Formal “We’re on a Break” Declaration

I love writing. I love working things out through the pen, the keyboard, the tweet. That’s why I started this blog, and that’s why I expect to continue using it for the foreseeable future.

But I also need to work, finish my thesis, apply for jobs, and otherwise make time for the tragicomic denouement that is my last semester of undergraduate studies.

I haven’t posted on this blog since July, and I don’t expect to until I finally graduate and get an income.

I should have wrote this a long time ago, but I’m finally ready to admit that my blogging is on a break. I’ll be back, and I’ll bring something to say with me.

In the meantime, please indulge my need for a higher follower count on Twitter. Much love to the writing gods.

The Messages From Brazil’s Streets

I must admit that I didn’t hang around many demonstrations (or protest-events of any political inclination) when I lived in Brazil, from January to June of this year. And there were enough to spare, many organized in reaction to the current presidential crisis. During my first months, I wouldn’t go because I still didn’t really know São Paulo, the issues at hand, or a Brazilian willing to accompany and guide me. Months later, two threats kept me away: the possibility of police repression and of (my) deportation—I didn’t hear of any foreigner deported for such a reason, but that’s no reason to be the pendeja who risks it.

However, a lot of Brazilians and Non-Brazilians would advise me to go anyway, to “observe” this “fascinating” moment in Brazilian history; according to them, I could stay far away and (without posters or shirt of certain colors) look, leave, and that’s it. But this type of thing leave a bad taste in my mouth: as a foreigner, the uncertainties and conflicts of the Brazilian present won’t affect my future. To go and observe with little consequences and Brazilian lives became undone before my eyes seem strange to me and almost disrespectful, treating a serious and difficult crisis as a spectacle for my foreign student eyes; it was better to stay home and do everything possible to inform myself later.

It’s not that I’m not interested in Brazilian politics, quite the opposite. But when I was in that country and living that reality, it was important to me to be cautious and conscious of my position in that society. Especially in today’s Brasil: like in any country in the world, your mere presence at an event, demonstration, discussion, or Facebook group has a political value that contributes to certain interests—that might not even be your own.

But something unusual that I lived in those six Paulistano months was the replacement of an unpopular presidenta with another little appreciated “presidente”, in part because thousands if not millions of Brazilians were manipulated to go to the streets by the powerful interests in favor of the second. Witnessing so many people that has supported Dilma’s impeachment start to notice the (probably deeper) problems of the new Temer government and the nature of the political game that had been played with the country was an experience of almost scar-leaving intensity.

This is partly why I’m only writing about my Brazilian semester a month after having left the country, to give a relatively clear beginning and end to whatever I might add to the topic. And it’s why the pictures I now present only show sociopolitical messages that I found in my wanderings about São Paulo. That posting-pictures-of-strangers-without-their-permission nonsense is a bad habit of the Internet; the photos that I do have of the different demonstrations that I did experience are not mine to share.

The gallery is organized by the month I took the photo. I attempted to add enough commentary to give an idea of context of each image. This collection is small and thematically limited for two reasons: first, because I would take them on my day-to-day walks on middle class and up neighborhoods and, second, because I’m not the pendeja who’s gonna flaunt her iPhone in Brazil every five minutes.

More than anything, I hope that one idea is clear through this little gallery: the conflicts of modern Brasil go beyond who’s in the presidential chair, and topics such as the environment, feminism, racism, education, and sexuality are still relevant in the lives of these 200 millions. Or at least the 20 millions that live by São Paulo.


Twenty Going on Eighteen

In Puerto Rico (where I lived until a couple of months after my 18th birthday), the legal drinking age is 18. In the United States (where I have tended to live since late-August 2013), the legal drinking age is 21.

A few days from now, I will turn 21 and end this frustrating legal gap—I like to joke that I will soon be regaining a right I already had—and all of its weird side effects. I’m definitely happy about becoming a 21 year old, but not average-person-raised-in-the-U.S.-and-who-likes-drinking happy; or at least not in the same way. This image of the Wild Twenty First Birthday is partly a stereotype, partly a phenomenon I’ve actually witnessed. I’ve never identified with it though; not now and especially not when I originally received the legal right to drink.

In part, it’s because age 18 is such a broad achievement in legal rights and responsibilities that focusing solely on the alcohol bit would be beyond ridiculous. In fact, I was very excited about the general legal adultness that came with the age.

The alcohol bit was a good bonus though. I drank sporadically from ages 14 to 18, while a lot of my boricua peers did their first barhoppings or at least convinced older relatives to supply their boozy sleepovers. I didn’t actively seek out drinking experiences (they did sometimes find me) and I was also a bit cautious about the legal issues. I tried (and succeeded at) going at my own pace, so I met age 18 with ease and satisfaction. I didn’t regularly go out or drink during that summer, but I felt like a weight had been lifted off my usually sober shoulders. And I was slowly but surely learning what kind of drinks I liked, what my limits were, what kind of places I preferred.

