This article was initially published as part of a collaboration between Kohl and AWID.
Thank you, Ángela and Pilar.
The three of us were “sharing” the afternoon in a neighbourhood south of Bogota. There was a large green playing area, which was unusual, and we sat on little wooden stools under an elderberry tree. We were finally experiencing that other form of love – that of being together just for the pleasure of being with and listening to each other. For me, these kinds of chats were among the expressions of love that life had allowed me to enjoy only recently. I had not known these other forms of love to be possible – those found outside workshops or activist spaces, classrooms, or workplaces. We, three friends, spent the afternoon amongst ourselves and the colour of our respective skins was not something we pretended to be blind to. Rather, it was a lived factor that allowed us to intimately discuss the similarities and differences in our childhood and youth experiences.
These kinds of chats were unrelated to any pending task of the Black movement in Colombia, but they continue to nourish me and acquire new meanings. Our closeness was woven through coming together, recognizing each other, and identifying the uniqueness of our liberations. And by realizing there is not just one, but many paths to liberation – those paths we inhabited every time we said “no” and rebelled. Far from feeling discomfort, we met in our authenticity made of weakness and strength, which, instead of separating us, brought us closer.
Our purpose on that beautiful afternoon was to just be – that awareness of being amongst ourselves. We walked through our pasts so that the memories that stayed with us were those we decided to keep as ours, and not those that fear lets through and finds a place for. We remembered exact fragments of TV shows, and sang songs written by artists that had taught us about loving well, hating well, cursing like the worst villain, and suffering like the best leading lady. We told each other about our school pranks, what remained in our subconscious after being exposed to the many ways the media repeats the same thing, after teachers and nuns at school overexposed us girls to stories so we would identify with and appropriate Cinderella’s aspirations for our own lives. This sets the tone for the rest of the story: the drama of the impoverished and diminished girl who is yet to achieve her full value through an act that redeems her condition. And that act can only be brought about by the gaze of a male who, at the very least, is white, hence deserving of what is between our thighs – his “main aspiration” – and the “perfect realization of our dreams,” which we are told should be our main aspiration.
There were three of us there that afternoon. Each had been brought up in a different part of the country, but it was fascinating that we could all still quote fragments and situations from songs and soap operas that often – as we realized by talking and getting to know each other – shared some codes or symbols that were replicated, with a few variations, in our homes, our first relationships, in our neighbourhoods and schools. Brought up in and for “drama” – is that what that very successful genre is called? – where the more you suffer, the more you deserve, the issue of “how and in which situations it is acceptable and legitimate to suffer” also becomes (and this is important) a mandate on what that attitude should be, how the person who suffers should be seen, what they should do, and whom they should be. Some of us managed to liberate ourselves and “learn” that our own definition of love could only be learnt in adulthood, shattering illusions, accepting the natural sin, being aware of the industrial production of a virgin we may refuse to look like as she has no place in our understanding, and the disappointment this alienation brings.
After singing, we reviewed our early sexual explorations. I never thought that most people experienced them before the age of nine and that even in adulthood, those experiences, those memories, remain a heavy burden. Even today, in thousands of places, millions of girls and boys see their innocence curtailed by lack of trust and the ignorance we present them with when they try to explore their bodies. Blaming curiosity is a most efficient control mechanism. We went back to the brief conversations we had when we changed the history of our lives from cursed Black beings to a perspective that rebirthed us. We remembered how many of our aunts and female cousins left their homes, their core, their roots, to seek a future outside, elsewhere.
The future comes with a price; it demands those relationships that marked our childhood are reshaped and confined to the room of oblivion. They are our foundations, but are not relevant for us to move ahead. For us, advancing was to learn by heart what we do to ourselves with the opportunities we find elsewhere; that it is elsewhere, and not within us, where opportunities lie; that we are available; that we need to be outside. However, for many of our aunts and female cousins, those few opportunities to enroll and stay in an evening class or take a sabbatical from domestic work were paid for by becoming the first sexual experience of the relatives living in the future for which they themselves and others before them had already paid, and whose price they had forgotten. The demand for this payment arrived with the same inevitability, as did a public utility service bill. We will not take up that legacy.
In Colombia and Latin America, there was an etiquette manual called La urbanidad de Carreño (Carreño’s Etiquette Manual). It was mandatory reading until the 90s in both public and private schools. My mother, taken in and brought up by Carmelite nuns, knew it by heart: the manual veritably conditioned how bodies were perceived. The first time I read it, I had to stop more than once to rub my stomach, which hurt from laughing so much. It has ridiculous instructions such as: take a shower with your eyes closed and turn off the light to wear your nightclothes. Different chapters address how one is to behave at home, in the street, and during a dinner or lunch party – in short, the norms of good taste and etiquette. The ethical core of good citizens, the urbanity that allowed one to take distance from rural life. The same manual indicated that shouting a greeting to an acquaintance on the other side of the street was indecorous; good manners dictate that you cross the street. By the same token, men must remove their coats and place them over puddles of water if accompanying a woman whose shoes should not get wet. I thought about greeting someone across a river, and how it is so hot where we live that we don’t require coats.
This Mr. Carreño is the opposite of the grandfather of a woman elder born in Turbo. She told me once that her grandfather was a wise man, that he told her about birthing and how to take care of her body. She learned that to care for her belly, she needed to keep her tissues warm, to avoid the cold that comes through the soft spot on the top of the head, through the feet, the ears, so it would not hurt particularly at moontime. For that, you need to be careful about what you eat and what you don’t eat, how you dress and how you walk, as all that has to do with girls’ health. The woman elder says that, from her devoted grandfather, she learnt that cramps became more common when houses no longer had floors made of mud and/or wood. When concrete and tiles came, when the material making up the house allowed the cold to come in through the feet, tension also grew in the belly tissue.
