Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review of "Beautiful Problems" by Stanley Fritz

Stories give meaning to our lives. They are essential to the human experience and gives us the ability to use our imagination to paint a picture with words. Stanley Fritz in "Beautiful Problems" does just that. Every story in this imaginative compilation is a sensory experience, allowing the reader to create a blend of sounds, smells, and sights. "Beautiful Problems" is not about finding a personal connection to the stories that are exquisitely written, but about finding an emotional connection to the struggles. Human struggles differ, but humanity is a thread that connects us. That human thread is weaved through "Beautiful Problems" creating a wonderful tapestry of life. The stories are so poignant and raw that I sometimes found myself disagreeing with the perspective and still rooting for the underdog.

“Beautiful Problems” is full of struggles I might never experience, but while reading they became mine. In “Letter to my Daughter” a father speaks about losing his parental rights in a divorce. His narrative will never be my reality, yet his story allowed me to feel his unique challenge within the context of his own experience. For a few minutes I melted into that moment, and because while reading I do not have to offer commentary, I could truly immerse myself into someone else’s life.

“Letter to my Daughter” allowed me to connect with a struggle that is not mine, while “The Friend Zone” gave me an opportunity to disagree with perspective of the author, all the while wanting him to win. As a woman I have my reasons for wanting a man to be a friend and not a lover, and none has to do with men being too nice. Yet that does not matter, because Stanley Fritz is speaking from his heart and perspective. I will never truly be in his shoes, but through his words I was able to experience a snippet of his life.

"Beautiful Problems" is a  journey. Read it and you will find yourself in a journey of self-awareness, healing, and compassion.

A Grateful Thanks

I try to update my blog as much as possible, but life gets in the way. Last blog post I wrote about my friend Jill. She was raped in her NY apartment while she slept and is still living in the same place because she has no funds to move. I pleaded with all the wonderful people that read my blog and donations poured in! I was able to collect approximately $2,000 for her and I ran out of words to say how grateful I am for all those who donated and sent me wonderful messages for Jill.

I have been helping Jill find a new home, but NY is a tough place to find an affordable rent. We were hoping she would be in a new place by the new years, but we've had no luck. We are however working on it and hope to welcome the new year with a new attitude and a gratefulness for human compassion.

I am not always the best at updating my readers on time, but I will let you know and take pictures as soon as she finds a new home! Your donations will be put to good use, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for trusting me with your money. I am just a person on the internet and you all trusted me to do the right time. I will continue to fight for all rape survivors, and while I cannot help all of them move on and live in peace I will strive to speak up for all men and women who need it.

Thank you for reading my posts. I wish you all a great new year full of determination and compassion.

With love,

Saturday, November 10, 2012

My Friend Was Raped While She Slept

Tonight my heart feels heavy. My friend Jill* came over to tell me she was raped. Every day I passionately talk about the need to help rape victims, to believe them, offer them support, and not blame them, but when it happens to someone near and dear to you, no amount of reading will prepare you for the shock. We were sitting in my kitchen, she drinking a glass of wine, me munching on cookies while making dinner. When the words "I was raped" came out of her mouth I held on to a half eaten cookie for over an hour. I couldn't decide if I should eat it, drop it, or offer it to her. That was my way of coping with such a horrendous confession. While she told me her story I cooked enough food to feed a small village. It was the only way I could keep my hands from shaking. But this isn't a cooking blog. I am writing this because Jill's story is all too common, and the lack of available support is depressing, so I need your help.

Jill was raped in the middle of the night while she slept. That day she arrived home from work exhausted and frustrated that for the prior two nights she could not fall asleep. She ate, showered, read a book, and took a sleeping pill. For weeks she had left her kitchen window open because her small apartment was prone to getting stuffy. She would cover the open window with a canvas painting of "starry night" so that her neighbors could not see into her home. That night, someone climbed the building's fire escape and was able to get into her 5th floor apartment through her opened window. He quietly walked into her room, climbed into her bed, and taking advantage of her deep slumber, raped her.

Jill woke up thinking that she was dreaming and rapidly realized that there was man on top of her, raping her while she slept. She tried to scream as he restrained her, but the only name she could remember was her mothers', who lives miles away and could not have possibly come to her aid.While her rapist restrained her with the weight of his body he stroked her hair while whispering " one else is here." Jill told me that while he was restraining her he kept whispering terms of endearment into her ear. He called her "baby" and "honey" and tried frantically to quiet her screams. All this happened in her dark bedroom while she was half-asleep. She struggled until she could set herself free. By the time she was able to turn her bedroom lights on her rapist had run away, once again escaping through her opened kitchen window.

It took Jill several minutes to realize that she was not actually dreaming. In fact, the first person she called was her ex-boyfriend and good friend, who lives in another state, to ask if he had been in her bedroom. It made no logical sense that he would be there, but it was the only man she could remember having a key to her apartment. He assured her that it was not him and encouraged her to call the police.

At 3 in the morning the police escorted Jill to the hospital to undergo a rape kit examination. She waited with two police officers for 6 hours until she could undergo a full examination. When I asked her what took so long she said, "there was only one room, I suppose there were other women going through the same thing." After the medical examination she spent hours in a police precinct, retelling the story over and over again to detectives. Jill confessed to me that although the police and detectives treated her kindly, she felt disgusting and shameful every time she was asked to explain the events. She felt guilty that she could not remember what her attacker looked like, how old he was, his ethnicity, or even his approximate weight. He seemed like a shadow, and if it were not for the medical examination confirming the presence of semen in her body, she would have still been unsure of whether she was raped or not. Every time she was asked to explain how her rapist could get into her home she guiltily confessed that she had left her window open. She was embarrassed and kept blaming herself for being so careless.

