Heeah Ma Heeah (it is what it is)

September 14th, 2019 by weaverka

*This is not, as far as I know, a real saying in Arabic*

I say this often in English, especially when things do not go as planned. Consequently, I would say it quite frequently in my Arabic class at Wofford, where things rarely seemed go as I wanted them to. After being scolded for not speaking Arabic during class, I asked Youness (our Arabic professor) how to say my catchphrase.

And now I say it all the more, first in Arabic, then in English.

My time in Amman, Jordan has been a very “heeah mah heeah” experience thus far. First, Customs showed up at the gate for my flight from Detroit to Amman. This meant two things: 1) I was the only one allowed on the plane without being searched (because I’m a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl) and 2) my bags never made it on the flight. They arrived in Amman four days after I did. What did I say while washing my clothes out in the hotel sink?

“Heeah mah heeah”

Adjusting to a new culture is just that, an adjustment. There’s new norms to navigate and relationships to cultivate. I am living alone with an older woman, whereas I had expected to be placed in a large family. I have been force fed more food after 11PM than I have eaten in entire days at home. I will have to rely on others more than I normally prefer to until my Arabic improves.

Again, “heeah mah heeah.”

These are all scenarios, not complaints. I say, “Heeah mah heeah” in a hopeful way, never despondently. Learning a new place, new people, new way of life takes time. I am taking my time, and accepting both my ignorant mistakes and confident moments.

For example, on the way home from school yesterday, my Uber driver was a middle-aged man who spoke no English but had a wide grin and kind eyes. Our 20 minute ride together became a full-on Arabic lesson. He would ask me a question, I would fumble for words until I could respond in fusha (“foos-ha,” AKA Shakespearean Arabic). Then, he would say it for me in Aamiyya (Jordanian Dialect Arabic) and have me repeat the phrase until I sounded like him.

It was such a precious moment for me here, where my Arabic practice has been surprisingly limited. I emerged from his Ford Fusion beaming.

I hope that sometime near the end of this semester in Amman, Yousef will pick me up again. Inshallah (God willing) I will wow him with my Arabic. For now, I’ll just keep taking what is for what it is.

Take care Wofford,


Not As Planned

February 1st, 2019 by estesle

January 31, 2019.  193 days, 4632 hours since July 23, 2018.  One 20th birthday, one Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in Brazil, 10 days in the world’s driest desert, a visit to one of the seven Wonders of the World, 20 volunteer hours with a surfing-mentoring program, 20 days of an internship with a non-profit sustainable textile company in Cusco, more cups of instant coffee than I’d like to count, a dozen beaches, a few museums, 1 semester of classes, a collection of interviews, an exhibition’s-worth of curated art by Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans, and 1 Peruvian.

And I’m not ready to leave.  I’m not done.

Truthfully, I think it’s because my month in Peru wasn’t super productive research-wise.  I made a lot of mental observations, and my internship was certainly enlightening and from that experience I will be able to draw some conclusions for whatever form my findings take in the coming months.   So before I let it hang over my head like the gray clouds outside this café where I draft this blog, I’m putting it out there.  I’m owning it.  But I’m also questioning it…

Why? Why was it hard to tap into the artist community here in Cusco? Did I make enough effort to contact artists? Was it wrong to opt for an internship–an opportunity I thought would structure the end of my research–instead of the chance to live in Lima, a more modern city with significant distance from Peru’s heart of the indigenous world, i.e. Cusco? Should I have opened my mind more to female artists who run workshops that produce copies of religious imagery adorned with gold? I considered an interview with one such a woman, but it didn’t feel right.  Plus, when I brought up my project, I noticed a difference in her voice. She spoke more quietly.  Did I say something wrong? 

Actually, I’m pretty sure I did.  “Feminist” and “women’s rights” seem to be un-welcomed vocabulary here.   I tried to leave those words out once I realized that.  This is something I’ve noted and will influence my final conclusions.  The lack of interviews from Peru is actually appropriately symbolic of how prevalent I felt the topic was here in the valley–the sacred valley.

It’s valuable to note that the hashtag, #NiUnaMenos, launched a revolution against “femicides” when it arose in Buenos Aires.  Chile and Uruguay, then eventually Peru (in Lima, however), duplicated these protests.   It began in 2016.  Just yesterday I saw the Instagram story of an artist I met in Chile; she was lamenting the death of a friend, the 6th “accomplished” femicide in Chile in just 2019 so far.  One month in.  Peru, only 9 days in, had already documented 5 femicides in 2019.  Peru is just different from Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay.  I believe many of the women want the same things and live with similar ambitions, but Peruvian women don’t have the same empowerment, the same freedom.  I suddenly worried if I had endangered any women by asking them in public if they’d speak with me about their work, their lives as Peruvian women and artists.

