The Northern Coast

The Northern Coast
The Northern Coast--photo by Zack Thieman

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


 machismo |məˈ ch ēzmō; -ˈkēz-|
strong or aggressive masculine pride

syn: masculinity, toughness, male chauvinism, sexism, virility, manliness; bravado

The whole point of this blog is to describe to those back home to the best of my ability my Peace Corps experience and my time in Peru. And I realized as I thought about writing this blog that I’m about to talk about a couple things I haven’t really brought up in the blog realm. Part of it may be because I have become so used to things as they are here that I sometimes forget to relay them to people back home. Also, part of it may be the fact that I know these aspects might not sit well with people. I want everyone to get an idea of what it’s like to be here and I don’t want that idea to be negative. But, in order to give everyone a better idea of the reality of living here, I'm going to have to write about it all-- the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

To start, I have recently become a fan of Mad Men. I never watched it back in the U.S., and thanks to movie and show exchanges with other volunteers, I now have access to four seasons. I really like the show, but it always leaves me sad and slightly depressed, mostly because I know the treatment of women is by no means an exaggeration. Alas, I can’t stop watching it—I’m sucked in.

One of the first episodes of the first season follows a new secretary, Peggy, who is considered somewhat homely by other people in the office, yet she still receives a lot of attention from the men, as there are bets gathered on who will be able to sleep with her first. There is a scene when she finally gets fed up with it and comments to her superior, Joan, about how the men treat her like fresh meat. Joan tells her to “enjoy it while it lasts,” implying she will never get attention like that again with her appearance and status. This is followed by a montage of men walking by Peggy’s desk, looking her up and down, winking, leering, and in general being pretty creepy.

I shivered when that part played, as I thought, “That! That is what it’s like! Those are the looks!” Because, well, I get those looks everyday. Everywhere. All the time.

I walk out my front door and am greeted by a whistle or a loud kissing sound. I walk down the main road (which is the Pan-American highway) and passing semis will slow down so that the drivers and passengers can hang their heads out the window and say lewd things. A group of men sitting in the shade on a street corner will stop all conversation to stare at me as I walk by, looking like they want to eat me for lunch. I enter the gates of the high school and give the obligatory cheek-kiss as I greet all of the teachers, and some of the men hold my hand a little too long, making comments on how beautiful my eyes and my skin are. A classroom full of 15-year-old boys will fail to even attempt to look as if they’re paying attention to me and not undressing me with their eyes. I walk out of the room and am followed by howls, whistles, kisses…

At first I would get so pissed off at all of this, I could not hide my anger and disgust. I cornered teenage boys to tell them they were being disrespectful. I flipped off truck drivers. I would practically snap my neck as I turned to give anyone the look of death who waited until after I passed to grace me with a piropo (catcall). But, it didn’t do anything. How could it, when I might as well have yelled at them for eating rice everyday? I still get angry. I still feel disgust. But, I do it more quietly. I mutter under my breath my hatred. I say things in English to myself I know could not be understood even by basic English speakers. I can't even express how much this grates at me, and I know it is something many female volunteers go through. A fellow volunteer in my department punched a truck in her anger at a group of men who obviously pushed her over the edge with their machismo.

In my first months in site I asked the women in my host family, “Does this not bother you?” and they simply responded with, “They don’t mean anything by it.” My host dad even interjected to say, "Women like it." I told them that if I were treated this way in the U.S. it would not be ignored; that I practically had permission to slap them across the face. A lot of people laugh when I say that. I’m being serious. They were shocked that such a big deal would be made of something so small.

Is it small? Is it a small thing that 14 year old girls can’t walk anywhere without getting disgusting comments made about them by men twice or three times their age (who, by the way, have no qualms with how young they are)? Is it a small thing that an entire classroom of adolescent boys is practically egged on to objectify me as a woman by their male teacher as I walk in the room?

And catcalls, piropos, that is just part of it. Inequality in the workforce, girls spending their free time doing household chores while their brothers go play soccer, teen pregnancies as young as 12 with zero responsibility put on the boy, domestic abuse… it permeates everything.

It’s the small things that add up to be big things. And right now, being a woman in Peru—a gringa woman nonetheless— is no small thing. One after another these things build and build and build, and I tell myself how lucky I am as a U. S. citizen to come from a place where this is not my everyday reality. But the reality is the U.S. has a long way to go as well. I sit in this country in awe of the injustice, and then I read the news on my own country and am dumbfounded by the regress that is happening; by the blatant machismo that is being exercised in our government and the decisions being made for women by men.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer I am supposed to be apolitical and not express any of my political standings, (even though I do not see this as political, it is simply basic women rights) so I won’t go into all of the insane bills being proposed and passed in the U.S. right now. I guess more than anything I just want to express the weight of all of this. The feeling of having nowhere to turn. Even the motherland is against me.

I am glad I am able to work with youth, because I truly feel like I am given an opportunity to work for a better future. There are a lot of things I could never change about how a culture shapes a person, but there are ideas I can plant. And as maddening as it is that the best I can do is plant an idea, I at least have the opportunity to do that.

Maybe in 20 years I can visit Peru and not be sexually harassed as I walk down the street or into a school. And maybe I’m being too optimistic with that. But if things still are the way they are, I hope the girls who will be adults by then will feel unsettled and have something to say about it.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear that the man is getting you down. I wish I could be there with you all the time so you didn't have to put up with that stuff. Well, some of it would happen whether I was there or not. I could at least get rid of the cat calls and lude comments. It is a really hard thing adjusting to other cultures. Some things you will never learn to adjust to. The hardest thing for me in Africa was the racism. I just couldn't understand it and I could never get used to the words they would use for the different races. This is going to be an uphill battle. You have many opportunities to plant those seeds you were talking to help change the lives and the futures of the youth in your town. That is a big feat. Maybe it will lead to some culture change down the road. Best of luck beating off all the men and trying to work with the machismo!