Jill has no close siblings, her father passed away several years ago, her mother does not live near her, and her  older half-brother, lives in another state. That night Jill was completely alone. When her mother arrived at her side she was already too tired to retell the story and blurred the details in fear her mother would freak out; "I'm her only baby" Jill told me as she tried to explain why she did not want her mother to know all the details. When she called her half-brother he seemed rattled and upset, then told her he always knew she was careless and immature. He questioned her judgement, asked if she was sure she was not just being robbed, and then reminded her that accusing someone of rape could ruin that man's life; apparently forgetting that his own sister's life was in shambles. Jill is still struggling with comprehending that reaction, but continues to believe that she could have avoided what happened if she had only closed her window.

Jill came over last night to tell me that her rapist was caught, but that she still feels unsafe and wants to move.  An eyewitness saw the rapist climb though her window, and surveillance cameras caught him walking across her courtyard and entering his own apartment. He lived right across from her and was married. Jill says she's glad he was caught, but nightmares of that night haunt her. She has changed all the locks in her doors and windows, and even when in need of fresh air she hesitates opening the windows, for fear that she'll forget to close one. At night she sleeps with her lights and TV on because the darkness and quiet frightens her. Any noise in the night startles her, and when she gets home, she looks inside every room and closet to make sure no one is inside her home. She wonders if her rapist has friends or family members in the neighborhood, and she worries that they might try to take revenge.

While Jill told me her story I frantically cooked a million dishes, chopped all the vegetables in my fridge, and put out every snack item I had on the table. But we didn't eat any of it. I needed something to do, whatever kept me from crying. But I can do something now, I can help her move. Jill does not have a lot of money and while her job is satisfying, it does not pay well. She lost time from work going to the doctor for follow-up blood tests, talking with detectives and police officers, and going to court to testify. Soon after, Hurricane Sandy hit New York causing massive damage, flooding, and power loss. Jill could not get to work for days, causing her already dwindling savings to completely vanish.

I have offered to help Jill with money so that she can find a new place to live and pay for her security deposit, first month of rent, and moving her furniture. Thinking of Jill sleeping in the same bedroom where she was assaulted and raped breaks my heart. I  speak up about rape victims needing assistance all the time, now it's time to do something about it. I have set up a PayPal account for monetary contributions to help Jill move. We can't help every woman in this world, but if we help one we're moving in the right direction.

For those of you who can donate, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. For those of you who cannot, I also thank you from the bottom of my heart, for reading this story and caring. In times of need money is appreciated, but support and compassion is what truly matters.

I started writing this with trembling hands, and I finish it with a hopeful smile.

*Name of victim has been changed to protect her identity.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Career, Independence, and Love

Courtesy of

In spite of my impassioned moments I am a level-headed person. Though I do find myself almost tearing out my hair every time I hear someone say that women are sacrificing their love lives, relationships, and families for the sake of their career. These comments feed into an old-age idea that women's desire are all rooted around family and motherhood, and that women are not desirable when they are independent and self-sufficient.

This week, Tyrese Gibson, the R&B singer, actor, author, and former fashion model tweeted this:

I do not care what Tyrese thinks about women, but he does have over 2 million twitter followers and has the power of media on his side. I can tweet all day long about feminism, but I do not have 2 million followers, so my messages do not reach as many people. I find his tweets falling into the same ritual of warning women of the "consquences" of their single or successful career statuts. Reading this tweet from Tyrese reminds me that only women get the "warning" about independence leading to loneliness. Independent men are sexy, reliant, and make good husband material. Single men in their 40s are never lonely, they are free to do as they please with their time. But independent women? They are just waiting for a man to save them, or in need of someone to take care of them.

Growing up I saw my divorced mother struggle to regain the independence she lost when she got married, because my father refused to have a wife that would put her career before her family. The thought that a family is created by both parents, and that they could both financially contribute to their marriage was never given a thought. While some families can afford to only have one parent work, that was not the case for my family. We struggled financially for years, and although my mother was a college graduate, while my father did not even graduate from middle school, he was the de facto head of the household. He managed our finances, our business, and activities. He decided how much money my mother would get for groceries and back-to-school shopping, while freely buying rounds of drinks for his friends at the local bar.

My father was not the smartest man when it came to managing our family's money, and while he doesn't represent all men, his refusal to allow my mother to be part of the household finances is all too common. I say this all the time, but I almost want to get it tattooed on my forehead so as to make the message clearer: PATRIARCHY HURTS MEN. My father measured his manhood only within patriarchal boundaries.

Bell hooks, in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, defines patriarchy as:

"…a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence."
My mother would often refer to my dad as a machista. A machista is a man who domineers, specially the women in his life, to prove his masculinity. Machismo teaches men to show their virility, power, and manhood by being controlling and aggressive. The concept of machismo is heavily influenced by socially imposed gender roles and the idea that anything feminine is weak, and vice versa. While my significant other is considerably more open minded about gender roles than my father was, we both struggle with what society wants from us. In my home I have the most education, a salaried career, and make more money. He is a freelancer, blue collar worker, whose paycheck is directly related to how many hours he works; yet our intimate relationship is balanced. We both strive for success and uplift each other, always with an understanding that success is not measured in money and that our relationship is built by both of us. If I fail, he fails, and vice versa.

Nonetheless, our society is still deeply entrenched in gender roles, which brings me back to the notion of women having too much independence. What some see as "too much independence" in regards to women, is actually women being normal contributing members of our society, which in turn is good for everyone. Women being active members of our society reduces the pressure that men face to build a career, wealth, and family on their own. It just creeps people out because for eons women's place were on the sidelines.

