Nicaragua, the US, and Gender Equality

November 15th, 2014 by perretlg

A few weeks ago, the World Economic Forum released a report naming Nicaragua sixth in gender equality using economic, political, education- and health-based criteria.

I’ve been in Nicaragua for two and a half months and this struck me as absolutely shocking. Every morning I dread leaving my hostel because of the catcalls that I know I’ll receive on the street—not just from old drunk men or immature adolescents, but also from cops—the men who are supposed to protect me. It’s deeply affecting my mood and my energy, and I’m experiencing a fraction of the sexism that women in Nicaragua face.

Street harassment is only one manifestation of the male-dominated society that prevails in Nicaragua. Many women cannot get access to the healthcare that they need. Young girls are discouraged from playing with boys and instead are helping their mothers with cooking and cleaning. There is a high incidence of domestic violence and sexual abuse committed by fathers and uncles that is being ignored by neighbors because that’s the way it’s always been. The president of the country is accused of raping his adopted daughter.

How might a Nicaraguan woman feel upon hearing that her country is sixth in gender equality?

I think that the list that the World Economic Forum released is dangerous and uninformed. I realize that much of the data may have been based on improvements, but that’s no excuse for ignoring the daily, lived reality of women in a decidedly male-dominated country and heralding statistics to call that country gender-equal. Labeling Nicaragua as such is excusing the transgressions that are committed against women every day and on every level in Nicaragua. Because the World Economic Forum is respected, male Nicaraguan leaders can use this as fuel to dismiss the concerns of Nicaraguan women, and that’s just not acceptable.

I read the article just as I was beginning my independent study project and decided to incorporate it into my list of interview questions. When I asked some of the women I have been working with about the statistic, they unanimously answered that it is completely false—Nicaragua should not in any way be lauded as a country with a high level of gender equality. One woman responded, “How can a country be equal if I am a woman and I don’t feel safe?”

Some of you might react to this post with worry. “Lindsey’s writing about how Nicaragua is a difficult place for women, yet she’s there.” The reality is that the United States is not faring much better than Nicaragua. In the United States:

I’m not trying to make a case that the United States is better or worse than Nicaragua at gender-equality (for what it’s worth, WEF rates the US as number 20 on the list). I’m simply trying to call attention to the gender-based inequities that fill our world. Gender based violence kills 1 in 3 women worldwide, so why don’t we do something about it? This project is me doing something in tribute to women’s resilience and a world with fewer catcalls and more justice.

"The revolution will be feminist or it will not be." Nicaraguan graffiti.

“The revolution will be feminist or it will not be.” Nicaraguan graffiti.

Cuba, At a Glance

October 27th, 2014 by perretlg

My friend and I were at the beach and a man plopped down behind us playing loud music. We, obviously there to relax, were frustrated. I asked several of the men who rented the beach chairs if they could please ask him to turn down the music, to no avail. Being raised in the US, my instinct was to talk to the higher up in the situation. Trying to do this, I asked one man, “Who is the owner?” He looked at me and said “Fidel” and I could hear his mind saying “obviously, idiot.” This was one of many learning moments that I had while in Havana, Cuba*.

“Enjoy my country, but don’t try to understand it,” was the advice of one man we spoke to in Cuba—advice that we, admittedly, didn’t follow.

Though I certainly don’t understand Cuba, my ten-day experience there was the tip of the beautiful, confusing, and historically rich iceberg. We arrived as students from the United States who knew what most US citizens know about Cuba: the embargo is strict, the cigars are great, all the cars are old classics, and Che Guevara is on all the t-shirts. We left with more questions than we came with, and for that I am grateful.

One of my greatest surprises was that everyone was thrilled to talk to us even though, and often because, we are US citizens. Before, I had the perception that there would be tension between the two groups because of how hard the embargo has been on the way of life there. At least half of the people I spoke to hoped to someday visit the US, if not move there.

“La vida es dura.” Life is hard. Words that were repeated to me many a time over the ten days. There are debates about whether or not the struggle there is due to socialism or due to the embargo. It depends on who you ask. Many people told me that they believed that the US was afraid to lift the embargo because US citizens would realize how well socialism has worked, and others argue that too many people are benefitting from the black market for the embargo to ever be lifted.