A few months later, being 18 in New York felt like a harsh interruption to this process. I had arrived at a new drinking culture and legal environment, surrounded by crowds of students who had never experienced the legal right to do so. The fact that my place in relation to drinking was very different from that of most of my peers often made me feel more foreign, more “other”, than what I was comfortable with or needed. These complications passed as the people around me and I evolved, and I resumed my getting-to-know-alcohol-at-whatever-pace-I-want process.

Ironically, I will not be turning 21 in a country where this matters since I am currently studying abroad in Brazil (drinking age 18, like most of the rest of the world). These past few months have been educational in a variety of ways, but there’s one relevant thing that I’m (maybe weirdly) thankful for.

Going to college in the U.S. has broadened my horizons and all that in many ways, but it has also isolated me from the types of experiences I would have had back home as a young adult. I’ve been enjoying drinks in New York since I got there (duh) and this “process”-thing I was writing about was interrupted but not halted altogether.

But drinking in the United States between ages 18 and 21 is usually done in the shadows; behind dormroom doors, fake ids, and uncomfortable silences. Being in Brazil and unbound to these shadows has taught me how much I disliked them, how much harm they can cause, and how glad I am of being rid of them.

I’m excited for being 21 in New York. Not because I will (again) receive the legal right to drink, but because I will finally be able to drink openly, freely, and publicly in a city I enjoy and around people I adore.

Nationality is a Mess, Y’All

This picture is called “I brought my biggest Puerto Rican flag to Brazil but haven’t even unfolded it.”

I own four Puerto Rican flags, in addition to a (growing) collection of miscellaneous national tokens.

These national symbols matter to me, and belonging to a nation matters to me. However, I constantly wonder: am I more or less of a person, am I more or less of “myself” by belonging to a nation? How do I become bigger, and how do I become smaller, as a vaguely nationalistic person?

I’m annoyed and uncomfortable with any sort of “my country is the best” thinking, and I’ve never understood the feeling of “pride” in one’s country. I’m in many ways a proud person, and, consequently, a proud Puerto Rican. But I’m not proud of being Puerto Rican or from Puerto Rico. I’m far from ashamed of my nationality (and will harshly condemn those who insist I should be), but I can’t convincingly derive glory from an accident of history and geography. This attitude, however, does not mean that I’m politically indifferent about this accident.

A lot of my ideas on being Puerto Rican are strongly informed by my status as a colonial subject under U.S. imperialism. The idea of my belonging to a Puerto Rican nation is an inherently political act. In this sense, to proclaim my puertorriqueñidad is to be more than my second-class status, more than the forces that seeks to undermine and erase this very identity.

But this ideal of resistance partly depends on nationality’s emphasis on exclusivity and homogeneity.

To belong to a nation is to lock yourself in with millions of your fellow nationals, and lock out billions of your fellow human beings. There’s an unspoken idea that the human connections I make with my fellow Puerto Ricans will be more profound and important than those I could forge with anybody else. I want to believe that there’s some sort of logical, compassionate sense in looking out for, crying for, feeling happy for my fellow Puerto Rican stranger; there sort of is, but there sort of isn’t.

And then, the mere existence of those other billions of strangers makes me lock myself in further. I often feel most Puerto Rican, not when I’m constructing, developing, or sharing this identity, but when I feel my nationality threatened. Sometimes, this threat is xenophobia, racism, or imperialism; other times, I just feel a weird pressure to present myself as different from the other.

My relationship with “my” culture and “my” history is equally complicated. Through my puertorriqueñidad, I participate in poetry, relationships, struggles, and heritages that go beyond my own self. This same door, which opens the way for diversity and cultural exchange, also lets in appropriation, cooptation, and erasure. Widely varying and even contradictory elements are watered down and weeded out until a palatable, collective, “Puerto Rican culture” is reached. If anything, a nationality is a basic point of reference for the individual to exist in this world, and its very usefulness as a point of reference is derived (from better or worse) from the meaning of history and culture. I am not whatever my context is supposed to be, but I can’t be understood without it.

So I still wonder: how much anger and pain and suffering would I avoid I was free from my nationality? What would my sense of humor look like? What would my happiness entail? What and who would I be without it?

Lets Talk About Feminismo

The importance of feminism and my self-identification as a feminist have always been self-evident to me.

