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.



An American Abroad: Answering Peculiar Questions

October 8th, 2018 by estesle

Studying abroad, at its surface level, is of course about immersion.  A successful semester in another country can take many forms, but often it includes trying new foods, respecting the customs, learning, bettering, or expanding a language, and seeing new places.  A full semester allows a student to go beyond “taste testing”; new words, new dishes, and new sights become a daily diet.  I eat Chilean expressions for breakfast, visit another museum for lunch, snack on a sopaipilla (a fried disc of pumpkin dough) as I take the micro, or Chilean bus, to the local theater for a viewing of an indie-film about a Haitian immigrant in Santiago for my dinner.  I never go hungry here; there is always something to learn.

For instance, I’ve learned there exists a cross-continental question people wonder about Americans: “Do you like Obama?” As an American abroad for the third time as a Wofford student, I have noticed this in Tanzania, Nepal, and now Chile.  The question manifests itself in a variety of forms:

  • “Are you team Obama?”
  • “Trump? Obama?”
  • “Did you like President Obama even though he’s black?”

Before I address the inherent problems with the third version, I find it unbelievable to darme cuenta de, to realize, that Barack Obama was elected 10 years ago.  That is half of my life; I was barely 10 years old the night my parents permitted me to stay up past my curfew to watch the 2008 election results. Although Former-President Obama officially left the Oval Office under two years ago, it feels as though several presidential terms have passed—perhaps an effect of following more current events with greater context than I was intellectually capable of during Obama’s first term, or perhaps the result of traveling abroad three times during President Trump’s term and feeling very aware of America’s perception by foreigners. I still find it funny that 10 years after his initial election, Obama remains a primary object of foreign intrigue.

The third version of the question is from late September on the northern Chilean coast, when my friends and I were graciously invited to dinner with our beach neighbors.  The father of the family told us about his lifestyle working with a mining company as he grilled.  He shared plenty of valuable insight about his nation and his identity as a Chilean (alluding to but purposefully ignoring any facts from the period of the dictatorship).  The conversation was reciprocal; we, too, shared experiences as Americans and compared the major social issues in Chile and the States, like police violence, *cough* women’s rights *cough*, and most significantly, immigration.

In many times and places, I have been described the current situation on immigration in Chile. In my course on contemporary Latin American poetry, we have studied the African influences on Brazilian and Caribbean poetry from the late 19th century.  In the courses like this one designed for international students, the professors are encouraged to integrate their curriculum with Chilean context to enhance the foreign students’ understanding of the country’s politics.  Thus, my poetry professor has mentioned numerous times as we read Afro-Cuban poems, for example, that he never “saw a black person in my life until I was 18, except in the movies”.  In my homestay, we often keep the news (or a Chilean gameshow) on the television in the background.  When the headlines pertain to socio-political issues in Columbia and Venezuela, it is more likely than not that one of my family members will make a remark of a certain tone about the presence of immigrants in Chile.  Even though they have explained to me their opinions on Colombians and Venezuelans before, they once more insist that the immigrants are lazy and lawless.  Usually they conclude with a comment like, “you know how it is, Americans have the same problem”.  We do? 

I do not mean to generalize all of Chile’s views on immigration or race. It’s certainly important to remember that not every Chilean explains (or complains about) immigration in the same manner. For example, my Spanish course is taught by a professor who explicitly reveals his support of immigrants in Chile and encourages the diversity it has created.  He recognizes, as many of my peer exchange students and I have noticed as well, that Chile is geographically isolated in all directions by either mountains or ocean.  For this reason and other historical factors as well, Chile has long been an overwhelmingly homogenous society.  As an American, from a nation literally created by immigrants, this is important to take into account when considering how some Chileans defend the impact of immigration on their country.

Nevertheless, when the middle-aged Chilean man asked my six friends and I if we like Obama, “even though he is black, I wasn’t that surprised.  His question, though, did strike me as remarkably racist—from an American perspective.  From a Chilean perspective, I can’t say with confidence that his “qualifying factor” for judging Obama’s presidency would seem improper or not.  This has been one of the most-challenging dynamics of being an American abroad: how do I recognize my American bias in interacting with others, and how can I better understand what aspect of American culture is influencing or creating such misrepresentations of my country?  Furthermore, do I accept the generalization because it is half-true, or do I attempt to counter that generalization because it is half-false?