Housing is an issue that our group struggled with a lot. People are either randomly assigned houses or have homes that belonged to their families before the revolution. Here is the bed and breakfast that I stayed in, an example of a home that the family there has had since the late 1800s:

IMG_0152 IMG_0153

Here is the outside of some other Cuban homes:

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We kept asking everyone, “How is this fair?” My family there is lucky to have the home that they do; they are able to make more money than other families because they are exchanging services for tourist’s money. To me, this doesn’t seem like the idealistic equality that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro fought for. Despite the disparity (albeit the disparity is through my eyes), the Cuban people have an amazing amount faith and hope for Cuba. All over the city is propaganda for the socialist party and for the revolutionaries that made the socialist state possible. As our academic director there said, Cuba is a land of contradictions.

I’ve been thinking for a couple of days about how to write about Cuba. Socialism is a controversial topic, and following that, the United States’ relationship with the socialist state of Cuba is controversial. What I’ve written only tells bits and pieces of the story of my time in Cuba, and even a smaller fraction of what life is actually like on the island. I am not well read on Cuba, but after visiting, I’m passionate about understanding the intricacies between its relationships with the United States. I’m also disappointed that I can’t return in the foreseeable future due to the embargo. I hope that someday soon the leadership in the United States will take a step in reconciling with Cuba so that others can widen their horizons and learn about a culture, despite being 90 miles from Florida, that is so far removed from ours. And I hope that those of you reading this will choose to look at the situation with open eyes and an open mind before you pass judgment on it, which is a challenging but rewarding thing to do.


*I think it’s important to note that Fidel is no longer the president (his brother Raul is), nor did he ever “own” any enterprises. What the waiter was trying to say is that the service at the beach is run by the state.

Pieces of Home

October 8th, 2014 by perretlg

All my life, I’ve seen embroidered pillows that say, “Home is where the heart is.” For me, that’s a little kitschy, and also not true. For me…home is where my mom is. Obviously, I can’t drag her around Latin America, so little by little, I’ve learned how to find home in new places.

Anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad can tell you that homesickness and culture shock can be two of the most challenging aspects of a trip. All study abroad programs try to prepare students to cope with it. This being my fourth trip abroad, albeit my longest, you’d think I’d have come up with tricks to conquer those challenges…but that’s not the case.

What I have learned, and what family, friends, and mentors remind me of regularly is that it is okay to be vulnerable. When we arrived to the community of Martin Senteno for our rural homestay, I had a really bad cold. I tried so hard to keep it together and pretend I was fine—ready for anything, like a good study abroad student should be! I didn’t want to offend my homestay mother…I was afraid she would think I was upset about staying with her. Not surprisingly, I lost it. My host mom, Estela, heard me crying and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was sick with a cold and tired from the long trip. Estela went into mom-mode. “You go lay down in the hammock, I’ll bring you some chamomile tea.” She did, and then I took a nap. When I woke up she had brought me a fan from one of her neighbor’s houses to make sure that I could sleep comfortably. For those five nights, Estela made Martin Senteno home.

Estela, my host mom in Martin Senteno

Estela, my host mom in Martin Senteno

With this small world, it’s also possible, even likely, that you might find someone or something from your home. One day, on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, we were walking into the house of a man who was going to talk to us about the literacy campaign in the 1980’s. As I walked through the door I heard an unmistakably southern voice. When I asked the woman where she was from after introductions, she said “South Carolina” in a way that sounded just like home. As it turns out, she was from Spartanburg and does mission trips in Nicaragua. Just chatting with her for five minutes gave me a sense of comfort that I didn’t even know I wanted. As she left, she of course gave me a hug like we had known each other forever.

I also tricked myself into thinking I’d found something familiar, and it ended embarrassingly. Pearl Lagoon is in the Caribbean part of Nicaragua and the people there eat mostly seafood. We spent the day with a family in the community and I was desperately hoping we would go crabbing, because it’s something I’m actually familiar with as a Charlestonian. I talked big about how I crabbed when I was a kid and was excited to teach my New Yorker friend how to crack open the legs and get all the meat out of the body. What I didn’t know is that every time I ate crabs as a little girl, my grandma washed out all of the goopy stuff from the body (anyone who has seen said goopy stuff knows that there’s no better way to describe it). I cracked open the body of one of the thirty or so crabs we caught and I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had no idea how to eat around it, and my host mother was eating it as is. I couldn’t eat the “goopy stuff,” and I’ll know next time to find out what we’re doing before I start bragging about my experience.



Some of the goopy crabs we caught

The world seems huge, and I’ll admit I was nervous about going on this trip alone. I’m finding out, though, that it’s a pretty small world and we all have a lot in common. Estela took care of me with the worry and the patience of any mother. The woman from Spartanburg that I ran into was seeing things in Pearl Lagoon from a perspective similar to my own. Crabbing with my host family on the Caribbean coast felt just the same as crabbing with my own family in Charleston—a fun family activity that ends with happy, full stomachs.