So 4 weeks and 0 recorded interviews later, I zip up my suitcases with one work of art to take back and share with you.  And, admittedly, it’s by a male artist.  But it says “Quechua is the new black”; the image is collaged from a pasted photo of a Quechua woman.  So I’m counting it–but here’s what I have to say about it…

We (college-aged Americans) are familiar with the “___ is the new black” thanks to the show Orange is the New Black.  A TV show based on the entertaining and heartstring-pulling moments had by women in prison,  its title playfully uses the idiom that essentially declare the first item the new vogue, the new fashionable thing.  Following this logic, “Quechua is the new black” implies that to be Quechua–an indigenous group from the Incan-ruled Andes–is now the cool thing.  And I believe there is a movement of pride from the indigenous peoples.  However, whatever my lens or predispositions may be, I read “black” as a reference to the race, not a metaphor for a thing of fashion.  I thought, Hm, so if Quechua is the new black, does that mean Quechua people are now at a stage in their own rights movement comparable to the experiences of black people today? 10 years ago? 30 years ago? And maybe because every piece of art I see with a subject of a women, I thought furthermore along.  Are Quechua women of Peru like the black women in America, where feminism has not been addressed with the concerns and needs of women of color entirely in mind? Where black women feel like and are in the afterthought of white feminists? Are the women in Lima neglecting the issues Quechua women face as they move forward in the rights movement that has taken shape in South America? 

I’m not sure if these questions were part of the artist’s intentions (we’re in the middle of emailing now, since he–like every other artist I’ve tried to contact–is based in Lima).  I feel guilty that I spent a month here and didn’t get an interview…when I visited one of Threads of Peru’s (my internship for the month) weaving communities we collaborate with, I brought my camera to take photos for Threads’ marketing stock, and I quickly established relationships with the weavers.  I just didn’t feel comfortable using (i.e. exploiting) their lifestyle for the benefit of my research.  The women I interviewed in the other countries were so enthusiastic to talk with me.  Their art often thematically matched my research–not just their already-sufficient identity as South American female artists.  But the intricate weavings I worked with day in and out weren’t about access to contraceptives, abortion rights, or domestic violence protection; they’re about supplementing their family’s income, because the annual income of an indigenous women who works with Threads of Peru increases by 50% on average .  Yet still I wondered: where do these women fit into the narrative I have been weaving over the past 6 months?

Clearly I’m not done.  I’m leaving with more questions than answers, yet I feel this was somehow the higher goal of a project like this.  Wofford sent me to South America, trusted me with their grant to safely travel and sustain myself for a few months, and expects me to come back with something.  Yet I hold onto this faith that overall I have something to be proud of, even if this last portion of my research did not turn out like I had hoped (hm, I bet there’s a lesson there, too).  So tomorrow I return–with questions, some art I’m pretty excited to transform into an exhibit come October, and incredible growth and experiences tucked into my passport holder for the next time I hop on a plane to visit these places again, hopefully discovering new cafés in more towns to write about.

My suitcases are a little worse for wear.  Some of my sweaters are pilling and stained.  My weight fluctuated dramatically throughout the whole time.  My hair is more or less the same color and length.  I can’t think in one singular lenguaje at a time anymore.  The music on my Spotify looks a little different, thanks to additions from Denise Rosenthal and Inti-Illimani.  I could tell where to get the best burger in Valparaíso, the best brownie in Montevideo, the best café latte in Cusco.  I now have friends to reach out to all over the States, plus a few in Paris. I count these as wins.

I’ve also been keeping a countdown on my Instagram, and when I concluded today’s final post before I depart early in the morning tomorrow, I mentioned my next destination following a brief stint at home to exchange wardrobes and visit with friends and family: France & Italy!  A friend I made in Moshi, Tanzania (while abroad for summer ’17 with The Space), and who is from Italy, just commented to offer her help should I need it while knee-deep in pasta and Roman ruins. Her message came after returning to my “place of stay” (in the home of a friend of a friend, but not quite a homestay) this evening.  We don’t keep in touch at all, but I suppose we mutually tap the “like” button on each other’s posts.  Feeling utterly despaired about leaving this part of the journey and not just moving onto the next South American country, I feel comforted in the reminder that everywhere we go, we have the opportunity to connect.  I had no idea while living at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro that meeting Claudia would lead to a local’s aid while studying abroad in Rome, but here we are.  This realization comforts me as I leave behind all the places and people I came to know over 6 months.  I hope that I can either be that local connection for one of them, or that our paths cross again like mine and Claudia’s are bound to intersect once more on the streets of her home.

Bear with one on more reflection of the idiosyncrasies of long-term travel abroad, will you?

