Rosa invites me over for my usual afternoon cup of coffee. I sit down in my usual blue plastic chair, putting my feet up on her cement stoop. We sit, enjoying the setting sun and the coolness that comes with it.
We say hello to the vecinos that walk by, sometimes chatting briefly about this or that. Tonight a man I have yet to meet comes by and sits down with us, I can feel his eyes looking at me curiously. I wait for the question that will surely come.
“Tienes hijos?” Do you have kids?
“No, no, yo no tengo ninos.” No, no, I do not have kids
“Tienes un esposo?” Do you have a husband?
“No yo tengo un esposo tampoco” No, I do not have a husband either
“Pues, tienes que buscarlo.” Well, you have to look for one
“No, no. No lo necesito. Estoy aqui para trabajar, no para casarse.” No I don’t need one. I am here to work, not to get married
¨En la cama por la noche, no quieres estar sola.¨ When you go to sleep at night, you don´t want to be in bed alone.
“Si mi amor, soy una mujer independiente y libre. Me gusta dormir sola, porque asi tengo la cama entera.¨ Yes, my love, I am an independent and free woman. I like to sleep alone, because I like to have the entire bed to myself.
“Cuanto anos tienes?” How old are you?
“Pero eres vieja. Tienes que buscarlo pronto.” But you are old. You have to look for one soon.
“Pues, soy una jamona entonces.” Well, I am an old maid then.
When I meet a person for the first time, especially men, it is likely that the first questions I will be asked are exactly this- Do I have a spouse? Do I have kids? Here, at the ripe, old of 25, it is rare for a woman to not have a husband and a kid or two. In certain communities, a 25 year old woman without kids or a husband to claim, will often be called a jamona, or in other words, an old maid.
I often find myself tired of having the same conversation over and over again, feeling as though I am discussing personal decisions I have made with perfect strangers, often feeling judged and misunderstood. However, I realize that it important that I try to view these type of conversations through a cultural lens, from their point of view. If you take the fluff out of the conversation, the comments on age and sleeping alone, what does this conversation really say? What can I learn about the people and culture in this community? What do they value? The answer is family. As I continue to get to know this place and the people in this place that hopefully will one day feel like home, I am realizing just how important family is, how highly it is valued above anything else.
It something I have found myself thinking about a lot, what it would have been to be a kid growing up in a community where your entire family- nuclear and extended- live within walking distance of you. Walking down the street, you will often hear people yelling, “Tio!” “Tia!” “Primo!” “Prima!” If you need something, most certainly someone has a family member that can help you out or do it for you. Living in the campo, it feels like everyone is family- whether it be by blood or not. For many here, they live their life for their family, every decision they make, they make for their family.
Due to poverty and lack of opportunities, I have been told that kids are often also viewed as one’s retirement plan. And before you judge this idea, think about it through this lens- Unlike for many of us in the United States where we have the opportunity to put money away into our 401k’s, in poor communities, without disposable income, credit cards and bank accounts, kids are often needed to ensure that one will be taken care of when the body can no longer work to provide. Kids are not only seen as a blessing, but they are viewed as a necessity to survive. So when I tell people that I may not have kids, people often do not understand how or why this could be. How will I survive in my old age? These are things people have to think about.
Along with the value of family, this conversation I often have underlines the single narrative of value girls and women are often given in a country. Value is to be found externally, from the spouse you have and the kids you reproduce. Even if you are a woman like me, a woman who finds value in her independence, in the work that she does, in the family she has and the friends she keeps, she is told often, so she certainly will never forget, that something is missing. You cannot be complete if you do not have a man to take care of and children to bear. You will live a life unfulfilled or a life wasted if you never become a wife and a mother. You will become what some people view me to be, a ¨jamona¨¨ or in other words, an old maid.
This narrative of value also reflects the complicated history this country, like most in the world, has with machismo, or misogyny. But machismo does not just hurt women and girls, it hurts men and boys, too, who are also given a single narrative that a real man will have many women and bear many children, regardless if that is truly the life he wants to live. A real man is seen as a person who doesn’t cry. He is strong and powerful, a person who demands respect often through his fists opposed to his words or actions.
Machismo is a systemic disease that, in my humble opinion and observations, is one of the greatest factors to deterred development of this country. Peace Corps has created programs like Chicas Brillantes, Yo Soy Supèrman and Let Girls Learn programming to help combat these deeply embedded ideologies, programs I hope to implement with the help of my community partners.
This seed of value is planted in the minds of children from a very young age, and in my campo, we can see this idea bear its fruits all around us. Girls as young as 14 are left at home, taking care of their husbands and children, dependent on their spouse for everything they need, who too often is unfaithful. When push comes to shove, poor and without an education or other safety nets, girls and women are forced to stay in toxic relationships in order to ensure that she and her children will have a house over their heads and food to eat. They are stripped of opportunity to improve their lives, and are often left to live a life they did not choose for themselves.
However, it is important that I say that this is not the single story I want to paint of the people in this community or of this country. Just like the United States, the people here are diverse and each situation is unique. There are more and more students- men and women- who have the opportunity to go to university and get an education that was not available to many of their parents. There are couples who are happily married, who have been empowered to choose to have children because they want to not because they feel they have to. There are many women who are entering the work force and deciding to delay marriage and a family because they now have the ability to do so. There are men who are loving, giving partners and fathers and are instilling in their sons and daughters the same ideals. Things are changing, but like most change, change comes slowly.
My hope for my service is that I can help plant and a seed that offers a different narrative to boys and girl, men and women. That value we have comes from within, from building a life we have chosen to live- and whether that means choosing to have a family and kids or deciding to walk another path, like me, the path of a jamona, I hope that we can begin to see value as having the power to choose what you believe to be valuable.
And so for me, I will wear my title proudly.
Yo soy jamona.
Un beso fuerte,