Men and women are very much affected by gender roles and the pressures that come with that. Balancing a career, a family, and ones personal life is not easy, but the onus is always on women to either balance all facets of life perfectly or choose one (career or family.) A desire for independence along with love and protection is a human desire. However, men and women are not a monolith and can choose whichever life best suits them, sometimes doing so at the expense of a lot of social reprieve. Women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers or quit their jobs after marriage might not represent my lifestyle, but they have every right to make that choice for themselves. A woman who is fulfilled by her career and is not interested in marriage or a family has made that choice for herself and should not be seen as lonely; not unless she says so herself. And women who juggle all facets of life also know that at times they might not do it perfectly, and that's ok. Personal choices are just that, personal choices. They do not reflect a gender. So I will not entertain the idea that women are "too independent" when a man's independence is never questioned. The issue is not really about a person being self-sufficient, autonomous, and in control of their own life, it is the notion of a woman being autonomous, and that is unsettling. It is unsettling to men as it is to some women, because it dismantles gender roles that many truly believe in. What is disheartening to me is that women's independence is a talking point.

It is disheartening to me that women's independence is always a focal point for skewed gender roles and responsibilities in our society.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Women, Harassment, and Construction Sites

Courtesy of UMass.
It is no mystery that there are few women who work in the construction industry. For years the sector has been overwhelmingly male dominated, with women making only 9.6% of the construction industry workforce. The industry, while remaining male dominated, has been increasingly facing a crisis due to the lack of available qualified workers. As the demand for labor surpasses the supply, construction companies expand their recruitment efforts, including a formerly untapped labor source, women. Construction jobs allow for upward mobility directly linked to years of experience and ability to do the work well, making it a desirable career choice for many. However, while sex discrimination is illegal, many construction sites have anti-women attitudes, making construction jobs less desirable and/or torturous for women.

The United States Department of Labor Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health reported in 1999 that 88% of women construction workers surveyed had experienced sexual harassment at work. I searched high and low for more current data, but no extensive study has been done since then. Most recent information I found would just claim that things are "getting better" for women in construction, and while I don't deny that there are more women in construction fields, I am not convinced that sexual harassment and bullying is a thing of the past. Progress is great, but a hostile environment affects a person's ability to do their job correctly. I know first hand because it happened to me.

I studied Civil Engineering, and most Engineering students know that in order to improve one's chances of getting hired when you graduate you should have at least one internship or apprenticeship during your undergraduate studies. Internships give you some real life experiences that are just impossible to get from a classroom. During my sophomore year of Engineering school I applied and was hired for an internship as a Construction Manager Assistant for a major construction management company in New York City. My work consisted of being in a construction site and maintaining the project schedule by monitoring project progress, coordinating activities among the different trades, and resolving problems. The finished product was to be a high-rise residential building overlooking Central Park. To this day I am grateful for all that I learned while in a construction site. That experience has helped me along in my professional career in more ways than I can imagine, from dealing with a team, to learning how to schedule major projects. However, being one female out of a total of about 10 women in a site with hundreds of men, was quite alienating and frustrating, at times.

The first day of my internship I arrived with three other interns, two young men and one other female. After being briefed on job site safety we were asked to visit the project's head foreman, who called in two of his construction managers who would become our mentors. The first manager that arrived looked at all of us and immediately stated "I'll take the two boys" and feeling a need to apologize, looked at me and the other female intern and said "sorry ladies, I don't deal with women on this job." Shortly after another manager arrived, upon seeing us two waiting he said "are these the interns? I was expecting a couple of guys." Since we were all that was left he had no choice. He led us to a Field Engineer, a recent college graduate and the only other woman on site that day, and told her to "take care of us." Apparently, he could not be bothered with being our mentor.

Throughout the summer the two male interns were given jobs overseeing major tasks relating to mechanical equipment, electrical work, and concrete pouring, while the other female intern and I were asked to check if the finished apartments were painted, the marble was installed in the bathrooms, and the light fixtures were properly centered. It was easy to see that as females, we were given the tasks that required the least amount of effort and intelligence. After all, who goes to Engineering school to learn how to watch paint dry? It was aggravating to be doing such boring work; we wanted to be involved in actual construction tasks so as to truly learn engineering techniques applied in the field. After a few weeks of unsuccessfully trying to ask our mentor to give us more interesting work, we decide to seek help from the only female construction manager on site. She was a 50 year old Puerto Rican woman named Milly, who used to be a secretary for the company and fell in love with construction. She paid her way through night school and earned a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After finishing her degree she was hired as a Construction Manager overseeing all the mechanical trades.

Milly became our mentor and made sure that we were always learning something from the tasks we were assigned. She also encouraged us to work separately because, as she would say "you'll probably be the only woman on any site, better get used to it." As expected, the work that we were given required us to constantly be around the tradesmen working, as opposed to before when we were mainly in empty finished apartments. I can only speak for myself, because I never asked the other female female intern how she felt or what kind of treatment she received, but it was at this point that I became the target of a lot of sexist, rude, and inappropriate remarks from some of the men. Many times as I walked on by, working men who would stop their work to stare and wolf whistle. Several times a day I had to say "no thank you" to men asking for my number or requesting to take me out on a date. On a few occasions I got called a bitch for refusing to reply to inappropriate remarks. Some men felt the need to give me "get fit" advice and make comments about my body, often pointing at my lack of physical strength as a sign of why I did not belong on a construction site: never mind that technological advances and strict safety codes has made the use of physical strength obsolete in most jobs. Once, I found myself in the middle of a storage room with one construction worker (whom I had never seen before that day) blocking the doorway and refusing to let me leave unless I accepted his request for a date.

