Sunday, March 23, 2014

Five Images of (Whitish) Womanhood In Ecuador

1) I am walking down the street with my blonde friends, "Hola Princesas," a group of men calls to us.  "Hi."  "Hello!"  "Hello Beautifuls."  Without them, I have not been catcalled once.  I wonder what this means, or if it means anything, and what it is like to be an Ecuadorian woman in this city.

2) During Carnaval-  The host aunt of my friend is trying to set me up with the 23 year old guy who lives where we are staying.  We are going to the Discoteca.  "Take her by the arm.  Take her by the arm!"  she says. "Tell her, you are my property for the night."

This was funny for a while, but she couldn't have picked a better phrase to set me off.  “I will never, never, never, never, never, never be anyone’s property, including when I am married.”  I struggle to express in rapid Spanish.  I wonder what they think of my flash of feminism, and if many young women here think it is normal to be, or want to be, the "property" of men.

3) The streets are filled with flowers- International Women's Day is a big deal here.  I am wished well wherever I go, and the next day at a party, a mariachi band dedicates their performance to all the women.  They say they believe it should be Women's Day every day.  But the activism associated with the day in the international community is largely absent here.

4) When going anywhere with men, they often let me go through the door first.  This really bothers me and my friend Sarah, not because chivalry is awful and sexist, but because usually these people are leading us on a tour or something, and we have no idea where to go.  It is a very inefficient system.

5) I am wearing a skirt, so you can see the severe mosquito bites on my lower leg, already two weeks old, but pretty awful looking.  "Do not scratch," my host mom instructs me, "You don't want scars.  Men won't like them."  My body is dotted with probably hundreds of old scars, but I don't think to be insecure until much later.  Instead, I say, "If they don't like it, they are not important."  I was going to say, "If they don't like it, they can't have it," but that felt a little inappropriate for a family gathering. I spend the afternoon talking to a young man at the party about racism, cultural differences, and our respective educations. He offers to take me to a museum, so I guess he didn't mind the mosquito bites. He is the first Ecuadorian man in 8 weeks to have even a remotely intellectual conversation with me. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Fotos on fotos- Baños, Ecuador

For my mother to show her friends who are not friends with me on facebook.

A White and Latina Woman who Doesn't Speak Spanish Fluently Studying in Latin America

Note-  I wrote this piece for a weekly required diary for my Spanish class here.  It is posted both in the original Spanish and in English because I feel it speaks to the identity issues I begin to explore in the piece.  This is the English translation.  When I was translating it to English, I became aware of how much more deeply I could probe these ideas and therefore how far I have to go in my dominance of Spanish.  On the other hand, I feel that the Spanish version is much more elegant and expresses more directly what I wish to say, even though I was thinking a lot in English when I wrote the original.  I will observe this while keeping in mind that I also thought I was a great writer in English in the fifth grade.
The translation is almost exact, for the purposes of communicating how I write in Spanish, as well as for the sake of my time.  (Hi finals week!  Should probs go back to that paper now.)

My skin now is darker than when I arrived.  My hair is dark and long and thick, my eyes brown and small as always.  I always say  I look more like my self identity- which is to say, Latina, Mexican- in the summer. 

Only one fourth of me is Mexican.  I will never speak the language like a native and my parents and grandparents do not speak Spanish either.  I grew up in a suburb full of white people.  I was the second darkest in my Kindergarten class, even though I have white skin.  In high school, there were more people of color, but I didn’t consider myself to be automatically a part of them.  My Mexican great-grandparents met in Minnesota.  My grandfather changed his name from Miguel to Mike.  But I remember days with my big family, with tamales and love, and I know the history of my Mexican family, and I want to return there and learn more.  I will never forget my mother insisting “You are Mexican, you are Mexican” almost every day of my childhood.  Not German, not Irish or Norwegian (which I also am), Mexican.  And I am.  But it is complicated.

Images of Ethnicity in Ecuador:

“Where are you from?” he asks.  The question is easy and normal here because there are many people passing through, and obviously I’m not from Ecuador- when my skin does not give it away, my Spanish does.
“The United States,”  I answer.
“But where are you from originally?” More specifically?
“But where are your grandparents from?”  Oh, that’s what this is about, I think.  He has noticed I look Latina and wants an explanation.
“But you aren’t Chinese?” I guessed wrong, apparently.  Goodness, this again…

The next morning in the hostel, a man speaks to me in rapid Spanish.  I only understand one word- habitaciones (rooms).  He repeats it again.  When I look at him funny, he says, “Oh, you don’t work here!  I’m sorry.”  In less than 24 hours I have been Chinese and Ecuadorian.

But when speaking about the topic of my ethnicity and the interest the whole world has in it, my friend says, “I don’t understand.  You just look white to me.”  But other students have asked me about my ethnicity. And no one asks if you just look white.