Surprised again. Such a distance between Don Carreño and the wise grandfather in terms of being aware of life; as distant as the mandates of proper behaviour that stifle your impulses and senses, even the most common sense that values health. At that moment, I was able to understand one more among the many ways in which concrete obstructs the earth’s breathing, and our own, as part of her. I had not realized there was, and still is, architecture and materials for taking care of our bodies. In Colombia, as well as in other countries, the materials used to make houses are taken as indicators of multidimensional poverty. A house built with concrete moves the home away from being considered poor. This is just one disappointing example of how progress pushes us to abandon the relationship between our environment and our body. Good taste and urbanity pushes us outside: to move forward, they lie, you have to go out there.
It bothered us to realize that neither our mothers nor fathers had spoken to us about menstruation, except when the brown stain had already smeared our knickers. They failed to preserve us from the shame that was supposed to be a natural feeling once menstruation had come. Along with menstruation came the belly cramps often endured in silence, because there was work to be done; some cramps were due to cysts, hematomas, or fibroids that killed the grandmothers who had discovered and forgotten the healing treatments, and then were forgotten themselves. That our mothers and fathers’ breaths turned colder and colder, but the Outside froze familiarity and, instead of warming our bellies, passed judgment with advice similar to warnings of the only thing men care about. This was applied to all men – legitimizing the plundering role of the phallus, as if its only option was to take what we have between our legs. The multiple versions of that truth were replaced by an unmovable and deeply-set naturalization: telling all women that we must preserve ourselves for one of them, for the one that will first introduce his penis inside us, for the one that will give us something in exchange, and that we are women only because we aspire to and let him put it inside us. As a girl I explored little penises and clitorises and, in between games among girls, the question was whispered: whose turn is it to play man and whose turn is it to play woman? And the answer: the beginnings of little orgasms, regardless of with whom. I guess the same must happen among male bodies.
The experiences and explorations of our aunts, female cousins, and acquaintances focused on the body and its nudity as taboo. They avoided expressing and naming it, to the point of covering it up, assigning new names to its excreting, expelling, procreating, and, just for us women, its receiving functions. Once I heard a woman elder in a workshop say that when she was living with her grandmother, her memory was of this old woman sleeping with one eye open, the other closed, and a rifle by the mattress. The softest night sound was enough for her to grab the rifle and aim. This is a common situation in the Colombian Pacific, where some harmful behaviors are normalized. Married and single men who like a young woman would enter her room at night – we call it gateada. It was a risk: if those with authority in the home realized what was happening, abuse or not, the man could be hurt or even killed.
This practice of taking the law into one’s own hands has failed to put an end to gateadas, even today. In that same workshop – as I kept telling my sisters – other participants said that neither they nor their mothers would leave their daughters alone with their fathers at bath time, unless the girls were wearing underwear. I remembered then my father’s voice saying, when I was seven, your mother never let me bathe you. After sharing this, another woman responded that, in contrast, her father would give her a bath naked in the courtyard of her childhood home until she turned seven, and then her eldest brother did it until she turned nine. She never felt anything strange in the way they looked at her; for them, it was just another task in caring for the most spoiled child in the home. She remembered being seen for what she was: a daughter child, a sister child, who did not like the water.
Once again childhoods, yesterday and today. We were surprised by that story, and it comforted us. Even I had seen things being different elsewhere; my daughter’s father bathed her in the tub until she was almost two. Even before turning two, he would give her a few soft slaps upwards on her bum, to make it bigger, as he said. Here, we could also speak of other dimensions of how we construct our bodies, but that is a different story. For me, it was one care task, among many, that we agreed to divide between ourselves before the baby was born. And the decision to not see every man as a lurking rapist does not mean they are not rapists, but instead that they can stop being so. There are also men and male bodies that have been brought up to never be rapists.
This is still happening. It happened to a friend of ours and to my own daughter. I thought: how can it be that some women are coupled with men they cannot trust to care for their daughters? I am sure that my mum loved my dad. And even though we seldom speak about the woman she was before becoming my mum, I know her experiences of abuse cannot be compared to the brutality and over-tolerance of those of today. But that is still a decision many women in many places make, and that leads to other questions. How often, how repeated were cases of abuse in our extended families to make women openly, or in indiscernible ways, forbid their partners from bathing their daughters? Is it related to the media over-exposure we are subject to almost from birth? What makes family ties blur and turn into just bodily-satisfaction exchanges? Is it the proximity to urban values that care so much about the right shapes of female bodies as objects of desire, and push male bodies to behave like owners and conquerors, fulfilling the mandate to mimic media representations so they feel safe in their identity? Is it concrete and other codes, like the Carreño etiquette, that sustain it? Is it encouraged by the need to forget certain relationships as the price of progress, that insistence on “doing for the outside?” What happens to what we learned in our times, those of us who, in secret or not, undertook sexual explorations as children? Were they erased by guilt? Were they the seeds of mistrust and shame in nudity? Were they the seeds of mistrust and shame of being inside oneself? Indeed, aren’t these learning possibilities to trust in, understand the nudity of bodies as part of respecting oneself and others? These questions emerge in trusted spaces, where the fear to say what one thinks and feels is driven away by the intention of accompaniment. I imagine how many of us there are in all corners of this planet and I am certain these are not new questions, that messages in them are repeated, and that we find ourselves living the answers.