I worked on the site for a year, after which I decided the stress of a workplace where I constantly felt harassed, belittled, and intimidated was not worth the effort. The constant fear that someone would make me feel uncomfortable or make a rude remark was making me lose my concentration, and on an active construction site, that is an actual safety hazard. I requested to work with the Project Managers who dealt with the Engineering consultants from the main office and only went on site for field meetings. Today, I am better equipped to deal with everyday sexism, but at 18 years old I was not. I never did report any of the many incidents of sexism and harassment that I endured. I was reluctant to do so for fear of being tagged as a complainer who could not handle the job.

Writing this was one of the hardest things I've had to do. I still love the construction industry and promote it as a great career choice for men and women who enjoy being active on their jobs.  For every man that demeaned me, there were dozens who uplifted me. For every man that made a sexist comment, there were scores who respected me and valued my work. For every man that harassed me, there were hundreds more who protected me as their coworker. The issue is not that all men refuse to work with women, the issue is that a few men who do not, make the working environment hostile and dangerous for women. Those few that harassed me had the power to ruin my day, alter my mind, and destroy my self confidence. We need to increase the number of women in the construction industry so that we are not a rarity. We must also encourage labor unions and construction employers to include sexual harassment training as part of their health and safety plans. Women deserve to have access to skilled trades, and they deserve to be respected as a fellow colleague. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

All Immigrants Are Part Of Our American Values

Property of 
My immigration story is not unique. I came to the United States at the age of 5, with a green card and on an airplane, into the arms of family members who were already "assimilated" to an American culture. I use quotation marks because as much as my relatives pretended to be all-American, they could never truly blend in. Their skin color, accent, and penchant for wearing a crucifix gave them away. Those relatives arrived at a time when the term "melting pot" was used to represent the American way of life. You came here to leave everything behind and never look back; that was the "old World." Here, you had to learn English, learn to blend in, and be grateful for the country that took you in. But my family was pleasantly living their day to day life. They had purchased homes and opened businesses, and their children were getting educated.

By the time I arrived with my parents and my younger sister, it was 1991. Long gone were the days when immigration was circumscribed and European immigrants never had a chance of returning to their homes. They left with the implicit knowledge that they would never go back to their European cities and villages. Immigrants today, whether legal or illegal, face challenges that did not exist in the past. For over 100 years the United States had an open policy, so that the toughest challenge immigrants faced was getting here. If the immigration policy that exists today had always been in place, most immigrants who came to this country between 1790 and 1924 would not be allowed in. The new wave of immigrants that included my family were racially/ethnically different; fitting in was not as simple as it seemed. Mobility and technical advances allowed us to be constantly connected to our countries and culture. We could make a phone call every day and save money for a flight back home. The "old country" was not left behind, it was part of our new selves. But throughout the years all immigrants have shared a common goal: to work hard for progress and opportunities.

When I hear negative stereotypes about immigrants today I wonder, when did we all become so entitled? Perhaps this has always been the attitude about immigrants in the United States, but I remember very well learning about waves of immigrants coming though Ellis Island and being welcomed. I read "The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus and internalized the verse "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." During trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty I felt like I had a connection to the families arriving to a new country, lost and confused, but hopeful. It was a shock to find that the immigrant dream was just a nice story, because today there are no welcoming arms.

I did not choose to come to the United States, my parents made that decision for me, so as a child learning about American history I would question my parents. Why would my family leave their heritage and only home for a foreign land with no guarantees of the life that lay ahead? Moreover, why pick the United States? All they could say was, freedom. The United States offer freedoms that the rest of the world envies. My grandparents came to the United States after the protests and US military occupation that overthrew a 30 year dictatorship in the Dominican Republic. Years later, my parents were still trying to free themselves from a country that was plagued by consequent political upheavals. From the perch of our pampered lifestyles in the United States, we forget that many live in deplorable situations and only wish for an iota of the American dream. We are so isolated from world situations that we forget that much of the world still lives in conditions the Founding Fathers came to America to escape.

I share my story, not because it is unique; I am almost certain that I had it easy compared to so many that come here without the support of their family. My story is a story that is common, but as ordinary as it is there are not enough human faces attached to our stories. We must show that immigrants today are as important to American values as the immigrants that arrived via Ellis Island. Everyone living in the United States has an immigrant story, though for too long forgetting that story was part of assimilating. Today, we are only spoken about in statistics that silence our true stories. If we can feel compassion for an Irish escaping a famine, an Italian fleeing poverty, or a Jewish immigrant fleeing religious persecution, we can most definitely feel compassion for a Salvadorean escaping a civil war, an Arab fleeing political oppression, or a Mexican in search of an escape from poverty. Our stories our powerful, but only if they can be heard.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Shaping a Latina Feminist Identity

Courtesy of Tennessee Guerilla Women
My mother would never call herself a feminist, even though she is the embodiment of a feminist. She will say that feminism is incompatible with Catholicism, but warns me of the perils of religious fanaticism; that life is tough for all women, while reminding me she wants me and my sisters to have more opportunities than she did; that she does not have time to protests things she cannot change, although she singlehandedly raised three daughters, working 12 hour shifts as a home attendant for the elderly, six days a week; and that she really wants me to one day get married and give her grandchildren, but there's no rush!

For many years I thought my mother's refusal to believe in feminism came from her misconceptions of what it meant. Maybe she was caught up in the whole "lesbian" and "hairy legs" myths that are so often associated with women who are just trying to be treated as equals. But the reality is that as a Hispanic woman she did not believe that the traditional, Western, view of feminism related to her. Feminism for her felt like a movement she was not entitled to be part of. Surely women played a major role in the revolutionary movements of the 20th century in Latin America, but those efforts were rarely spoken of in feminist circles. According to history books women's rights movement of the 19th and 20th century never truly took root in Latin America.

