What is the present? Two days ago, I attended a talk by Carlos Molina an astrophysicist, that spoke about the idea of the present in scientific terms. He spoke eloquently, and radiated knowledge that most of the time I was lost in. The next day, I went to go see an art historian, Jaime Xibille, speak about the same question, although there were very different talks, all I kept thinking during the talks were about the artist J.M.W turner, and two of his paintings -- The Lake of Zug and Fishermen at Sea. I was always obsessed with this artist, I read books on him, watched movies, documentaries, honestly, anything that had to with him I was reading. These two paintings resonated with me, at least for this week. One takes place at night, the other one during the day. Let me speak about one, then move onto the other.
|Fishermen at Sea|
|The Lake of Zug|
It’s hard to tell. I don’t know whether my story teller is telling me his story for me just to hear or for the whole word to hear. Although, he did sign the consent form, there was still hesitation to his signature, and his whole acceptance to this project. It wasn’t until I somewhat built a bridge between me and him, that’s when he started trusting me. I’m going to share his story, but in other words, I’m hoping that the story I built, is the story he wants to tell. So with that, I think the audience that he wants to tell his story to, is the audience that is in the same position that he is. I think he wants them to feel that they are not alone, and that people suffer, but we always overcome.
I feel that it’s important to share his story not only of the idea that others will hear his story and realize that they’re not alone, but because these stories need to be told to the public that is unaware of what is going on, in other countries, or even in their own country. It’s important because we have a duty to.
To share this video, I would share it with my high school. I would share it with them because I believe that my high school was the reason why I am the person today, and without it I wouldn’t be the same. It taught me to be aware, and conscious. If I could give back, and teach someone else to be aware of these problems, so they can carry this project forward, I’d be happy.
In a country where about one third of the population is Black, Asian, Latina, Hispanic or Pacific Islander, the underrepresentation of women of color in the media is extremely unsettling. And when thinking of women of color depicted in positive roles, the number is almost non-existent. So what’s the deal? We can’t pretend that race isn’t a major factor in the most harmful of beauty ideals. Images of white women dominate the media – especially roles designed for “beautiful” or desirable women….not the hired help or the “sassy” best friend. I’m expected to have light skin, straight hair, a flat stomach and wide hips. White women are archetypes for attraction, while today black women remain to be exoticised and held at a stature of brutality.
“You know I’ve got a black girl fetish.”…What does that even mean????.
It’s with that word fetish that I am reduced to an object, a commodity. I see people who look like me misrepresented all the time. I mean yeah, you have beautiful women of color like Rihanna, Beyonce and JLo achieving reputable representation in U.S pop culture, but I can’t help but notice that they have all been Anglicized with lighter skin and straighter hair. How am I supposed to see myself in these stories presented to me, if the people in the stories don’t look like me? Today, in following up with news from the U.S, I read the latest installment on Sandra Bland, an African American woman, who was pulled over for a traffic violation, brutally beaten and then arrested for reasons that remain unclear. She was found dead in her jail cell on July 13. This is just one of the many stories I hear of people who look like me, who have been killed, or beaten, not for crimes that they’ve committed…. but solely for the color of their skin. My skin. My brown skin. My rich brown skin that everyone seems to want until they recognize the intense amount of stigma and baggage associated with it. And as we continue to do our work in Manatiales, it’s knowing that feeling of misrepresentation that I feel allows me to connect and appreciate la gente on a more personal level. It sucks that after establishing yourself, you still have to wait and fight for rights or amenities that may seem basic to another person.
I’m still struggling a bit with defining what this program means to me and how I’m going to take what I’ve done here back to the Unites States. Part of me wants to leave my work here, not because it’s not worthy of bringing back to Duke, but because I feel like in short term the only people that can help a community like Manantiales de Paz is the people of Medellin. The people who reside within the cities limits and could at one time place themselves in the shoes of Manantiales--- they need to tighten up and help their people. The other part of me, wants to go back home and show the videos I make to as many people I can…but I struggle trying to find a specific outlet where it will actually matter, because you want to show your work to people who will care…. but I’m afraid that the people who will actually care about what I’m doing here aren’t the people who need to be informed. These storytellers speak to us, because we provide a safe space where their voice can be heard, and I refuse to go back and deliver the message to someone who is going to dismiss it.
Contrary to that, being a woman here is a spectacle in itself. The peace I get by being able to glide by unnoticed as a foreigner gets stripped away by my sexuality. Cat calls by old men driving taxis. Security guards following my ass with their eyes as I walk away. My security is slightly heightened by my color and yet simultaneously stripped away by me being a woman.
In terms of the mass media Black women are rarely represented here. Colombia has more than 10% Afro-Colombians yet when I see models and billboards all I see are white women like Sophia Vergara with fat asses and plump lips. Funny how both are natural features of colored women yet Colombians glorify the lighter, more Euro-Centric beauty. But hey, I’m not Colombian I’m just calling it how I see it.
