by Shelley Jack
Mamasita! Mamasita! Psst! Psst! Psst!
Taunting, yet playful faces of men passed me by on uneven sidewalks, working diligently to make eye contact. I was lost, again, on a street in downtown San Jose, Costa Rica, walking quickly, head down. Only a few months in to my year-long stay as a business English teacher in the country, the unpredictability of the road and transportation systems continued to challenge even my most adventurous side. When I finally arrived at my destination, three hours into what should have been a 30-minute walk, I sat down and cried one of those long, cleansing cries. I felt dirty from a steady stream of what we North Americans might refer to as aggressive cat-calling or ogling. I was drenched in sweat and tears, and I was painfully conscious of my light skin, blue eyes. Worst of all, I was immersed in a kind of fear that most of my countrywomen never have to face here on the streets of America.
For two steady days, I analyzed it, over and over. Since I could not control them, I turned the focus on myself. Here’s how the conversation went:
Was it the way you were dressed?
Hmm. I don’t think so. I was wearing jeans, a high-cut dress shirt and shoes with no heel.
Were you making an inviting or flirtatious face?
Definitely not. I was scared and trying to act like I wasn’t.
Ahh, so they knew you were scared. That made it worse.
Yep, it’s my fault. Got to stop acting like a Gringa. Walk like a Tica.
How do Ticas walk?
Well it’s different, but I’m not sure how. I’ll have to study it more….
This is only one story. I have many others, more positive and redeeming stories about the privilege of sharing a year with some of the happiest people on earth, the Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they call themselves. For every bad experience, like the one above, I have at least five good stories to tell of gracious families, patient bus drivers, selfless store clerks, and especially of the hard-working, intelligent students whom I came to love and respect.
But it’s human nature, a primal defense, for fearful experiences to insist on a place in the forefront of our recollections. So when I read the news of Laura Chinchilla becoming the first female president of Costa Rica, I was confronted by both joy and pain. And while I wished for the joy to be so much stronger than the pain, they were equally split. It’s wonderful that this landmark event ushers in an opportunity for Ticos and Ticas to see a woman in a position of power and leadership. But the pain persists because I understand the persistent ‘Psst’ that Ticas have tolerated. They’ve put up with it for so long, in fact, that they gave me funny looks when I mentioned it.
I pay attention to international news. I notice when women get elected into positions of authority. I celebrate to myself, maybe make a passing comment to co-workers or my students. Period. End of thought. But the more you know, the less you really know for sure.
I shut down my computer, as I do every day, but today my thoughts refuse to shut down along with it.
In the U.S. we’ve come to understand that, despite the best efforts of clever election posters and music videos, the skin color of our president still matters a great deal to a lot of people, and the same holds true for gender (just imagine if Hillary Clinton had won the election instead of Barack Obama). So please don’t read a passing headline concerning a country that most people couldn’t place on a map and assume it’s proof that women in Latin American countries are movin’ on up in the world. The fact is that they still face a climate where their worth is too often a function of sexual allure and family-making ability.
After replaying that little street incident in my head several times and coming up with no good answers, I did what I would often do when struggling with cultural differences; I talked to my students. We spoke regularly about language and behaviors in the context of their culture, U.S. culture and international business. When I related the incident and later used it as a classroom discussion topic, there were mixed reactions and nervous laughter. Some were embarrassed that their teacher felt uncomfortable for even one minute in the country they adored. They explained that it was a compliment. (This made me cringe, even though I knew it was coming.) And they pointed out that I kind of looked like a light-skinned Tica because I wear nice clothes and jewelry. They won’t say it, but Costa Ricans are like many internationals – they often think of Americans as overweight people in sneakers and sweatpants. So I received the cat-calling treatment usually reserved for Ticas. Go figure. Other students were silent for a moment, ashamed of the cultural reality and not knowing how it could be fixed (or even how to articulate their feelings on such complex subjects in their first language, let alone in their second).
That discussion paved the way to a safe place where we could openly talk about other tough subjects. Why were there job ads that openly advertised for people between the ages of 19 and 29? Why was it so hard for a woman to be hired into a professional position if she was over 35? Why did the mannequins in the clothing stores have triple-D sized breasts and a whole lot of ‘junk in the trunk’ (an American idiom they heard someone joking about in the office)? Could a woman really be effective as the president of the country? Was she in a lose/lose situation? Was she being elected just because she had the support of Oscar Arias? What if Chinchilla was unattractive? Would she have a chance at winning then?
And here is what we might have talked about today in class: Why does the most-read daily newspaper in the country announce Laura Chinchilla’s presidential victory on the cover and include at least three photos of pin-up girls on Page 3?
Slowly, a few of my students would find their voices. They knew what was happening. They felt trapped by the complexities of their own culture. They said they knew it wasn’t okay and that they were examples of men and women who didn’t believe or act that way. They were right.
So today I offer a bipartisan Salud! to Laura Chinchilla and Barack Obama for aspiring to positions of leadership despite their difficult minority status. I choose to believe still that these are important evolutionary moments in the progress of our world. There’s not a quick fix, and it certainly doesn’t mean we ignore the decisions they make – women and racial minorities make mistakes, too. But I’d like to send out an even bigger Salud! to my students, who remind me that it is still everyday folks talking about tough questions and serving as their own role models who will help us eliminate, eventually, the cat-calling, name-calling, blame-gaming and fear-mongering.
Leave it to the Ticos, a people free from a wealthy nation’s propensity for pontification, to remind us that life can be that simple even in its complexity.
Shelley Jack returned to the U.S. in August of 2009. She now works as a freelancer and adjunct professor specializing in digital marketing, her career path before the Costa Rican hiatus.