The only way I could understand my mother's brave streak, while her other female relatives were so deeply entrenched in gender roles and a patriarchal household, was to look at her past, starting with the woman who gave birth to her. My maternal grandmother became pregnant with my mother out of a love affair in Dominican Republic. My grandfather was already engaged to be married, and he was not going to lose his macho status by being associated with a woman of "lose morals," so he abandoned her. Being a single mother is not easy in any part of the world, but Latin America is steeped in conservatism that shames women for being overtly sexual, while exalting men's promiscuity. My grandmother was shunned from her village, kicked out of her home, and left to fend for herself and her baby daughter. Ironically, it was my grandfather's oldest sister, unmarried and in the process of becoming a nun, who took a pregnant woman in. After my mother was born her aunt made sure that her niece was fed, clothed, and educated, and she looked after the woman her brother had abandoned. Unfortunately my grandmother was never able to get rid of the stigma of being a single mother and the embarrassment of her lover's abandonment for a more honorable, ie. virginal, woman. She suffered several mental breakdowns, was hospitalized for neurosis, and in 1970 she committed suicide by swallowing a poisonous cocktail of pills. My mother was raised by her paternal aunt, a woman who was planning on becoming a nun and never expected she would have to be a mother to her brother's child. Years later the one thing my mother was certain of was that she was alive, educated, and healthy, none of it had to do with a man. There were no men in her life, except for the few times her biological father would invite her to his immaculate home, where she felt unwanted and out of place.

At the age of 20 my mother married my father. For the first time in her life she had a man in her life, but he was not the prince charming people always told her about. Soon after the honeymoon my father made her quit her university studies claiming her first priority should be her children, he kept her from learning how to drive, and eventually regulated the time she could spend outside the home. This was exacerbated after we migrated to the United States, by then my sister was born and my mother was pregnant with her third daughter. Now my mother was expected to live by marianismo, the concept that the ideal woman should be spiritually immaculate and eternally self-giving; she is to self-sacrifice and reject her own pleasure in order to please others, particularly the men in her life. Meanwhile my father lost the status he once had as a married man with children and the owner of his own business in the Dominican Republic. After several failed attempts at opening businesses he drowned in debts, started to drink heavily, and became violent at the slightest provocation. Six years after we first stepped foot on American soil, my parents separated.

The night my mother left we had no where to go. She wandered aimlessly through the streets of Brooklyn, New York with three young daughters and one suitcase. Her nearest relative was on vacation, but it was the only home she could trust. So we sat in her front stoop for hours, although we knew that there was no chance anyone would open the door. Eventually my mother started looking for a spare key and found it. So we slept in her cousin's house for that night. It was a house I had visited often, but that night it felt eerie, as if we had broken into a stranger’s home. After unsuccessfully trying to search for a shelter that would take in a mother with three daughters, we went to the house of one of my school mates, whose mother had recently left her husband. She took us into her tiny apartment and gave us the bedroom of her youngest son. It only had a twin size bed and one window, so my mother would cover the floor with our clothing and lay a sheet over it as a makeshift bed for me and my sister, while she slept in the bed with my baby sister. We did that for six months until my mother was able to finish a training to become an elderly caretaker, get a job, and eventually a new home.

After all of this, my mother was thankful. She says she is one of the luckiest women in the world because she has three great daughters who make her proud. She does not pity herself, she does not even complain. When talking of the past she says that many have suffered more, and that she would not change anything. Admittedly, when I first began learning of feminism, I became upset with my mother. Surely she had to be angry after so many men in her life had failed her. How could she not see that she had to become the sacrificial lamb for us, while our father went out at night and did not once have to worry whether his daughters had enough to eat or a place to sleep? How could she work 12 hours a day and still come home to prepare us a meal and clean the house? I wanted her to be angry, because I was. Why did she have to suffer because of the mistakes others made?

It did not take long for my mother to notice my rebellious streak. One day she had enough of me talking down to her about her inability to see feminism from my point of view. She asked me if I was ashamed of my culture, or if I thought that taking care of children was not a satisfying job; if I truly believed that domestic duties would diminish my worth, and if I thought following traditions were demeaning. She reminded me that I was the one who insisted on having a quinceañera, the Latin American version of the Sweet Sixteen; a coming of age tradition that included a religious ceremony and my father changing my shoes from flat to heels and presenting me to the world as a woman. I wanted that, and today I know that it was a patriarchal society that led me to believe my father needed to confirm my womanhood, but I loved it. I will not deny it. It was symbolic and it allowed me to feel closer to my culture.

My mother, the woman that was the definition of marianismo, the unfeminist, was also the woman who taught me to find my own kind of feminism. A feminism that is threefold and includes an attachment to traditional culture, a satisfaction for being a mother and wife, and a devotion to religious symbolism. My mothers' feminism was about learning to do better than just survive. She was a full-time worker, a full-time mother, and was fully invested in her community and her church. She did not have the option of choosing between a fruitful career or being a stay-at-home mother. In fact, I had no working definition of a stay-at-home mom until I was in college, because it was a far-fetched dream in my life. All my female relatives had no choice but to work because not doing so meant their children would go hungry. So they all babysat each other's children as a way of supporting each other. I tried hard to make my family fit into the ideal feminist household: a home with two loving and equally working parents who somehow could still make time to be with their children and take summer vacations. But that was idealistic. My reality was my mothers' feminism; a feminism that was not just about envisioning a different world, but creating a life that will change it for her children.