Maybe because before I had any notion of political, economic, or social justice (or even what politics, economy, or society were), I had learned that my surroundings functioned according to gender and had figured out that this gendered system was weird, if not shitty. Of course, the feminism that I believed in at age 4 was much smaller than the feminism I believe in at 20 (it took time to explicitly incorporate such issues as transphobia, sexual assault, climate justice, and racism into a feminism that was, rightfully, pissed off about the difference between “girl’s clothes” and “boy’s clothes”).

But I’m proud that the basic principles have stubbornly remained the same: 1) People use gender to create and justify unfair (or harmful and even violent) differences, 2) these differences and the way they manifest must be closely examined and combatted, and 3) color-coding human beings based on gender is fucking weird and should be one of your first clues as to how unnecessarily bizarre this system is.

One of the main issues I’ve encountered as a Puerto Rican/Latin American feminist is that many people often wonder “where” I got these beliefs from. In Puerto Rico, I often encounter the “You became a feminist because you watch too much gringo television/have been living in the United States/hate your country and culture”, or really any argument that puts down feminism as foreign and therefore insidious.

And then, a lot of the reactions that I receive in the United States are almost shocked that I could have possibly learned feminism in a culture as stereotypically machista as mine. Not that machismo doesn’t permeate Puerto Rican society, but arguments like these often establish the United States as the “civilized” and “progressive” nation while América Latina is “uncivilized” and “backwards.”

To say the least, I’m not cool with using feminism to establish relationships of superiority and dominace. But even beyond that: the idea that the U.S. is a bastion of feminism while Puerto Rico is misogyny-made-into-an-island hasn’t really worked out that way in many of the experiences that have informed my views on gender.

I definitely learned the word “feminism” from U.S. media. A lot of my favorite female characters called themselves feminists;like  when I was eight years old and actually cared about Gilmore Girls, it was a big deal that the show’s protagonists explicitly identified as such. However, I didn’t really learn the concept itself from such shows, books, and movies, partly because I had already defined it for myself, but also because “feminism” as defined by these shows, books, and movies often included the rejection of anything considered feminine under the guise of advocating for equality (“I’m better than the other girls because I like sports and videogames, so I’m more like the boys…). I definitely went through a phase where I believed these messages, and it took me at least a decade to reverse the damage.

U.S. media also tended (at least in my pre-pubescent view) to frequently present the Housewife as the ideal role for a woman/wife/mother. Choosing to occupy such a difficult role is far from a negative thing, but I felt nauseated by the fact that what I saw and read in English constantly returned to this image in ways that (modern) media in Puerto Rico did not. Even more daunting was the fact that, growing up, I didn’t know more than a couple of women who were Housewives, which made the notion of its normalcy seem like some sort of retrograde Gringo fantasy instead of my early 2000s Puerto Rican reality.

Part of that reality stemmed from the fact that I was raised in a mostly-female extended family; all of my mom’s sisters are successful professionals, and only a minority of the women in the family did the whole Mother/Wife thing. Which, of course, is the perfect setup for the whole “I was collectively raised by a family of Strong Latinas, which is why I became a Strong Latina and a Feminista” stereotype. While at least in my case its partly true, this type of narrative (which I’ve perceived throughout the Americas) has always made me feel a bit uncomfortable because it downplays our ability to, well, purposely think about and embrace gender equality instead of being thrust into it as an accident of birth and circumstance.

Then there’s the whole Catholic, All-Girls School situation: I went to one of those for six years in San Juan, and I’m still trying to unravel what that was all about in terms of gender. Number 11 on this random list is actually a ridiculously accurate description of the broad strokes of the experience, and I only really want to elaborate by presenting a single anecdote that keeps bothering me, years later.

In one of the few air-conditioned classrooms on the premises, a male teacher explained to my class that feminism was unnecessary in Puerto Rico because women already dominated the home, which is the basis of society. Beyond the fact that there are many other spaces that exercise a ridiculous amount of influence over society as a whole (for worse, politics and business are the main examples that come to mind), my first thought when I consider his words is that many women manage households but don’t control them, and this lack of control can often manifest violently.

Then there’s New York City, which occurs a few years later in my personal timeline: oh so civilized, oh so cosmopolitan New York, where I have received rampant and daily street harassment since my first day out of JFK. It’s humiliating, demeaning, and demoralizing; I frankly don’t know where to begin explaining how it feels to fight for control of your own body (and the public space you should feel welcome in) just because some creep wants to comment on your ass.

Which leads into one of the main characteristics of my feminism (and my entire personality, to be honest): anger.

I’m angry that I have to explain, justify, and argue about what respect and dignity look like.

I’m angry whenever feminism is used destructively and not constructively.

I’m angry that many believe my nationality (and relative nationalism) contradicts my feminism.

I’m angry every time misogyny surprises me, and I’m angry every time it doesn’t.

I’m angry that I have to explain why my anger is valid.