The only word I have for questions and remarks like these is peculiar.  I can’t call them offensive, because if anyone should feel offended, it’s Obama.  His efficacy as the leader of the United States was doubted for a matter of his skin color, and it’s 2018, not 1958 (this leads to me further believe how little we have come in terms of our history).  This constant state of perplexity is not new to me, however.  During my first stint abroad in Tanzania, I was abruptly confronted daily by the image and generalizations other nations have gathered of Americans.  When my taxi driver or co-workers asked in a mix of Swahili and English if I was anti-Islamist, my memories with my Muslim friends started to materialize like holographic projections; I imagined reaching my arm through a projection of my friend Amina’s face, there but not really there, and I experienced a strange phenomenon which (briefly) caused me to question the authenticity of my personal commitment to love and accept all walks of faith, all backgrounds, and identities.

That’s really all that stands out about America? This is what, as an American, you assume of me? I thought many times while in the back of a bijaj with a stick across the back that read “Masha Allah”, or “As God wills”.

I realized quickly that I had no idea “how to be an American abroad”.  Am I supposed to act diplomatically, avoiding any answer with own ideologies? Should I instead take an opportunity to provide a glimpse of America from outside the frame of a CNN news camera? Why do I feel defensive when my liberal Chilean professor (whom I really admire) openly critiques our access to arms in the States? Why do I not know how to explain that not all Americans are racist? It’d be awfully naïve—imperialistic even—to expect a red carpet and showers of praise while abroad just for being an American.  I just did not imagine how difficult it would seem to represent so large and so complex a nation while traveling in equally complex corners of the world. It is humbling–to say the least–to bear the weight of America’s honor and dishonor as I travel.

To be continued.



**A portion of this content was originally written for the Old Gold & Black**

Cardinal Differences: North and West

September 25th, 2018 by estesle

This title is an homage to my icon, Joan Didion.  Her latest publication, South and West: From a Notebook (2017), is not only telling of Didion’s voice and perspective; it is an open and unfinished glance at what writer’s notice when traveling.  Since I like to consider myself a writer, it’s entertaining to imagine someone paying money to read my travel journal–lucky for you, this blog is free!

Ever since I first encountered her work, Didion has heightened my awareness of setting, of environment.  She focused heavily on California, often characterizing her experiences on the West Coast relative to those from her time spent in New York.  She grappled with the allure of the West that inevitably “cannot hold”, was disenchanted by the East.   A resident of the North but student in the South, I relate.  Straddling regions like so can be equally refreshing and exhausting.

So, as the token terrier of my friends who hails from north of the Mason-Dixon line, I feel I have the liberty to say the following: Yankees just aren’t as nice as Southerners.  While I am proud to be from Pennsylvania, and growing up I always felt like my hometown was characterized by welcoming and generous towns-persons, moving to Wofford and spending time in the South revealed a world of southern hospitality (and chicken and dumplings) I never knew existed.   It’s as real as the next social phenomenon, in my mind.

Not so surprisingly, Chile presents a similar dichotomy—or so the Chileans are convinced. Located in central Chile on the coast, “my” city of Valparaíso is less than two hours from capital of Santiago; from there, one can find a bus or plane to the northern and southern ends of Chile. The nation’s incredible length but pencil-like width inhibits full accessibility, however.  The country crumbles southwardly into an ice maze once navigated by Magellan and his contemporaries.  Along the eastern border with Argentina, the Andes climb up from Patagonia towards the Atacama desert characterized by towering volcanoes, salt flats, flamingo reserves, and the world’s highest (by altitude) geysers. Mines and their accompanying towns are scattered along the interior.  Geographically and physically distant, these disparate worlds of Chile’s extreme ends would logically produce disparate cultures. As I said, the Chileans really believe just that.

For the most-celebrated Chilean holiday of the year, university students were granted a full week of vacation. My friends and I decided to take our 10 days and venture to just one of these geographic extremes.  We flew north. Two buses, a plane ride, and two rented cars later, we reached the tourist center of San Pedro de Atacama to collect maps of the region. One of the first stops we made was at a travel agency which specializes in day trips to the nearby salt flats and flamingo reservations. Tackling logistics in Spanish was just part of the fun! We tried to discern where we would find free campsites (adventuring on a budget) but soon learned that would be harder than anticipated. Any of the following quotes throughout the remainder of this article are roughly translated yet relatively direct, taken from my notes in the corresponding evening’s journal entry (again, lucky for you, I’m not Joan Didion and my travel notes wont’ cost you a penny).

