My Own Mexican Revolution

Travel Stories: The catcalls and machismo culture were poisoning Sarah Menkedick's relationship with the country she loved. Would she change Mexico, or change herself?

11.12.10 | 11:17 AM ET

San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico (REUTERS/Daniel LeClair)

I was walking back from the grocery store, loaded down with bags, when a man came up the sidewalk. I looked down and away. He leaned towards me and whispered, “F**k me.”

The insistent pressure exploded. I lost it. “F**k YOU!” I shouted, and then continued, calling him a dog, a monkey, an animal, a barbarian, and any other disagreeable creature I could think of in Spanish.

He laughed.

I put my grocery bags down, picked up an orange that had fallen from a nearby tree, and threw it at his head. I missed. He laughed again. I walked up and spit in his face.

He punched me.

A highly informative exercise in futility ensued. I called the police; they came, the man threatened to kill me, the police shrugged, scuffed their boots, looked bored, said they could do nothing, and left. An old woman in the street told me to stop causing problems, shut up, and go home.

Callate, pendeja,” she said.

That was all I could hear for weeks afterward, everywhere: Callate, pendeja. Shut up, bitch. Shut up and go home. I saw it in the faces of people selling vegetables at the market, in the apathetic stares of passengers on the bus, in anyone I passed in the street. A whole society saying, “shut up, bitch.”

Everything around me started to seem as if it were rotting on the inside, part of some persistent disease that was devouring what I loved about Mexico. 

Machismo has always been a song playing in the background of my life in Oaxaca. It’s virtually impossible to walk down the street without catcalls ringing out from somewhere—rooftops, truck beds, windows, sidewalks. Policemen whistle from patrol cars. Businessmen give a little “hey baby” under their breath. Fat husbands waiting for their wives in cars outside the market hiss and cluck. Even when I’m accompanied by the loyal Stella—a hulking German Shepherd—the harassment is unrelenting. I’d coped with it for years.

But in this slump of cultural re-adjustment, going from Asia to Latin America, from a stimulating and challenging job at a university to the struggle of freelance writing, my hatred of machismo reached fever pitch. I was frustrated by the ambiguity of future plans, by financial insecurity, by the promise I’d made to my husband to stay in Oaxaca for a year.

Machismo had become a catalyst for all of these frustrations, sharpening them suddenly into fine, dangerous points of rage.

I decided that if I wanted to avoid ruining my relationship with the country forever, I would have to leave for awhile. I bought myself a plane ticket back home to the calm of an Ohio winter.

There I thought about cultural relativism in a nice bubble, under the familiar icy skies and bare purple trees of December. I intellectualized it all smoothly, gracefully, like a steeplechase jockey clearing this and that jump, and it all made sense. Values are relative, cultures have different histories, traditions, and beliefs, and—safe in the placid frozen pastures of the Ohio farm—I reasoned that it simply wasn’t my place, nor was it useful or enriching to me personally, to fight such an established Mexican order as machismo.

I went back to Oaxaca merrily comfortable in this new rationale. It seemed so easy. Just ignore it! Just accept it! 

But after a few rounds of whistles and uncomfortably close sidewalk leers, I started feeling that hot anger again. This time suppressing it was harder. The more I tried to tell myself to just move on, the more machismo became the central fixture of life in Mexico. I saw it everywhere, in every encounter: in the way men commanded memelas at the market; in the priests’ speeches glorifying la madre before Semana Santa parades; in the quinceñeras posing coyly in front of Santo Domingo on Saturday afternoons. I braced myself for it every time I left the house. I became obsessed.

I also became, for the first time in my life, a feminist. Like many women my age, I had assumed feminism was a radical position, “feminist” one more alternative identity among many. I had to have my rights pulled out from under me to realize they’d been there in the first place. Then, as I started to miss them, to appreciate the struggle that had gone into winning them, I saw the enormity of the battle ahead for Mexico. I saw machismo as a complicated symptom of power in all its forms. Economic power, cultural power, personal power, the lack of power, the fight for power.

This burgeoning feminism complicated my relationship with machismo. On the one hand increasing feminist awareness distracted me from machismo; it was a fruit picked from the tree of obnoxious harassment. On the other hand, it made the harassment more vivid and insidious, and the questions about how to deal with it increasingly pressing.

Was it my role as a feminist to go about bestowing a feminist education on Mexican women? What did that mean, anyway? Was it my responsibility as a feminist to lash out against the machismo that I experienced day to day? Or was lashing out simply plain, vain coraje (a type of empty, angry courage) as the Mexicans would say?

In the midst of these brewing mental debates I applied for and was offered a short-term teaching contract in Japan: another escape opportunity I hadn’t realized I’d wanted so desperately until it was there in front of me. I left with the same feelings of failure, relief, and guilt I’d felt flying home to Ohio.

It was there in Nagoya, Japan, that I made my peace with machismo, not through more personal intellectual wrangling but through the friendships I formed with two exceptional women, both seasoned expats who’d spent the past decade living and teaching abroad.

On a soft spring afternoon, we were sitting in a park, the light a gauzy pale-pink, with a spread of wine and beer and picnic fare before us. I recounted my “callate, pendeja” story, expecting their sympathetic nods and shocked commiseration.