My Canadian and Peruvian co-workers of the month took me to lunch for my last day; afterwards, I haphazardly walked the cobblestone streets of Cusco one last time.  It drizzled for hours.  I had two goals for my last few hours and a few hours to fill in around them. First: find a ring, since I had purchased one in Chile and another in Uruguay, so I figured I’d complete a set. Second: visit the Koricancha, a famous site in Cusco with a lawn beside it where I frequently sat on a bench with my favorite Cusqueñan lunch.  By the time I reached the Spanish church built on top of the most important Incan temple *rolls eyes*, I learned it had just closed.  I laughed to myself, for it felt like an ironic ending to my time in South America.  To double the irony, with all the rings I saw, I failed to pick one.  I met neither of my goals, yet didn’t feel like the day was wasted (a huge lesson from living abroad).  I took both as a sign that I just have to return to Cusco (hopefully just a weekend stay before busing north to Lima and the surf spots along the coast) one day.  So as I stood a little aimlessly on Avenida El Sol near the bus stop deciding if I should stay downtown or catch a taxi back home, I walked past a man carrying some handmade rings.  I turned my head and he caught me in a moment of weakness.

Hola bonita, buscas un anillo?” he called back at me.  I wasn’t going to be rude, so I swiveled my gate 180 degrees and explained to the clearly-Argentinian that I actually had been searching for a ring all day long.  He invited me to look sin compromiso, or without an obligation to purchase one, but was sure to explain that buying one would help him continue to travel and see more of South American.  While I entertained the thought of supporting him, he made me a regalito from the extra wire he had hanging around his shoulder.  We talked back and forth a little while.  As he twisted the wire into a new form, I thought about the day walking back from a similar afternoon of wandering in Valparaíso.  It was the day I received a call from my dad that he was officially in remission (he had been going through chemo when I left the States back in July)! Spirits high but feeling extra distant from home, I walked a few miles from downtown to the boardwalk that takes–took–me to the metro station where I climbed the stairs to the overpass, and across the overpass to the hill, and up the hill to my homestay.  When I had just reached the entrance to the sea-side path, another man had caught my attention and reeled me in.  He insisted on also giving me a gift; that time it was the ring itself.  The best way to show my gratitude for his small generosity was to explain to him that this ring will always remind me of a day of great news.

That ring looks just like the ones this man in Cusco, Emanuel, had made.  This time, standing under the rain, I was 24 hours from my dad, from home. I searched my coin purse to pay Emanuel.  When I looked up, I saw in his palm a wire flower with a built-in stand so I could sit it on my desk or dresser, per his suggestion.  It was not the ring I was looking for, and technically it was made by an Argentinian but one I met in Peru.  A little like my research and this whole adventure, the ring represented a moment and a feeling much larger than itself, plus I found it on its own time and in its own place.  On top of it all, I had been thinking incessantly about growth throughout the day.  I hadn’t planned on growing so accustomed to life here, but here we are, hours from take-off, some 4632 hours since my first take off on July 23, 2018, and I can’t imagine a day without things going not as planned.




I know I did not write as much near the end, so I hope if you’re interested in seeing how my research comes to fruition, please stay tuned for updates about my upcoming exhibition in the Rosalind Sallenger Richardson Center for the Arts in Fall 2019! Thank you to those who read along and kept up with my adventures as I pursued answers on the role of art in the South American women’s rights movement.

Stronger Together? Exploring Intersectionality in Feminism

December 11th, 2018 by estesle

There’s a (relatively) new documentary on Netflix called Feminists: What Were They Thinking? that is based on a collection of photographs by Cynthia MacAdams from the 1970’s.  Many of the subjects of MacAdam’s work were shown their portraits and reacted to the images.  Most commented on who they were and how they liked the photo “back then”, followed by who they are now and how they have grown or changed ideologically and personally. Other footage includes brief interviews and interactions with women at the Women’s March on ­­­­March 8, 2018.  Imagine a “Where are they now?” type ordeal, except the “now” versions are entirely different manifestations of the “then”–meaning between the photographed women and the women from the march.

As a female with my own research project on the role of art in the (South American) feminist movement, watching this documentary practically constituted as research (not exactly, Lydia, but we’ll let it fly).  It follows the same concept, no? How does an artist’s work influence the perception of women and impact the feminist movement? I, however, am focusing on multiple artists, I am not comparing the “then and now” of the same “population sample”, and my research is taking place in a culture known for its stereotypical machismo.  

Listening to the experiences of the women featured in the documentary and the goals of artists I have met so far, it’s clear that the North and South American feminist movements have been and remain very distinct.  Director Johanna Demetrakas described her experience with sexism like “rowing up in the fifties and sixties meant not only second class citizenship legally, but 2nd class human being-ship: not invited to the party of medicine, art, law, education, science, religion, except maybe as the secretary”.  Second-wave feminism in America was a demand for professional recognition, a rebellion against the homemaker, and a liberation of the female body.