What if I Told You My Country Looks Like Crap?

Tourism Caribbean
Photo is of Martinique apparently. Same shit though!

Sometimes, it feels strange saying that my country is beautiful, and whatever I mean by strange slightly tends toward the negative. Because anytime I speak about my country while outside of it, I feel like I’m somehow speaking to the needs of the Tourism Industry. It seems to hang as an unspoken presence in virtually any positive comment I could make about my country’s natural or cultural beauty (or whatever the fuck “beauty” means, to be honest).

I already avoided “Your/My country is so *positive adjective*” conversations because they often lead into “X country is better than Y country” conversations, and I’m fairly weirded out at best by these rankings of peoples and places. But after living for a while in the United States and having to constantly explain my national origins and nation, I’ve noticed that gring@s and other non-Puerto Ricans react to any praise I can give my country with some sort of allusion to visiting it. And sometimes they already heard about Puerto Rico’s greatness from fellow non-Puerto Ricans (this is just a branch in the Tourist Grapevine, through which Potential Tourists derive as much information/opinions as possible about a country from Past Tourists instead of, well, locals). And other times they have actually already been to my country and can’t stop raving about x, y, and—their favorite!—z (all of which are usually the beach).

Surely, visiting a country is a (potentially) fantastic way to get to know it, and third to (1) actually being from the damn place and (2) having roots or family there. But the fact that these visits go through the semi-poisonous Tourism Industry (especially in the Caribbean, where Tourists are of more value than the residents, and the Industry has taken advantage of every social, cultural, and natural resource imaginable) render them bittersweet at best, and often nauseating for me.

And I do desire to be proud of my country’s beauty (again, whatever that means). It sounds like a nice feeling, and like a feeling that (while weird if you consider it deeply) I should be able to have.

But I can barely talk about Puerto Rico without participating in the system that exploits us and our neighbors. The value of my country isn’t in my hands, it’s in the hands of those with the position and inclination to visit it—not to mention those who control this system in the first place.

Gender, the Classroom, and Saying Any Words at All

You might know that I spent my teenage years studying at a single-gender Catholic school. Regarding gender, I’m still not sure how to feel about this type of education or even my own experiences within it. There is a lot to be said about the value and the lack of value of the concept of gender itself, and a school like mine is definitely an environment where these two interpretations (and everything in between) unfold.

Whether this type of schooling is useful or not, I graduated with a very particular set of perspectives on gender (not all in line with what my school sought to teach me, by the way). The most salient is probably a hyperawareness of men in my college education.

To many, this might sound a bit like the fulfilment of a stereotypical heterosexual girl’s daydream, as if I could only perceive a male presence as romantically appealing (“There are so many cute boys!! Yay!!!”). But that’s not how it plays out for me at all.

In seminars and some lectures, one of the tasks I almost always carry out on the first class of the semester is figuring out the percentage of men in class (an exercise that definitely entails some incorrect assumptions on an individual classmate’s experiences with gender). Given my particular academic track, men usually make up half or less of the class, if there are any at all.

Once I have a basic idea of the breakdown, I engage in a much more telling number game: counting which gender is speaking more. In my classes, it’s common for virtually all men to regularly speak a lot and to be eager to contribute ideas; everybody else is much more quiet. In huge lectures, almost all of the random students asking questions and generally saying anything at all are also men.

This horrifies me.

It both discourages me from speaking my mind and encourages me to say something, literally anything, in order to increase the number of women speaking (by one!) and lessen this terrible pattern. I shouldn’t have to feel forced to say anything just to diminish the pain and frustration of my gender’s silence.

From what I’ve gathered by talking to some peers, it’s not very typical to pay such close attention to how much certain genders speak. Literally counting the numbers as they unfairly unfold is even more unusual. This is definitely a symptom of those six years of non co-ed schooling: I’m used to women, by default, dominating the conversation. I’m used to silence being a characteristic of the individual and not the gender. But while I know that these particular experiences are fairly uncommon, I know that my frustrations are not.

I’m even less used to having to justify why male-dominated discussions in college classrooms are a troubling issue. Even if this phenomenon itself does not seem like a particularly pressing concern, the fact that these identifiable differences exist in the first place indicates that something is wrong. The problem is not that individuals are experiencing college differently: the issue is that these disparities should not rest so neatly on a concept already prone to create inequality and injustice.

And then there are the more ambiguous factors: How could or should this gendered pattern be addressed? Is the professor (probably unconsciously) paying more attention to raised hands that belong to men? Is the person (usually man) that speaks more in class also learning more? How does the content of what (usually male) students say affect the gender composition of the rest of the conversation?

All I can do at the moment is assure you that the issue is more than just a frustrated blog post.