Hispanic women are fully aware that our culture is entrenched in misogyny, but not necessarily any less than American culture. Women in the United States are often expected to take their husbands' last name. Many men still go to their bride's father to ask for her hand in marriage; just because we see it as a sweet gesture it does not mean that it isn't patriarchal in nature. Valuing your heritage will not take away from being a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman. I feel resentment at the way that Western feminism made me see my mother as a woman trapped in tradition, when in reality she was a living example of a feminist. Loving tradition and having pride in your culture does not mean these women cannot vocalize the gender issues of their communities. My mother's feminism was the truest form of feminism for me; a belief in the potential upward mobility of all women. Feminism cannot continue to exist as a monolithic block, or we will never be able to include women from all walks of life.

Friday, August 3, 2012

From Girl to Woman: A Quinceañera Story

I don't remember the exact day I realized that being called "girl" was demeaning. I wish I could say it was one particular scenario in which I felt infantilized, but it is very likely that I slowly came to the realization that I am indeed a woman. I am a woman for many reasons, but I am not a girl because of my age. I was ecstatic when I turned thirteen, and expected everyone to address me by my new age group; teenager. With age comes pride and the feeling of accomplishment; whether it is an actual accomplishment or the feeling of having survived: the feeling that you are closer to being autonomous, emancipated, and in control of yourself.

As a Latina, I dreamed of the day I would be a Quinceañera; meaning "one who is fifteen years old" in Spanish. A Quinceañera party is not just a big hoopla, it is a rite of passage from girlhood into womanhood. My Quinceañera symbolized my development into a woman, and it was marked by a meaningful ceremony. The ceremony consisted of a religious service where I received a blessing and gave thanks for the gift of life. I also participated in the traditional fifteen candles ceremony, where I selected fifteen family members and friends that had positively influenced my development into a woman, wrote a small speech explaining how they influenced me, and lighted a candle in their honor, so that they may always be there to guide my way. My father changed my shoes from flats to high heels to signify that I was no longer a child, and my mother put a rhinestone encrusted tiara on my head to present me to the world as a queen.

My parents went through such an extravagant and expensive ceremony, just to present me to the world as no longer a girl, but a woman. Coming of age ceremonies vary from culture to culture, but their connecting thread is to celebrate reaching adulthood. Embracing womanhood at the age of fifteen was historically necessary in the Hispanic community because it was the appropriate age for a woman to marry and bear children. In modern times, the idea that a fifteen year old girl is emotionally and physically mature to become a wife and mother is debatable, but the symbolism remains. The Quinceañera ceremony gave me no choice but to embrace being a woman, although it took me a few more years to accept that.

I didn't feel as if I had an adult identity, or more specifically, an identity as a woman, until I finished college and entered the professional world. I was the only female, aside from a much older administrative assistant, in my department in an engineering firm. Being the only female engineer and the youngest person in my group made me realize that I wasn't going to get respect just for being there, I had to earn it. I was immediately, the "new girl," then "the girl working for...such and such," and finally just "the girl that sits by the plan desk." It would have been inconceivable for me to call any of my colleagues "boy" because to do so would be insulting and suggests that they are incapable of handling adult tasks. While I excelled in my career and spoke to all my coworkers as my equal, the term "girl" stuck with me. It was demeaning to have men who could be my father refer to me as "girl" because it forced me to see them as a parental figure, which is a power structure I was unwilling to submit to in my profession. I interpreted their calling me "girl" to the idea that I, and in retrospect all women, was childlike in nature.

Although I felt infantilized by my peers, I was more conflicted because I felt guilty. I call adult women, including myself, "girls" without giving it a second thought. I am the first to say "you go girl!" Social outings with other women are a "girls' night out," and I cannot remember a time when I did not start an email or a text to a friend with the phrase "hey girl!"I have noticed that informally men and women are called "girls and guys," especially when referring to adults in their early 20s, like most of the individuals in my social circle, and for this reason I do not see anything wrong with calling other women "girls" in an informal setting. It's a playful expression of youthfulness, equal to "hanging out with the boys." But, I draw the line at calling women "girls" in a professional setting, or any setting where males are exclusively referred to as "men."

It took me months to stand up to my colleagues about the way they addressed me, but it was the best thing I could have done for myself. I had passed through my coming of age ceremony at the age of fifteen with the blessing of my relatives and friends, urging me on to be the woman they had already seen in me. I could not let them down by submitting myself to a society that will never use the word "boy" to refer to a professional man in a work setting, but uses the word "girl" universally to refer to women of all ages. Adulthood is messy and complicated, and no one truly wants to grow up, but it is part of living. I am an adult. I am a woman. I am a self-respecting, sexual, independent, free-thinking, smart, feisty, woman.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Math Isn't Just For Boys: Fighting The Stereotype

 Courtesy of Indiana University.

When I take a look around my office I see a lot of men, mostly older White men. There are also women, mostly administrative assistants, accountants, and marketing personnel, but few like me. I am an engineer, and I am young, female, Ivy League educated, and Hispanic. I took the same science and mathematics classes all my male peers took. I was given the same tests, the same homework assignments, and the same projects. Yet, every day I have to battle stereotypes of what some think women should be.

Engineering, and most science fields, have for long been male-dominated professions. Yet, in spite of traditional gender roles pigeonholing women to domestic duties, women haven't necessarily settled into domesticity without first making many great advances in the science fields. We cannot forget Merit-Ptah, an ancient Egyptian physician, and also the first woman to be known by name in the history of the field of Medicine. Or the ancient Greek philosopher Hypatia, also the first historically noted woman in Mathematics. These women were not given positions in Science to fill a status quo, they earned it, just like women today.

