Let’s talk about LOVE, baby

22 May

Peru is for lovers.

You’d think soccer was the national past time, but you’d be wrong. It’s romance and Love, with a capital L. Ask any other volunteer who’s been pursued (incessantly) by a Peruvian. I mean, you are getting ‘te quiero’ within like 10 minutes of meeting. Guy, please. Even among older people, almost every introductory conversation I’ve had explaining Peace Corps and my two-year service usually ends with ‘well, maybe you’ll meet a peruano, fall in love and stay forever.’ I laugh politely and say ‘maybe’ when I really mean ‘doubttttttt it.’  I find it amusing that strangers are so concerned with my relationship status, but they also seem to be just as concerned with my weight (estas gordita/flaquita!) and my diet (come mas arroz!) I chalk it up to funny things people say here.

Recently I realized the implications of this constant topic of finding a novio in Peru. Being single and 25, I am officially spinster status. I even had one lady at a tienda suggest I must be barren since I don’t have any kids yet. Excuse me!

Which leads me to my next point: since my arrival in Olmos nine months ago, I realized I wanted to spend a considerable amount of time working on gender equality issues.  In my past pre-PC life, I was curiously drawn to this topic, reading about exemplary women who changed the game or broke the barrier. We all know gender inequality is still a real thing all over the world, including our beloved America. But I’d never felt it as strongly as I did when I arrived in site. The second you walk through the lime colored arches grandly decorating the town entrance, the machismo hits you smack in the face like one of those red boxing gloves on a spring. POW!

Boxing gloveBeing Latina, I recognize the patriarchal culture that characterizes South America and even Latin immigrant populations in developed countries. Los hombres Latinos siempre son un poco ‘machista.’  In reality, seriously misogynistic American men are the exception, not the norm and most will be immediately chastised for their bonehead opinions. Not in Olmos. Here, in a small town like this, it is not only normal, it is expected and encouraged. From a young age, girls are assigned very specific roles which they will be expected to fulfill, come hell or high water. It’s probably the reason my neighbors think something is wrong with me. I am 25 and still not fulfilling my roles. The women themselves have come to accept and perpetuate these beliefs, forever solidifying behaviors that favor males and subjugate females.

What do love and machismo have to do with each other? I’ve only begun to understand the deep connection after I started teaching a girls-only class at one of the local high schools.  It’s obvious that this male-dominant environment greatly affects young girls’ development in many ways. Recognizing this, I started putting together a 6-month curriculum that uses a holistic approach to empowering female youth. The program, taught in two classrooms (junior and senior girls) once a week for an hour, includes lessons on critical thinking, self-esteem, reproductive health, nutrition, sex and gender, fitness, financial literacy, career counseling and learning about positive female role models throughout history. I’m not only telling them that girls run the world, I’m going to teach them how!

I imagined that the second I stepped into my classroom I’d have a whole army of girls ready to fight the powers that be and take over Olmos, Arab Spring-style. Except– a strange thing happened.  The more time I spend getting to know my students, teen girls from 14-16, I realize they are only minimally interested in what I have to say and totally engulfed in their teenage love affairs.  I know that’s normal for teenagers everywhere (except I don’t remember being particularly consumed by these things. Maybe I was, but my memory doesn’t recall? I can’t really say, it was such a long time ago.) Anyway, the whole thing is very Romeo-and-Juliet-esque. Case in point: the first thing the girls wanted to know about me was: Do you have a boyfriend/husband? How old were you when you had your first boyfriend? Did you leave someone behind in the states? I was all ‘Ladies, ladies, settle down. I’m here to talk about important things, like college and the future.’ But that’s not important to them right now; LOVE is the only thing that matters.

“Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.” – Ashley Judd

And therein lies the problem. From a young age, a woman’s education is not emphasized as say, learning to cook, clean and tend to household chores. Lack of support grows into lack of interest and motivation by the time they reach high school.  Then here comes Prince Charming in his mototaxi with his sweet words and love ballads and the girls are smitten like kittens.  I feel like girls are taught to believe that the most important role they’ll play is mother and wife, and are ready to play that role as soon as men start to show interest in them.  From then on, their life is dictated by their relationships.   If they graduate high school, they surely will not leave town to go to college if it means leaving their boyfriend behind. Worse, many young couples make uneducated and unsafe decisions to start having unprotected sex, which is how way too many of them end up pregnant before the age of 20. Given that the couple stays together, the chances of the woman finishing schooling and starting a career are slim. My host sister, who is 23 and married with child, told me she had one semester left of college before she dropped out.  I was like ‘why?!’ and she replied ‘well, I got engaged to my husband’ and I said ‘so what?’ and she just looked at me like ‘what don’t you get?’ I dropped it after that. At such a young age, her life is already completely rigid. Childbearer and caretaker.  If, like many cases I’ve seen in Olmos, the ‘sweetheart, love of your life, gem of a man’ books it out of town faster than a speeding bullet, the uneducated teen mom is now almost completely dependent on her family to provide for her and her child forever.  The idea of a ‘single working mom’ is absolutely non-existent in northern rural Peru.  It’s a grim scene, people.

And it all starts with that teenage love obsession back in high school. One day they’re in lala land with their novios and then reality sets in.  I don’t want to see my girls LOCKED IN for life.