In South America, feminists today are fighting literally for their lives. Women are protesting “femicides”, or the murder of women by men in the streets and in homes, which often go unpunished and unrecognized by society and the state.  In many countries, they are seeking the right to abortion, which American women have (for now).  Chile passed a law this year that banned unsolicited whistling and “cat-calling” in the streets.  It is 2018 and men are just now held responsible by law for harassment. Shockingly, the same goes for United States and 2018: it’s 2018 and we still haven’t had a female president—ironically, Chile has (among other South American nations). This is machismo; it doesn’t make sense, there’s no pattern or blanket-statement to address what it is, and it looks different in each nation, and even in each social class.

I mentioned her in my last blog post, but in October I interviewed artist Danae Ale, a graphic designer from Santiago, Chile.  Twenty-two years old, Ale admits that only recently did she become aware of the challenges against her as a woman in a male-dominated, heavily-religious society.  Ale explained the sudden “awakening” and how she has tried to teach her family about the feminist values that contradict how her parents and sisters once perceived “the way life is supposed to go when you’re a guy or a girl”.  She recognizes her family’s wealthy status and how that advantage influences her feminist principles; Ale is more concerned with machismo in the professional space and even has collaborated with Genias, “a community for women who work”. The organization supports women who are setting up their businesses, looking for new job options or seeking inspiration for their ideas, and promotes the belief  in the common the desire to enjoy what they do and feel motivated each day.  In her print for Genias, Ale drew a typographic motto, Juntas Más Fuertes, or “Stronger Together”.  The graphic design and phrase reflect “the feminine power and the advantage of uniting ourselves”.  Ale did not mention femicides or the domestic violence that occurs in neighborhoods on the other side of the city.  Our interview took place in a café a few blocks from the business district and tourist center.

Ale is an anomaly to the other women I have interviewed and whose work more directly confronts the violence against women, the call for basic rights, and the treatment of women as sexual objects either in popular imagery or in the streets.  Her goals as an artist are similar to many objectives of feminists in America whose concerns are (generally speaking) related to equality in the workplace.  None of this is to say, however, that American women don’t experience violence founded on sexism or are not fighting to change the perception and representation of the female body–nor that Ale is blind to the feminist battles in lower social classes.  What I have concluded so far, though, is that feminism is in fact different in South America.  It’s not “delayed” or “behind” (although if I were to employ those terms, I’d point to the fact that many South American nations were in the middle of dictatorships *implanted by America* when America’s second wave feminism had momentum); it is merely different.

When I reached this conclusion, I asked myself, How then can I assess the movement and its relationship with art when the way I perceive feminism will always been from a privileged and American perspective?

Can we learn from each other’s progress and failures if the movements are so disparate? 

For an extra challenging question, How are black members in both societies utilizing #blackfeminism to address the wrongs against women of color that white women do not specifically consider in their fight against the patriarchy? 

This last question is something I’ve tried to mull on as I’ve continued my research here.  It stems from an instagram post I saw one day while lost in the depths of #feminism posts (honestly half of my progress on this project is thanks to social media and hashtags) that taught me about something I admit I did not know existed: black feminism.  I read a few posts, then searched articles.  I tried to understand what the main goals of the movement were and the ways that the broader feminism movement has neglected to properly consider the interests of women of color.  I asked myself how I have or have not contributed to this neglect.  I read posts by women of color calling for the intersectionality of feminism.  I learned a lot.

Then, I struggled with these two notions that American feminism is not in line with South American feminism and that white feminism is not inline with black feminism.  I wanted to be naive and urge all 4 movements into one because there is power in numbers, right? I don’t mean to undermine the needs and rights of black feminists when I support feminism so why are they mad at me? I very honestly asked myself initially.  

I have since continued to read about intersectionality in social movements, about the distinctions of black feminism, and the way a country has to let its social movements take their own shape due to their unique histories as individual nations.  The one notion I still hold on to is that if and when objectives overlap, juntas somos más fuertes.  Together we are stronger.

*Content originally published in The Old Gold & Black, edits have been made*

Mixtapes and Ladders: the research tools of the 21st century

December 9th, 2018 by estesle

When I began to prepare myself to conduct an independent research project on the role of art in the South American feminist movement, I imagined that my language background in Spanish would be the most valuable tool I packed.  I thought maybe my developing skills in visual analysis as an Art History student would be a “runner up” in my travel tool box.  My packing list even included my mini polaroid printer so that, in the actual moment with an interviewee, I could print a polaroid of the artist, a work of art (if purchased), and me as a physical manifestation of our new connection.  I imagined each of these artists keeping this polaroid in their studios, inspired by the fact that a number of artists across the continent shared a similar image, just like they shared a similar goal: to use their artistry to propel the women’s rights movement.

I did not imagine that tipping two performers on the Santiago metro would earn me a “free” mixtape, and that the mixtape I handed off to the young woman beside me would in turn lead to a conversation about my project nor an impromptu interview with her once we exited the metro car.