Stereotypes are part of my daily life. In high school I was discouraged by a school teacher to apply to Engineering school, because she claimed it was "harder than I was imagining it to be." She told me that I wanted to pursue a degree in Engineering because I of the money I would earn, but it was clear to her that I did not have a passion for it. Never mind that I outperformed all my classmates, including all my male peers, and that I was about to graduate at the top of my class. As a professional adult, I still face these misconceptions about women in science fields. I get my bosses' mail delivered to me every day because the delivery man, after four years, still thinks that I am a secretary. I politely remind him every day that I am in fact, also an engineer, like my boss, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. So I find myself not only doing my work, but also delivering mail. A week ago I was asked by a new employee which department belonged in, and the conversation went like this:

Me: "Hi, are you new to our office?"New Employee: "Yes, I work in the Marketing department. Do you work with Corporate?"Me: "No, I work in the Transportation and Infrastructure department."New Employee: "Are you an administrative assistant?"Me: "No, an Engineer."New Employee: "Oh, you're an Accountant."Me: "Noooo, an Engineer, a Civil Engineer!"New Employee: "Oh, wow! I would have never don't look like one."Me: "Umm...thanks?"

While I admit to becoming irritated, it was more disconcerting that this coworker was also a young woman like myself. She reacted in a way that was natural and all too common, because there really aren't enough women being positively represented in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). I quite enjoy shaking up perceived ideas of what society assumes I should be, as a woman, a woman of color, and a woman in a male-dominated field, but when will all this shock and awe over women in science fields end? Nonetheless, I love the work I do and the feeling of accomplishment I get when I finish a project. And contrary to 18th century views of the female brain, we have shown that when given the same curriculum as men, we can equally excel.

According to a research study done by the University of Washington, the main culprit for girls not becoming enthusiastic about careers in mathematics and science is gender-stereotyping. The study speaks of the widespread cultural belief in the "girls don't do math" stereotype. In the study, 247 school-age children (126 girls and 121 boys) were asked to sort four kinds of words: boy names, girl names, math words and reading words, into categories, with the use of an adapted keyboard on a laptop. The lead author of the study, Dario Cvencek, concluded that: "Not only do girls identify the stereotype that math is for boys, but they apply that to themselves. That's the concerning part. Girls are translating that to mean, 'Math is not for me.'"

While the study found that both genders equate mathematics with boys, it is unclear why this stereotype is so pronounced at such a young age, though there seems to be a connection with the way in which we speak to young children about mathematics. Dario Cvencek explains: "When a girl does poorly on a math test, often she's told, 'That's fine. You did your best.' When a boy does poorly, he is more likely to be told, 'You can do better. Try harder next time.'"

Stereotypes are hurtful, and I believe that stereotype threat, the notion that we experience anxiety in a situation where we have the potential to confirm a negative stereotype, is all too real. We cannot expect young girls to be interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, if we continue to associate them with one gender. Stereotyping career choices is not in our best interest as we cannot achieve success if we believe that half of our population is not capable of contributing to the betterment of our society. I challenge every educator and parent to reevaluate the way they educate their children. Think about the toys we give them. Building blocks and other shape-sorting toys are equally entertaining for girls as they are for boys, and they help develop cognitive skills, something Barbie and Easy-Bake Ovens will never achieve. Teaching is powerful, and encouraging children to challenge themselves should not depend on the child's gender.

I am passionate about increasing the number of women represented in STEM fields, not merely because I believe we should be equally represented in all career fields, but because I know we can positively contribute to the advancement of our society. Having both sexes equally represented open the door for a more diverse range of ideas, which in turn can result in a more robust range of services and products. Additionally, having more women in STEM fields ensures that women's health and well-being become common practice, and not women's issues. Careers in STEM fields require high-level skills and earn higher wages, they are also always in high demand, and experts predicts an even stronger demand for professionals in STEM fields in the future. Our economy is in crisis and 60% of women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their families. If we continue to believe that these high paying careers are only for men, we are not cashing in on the earning power of women. Ultimately, it is not about filling a status quo, it is about using our population, men and women, to the best of their abilities.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Street Harassment: Guilty By Default

Every day in my life, for as long as I can remember, I have had some men whistling, catcalling, and being disrespectful to me while I walk down the street. It does not happen occasionally, it does not happen once in a while, but every single day of my life. Every day! And I am not the only woman who experiences this. As a New Yorker with an attitude I like to believe that I am tough, that I can handle it, and that just ignoring the rude comments or saying a simple "fuck you" is enough; but this should not happen at all! Catcalls, groping, public masturbation, and stalking are not compliments, it is harassment. They make public places unfriendly and frightening to girls and women, and result in a culture that makes other forms of violence against women acceptable. 

Yesterday started off as a fantastic day. The weather was beautiful. I had lunch with a close friend. I was extra productive at work. I got home and my boyfriend had prepared dinner for me, and after dinner a dear friend, who went into labor, asked me to take her to the hospital and stay with her in the delivery room. I got to see her beautiful baby girl being born and share the joy of bringing a new person into this world. But that quickly changed when I walked outside the hospital to buy a bottle of water and find my boyfriend who was parking our car. As I waited in line by the newsstand I noticed every single man in the line was staring at me. Not a quick glance, but leering at me as if they have never seen a woman in their lives. I pretended not to notice while I paid for my bottled water, until the vendor himself made a comment on my appearance. I was noticeably uncomfortable because the entire line of men was still staring at me, but I played "nice girl" and forced a smile and a thank you.

But then I decided to stand in the corner and wait for my boyfriend, and it got worse, because apparently the worst thing an attractive young woman can do is stand in a corner, lest she be confused for a common prostitute, or accused of trying to get attention. Suddenly men driving by decided that I needed to be honked at. Many slowed down, rolled down the window and disrespectfully asked me "how much?" as if by simply standing on the sidewalk I was offering my body for sale. Others walking by would slow down and get so uncomfortably close to me that I felt the need to walk away. But apparently walking away is also not the answer, because the men formerly standing on the corner began to call out things such as "why are you running away baby?" and "don't leave, we're liking the view." I became so uncomfortable that I borrowed a strangers' cellphone, because I had left mine in the car, to call my boyfriend and tell him that I would wait for him inside a café.