I get it, obviamente, no one wants to die alone (fingers crossed over here!) but I just want to give my students the luxury of options and making their own decisions. It’s ok if you want to marry your sweetheart and be a stay-at-home mom at the age of 18 (it’s really not), but it’s also ok to follow your dream of becoming a doctor or president. As long as the choice is hers — not society or family or boyfriend. Of course love is beautiful, wonderful and fulfilling, but so is independence, freedom and reaching your goals. And I want them to know that at 15, they will have pleeeeeenty of opportunities for both in their future.

proof women can have it all. si o si?

proof women can have it all. si o si?


10 Responses to “Let’s talk about LOVE, baby”

  1. anisha May 22, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

    BEEEZ im so glad i opened the email with this update as my study break today. you are doing amazing things over there, you are olmos’ very own beyonce because as we know, every girl needs to learn that we run the world 😉 keep changing the world! miss you and proud of you! xoxoxo neesh

    • Betty_Zee May 22, 2013 at 5:34 pm #

      neeesh you’re so sweet. can we please make a 2014 vacation in the islands happen? lord knows we both need it! looove youuu ❤

  2. lb May 22, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    first I only read it because it was on my Facebook page turned out u got some pretty good bloggin skills keep up da good work

  3. Jenny May 23, 2013 at 6:04 pm #

    Betty!!!! First of all, I commend you for tackling this huge and often complex topic! A girl’s empowerment group is something I wanted to start this year before we moved. It is such an important thing to bring to light. You are fighting a HUGE demon there, one that comes with years of inculcation to this thinking, along with ages of archetypal figures such as you have described- the martyr mother. Perhaps as you mention, these young ladies are not ready to hear the message you have to bring as they are preoccupied with other things, such as teenage love – I mean, this is what they have been taught to wait for since before they were born. Perhaps you can come to them with a message of the privileged vs. the oppressed? Try to find an angle that they MAY be more interested in, yet that deals with the same issues of power struggles. If you haven’t heard of Paulo Freire, the Brazilian philosopher, look up his work. Specifically, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. I studied this a little in college, but it has stuck with me since then. It deals more with class, but can be generalized to gender oppression, which is the root of what you’re battling. Don’t give up the fight, but know that you are up against a huge beast. Also, you will have to take into account where these girls are developmentally, which may or may not be where you were developmentally. You grew up in a very different world with a role model of a working woman- they did not. Good luck to you and hats off!

  4. Jenny May 23, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    Oh yeah, and I HATE how many people feel that they have the liberty to comment on your weight, looks, marital status, etc. I have yet to figure out why people feel they have that freedom to do so. I don’t do that to people. Who cares? You are the way you are and look the way you look. I find mostly older people do this. Hoping I won’t be later on in life 😉 I’m sure you can look at them and find many choice words to use for the way they are choosing to live their life. Yet, we take the high road!

    • Betty_Zee May 26, 2013 at 8:30 pm #

      Jenny! I’m definitely going to look into Paulo Freire’s work, I love reading more about these things. I always say that Peace Corps is volunteer service but also a unique sociology experiment. I spend most of my time observing and trying to make sense of it all, from a bicultural point of view. What I’ve learned is that I still have so much to learn! Especially about this topic. You are right, feminism is complex and multifaceted and I can’t even say what I think is the perfect balance in my own life, my opinions change every day. All I know is that for my teen girls, the stakes are so much higher. The hope is that these classes have some effect on them, however minimal. I’m not sure if they will, but I’ve got an amazing opportunity to try!

  5. Elena May 24, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Woah! can i just say i peedssss my pants with the novios and the mototaxi comments.

    “Then here comes Prince Charming in his mototaxi with his sweet words and love ballads and the girls are smitten like kittens.”

    “I even had one lady at a tienda suggest I must be barren since I don’t have any kids yet. Excuse me!” –

    – LMAO i can totally imagine you saying this. Needless to say i MISS you saying crazy crap like this all da time! come back to me!!!

    Anywho im not gonna boost up your ego telling you you’re amazing and crap…..so BYE!

    • Betty_Zee May 26, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

      I only had to move to another continent for you to admit that you enjoyy the crazy things i say. ill be back, LIVEEEEEEEE AND IN PERSONNNNN, before you know it. love you!!

  6. Evs May 28, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    I loved this!!! Their mentality is all wrong – as is most of the world’s- but I’m so glad you’re out there teaching them one class room full of girls at a time. Love and marriage is so important, but so are goals and careers. Why can’t we have both?! Todo en su tiempo, 25, single, fabulous and taking over the world. Love you and so good to see your sense of humor and your crazy way of thinking/inspiring people is not lost after 9 months. (9 months!!!)

    • Betty_Zee June 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Evss!! You hit the nail on the head…I don’t want to diminish the importance of love and family, just suggesting they wait a little longer. “Todo en su tiempo” — Im going to use that one next time we’re in class and they’re probably going to hate me and I’ll feel like Im 25 going on 65 lol…but it’s totally true!

      Thanks for thinking im ‘fabulous.’ I’ll try to remember that the next time I’m bathing out of a bucket.

      I’m so excited for you and your very own ‘taking over the world’ experience you are embarking on soon!! It’s going to be amazing!! Love youuuu

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