The rappers from the red line that afternoon were truly talented, so I didn’t mind dropping a collection of coins in his fedora (yes, fedora).  I was ecstatic to in turn receive a complementary mixtape.  Unfortunately, I did not have a means to enjoy his mini CD—regrettably, “Walkman” was not on my packing list.   So after laughing at how much we enjoyed the live music, I gifted the CD to the young woman in the seat across from me.

Bacán!” she delighted.

“Bacán” is an expression similar to “awesome” and well-integrated into the Chilean vocabulary.  I responded with another Chilean expression that every exchange student keeps in his or her back pocket.  My metro friend visually and verbally expressed her surprise by my Chilean Spanish, which led to a discussion of my stay in the country, my travel plans for December, January, and February, and eventually my research project.  We were both getting off the metro at a station in Santiago with a train-length mosaic that promotes a positive childhood, beginning on the left with an image of a Chilean woman breast-feeding her baby–a surprising image for an American from a country where breastfeeding in public only became legal in all 50 states a few months ago (actually, the same day I arrived in Chile).

When we parted ways, I transferred from the red line to the green.  I was in Santiago for the weekend to interview an artist, Mikele Orroño, whose works primarily concern the manipulation of old and new female images to create a jarring effect; when I first encountered her art at a fair back in August, I was originally attracted to her collages of painted figures from the Renaissance and photographic images from pornographic magazines.  Shortly, however, I arrived at her home.  I was greeted by a six-year old boy. Mikele too is a single mom.  Since that Friday evening was particularly blustery and cold, she made us tea.  Towards the end of our conversation, Mikele revealed that she had planned a small “get together” with some of her friends and hoped I’d stay. I did, grateful for this developing friendship and hopeful I would network with other artists for my research.  Before she went upstairs to change, I purchased one of my favorite pieces that features the lower half and partial mane of the goddess Venus, from Boticelli’s Birth of Venus. Then I helped Mikele prepare a jar of navegado, a delectable Chilean beverage of hot red wine and spices that washes down well with cake.

Her son showed me his latest drawing as I stirred the currant-colored liquid.  I thought about the donation I made to the rapper on the red line that led to a bonus conversation with the woman from the metro as I wafted the cozy scent of Malbec and cinnamon.  This is, of course, my first time conducting an independent research project, so I don’t have the luxury of comparison to past experiences. However, the tools I never thought I’d need, the skills I never thought I’d be glad I “packed” when I left for Chile 3 months ago, seem so nuanced.  From mixtape culture to Chilean slang, to Renaissance art knowledge and interacting with children, this research is asking far more of me than I anticipated—but in the best of ways and with a glass of navegado on the side.

Because I was trying to play both independent researcher and study-abroad student simultaneously, I lost momentum with blogging and journaling.  The work I had to do to coordinate interviews and consistently seek out events + news related to my research on top of homework and thinking & speaking bilingually 24/7 exhausted me.  I’m back to tell you 1. the story above is from the very end of September and 2. Mikele and I actually stayed in touch throughout the semester.  The collage I purchased from her she exhibited in her first-ever gallery exhibition, so she invited me to attend on opening night.  I made the trip to Santiago yet again, and I’m so glad I did.  Mikele introduced me to her boyfriend, parents, and friends with a cigarette balanced between her delicate fingers holding her glass of wine.  In between introductions, she admitted how nervous she was but also asked me if she should give a speech–of course I said yes! In a pause in her speech, her boyfriend walked out with a birthday cake; the guests began to sing to Mikele as tears formed in her eyes.  She thanked my profusely for supporting her that night, but I can’t express my gratitude enough for sharing more than her art with me–she shared her life, her family, and one of her most intimate and cherished moments.  If nothing else good comes from this experience, I will always have that night.

After the exhibition came down, Mikele offered to deliver the collage to Valparaíso.  We met up for lunch and caught up one last time.  She signed the back of the frame, we finished our pizzas, and she left.  Mikele, thank you!

To take advantage of being in Santiago for Mikele’s exhibition, I arranged to meet with other artists–and boy was that weekend productive! The next morning I had plans to meet with up muralist Estefania Leighton.  To make a long story short, I ended up where I needed to be about an hour later and only thanks to a very kind Uber driver.  He let me out along the curb by a bridge that crossed Rio Mapocho that runs through the heart of Santiago.  I crossed the street that runs over the bridge and peered over into the river to find 2 older gentleman talking with a younger gentleman who was painting something on the wall of the river.  There was a ladder 6 ft to my right.  One of the men called up to me (the river sits about 15 feet below the streets) and asked if I wanted to come down.  Because I had checked out of my Airbnb, I had my overnight bag with me, plus hot coffee in hand, and a camera strapped around my neck.  Knowing the artist I was meeting was painting somewhere along the same wall upon which the ladder rested, I accepted the man’s offer to climb up and take my coffee and purse so I could safely descend.  It turns out, one of the older gentleman was Alejandro “Mono” Gonzalez.  I couldn’t believe my luck! He happened to be the one who organized the festival in which Estefania was invited to paint.  He walked me down to her mural and later let me interview him briefly.

