Thursday, October 28, 2010

On Feminism and Sarah Palin

Check this article out.
I discuss feminism with an understanding that, for me and for many women in the world, feminism still means a personal and daily struggle, not just an ideological or political notion that has little to do with the individual. I am a feminist precisely because I reflect on my decisions and my context and try to identify when they are a result of my own internalized machismo or the structural reality of patriarchy. My feminism includes ambiguity, hesitation, frustration and brilliant clarity, because living out the life of a strong woman or of a conscious man is fraught with all those things. It is always a practice of self reflection, and ultimately of reflection on the global society in which we participate.

For other women, feminism may be survival, taking care of their children, finding ways to educate themselves, having a job outside the home; all things we take for granted as educated women in the Global North, but which concerns are still very present elsewhere. Policy is not the only venue in which questions of female participation, power and pure individual autonomy are being discussed or fought over. Daily life for much of the world, men and women, is a struggle against structural violence, including physical oppression, economic marginalization and social discrimination. Precisely because of the structural nature of patriarchy, the role of women in society is not an isolated issue in the US or globally, nor can it be taken apart from other struggles like economic and social justice. Thus feminism can also take the form of a comprehensive desire for a more holistic equity instead of a more narrow focus on women’s rights.

Especially as a woman of color familiar with life outside the Global North, I consider it a personal responsibility to contextualize women’s rights within racial and economic struggles, globalization and development, and the personal, intimate interactions of my own life. Feminism has always discussed the personal as political, but I think it is important to acknowledge that explicitly political interpretation of one’s personal sphere does not necessarily make one a better feminist than a woman who has never thought to call herself such. Identifying as a feminist does not make it so, but failing to identify as one means just as little.

That being said, I don’t think Sarah Palin is a feminist because she supports policies that take away women’s autonomy over their own body. A woman can be totally unwilling to ever have an abortion herself and be a feminist, but when she attempts to limit the choices of other women, when she attempts to reduce women to reproductive tracts without the capacity for nuanced thought and powerful emotion about their own bodies, I must object to her proclaiming herself a feminist of any kind.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Times Change, Don't They?

A cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate milkshake: the iconic American meal. In times like these, as we approach the end of an era of American consumerism, an older and more traditional aesthetic arises in popular culture. Shows like Mad Men have rekindled our desire for the trappings of a world where men are unfailingly charming, women are always perfectly coiffed, and rigid social hierarchies make life seem somehow “simpler” to the uncritical eye.

I recently went to the neighborhood where a good friend grew up and thought I had stepped back in time to before that period of intense social change and deceptively tranquil Americana represented so vividly by Mad Men. We went for burgers, and sitting in Top Notch diner with all kinds of people from the surrounding neighborhoods, I found immense comfort in the ritual of ketchup, mustard, tomato, iceburg lettuce, bread and butter pickles. The patty, not too thin or thick and covered with perfectly melted cheese, the white bread bun. Splitting a milkshake that is almost too thick to drink with a straw, but not quite. Despite my deeply ambivalent relationship with icons of American culture, especially those which glorify a type of American identity rooted firmly within segregation, inequality and oppression (as that of the 1950’s and 60’s undoubtedly was), I love this meal. I love the simplicity and ease, the lack of pretension in its presentation and honest enjoyment.

The neighborhood, known as Beverly, is all old Chicago; green lawns, a soda fountain, children playing ball in the street. There are even train tracks to be from the wrong side of, hinting at the unrest that socioeconomic and racial tensions still generate. Segregation is very much alive in this idyllic slice of the American dream, pointing to the deceptive nature of the American ideal in our collective memory. In our current nationwide and multi-demographic infatuation with the Don Draper mystique, we forget that not all of us could participate in that supposed idyll the first time around. In fact, the vast majority of us were excluded from the iconic privileges of American success. The unfortunate part is that despite our forward march in time and the concrete advantages brought by the intervening years, those of us originally excluded are still very much on the outside of whatever that American dream imagery is promising.

In these times of crisis the image speaks to our desire for definition, for clarity and stability, but it belies the very real messiness of life and ignores the nasty ways society maintains its hegemonies. But while I enjoy my perfect cheeseburger, grilled onions and all, and while I sip a velvety chocolate shake in the company of a good friend, I am powerless to resist a certain suspension of disbelief.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Summing up Peru...inadequately, of course.

