Yesterday I asked for a private hotel room in a rural Andes mountain town. The old man smiled saying, “Linda buenas noches, que haces aqui sola mamita? Dónde está su novio? meaning “Good evening beautiful, whats a pretty girl like you doing alone here. Where is your boyfriend?” Maybe if this conversation took place in California I would have rolled my eyes and scoffed “It’s none of your business.” But I am in Peru, and here it is culturally acceptable and even expected to comment upon one’s appearance, flatter, and of course carry a woman’s bag to her room. I don’t fight this or try to educate him on the fact that as a single woman I travel all over the world alone. I just smile and reply “Gracias Papi” acknowledging his familial, elder, and masculine role.
In Peru, strangers address each other as “Mami” or “Papi” to show endearment and to acknowledge their life-giving masculine and feminine roles. Here the balance of these oppositional forces are symbolized through the red and black huayruro seed and conceptually woven into everyday life. While Peru is famous for its ancient practice of worshipping pachamama– a broad concept that encompasses mother earth, natural cycles of life and death, and feminine energy– all of Latin America holds a distinct respect for the mother. Whether a candle-lit altar to the Virgin Mary, the stereotypical mama’s name tattooed across the chest, or a splash of beer on the floor to give thanks to nature’s bounty, the Latin world talks and walks with an admiration for the feminine energy of creation.
As North American trained in academic feminism, this admiration and respect for the female was new and deeply revolutionary to me. Unlike my most of my experiences in school or work, in Latin America I learned to expect acknowledgment when I entered a conversation and even more so expected to be listened to. I am often helped with directions, walked through dangerous bus terminals, and given food and rides from strangers due to a form of chivalry that still exists here. When asking men why they treat women this way, they unabashedly respond that they feel women are beautiful, precious- even holy- and as such must be respected and cared for. In these lands of breastfeeding mamas and babies bundled on backs is where I began to honor myself as a woman: my attributes, my skill sets, my curves, and my social power.
But what about femininity/ism outside this cult of motherhood? Very soon after moving to Guatemala, I realized that my western concepts and definitions of feminism did not hold here. I, like many latinas, began to disidentify with mainstream western, economically advantaged, mainly white feminism. That feminism seems to be about being assertive, even aggressive, a trait that is not respected in Latin America the way it is in North America. Mainstream feminism seems mostly concerned about gaining economic power and independence. How to make space for oneself- body, paycheck, and voice within a man’s world.
In the south the struggle feels different. I believe this is because feminist critique is of general power structure of “patriarchy.” However, what the patriarchy is, how it presents itself and the systemic disadvantages it creates are distinctly different. Here women run up against the machismo attitude, a specific type of male domination whose construction and insecurities morph depending on country and social class. After dating several latin men, one common theme I find is men idolizing their mother- her tamales, kindness- in a way that women can never quite live up to. Yet simultaneously men treat women as sexual objects that are never truly allowed to cross into the public realm of “guy time.” Latino men bond in bands of brotherhood, and the passionate anger with which they protect both their social and economic power makes the typical North American football brawl took like child’s play. “Blood in, blood out” as the infamous ‘93 gang films states. Machismo is violent, sexual, and about demanding respect and power. While there are parallels to white western patriarchy the values and performance are different.
So where does that leave latina women and feminists? Unlike their North American counterparts, the majority of latina women have been working both in and outside the home albeit in traditional women’s roles. Women here are strong. I’ve seen young Mayan mothers balance piles of wood on their heads while carrying the baby. I’ve seen old Salvadoran women cut sugarcane at dawn with groups of men while wearing ash covered skirts. What is slowly changing is women’s access to education. In the last ten years, women with access to education are moving out of their traditional roles with more opportunity and creativity.
Within the last three years there has been a new wave of feminism being born in Latin America. The current generation of women whose parents saw the untold violence of civil war, genocide, and political coup is now rising up to embrace witchcraft traditional medicine and textiles, female sexuality, environmental and social justice. Singers like Ana Tijoux and writers like Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez are creating fresh, nuanced political work that challenges machismo and what it means to be a women in ways that make the American pop-culture claims to feminism from artist like Taylor Swift or Beyonce feel empty. Tough, earthy hip-hop artist Rebeca Lane is breaking boundaries for women in the male dominated industry-especially empowering women coming from economically disadvantaged countries like her Guatemala. This new style of feminism utterly original.
What’s more revealing is the outstanding turnout on social media and on the street for protests against female violence. May’s Brazilian protest and Peru’s multi-city #niunamenos marches were a sign the women in Latin America are not only talking about normalized violence, but taking a stand. Feminist circles and groups although they may not be calling themselves that are gathering throughout Central and South America. Even in extremely traditional and catholic Nicaragua, women gather in the main plaza of Leon In February to demonstrate against the extraordinarily high rate of femicide in the country.
Slowly, but surely this movement is gaining momentum. Its strength is in its refusal to contain itself to academic feminism or assume the western standards of femininity, but rather creative something new. A movement rooted in the ancient worship of pachamama that refuses the violence of machismo, western patriarchy, and elitist feminism.