I had a great conversation with Estefania, talked with a Venezuelan artist, then climbed back up the ladder to go meet another artist for lunch.  Danae Ale was someone I met at the ARTE STGO event back at the end of August.  Her illustrations are simple and sophisticated, the kind of poster a 23 year old post-grad female might frame in her New York apartment.  Her sister attends the same university as I did in Valparaíso and studies art at the same building where I took a class, so Danae mailed the prints to her for me to easily acquire–no climbing down ladders or attending gallery exhibitions for these pieces!

Lastly from that research-heavy weekend in Santiago, I met with Andrea Aguilar in her apartment.  Her technique involves layers of colorful leather and using an exacto-knife to slice or cut the fabric in order to create a very unique, “trippy”, and 3D image or text on an often large scale (3′ x 5′).  Her friend knocked on the door when I was there, but she is working towards her doctorate in feminist literature, so her contributions to the conversation were obviously enlightening.  Andrea asked me not to film, so I will have to find a way to incorporate her knowledge into my documentary because her insight was so beneficial to my research.  As we talked, we shared a chocolate-filled croissant-type pastry and very yummy coffee as she pressed a pineapple and spinach for fresh juice.  Her friend lit a cigarette out the window.  The warm sun filled her apartment.  We had ourselves a fine afternoon.

To wrap up this overdue blog post, I’m excited to tell you (whoever you are) that I’ve safely and happily reached Montevideo, Uruguay.  I spent a fun week in Buenos Aires, Argentina with my mom and brother (John Estes ’15) before taking the ferry to Colonia and then a bus to Montevideo.  I arrived last evening a little homesick after saying goodbye to my family, but I got settled in my hostal before heading out to walk in my neighborhood.  I quickly took care of errands like getting a sim card, cash, and padlocks for my lockers.  Shortly after, I stumbled upon (not hard to do given its size) the Christmas market in Parque Rodo.  I must’ve walked the length of all the stands 4 or 5 times before I found a woman selling handmade leather purses which caught my eye.  I wasn’t even in-country for more than 4 hours before I introduced my project and asked if I could interview her (for comparison, it took me 2-3 weeks in Chile to get the ball rolling)! Proud and motivated, I bought a kebab and walked down to the beach to watch the sun set on my first day as a solo traveler in a new city with an old project.  Having my research project was a fortunate way to integrate & immerse myself in Chilean society, and I was glad to always have a family to go back to after weekends in Santiago.  Plus, the past 4.5 months certainly developed my Spanish and question-asking skills.  However, I’m excited to discover which nuanced skills and unusual tasks this project and new location will bring, be it more ladders and mixtapes or mastering the art of hostal-living and market shopping.




An American Abroad Part 2: Redefining “Presidential”

October 8th, 2018 by estesle

This series is best broken up as so because it was just too much to tackle in one blog post.  There are two separate ideas that I’m trying to grasp: the first was more concerned with the way “peculiar” questions from foreigners taste on the back of my tongue, leaving a residual bitterness.  This second idea tiene que ver, or has to do with, understanding “peculiar” realities through experiences abroad. The first idea was inspired by a conversation I had about former-President Obama, while this second is inspired by videos I watched of President Trump last week.  He addressed two very different crowds in a span of a few days, both of which provoked confusion and fear in me, so I decided I would process them through my writing.  While I was in Mendoza, Argentina for the weekend with drafts of Parts 1 & 2 saved on my computer, Judge Kavanaugh was confirmed by the US Senate.  Further confused and scared, I return to these drafts with the hopes of deconstructing and redefining what it means to be “presidential”.

A Less-than Eloquent President

The following quotes are from President Trump’s address to the United Nations, each of which I’ve followed with my uncensored, initial reactions I had while sitting in a café in downtown Valparaíso in between classes:

  • “From the beaches of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia, it is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerge victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others.”

Big on us!? We allowed for the death of a million people during Vietnam, we killed hundreds of thousands with the Atomic Bomb, but props to the United States for not further exploiting our power by colonizing Vietnam or Japan? As far as imposing “our way of life on others”, I beg to differ.  The United States government planted a right-winged dictator into power when Chile **democratically** elected a communist president. 

  • “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife.”

So why are you tearing apart families and allowing for the disappearance of children? Mocking sexual assault victims is not friendship.  I understand that having the world’s strongest and biggest military might not directly create conflict, but why else would you need or want such a military? 