“Where are you all from?” asked the women in the travel agency on our first day in San Pedro. “Since you’re Americans, you have to be careful. Northern Chileans are not as welcoming or friendly to campers, especially tourists who have created problems in our indigenous lands. But if you were camping in the south, like in Patagonia, no problem! You could knock on any door in Punta Arenas and ask to camp in their backyard with full confidence that the owner will say yes. They’re much nicer in the South.”

We took her advice with a grain of salt—or rather, millions.  That night we drove out of San Pedro and away from Moon Valley towards the famous Salar de Atacama, or salt flats of Atacama. While it was dark and challenging to discern what exactly our surroundings were, we found a dirt road off the main highway suitable for “free camping”, feeling assured by the sprinkling of campsites we made out in the glare of our headlights flashing off the reflective material of other free campers’ tents. The next morning we rose with the sun. We were stunned to realize we had camped but a kilometer from the entrance of the salt flats. It was at this park that I first began to discount all the negative discourse I had heard about northern Chileans; the park staff saw my friends and I with dishes in hand and offered to take us to the building’s sink and use their soap and sponges to clean our pots from that morning’s oatmeal. When you’re camping in the world’s driest, non-polar desert for several days, water is a precious resource, so using the park’s sink meant we could save our bottle water for thermoses of hot tea later that night after we climbed to 14,000 feet towards the world’s highest geysers at Tatio.

Everywhere we went we encountered acts of kindness, generosity, and hospitality from the supposedly-unfriendly Northerners. On the day of Dieciocho, Spanish for “18” but indicating the celebration of Chile’s independence from Spain, locals helped guide us to the center of the festivities located on the outskirts of San Pedro.  When we left town for good the next day to find the supermarkets in Calama were still closed—leaving us unable to restock on food for the second half of our trip driving down the coast—locals in the city of Calama pointed us towards small corner stores to find the basics.

The night of September 19 we reached a town on the coast known as a popular beach camping site. Our compact cars had handled a range of terrain, but we did manage to get stuck in a pocket of loose sand. The next morning a Chilean couple drove by in a truck and immediately stopped to help pull us out. I talked with the woman while her husband freed our car; immediately she instructed—not invited—us to pack up our campsite and move down the beach next to theirs.  The greatest blessing? The usual Dieciocho celebration is accompanied by an asado, or cook out.  Our new neighbors fed us copious amounts of juicy chicken, pork, steak, and chorizo. We built a bonfire together, us 7 American college students and the Chilean family of 4.  Faces warmed by the flames, we entered another conversation about the Northern/Southern divide in Chile. This family asked us if we thought Northerners were unwelcoming—this question after pulling our car out of the sand, feeding us, and sharing their vacation time with us.  It strikes me that Chileans are so convinced of this stereotype, so much so that they are blind to their own generosity.

A blurry but memorable photo inside the tent of our Chilean family we met on the beach!

The next morning the mother insisted we also join her, her husband, and two teenage sons for scrambled eggs, bread, and coffee.  We even had condensed milk for our coffee, a luxury after days of Nescafé brewed in lukewarm water boiled on a camp stove. To show our thanks, we helped them break down their camp and washed the dishes (the night before we offered our wine, eggs, bread, and tomatoes we bought in Calama, but when they were packing their car, we were gifted all that back plus their leftovers). After they left, our former neighbors from our first night on the beach, who also helped us break free from the sand, drove by to gift us their leftover bread, wine, grilled chorizo, eggs, tomatoes, and firewood (can you tell what the Chilean staples are?). After encountering closed grocery stores in Calama, this bounty and hospitality from our beach friends convinced us that everyone, including the Northerners themselves, are absolutely wrong about the politeness divide in Chile.

This phenomenon might have only stood out to me because of my heightened awareness of regional differences as a woman from north of the Mason-Dixon Line studying in upstate South Carolina. Or maybe it suggests that our perception of our own nations’ regions is not all that different from Chile, and possibly other countries too.  I don’t mean to discount any of Ms. Didion’s intricately-noted observations from her American road-trip in the south, but I do challenge her to consider how we perpetuate stereotypes within our own nations.

To conclude our adventure throughout northern Chile, the group drove north up the coast towards the city of Iquique.  We savored the fresh ceviche and magnificent sunsets which painted the waves orange as they crashed against the basaltic rocks. At one of the mercados, or markets, we found some souvenirs. I paid for my traditional Iquique candy and spoke with the gentleman for a few minutes then left. A moment or two later he tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a bean and another coffee-flavored candy.

“For luck and good travels,” he told me.




P.S. This weekend I’m headed to Santiago for some interviews with artists so I look forward to sharing about that soon, too. Que les vayan bien!