Is What They See What I Am?

It is a bad thing that many mixed people have to explain to people (mostly white people, and for me, mostly males) why they look “different” or really, why they are not white; that people think it is okay to ask super personal questions to strangers just because they aren’t white.  But the thing that bothers me the most isn’t the questions.  It is when the other person tells me what I am.  It is more than that I want to self-identify.  I think I want to appear Mexican because sometimes I feel like it is the only thing that I have of this part of my identity.  Clearly this isn’t true because the identity of and with my family exists independently of appearances (for example, my cousin is blonde)  but sometimes I feel like I am not Mexican at all, except in the sense that my appearance belongs to my Mexican family.  I cling to this.

So when someone tells me that I don’t look Mexican, of course I do not like it.  Mostly it is because it is none of their business.  I’m not sure why people feel like they have to comment on the appearance of others all the time, especially in regards to race and ethnicity.  But really it is because I want to self identify— AND I want to look like my self-identification. 

Why?  Why does it matter what other people think?  Because it is important.  In the world of race, a social construction in the first place, the only thing that is important is how you look.  If I look like a person from China, people are going to treat me like I am Chinese.  If I look like a white person, I will receive all of the privileges of being white.  The way that other people see me is part of who I am, though I do not like it sometimes.  My identity cannot just be my self-identification, even though that is confusing enough.  It also includes the opinions of other people. I am reminded of this often here, as a white and latina woman who doesn’t speak Spanish fluently studying in Latin America.  It makes me think a lot.

Una Blanca, Latina Mujer que no Habla Español con Fluidez Estudiando en América Latina.

Note-  I wrote this piece for a weekly required diary for my Spanish class here.  I am posting it in the original Spanish because I feel it speaks to the identity issues I begin to explore here.  Note that often when I write in Spanish, I am really translating from English in my head, that there were no fewer than fifteen mistakes fixed by my professor before I posted this, and that while a great many of my white friends will be able to read this original version, my Mexican family will not.   A translation is available above.

Mi piel ahora es más oscura que cuando llegué.  Mi cabello es oscuro y largo y grueso, mis ojos son marrones y pequeños como siempre.  Siempre digo que en los veranos me veo más como la forma en que me identifico- es decir, latina, mexicana.  

Solamente un cuarto de mi misma es mexicana.  Nunca voy a hablar la lengua como nativa, y mis padres y mis abuelos tampoco hablan español.  Crecí en un suburbio donde vivían muchas personas blancas.  Yo era la segunda más oscura en mi clase de Kindergarten, aunque tengo la piel blanca.  En la escuela secundaria habían más personas de color, pero yo no me consideré automáticamente una parte de ellos.  Mis bisabuelos mexicanos se conocieron en Minnesota.  Mi abuelo cambió su nombre, “Miguel,” a “Mike.”  Pero recuerdo días con mi familia grande, con tamales y amor, y sé la historia de mi familia mexicana, y quiero regresar y aprender más.  Nunca voy a olvidar a mi madre insistiendo “Eres mexicana, eres mexicana” casi todos los días de mi niñez.  No alemana, no irlandesa o noruega, mexicana.  Y soy.  Pero es complicado.  

Imágenes de etnicidad en Ecuador: 

“¿De donde eres?” pregunta él.  La pregunta es fácil y normal aquí porque hay muchas personas viajando siempre, y obviamente no soy de Ecuador- cuando mi piel no lo revela, lo hace mi español. 
“Los estados unidos,” contesto.
“¿Pero de donde eres originalmente?” Más especifico? 
“¿Pero de donde son tus abuelos?”  Ah, eso es de  lo que se trata, pienso yo, él ha notado parezco latina y quiere una explicación. 
“Pero no eres china?” Supuse mal, aparentemente.  Híjole… esto otra vez…

Y la próxima mañana en el hostal, un hombre me habla en español rápido.  Solo entiendo una palabra- habitaciones.  Él repite otra vez.  Cuando le miro a él con extrañeza, dice- “Oh, no trabajas aquí- lo siento.” En menos de 24 horas, era china y ecuatoriana.  
Hablando sobre el tópico de mi etnicidad y el interés que todo el mundo aquí tiene en ella- mi amiga dice, “No entiendo.  Sólo pareces blanca  para  mí.”  Pero otros estudiantes me han preguntado sobre mi raza o etnicidad, y nadie pregunta si solo pareces blanca.  

Es lo Que Ven lo Que Soy?

Es una cosa mala que muchas personas mixtas tengan que explicar a personas (principalmente personas blancas, y para mi, hombres) porque parecen “diferente” o porque no son blancos; que personas piensan que está bien hacer preguntas super personales a desconocidos solamente porque no son blancos.  Pero la cosa que me molesta mucho no es las preguntas.  Es cuando una otra persona me dice quien soy.  Es más que quiero autoidentificarme.  Pienso que quiero que aparezca mexicana porque a veces siento que es la única cosa de esta parte de mi identidad que tengo.  Claramente, no es verdad porque la identidad de y con mi familia existe independientemente de las apariencias (mi prima es rubia, por ejemplo) pero a veces siento que no soy mexicana nada, excepto en que mi apariencia física pertenezco a mi familia mexicana.  Me aferro a esta.  