  • “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

Totally destroy. Rocket man. Suicide mission. Who wrote this and permitted you to speak so childish-ly in front of the UN?

  • “The United States is a compassionate nation and has spent billions and billions of dollars in helping to support this effort.”

Look at me donating to charity! Give me a prize! I understand that the United States does contribute a significant portion to the United Nations, and I believe there are other nations that should pay more, but compassion is innately selfless.  The US doesn’t fund the UN to finance the humanitarian efforts and projects of other nations.  It’s just to ensure the UN listens to the US on issues we decide take priority.  

  • “Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some, in fact, are going to hell”

Who died and made you King of everything?

  • “We call for the full restoration of democracy and political freedoms in Venezuela. The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”

Refer to my first remark.  

A Less-than Compassionate President

And now, to review further quotes from Mr. President’s campaign rally in Mississippi:

  • “Aaaaand you know, I think war, military, you know, peace, I think those things are you know, pretty important.”

What do you want, sir? War or peace? Why does a great America have to be synonymous with a country that defeats other countries? Why can’t our military be known for well-trained, highly-educated officials who are tactically undefeated in their diplomacy? 

  • “What he’s going through: 36 years ago, this happened. ‘I had one beer.’ Right? ‘I had one beer.’ ‘Well, you think it was …’ ‘Nope, it was one beer.’ ‘Oh, good. How did you get home?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘How did you get there?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘Where is the place?’ ‘I don’t remember.’ ‘How many years ago was it?’ ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.’ “

I don’t really have much to say except that to admit this invoked immediate tears, tears for Dr. Ford, for sexual assault victims past and future, for so many who were just reminded why speaking out against their perpetrators is frightening–because if you do, the President of the United States might mock you in one of his campaign speeches. And the crowd will cheer.

  • “They want to destroy people. These are really evil people.”

Right, the people who sexually assaulted them aren’t the evil ones.  The victims are the real danger you should watch out for. Democrats, the enemy.  Women, the enemy. 

  • “It’s a scary time for young men in America.”

Men are not the victim today or tomorrow.  False accusations are statistically as rare as false accusations of other felonies.  It’s unfortunate and I don’t know how to reconcile the few cases in which a person claims to be a victim but is not; I do know, however, that not only is a person wrongly-accused, but other victims lose their legitimacy.  We (#metoo) clearly have enough of an up-hill battle getting our stories heard.  If a young man is scared because victims are finally speaking up about how they have been mistreated, then they having something to be guilty about.  An innocent man has nothing to fear, whereas every day and every night women take countless steps to protect themselves–out of warranted fear.  This Facebook post went viral and reveals just how extreme the pendulum swings, and just how ridiculous the above sentence feels to a young woman.  

A Less-than Fair President

In his speech, Trump talked about his wall and the “loser” immigration laws we currently have in place.  He refers to the immigrants who cross our border as criminals and years later are “caught and released”, per the current policy.  Their names are taken then the “criminal” is released.  Given so, I propose a hypothetical situation.  Let’s assume there exists an immigrant who crossed the border illegally 25 years ago, the illegal entry into the States being his/her only “crime”.  The United States catches this immigrant and realizes his/her crime from 25 years ago and decides he/she should not be allowed to stay.   Why are immigrants who commit no other crime than illegal immigration decades ago punished retroactively, but judges nominated for the Supreme Court who sexually assaulted a woman decades ago not punished retroactively and allowed to stay, to stay in a high-profile position like a Supreme Court justice? He was caught, but President Trump and the Supreme Court wrestled with the tangled fishing line and managed to unhook the fish just in time to release him back into his murky waters.

I digress.

President Trump, Judge Kavanaugh, and the Latin American Feminist Movement

These “peculiar” realities made me wonder beyond what it means personally to be an American abroad.  I began to question what it means to be “presidential”.  President of the United States, International Presidential Scholar, Student Body President of Wofford College (if you haven’t met Fredy Madrid, you will know his name in a matter of years, believe me). In elementary school, we even had the Presidential Fitness test.  We have so many awards and titles which we consider “presidential”–but what does that really mean?

Etymologically, the term comes from the latin word, praesident, or “sitting before”, which transpired into the English verb “to preside”.  To sit before.  All of our presidential awards, titles and degrees generally imply that the recipient has done something worthy of a president’s recognition or association, that he or she deserves the praise from someone who sits before a company, a university, a Greek chapter, and sometimes an entire nation.  As president, you sit before a people who should do just that: come before you.  Presidents lead by putting others before them, not beneath them.