My experience in Peru was characterized by two distinct phases, each with positive impacts on my personal life, vision and research and each with its attendant difficulties and struggles. I began my journey in Lima intending to research urban development but without a concrete goal or guidance. I found Lima’s research climate, which is mostly contact-driven, to be somewhat hostile because of my lack of connections in the field. I had expected to be better acquainted with Lima’s norms since my family is from Mexico City and I am familiar with Mexico’s social milieu, but the similarities were superficial and it was a difficult adjustment because I did not have the support structure that facilitates life and work in Mexico. At that point I realized that I should change my strategy, and I left Lima shortly thereafter for Cusco, hoping it would provide the fertile intellectual environment that I was missing.
Cusco was a different world, a city resonating with the natural beauty of the mountains and full of dynamic activity in the economic development industry. The city is surrounded by indigenous communities and has a complex relationship with them; migration from the rural areas to the urban center is a reality accompanied by discrimination, economic marginalization and an intense cultural disconnect between the indigenous and mestizo communities. The rural indigenous population is no less beleaguered, and exists in a tenuous relationship of semi-exclusion and exploitation by local, regional and national economic structures. The language barrier (Andean indigenous groups are Quechua speakers) also adds to the rich landscape for academic study and many opportunities to engage with social problems as they play out.
In Cusco I was enveloped by an open social world that made me feel comfortable and supported me. This allowed for my research question to develop fully in direct response to the actual conditions of the area. I met people that proffered insight on economic development in the region and found NGOs that provided examples of the pitfalls and successes of development programming. I gleaned the critical questions for my research: how development work functions within the communities it proposes to help, how effective that help is, and how we can create sustainable development that fits the specific community. I developed strong criticisms of NGOs and now know I want to work with a community instead of working on a problem. I seek to help generate solutions with the community itself instead of solutions based on western models and imposed upon people who may not relate to those models productively. I found a group of Cusqueños who have a similar vision to mine and we have begun working on a collaborative project to create and implement new development strategies based on an intimate knowledge of the geography, history, culture and needs of Andean communities. We think such strategies will help create sustainable change in the quality of life possible in rural and urban communities alike and see great potential for expansion to other areas.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Last Weekend in Lima

The two days and nights I was in Lima at the end of my trip were a decadent conclusion to the trip. Despite my dread of leaving I was able to spend those days in the company of wonderful people who introduced me to some fabulous food, among other things. The day I left Cusco I hadn’t slept a wink (my flight was at 9, so I figured why bother), had gone out dancing with my cousins and friends, almost fallen asleep in the club itself and proceeded to put back some red bulls to remedy that…the point is that I was wiped out when I got to Lima at 11:30 on Sunday morning. I took a cab to my friend’s apartment, where the unfailing hospitality of my host and the pearly grey light coming in the floor to ceiling windows lulled me into a great nap on the couch. I woke up to a lunch invitation to a place called El Mercado, the newest project by the well known chef Rafael Osterling. On a supremely lazy Sunday, there was absolutely nothing slow about El Mercado. The locale, a sort of semi-enclosed triangular patio with a beautiful bar, was packed at 5 pm with the beautiful people of Lima enjoying mariscos for a late lunch. While this isn’t normally my scene while traveling, since beautiful people tend to be similar everywhere, I can truthfully say that these were some of the best seafood preparations I have ever had. We started with a ceviche de lenguado ‘El Mercado’, with plenty of lime, orange aji and exquisitely fresh fish, it was easily the best ceviche I had in Lima. That was followed by a similarly perfect leche de tigre (the juice from ceviche, basically), some awesome ahi tuna sliders with house made vegetable pickles and a wasabi aioli, an arroz chaufa (fried rice) that included mariscos, lechón and fried plantain and the best pulpo ever. This pulpo was grilled with cherry tomatoes, a basil pesto, and potatoes (of course) and presented sizzling on a hot plate. It was so tender you barely needed a knife to cut it, which is really rare with octopus, and the flavor was so rich and intense that it was almost like a great steak. Really, it was a transcendent octopus dish. That sounds hyperbolic, I know…but it’s the bare truth people, go try this pulpo if at all possible.
The dessert was also excellent, some kind of molten chocolate cake with salted dulce de leche ice cream, both of which were perfectly executed. The chocolate shone in its natural complexity and the ice cream was subtle and not too sweet. Also, my Ketel One and tonic was impeccable.
I leave Rafael, the chef’s flagship restaurant in Lima, for the next post. Rest assured it was an equally excellent if very different experience.