Entonces cuando alguien me dice que no parezco mexicana, no me gusta.  Principalmente es porque no es asunto de ellos.  No estoy segura de por qué las personas sienten que tienen que opinar sobre la apariencia de alguien todo el tiempo, especialmente en lo que se refiere a la raza y el origen étnico.  Pero en realidad es porque quiero autoidentificarme—y quiero aparecer como mi autoidentificación.  

¿Por qué? ¿Por qué me importa lo que piensan otras personas?  Porque es importante.  En el mundo de la  raza, que es un construcción social, la única cosa importante es como pareces.  Si parezco como una persona de China, las personas van a tratarme como si fuera china.  Si parezco como una persona blanca,  voy a recibir todos los privilegios de ser blanca.  Entonces la manera en que otras personas me ven es parte de lo que soy, aunque no me gusta a veces.  Mi identidad no puede ser solo de mi autoidentificacion, aunque esto es bastante confuso para mí, pero también incluye las opiniones de otras personas.  Me recuerda esto a menudo aquí, como una blanca, latina mujer que no habla español con fluidez, que estudia en América Latina.  Me hace pensar mucho.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Define "House"

It has been almost a week since I got back to Quito from my viaje de Carnaval, but we've been pretty busy, from class trips, to more birthday parties, to bumming around gringolandia (okay, so I guess that was a non-busy choice), so I'm just now getting to everything I want to say.

Carnaval was a BLAST- I hung out with my good friend Katrina's super fun host family, saw some beautiful beaches, rivers, cute little towns (and bumping Atacames), and lots of gorgeous costal scenery.  The coast is completely different from Quito.  Quito is a sprawling city- I'm sure I haven't seen all of it, or even driven across the entirety of it, yet.  The buildings aren't tall, and I'm still not sure how it fits all of the stores and the people it does.  It is all concrete and pavement, dominated by apartments, houses, and individual tiendas (the bakery, the fruit store, the haircut place). It is usually 75 degrees and it rains nearly every day.

The coast is out of the mountains and therefore hot and tropical and humid and probably what you imagine when I say I am studying on the equator.  We hung out in little towns, with houses made of concrete or wood, often risen because of snakes, surrounded by grass and dirt, far apart from one another.  We spent most of our time in rural areas or tourist-y, happening beach towns.

We stayed the first night with Katrina's host grandparents and the second night with a friend of the family.  The host grandparents live on a finca de arboles (tree farm), and getting there required driving down a path one vehicle could barely fit through (as we were entering, another car was trying to leave, so that was a little adventure).  The friends live on a finca de camarones (a shrimp farm, made of shallow pools)  and the only way to get there is by boat.  We parked our car in the cute little town close by and hopped into the family vehicle, a medium sized motor boat (think super huge canoe mixed with speed boat).

Katrina's grandparents' house was made of wood on stilts a story high, with a concrete bathroom with running water (usually) out back. The family friends lived in a house made of palm and wood, risen a few feet off the ground, with a porch, and a bathroom with running water around the back (but attached to the house).  In reality, both houses were beautiful, in gorgeous areas, especially the one on the shrimp farm- there was a beautiful porch around the entire front of the house (which was also the hallway) where you could look out over the river.  The food was great (and free!) and I'm so grateful to the families for hosting me.  Things were clean and simple.

And hot, and humid, and buggy, and the first day there was no electricity at all which meant no running water because of the way the system works at the grandparents' house.  Openings in the houses, whether windows without glass or simple separations between the boards on which we stood (remember, they are raised and sometimes felt unsturdy) provided the only relief from the heat, while allowing entire extended families of bugs to come in and hang out with us at night.  Decoration was old calendars and posters. (Including the head scratcher in the family friends' kitchen from what looked like a swimsuit magazine featuring a topless woman sitting backwards on a horse, which was proudly displayed above the dining table.)  Entertainment included television (at the house with electricity) and watching the chickens that had free run of the yard in both places (as well as all the beauty that the surrounding nature had to offer, but there were some points in that trip where I did not want to see any more nature).

While I'm not the kind of girl whose life depends on wifi, I'm ashamed to say that I had some problems way out there in the country.  Besides phones and television (which everyone seemed to have nice, newer models of), I felt like I had stepped back in time.  Way back.  I used to read the Little House on the Prairie books.  One of them described in great detail the building of a house made out of finished lumber (which was special, as they usually used logs).  I swear Katrina's grandparents' house was a more colorful version. (The inside walls were painted vibrantly.)  While I was super grateful to be where we were, I could never imagine living there.

