feeling today? You seemed really upset yesterday. What’s going on?” I sighed and confessed about the catcalling, that other people had said to ignore it, so I was trying my best to.
“That’s what Cintya said; and that’s I wanted to talk to you about,” Gabo looked me in the eyes. “That’s not normal. That’s not okay. What those men are doing — it’s an act of violence, Annie, because it makes you feel unsafe. Unfortunately it’s common here, because men have been conditioned to behave in this way ~ but it doesn’t have to be this way.”
He promised me my own set of keys to the office (so I wouldn’t have to wait outside), a can of pepper spray, and company to walk with whenever I felt unsafe. I felt so relieved that someone, finally, acknowledged this problem and didn’t dismiss my frustration. He replied, “Of course Annie; we take care of each other.” (What I especially loved about that response is that Gabo said: “Por supuesto Annie; cuidarnos, todos y todas.” The different feminine and masculine endings make it gender inclusive: literally, everyone takes care of everyone.)
So as I asked for more advice with coping with this, people sat me down and told me where I should go, what I should wear, how I should react … and I quietly wondered if the men shouting at me had ever been sat down and told the same thing. … Why are women expected to change their behavior to try to mitigate the behavior of men? Why aren’t men urged to attend classes that discourage toxic masculinity just as women urged to take self-defense classes? Why does society shrug when men act this way and pretend that nothing can improve the situation?
If you haven’t received the direct attention of this kind of toxic masculinity, but want to support people who have, here are some great ways to be an ally:
- Believe the stories you hear.
- Respond and ask how you can help: being a safe ride home, a friend to talk to, or a resource during difficult days.
- Advocate–advocate–advocate. It’s easy to say to others “I don’t want to presume” or to yourself that “this isn’t my fight”… Bullshit. This is your fight. If you want to see a better world–with more equality, safety, and justice for everyone–you ought to say something.
Look, I know in the US we’ve been receiving a lot of hard and difficult news. As I share something difficult I’ve been struggling with, I don’t want to share the impression that everything’s been that way. While I struggle with challenges here, I have to admit that I’ve also fallen in love with Mexico. The best parts of my day come when I laugh with some amazing coworkers, making piles of festive papel piccado with kids from La Jugarreta, and celebrating with one of my best friends here by making my grandma’s chocolate cake … as I taught my host sister how to play the trumpet on the roof and watched the evening light stain the mountains scarlet and gold, I marveled what an amazing opportunity this has been and how excited I am for the year to come.
We have a beautiful world in front of us; a beautiful world that deserves our efforts to improve it– to make it more just, more equitable, and more kind. In order to maintain our dedication in this difficult struggle before us, we have to remember the world we love and hope for and not the problems we hate.
We may have some big problems ahead of us; and they aren’t problems we can solve alone. We need each other. We need our friends, we need our families, and we need our allies. Which means we have to be honest and tell them about our daily realities.
Because … call me naïve, but I believe the world can be better.
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to finish God’s work before you ~ nor are you allowed to abandon it.”
~ Jewish proverb from the Talmud