Now, let me be clear, I am not new to street harassment. I, like many other women in New York and every other city in the world, am acutely aware that street harassment is part of our daily lives, but, to me at least, the harassment is usually in passing. I always continue walking and pay little attention to the catcalls because I find that men who act this way are not worth wasting my time. However, I was appalled at the number of men and women that simply kept walking and did not for one second call any of my aggressors on their disrespectful behavior. We must stand up to this kind of behavior in public places because if we do not, we send the message that this behavior is natural for men. Our men are not animals, they know that what they are doing is wrong and highly ineffective. The fact that street harassment is at it's worst when men are in a group leads me to believe that men use street harassment to affirm their masculinity to other men. And many lone harasses often learned to cat-call and wolf-whistle at women passing by from being in a group of young men. We live in a society where men are conditioned to believe that their masculinity is dependent on female approval, and that leads to a culture where men use women to validate their worth, even if by force.

In the essay "Masculinity as Homophobia," Michael Kimmel argues that men are shamed and humiliated by a  culture that raises men to feel a sense of inadequacy in terms of achieving masculinity, and a fear that they will be judged by this perceived inadequacy. Men's "fear of being perceived as gay, as not a real man[...] keeps men exaggerating all the traditional rules of masculinity, including sexual predation with women." Kimmel goes on to explain that while powerlessness is a valid feeling for men, it does not "accurately describe their condition" because "it is not true." Institutionalized sexism is so entrenched in our culture, that we negate to see male privilege. Male privilege is so normalized that it goes unconsidered, allowing men to feel that it is not a privilege at all. In order to validate male privilege, we raise boys to aggressively pursue a level of masculinity that leads to an even great disparity in gender equality.

I happen to believe that there are more good men than bad ones, but it took me years to feel that way. As a girl, I was raised to believe that "men will be men" and that predatory behavior was part of their natural masculinity. But being male does not give anyone the right to use their masculinity to shame, scare, and intimidate me. No one is entitled to feel threatened by simply standing on a sidewalk, and a beautiful woman is not an excuse to forget that women are not men's entertainment, unless she so chooses. Street harassment is threatening and uncomfortable, but it does not have to be. A genuine compliment is not harassment. Men can tell a woman in the street that he thinks she is attractive without belittling her. Flattery feels great, and we should all be free to tell another person that we think they are beautiful, but there is a fine line between a compliment and a verbal assault when directing a comment to a stranger. Men, I urge you to take a stand against street harassers. We need a world where girls do not grow up to fear men, and boys do not base their worth on others' approval of their masculinity.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Media, We're On To Your Sexist Bullshit!

Two weeks ago I interviewed Jennifer L. Pozner, media critic, lecturer and founder and executive director of Women In Media & News (WIMN) on the effect of sexism for women in politics for Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio. Not only was Ms. Pozner overflowing with important information regarding the effect of media on women, but she showed us how it truly degrades, demeans and sexualize women, to the point where they become objects of desire, anything but viable candidates for political offices. The United States is 77th in the world in terms of women in legislative positions. Even Iraq and Afghanistan have more female participation in politics.

I finished the interview feeling informed, but hopeless. The media has a very tight grip on it's consumers, and the biggest consumers of media are by and large, women. In a sense, they own us. But how can we expect change if women hold only 3% of clout-positions in the mainstream media and  are only 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors for the highest domestic grossing films?

Some don't understand the importance of having women accurately represented in politics and media. But when we have little girls thinking that being a princess is a viable career option, and newspapers more concerned with a female politician's attire and not her policies, we all suffer. Women are 52% of the Unites States population. We are not a minority, we are not an interest group, and we are most definitely not princesses waiting for prince charming.

The time to teach our young women that they must write their own stories is now. We can't expect to see changes in the way women are portrayed in the media until women write their own roles. What we see on television now is a caricature of what we truly are, and that portrayal is what young men see and confuse for real women. Inaccurate representation of women hurt both men and women. Young girls grow up trying to achieve an unattainable level of beauty and believing that women's issues revolve around makeup, hairdos, and boyfriends, while men grow up believing this is how women truly are.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, American teenagers spend 31 hours a week watching television, 17 hours a week listening to music, 3 hours a week watching movies, 4 hours a week reading magazines, and 10 hours a week on the internet. That means they have to process 10 hours and 45 minutes of media every single day. If their media consumption is saturated with inaccuracies, we cannot expect women to want to consider entering politics, or men to believe that women are their equal.

So what is to be done? First, acknowledge that depictions of women in media are inaccurate.  Be the protagonist of your own life and know that it is more real than any movie or TV show. When you see presenters and newscasters using sexist language to refer to female politicians, call out their bullshit, and for the love of whatever you believe in, do not fall for their trap. And look out for your own sexist behaviors, we do it more often that we think. Before you attack a candidate for her appearance or her emotional state, take a minute to consider all of the valid, non-sexist reasons to criticize her. This is not about conservatism or liberalism, it is about having a fair and accurate portrayal of women in media for our young girls to look up to.

Welcome to Womanisms

I've been mulling over having my own blog for over a year now, but I hesitated because it felt like the trendy thing to do, and I am not one to follow trends (or so I believe, because I do happen to love the neon color jeans that are so popular right now!) But I digress, I decided to have my own blog because I finally value my opinions. I was always the "go with the flow," "let's just all agree to disagree," kind of woman, but that doesn't get anyone anywhere. If I disagree it is because I have a reason to disagree, and facts to back that up. So, I welcome you all to Womanisms.