Even more, a president is then watched by those before whom he or she sits. A president of a student body ought to do more than improve the library or arrange for better snacks during finals week; a real president leads the student body as an empirical example of the school’s vales and ideals.  The same idea follows for chapter presidents of Kappa Alpha Gamma Theta and Kappa Sigma Pi Epsilon around the country.  I don’t remember often receiving the Presidential Fitness test award in elementary school (I was never flexible enough to reach the presidential standard in the “V-stretch”), but I do remember my peers who did–and surely enough they were also the students who encouraged the others in the gymnasium.  They cheered for those trying to reach the golden number of sit ups in seeking a word that gleamed so brightly on the certificates distributed at our annual awards ceremony: “presidential”.

Such a title should be sought after with hard work and an earnest heart.   The term shouldn’t be taken lightly.  It should never be taken for granted.   It may be powerful and honorable, but it isn’t limitless in its powers; to be “presidential” or president of whatever does not authorize mockery, it does not allow for hatred, bigotry, ignorance, or arrogance.  It certainly does not give you the divine jurisdiction to “totally destroy North Korea” or decide who in this world is going to Hell.

I know that Trump did not single-handedly approve Kanavaugh–I took AP Government and I was once a Government major (#tbt), so I know how the nominating and vetting processes work.  Nevertheless, President Trump attacked the women who was trying to stop Kavanaugh from being named the new Supreme Court Justice.  And then he made men out to be the victims.

While my friend and I failed to distract ourselves from the news of his appointment with a glass of Argentinian Malbec, she made a really good point that I think we all forgot amidst these weeks of tension: the Kavanaugh Issue shouldn’t have been about politics but instead principles. Such principles are not to be confused with ideologies that in turn shape our politics. She was referring to the most basic of principles–the golden rules if I may–like to treat others as we want to be treated, to stand up against bullies, to look out for others.  It seemed like the Kavanaugh hearings made us forget that we don’t have to decide with out politics but rather should have remembered our principles that bring us together.

Before I over-exhaust the singular issue, I want to dive into how I see Trump and Kavanaugh issue so closely related to my research here. Obviously, both are concerned with women and their right to be heard.  When Argentina moved to pass a new bill on abortion that did not succeed, the country was divided as the US is now.  Green scarves waved valiantly in defeat the morning after. Two months after the decision, I was in Argentina when my own country faced intense division over a vote that similarly crushed the voices of innumerable women.  Our governments failed to hear us.

The second connection I see is through my new, personal definition of “presidential”. When I watched the videos of Trump’s two speeches last week, my belief in what it means to be presidential switched. I realized no one has to vote for you to be president or presidential.  You can preside before a group of people with grace and elegant leadership by preparing an exhibition of female-centric works and sharing your art with your followers. Many of the artists I have met so far are admirable examples of presidents; their collections are visual and empirical examples of the feminist school’s vales and ideals. Their achievements in turn encourage and inspire other artists in the “gymnasium” to reach for that presidential recognition, too.

I asked artist Mikele Orroño why she makes art that is so focused on la mujer, or the woman.  With tea mug in hand and her artworks decorating the walls of her electic Santiago kitchen, she told me in her interview that, “[s]oy mama practicamente sola…hay muchos ejemplos así, entonces me di cuenta de, wow, nos hacemos todo. Y por otro lado, estamos en un mundo de hombres.”  Translated, she said “I am practically a single mom…there are many examples of [women] like me, so I realized that, wow, we do it all.  And on top of it, we’re in a man’s world.” She elaborated that she aims to show her admiration for women and reinvent the archaic female image to create one that emanates strength and resilience.

Later that evening, her six-year old son ran in the front door with his own artwork in hand that he drew in the car.  A President and one of her admirers.

My Final Word

When my peers from senior year of high school named me “Most likely to be President” for the yearbook superlatives, I assumed it meant they saw me as a politician, maybe even President of the United States.  I don’t know if this is my goal anymore.  Sometimes I hear incredible stories of female leaders like Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand who made UN history when she brought her baby to the assembly, and a spark in me to be a part of such history is reignited temporarily.  Maybe the superlative foreshadowed this opportunity as Wofford’s Presidential International Scholar.  Or maybe the anecdote serves as reinforcement that “presidential” doesn’t have to be what Trump has made it to be–or any former president for that matter.  I can be presidential in my own way, by leading with compassion and (hopefully) eloquence and encouraging those of similar thought to be their own presidents and their own manifestations of “presidential”.

Both of the speeches from the beginning of this soliloquy drove my Spanish class’ conversation last Wednesday.  At some point in that discussion, I brought up the meeting between President Piñiera and President Trump during which the former presented an image of the American flag with a Chilean flag at the center.  “Chile is at the center of the United States!” he playfully insisted.  Sounds like something Trump would do, I thought.  The class laughed at the resulting memes we found online.

I turned to my professor, raised my eyebrows, half-smiling and half-scoffing as I said, “Nuestras presidentes.

No es mío,” he said with a blank stare. “Not mine”. Not his kind of presidential.

Cheers to all of the presidents inside us all.  May we never forget our individual power to lead compassionately and resiliently, and with all the strength of a woman.