These women stunned me. Strong as hell, with years of traveling and teaching and doing it all themselves under their belt, they argued—vehemently—for submission. At least that’s how I saw it at the time: submission, a relenting and giving up, a battle not worth fighting because it was not mine to fight.

We launched into a back-and-forth.

“Who is going to change it?” I asked. “Isn’t travel about exchange, after all? Isn’t it a give and take?”

“Yes, but did they ask you to come?” they rebutted. “Did they ask you to share your beliefs and values, to offer your criticism of their culture, and for you to tell them how to change it?”

They saw my position as an example of classic American-ness, a stern refusal to budge from one’s own righteous pedestal. I saw it as a travel ethic: travel as mutually beneficial exchange instead of the mute acceptance of “differences.”

We went around in circles. I insisted that it was my right to speak out, to try to change and improve machismo. They claimed, over and over, that this is idealism married to imperialism. They argued that I was going to get harassed in Latin America and there was little or nothing I could do to stop it. More importantly, they maintained that declaring that I have the right to stop it because it violates my cultural or moral principles is toying with very dangerous ideological weaponry, similar to that which the French used to parade into Algeria or the U.S. into the Philippines. Not as violent, but equally condescending and absolutist.

I’m not sure where the debate went from there—it toppled and meandered through two six packs and two bottles of wine and ended, as most things do in Japan, with “You’re So Vain” at karaoke.

Later, when the fog of alcoholic fervor had worn off, I tried on the belief that travelers must know their place as outsiders and avoid the desire to re-shape the places they visit to their own belief systems, no matter how egregious certain practices may seem to them. Then I tried on the belief that travelers have the right and even the responsibility to change what they feel is ethically wrong about the places they visit.

Both perspectives scared me, but the latter more, and I had been keeling towards the latter. I came back from Japan, as I come back from every trip, a little humbler. I came back tamed by the forces of the two women I’d met, both exceptional teachers and travelers, and their insistence that it is not my place to go shouting in the streets about the evils of machismo and the rights Mexican women should have.

“Let Mexicans do it,” my friends had said, “Mexican women will get it together. They don’t need you yelling at them about how they should be or what they should do.”

I’m still a little queasy at the thought of being a bystander, lifting my hands in surrender and leaving it all to Mexican women, but I’ve backed as far as I possibly can off of my didacticism and indignation. And in doing so, I’ve started seeing things that didn’t quite fit with my image of machismo before. Men who whistle constantly at the women they work with, and seem to view it as a courtesy rather than an invasion. The rote feeling behind so many of the shouts, the surprise when I actually respond, as if these behaviors are so encoded and predictable they’re like subconscious associations—think tacos, think Mexico; think computers, think Microsoft; think women, think ch-ch, hey baby.

I find many of these things troubling and disturbing, but they’re all wrapped up in this culture I live within and ultimately am deeply attached to. The knee-jerk change-it! reaction has some validity, and I’ll still fight for my right to tell my friends what I think about machismo, and to let the dog roam a little too close to men who whistle at me, and perhaps even to confront the man who accosts me when I glance at him, but I don’t have the heart for it anymore. Intellectually I can still defend these rights, but personally I wonder just how gratifying and helpful it is to exercise them. I can’t work myself into the same fit of virtuous rage.

I realized this one afternoon while looking at a mango tree in Llano park. There was nothing special about the mango tree other than the fact that I saw it. I had found a way of being in Oaxaca that wasn’t constantly dominated by latent anger, and I could actually see something I’d missed for a long time. The green mangos shimmered like beads. The tree was massive, occupying the far end of the plaza with such a sure, calm, suddenly magnificent presence that I wanted to lie down before it and give myself up like a pilgrim. 

For the rest of that walk I felt liberated: Not “liberated” as I may have imagined it months before, utterly free to do what I wanted and to speak out against something I felt was wrong, but liberated from my own tormenting frustration. I watched the light fade on buildings, the shadows of quivering trees on maroon and ochre-colored walls. I passed Santo Domingo at dusk, dozens of school kids on its steps in various stages of making out, jewelry and ice cream vendors squatting on curbs eating late lunches of chiles rellenos and red rice wrapped in tortillas. I was enjoying a Mexican afternoon freed, for once, from the dominating whims of machismo. 

After that afternoon, I no longer saw the lack of virtuous rage as a loss or as the result of self-repression or denial. That energy has been channeled into something else: a deepening feminism, which has shaken me out of the complacency of my upbringing. I’ve written about and studied the work of Lydia Cacho Ribeiro and the late Esther Chavez, each risking their lives to defend the rights of Mexican women and each standing up to men in far more significant and empowering ways than I have done. I have begun fighting for women’s rights in ways that look very different from a girl shouting at a man on the street: translating at conferences of women human rights defenders, writing petitions for women’s rights causes.

Like most travel lessons, this one is by no means neat, polished and complete. I’m still learning it, little by little; by marching along with Oaxacan women in a protest against a new anti-abortion law, by writing this, by becoming increasingly aware of women’s struggles here and around the world. By working through the murky ethical question of how to meaningfully engage with another culture as an outsider, and trying to come out with answers that might not be clean and straightforward but that feel respectful and humble.

And most importantly, by learning to observe, listen to, and honor the Mexican women I want to fight for, and by accepting that this is their battle, which I can participate in, but not own.