At Katrina's grandparents, when we arrived, the electricity had been out for who knows how long.  No one seemed the least bit worried, not even about the food in the refrigerator or accessing running water, much less lights or music or television.  We bathed in the stream that night with one of the girls who lives in the house as if it were routine.  While there, I came face to face with the fact that people don't just do their laundry in a stream in theory, but rather in actual practice.

At the next house, we went to a party with the young people in the family.  I was astounded at how beautiful and made up the daughter about our age got before we went.  I was sweating and covered in insect repellent and I couldn't do my hair with all the tangles from the car and the boat and I couldn't even think about putting on makeup. We were (in my mind) so much camping that appearances couldn't possibly matter.  But we weren't camping.  We were staying in someone's house.  I had to keep reminding myself of that, and not, perhaps, that we were hanging out in the treehouse of my childhood dreams.

(Okay, so while we were staying in someone's house, we were also camping, but I digress.)

But houses keep bugs out, and they always have running water, and they have more furniture than a table and chairs and beds, and you can't see through the floor or the outside walls in houses.  Houses don't have hammocks on the inside.  Houses don't make me feel like I am deeper in the wilderness than I have ever, ever been.  This, most certainly, is not a house, said the Mariah that was sweating and getting eaten alive, somewhere between bathing in a stream for the first time and experiencing a river driveway.

I mostly got that Mariah to shut up and enjoy the beautiful experience, all while reflecting and overanalyzing because I'm pretty sure there is no version of myself that does not do that.

It would be really easy to sit there and say that people living in houses without glass windows who bathe and do laundry in the stream are poor, and that they don't live in houses- more like shacks.  It would be easy to turn up our noses and be judgmental and then take pity on them.  (See the above attitude if you do not believe me.)  However, this would be a huge error.

It has become clear to me with the observation of the fact that I cannot define a house (at least not without turning to a very Western-and in particular, suburban, Minnesotan-perspective) I certainly cannot attempt to define poverty.  However, from what I could gather, the families that lived in these houses were far from poor by any standard.  They had what they needed- and more- and they chose a country lifestyle in a place where it makes sense to build raised houses with cracks in the walls.  The fincas are a family business, being next door neighbors with nature a way of life.  Like many things are (and many things aren't) here, it is just different.

I'm not sure about how poverty came to be defined anyway.  It seems to me that poverty should be when people don't have what they need to live healthfully, but the idea of being poor or not poor is all the sudden wrapped up in having houses that meet a certain definition, in consumption, in a whole bunch of stuff I don't really understand to this day.  And then I am sitting here in my house in Quito, which looks like an old house in St. Paul, and judging and deciding the economic class of my host family based on the things they have that fit my definition of house, of poor, and of not poor.

And when I was on the coast, attempting to fit my new experiences with my old definitions, I discovered that I can't define house, and I can't define poor, and more than that, I have no business to be doing so.

(However, some questions remain.  If money makes the world go round- and it does- then definitions of poverty certainly matter.  What would happen if we all adopted the lifestyle of "buen vivir," living in harmony with each other, ourselves, and nature, consuming only what we need to survive?  I have seen it exist here, in a couple who organic farms.  That, to me, does not equal poor, even though the people I met who live this way only earn $5 to $6 every week.  Is this sustainable?  Can it exist everywhere (you know, if people sucked less)?  Does this render social classes and poverty meaningless?  Certainly not, I do not think.  Even if I have no business defining houses or poverty, being working class, for example, is a huge part of certain people's identities, and even if a social construct, obviously has very real implications.  What about social classes around the world?  I tried to talk to my host mother about this, but did not get very far- in my world, where everyone is "middle class," how could I?- And even though Ecuador has the same currency in the United States and many of the same jobs and expenses, it is even impossible to compare economics this way.  The minimum salary is under $400 per month, but living costs are less, but a toothbrush costs the same, but bread costs next to nothing, and anything with a U.S. brand costs double.  Money makes the world spin around for sure... And also my head.  I'm thankful I've always had a safe place to rest it, whether protected from the cold in Minnesota, in a tent in a house on the Ecuadorian coast, and many places in between.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Portrait of Me in Ecuador/ In General

We visited a U.S.-owned used bookstore yesterday.  While there, I discovered a Chicken Soup for The Soul book in Spanish.  I was quite excited about it, as when I was younger I would always buy Chicken Soup books at flea markets.  As I was checking out, having decided not to buy it because I had picked two other books, the man who owned the store offered it to me for a lower price.

"I have never seen someone so excited about a Chicken Soup book before,"  he said.

Devon, one of the other girls on my program, said something along the lines of, "Mariah is usually the one most excited about most things."

Accurate.  (And proud to be that girl.)

(I bought the book.)