And for those wondering…I’m still a mama’s girl—and not just for the soup and goop!

My mother and I

My mother and me

Bienvenidos a Nicaragua!

September 7th, 2014 by perretlg

From an early age, Dora María Téllez was frustrated with socioeconomic divisions in Nicaragua. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a group that opposed oppressive dictator Anastasio Somoza, recruited Téllez as a teen. At the age of 22 she was “Commander Two” of the guerrilla force that took the legislature of the national palace by storm; a turning point in the Sandinista revolution. During the first Sandinista regime after the revolution, Téllez served as Minister of Public Health. She fasted for about two weeks in 2008 to protest what she calls “the dictatorship of [current Nicaraguan president] Daniel Ortega,” and has more recently been denied entry into the United States to serve as Robert F. Kennedy visiting professor in the government department at Harvard—the U.S. labeled her as a terrorist, revealing yet again what a complicated relationship Nicaragua has with the United states. She was arguably the most powerful woman in Nicaragua during the revolution…and she just happens to be my history professor this semester.

Dora María Téllez, 1978

Dora María Téllez, 1978

It’s very difficult to write gracefully about how challenging, culturally and otherwise, conversations about the relationship between the US and Nicaragua have been. In essence, like most histories, there are two perspectives. It’s difficult to live hearing one your whole life, and then to go to another place and hear a completely different story. I’m lucky to be able to experience Nicaragua in a way that will help shape my opinions—the program I am participating in is really great in that way.

The study abroad program I am working under is called the School for International Training, and my particular program is called “Nicaragua: Youth Culture, Literacy, and Media.” My history professor, as I mentioned, is incredible. My director is a woman from Wyoming who moved to Central America in 1985, later driving an ambulance in the war zone of Nicaragua. She and her husband, a former member of the Nicaraguan military and also a former Sandinista guerrillero, have already told us so many amazing stories about what Nicaragua was like for them during and after the time of the revolution.

The SIT Program Assistant, Maria Teresa, a.k.a. Our-Source-For-All-Things-Nicaraguan, matched me up with the most wonderful host family I ever could have asked for. My mom, Sandra, has already grown accustomed to my fruit obsession and is finding me all the good stuff for my breakfasts. I have a sister, Kelly, my age, and a little brother Cristofer, who is ten. My favorite thing to do when I’m not in class is spend time with them.

My host brother, Cristofer.

My host brother, Cristofer.

Everyone here has made me feel so welcome. I am excited to see what’s next for me in Nicaragua!

Hasta Pronto!

On My Way

August 24th, 2014 by perretlg

With three days left before I get on my flight to Nicaragua, starting my blog seems like a less scary prospect than packing the mountain in my room that I’m supposed to fit in a suitcase! It’s really challenging to write something about my experiences and how I’m learning from them without over-sharing.  Since this is my first post, I’ll share a little about what my interests are and what I hope to accomplish while I’m abroad for the next five months.

I really found my place at Wofford when I took a Spanish course that introduced me to the Hispanic community of Spartanburg in Arcadia. Everyone in the 303 courses volunteers for an hour a week with teachers or with the afterschool program. I began working on spelling and math with the first graders that are mostly English as a Second Language students. It’s hard not to fall in love with them and the community.  That’s where my growing passion for Spanish started to cross with my love for community organizing. Meanwhile, in my classes at Wofford, I found myself writing frequently about women and gender topics, so I took some courses on that. And that’s where I find myself—a feminist passionate about women in Latin America.

Reading some Junie B. Jones with one of the students I tutored at ARCH, Yitzel

Reading some Junie B. Jones with one of the students I tutored at ARCH, Yitzel

These three topics—gender, Latin America, and community organizing—are how I came up with my project proposal. Currently, Nicaragua is planning a canal, Mexico is leading in innovation sectors, and the United Nations commends the Dominican Republic for their efforts toward the Millennium Development Goals.  Despite this recent progress in Latin America, research shows that Latin American women still face significant challenges in obtaining education, surviving economically, and overcoming abuse and oppression. As an aspiring community organizer, I want to spend my time listening to stories of women and communities that have catalyzed change in their cultures, despite living in spaces that may limit their potential.

Argentina taught me to roll with the punches, and though “expecting the unexpected” still isn’t an easy prospect, I’m learning to worry less. The best lesson that Buenos Aires taught me, especially during my independent project, was to let the research guide me. I’m looking forward to sharing more here as my project is shaped!

Until next time,