If I bring this back to America I could say how the news does nothing but paint Black Americans in a horrible light. How before I open my mouth, before people here my “white name” and before the “I attend Duke University” speech there’s a dark cloud of stigma and stereotype that hovers above me. Or I could talk about how Black men and women are dying everyday in this country because police have decided that it’s open season on Black people. I could tell you that with all of these cases White America still finds some reason to justify their deaths? “She shouldn’t have been rude to the cop”, “he was a threat to the police” and the greatest.. “well, it doesn’t matter that he’s dead, we found Marijuana in his system and he was a thug so his death was warranted” as if Blacks need to pass a series of qualifications in order for their lives to matter. Or I could talk about being a woman, and how being both Black and a women is a source of hyper-sexuality. I could tell you that while my white female friends wore shorts in the 5th grade I was reprimanded for wearing them because my black prepubescent body was too threatening. Or I could talk about how my identity is exoticized? “Oh you’re Black, I thought you were mixed or half puerto-rican or something, you got some good hair girl.” Society deemed my Black to be the “better Black” because it somehow was diluted. Yet, when it comes down to police interactions and the way I’m treated it doesn’t even matter, because remember “once you go black you never go back”. Lightskin, Darkskin, it doesn’t matter - you’re still Black to the world.
So what does my rant mean? It means that rather than me looking hard and deep for how people judge me and finding the cute “many people think of me as stuck up because I go to Duke and I’m in a sorority” or the “I’m blonde and people always portray me as dumb.” story I’m not going to play along. You see, regardless if people think you’re “dumb” because you’re blonde or that you’re “spoiled and stuck up” because you’re in a sorority that doesn’t alter your life. You aren’t going to be one of the 550 people killed by police in 2015 alone because you’re blonde or in a sorority. My identity and the way I’m represented isn’t something I can just forget. Hair dye can’t fix it. Taking off a t-shirt with greek letters won’t fix it. It’s not a prompt where I have to think long and hard, it’s my life. And in doing this, I’m already perpetuating a stereotype that continuously gets disseminated, “The Angry Black Woman.” Because when I, a Black Woman talk about the reality of my own being, it makes people uncomfortable. It makes people think I’m attacking them because for one second of their lives, I’m making them check their privilege. And you see when this Angry Black Woman narrative is circulated it detracts from the point, it derails from the plight. It curves the real issues and says “well she’s just angry so therefore her feelings and her reality is not credible.” And once again, we lose. We lose because if we remain silent no one hears us and if we speak they ask? “Why are you so angry all the time?” as if my feelings aren’t legitimate and shouldn’t be legitimized. And thus, I lose my humanity while trying to expess it.
So that’s how misrepresentation works… the White American Patriarcal Cis-Gendered system decides to paint their picture for you. Thanks to the many powerful Black women in my life I myself have decided to repaint my own picture. At the age of 8, besides the women in my family I knew no other successful Black women because they don’t teach you about them in school. So as a result, the black people and the women and my life had to paint me my own picture because society wasn’t going to do it for me. I learned MY history lessons on my dad’s lap. I learned Black feminism through the women in MY life who had left everything because they knew their life was worth more than the man abusing them at home. I learned Black girls were pretty because I had black authors and black illustrators who wrote black childrens books that told me so, because on television they weren’t going to tell me that. I learned to love my natural curly hair when Black women told me it was beautiful. I learned to love having hips and having melanin because black women taught me that. My reality has been so misrepresented that Black women, we have to paint our own picture. And starting with Black feminism is the idea of loving yourself whole heartedly and unapologetically because this world will do everything but that.
So what do I want? In Colombia I can’t tell you, their race relations are a world far away from mine and that system I need more time to grasp. In the United States however, I want nothing from White America except the validation that Black women matter. That we are not welfare queens. That we are not always single mothers. That we aren’t always angry. That we didn’t get accepted to college just because of our minority status but rather because we earned it. I want the world to stop stealing our hairstyles, our fat asses and thick hips, our full lips then calling us ugly yet praising people like Kylie Jenner for stealing them. We are not a commodity to be adored and fetishized then thrown to the wayside once our features have been colonized and harvested. Black women get hit from every angle from our gender to our ethnicity.
“To be Black, and a woman and alive is to be resilient - my very existence is defiance.”
- Crystal Valentine & Aaliyah Jihad - "To Be Black and Woman and Alive"
I believe the first people that should see her story are the residents, politicians and other leaders in Medellin. While it would be great for me to take this work home, I’m sorry to say the best response I’ll probably get is “great job this summer!” which in fact praises me and not Eunice. It commends my work, slightly acknowledges Eunice but once again it detracts from the cause - It’s not about me. My work is her. And to be honest is there a go fund me? A resource drive? No, so what are Americans going to do? People of Medellin are a priority because they have the greatest capacity to help, to advocate, and to eventually help Manantiales get the resources they need by acknowledging their humanistic existence and thus hopefully giving them recognition.
When I was in 10th grade, I went to Costa Rica for a month long service/language program. We volunteered at a myriad of non-profits, never truly making an impact any one place, setting up a playground or painting a few benches and drifting onto the next project. However, one our last sites was an orphanage on the edge of San José. You could tell these kids were starved for individual attention, that their only interactions occurred in this small play yard where we congregated every afternoon.
In the center of the yard was an old mango tree. A lot of the fruit was overripe and had fallen to the base of the trunk, split open from impact. The kids would use them as weapons in tag or eat them as snacks.
And that’s when I saw her. A girl, maybe 13 or 14, scavenging around the tree. It was clear she was intellectually disabled; she had a dazed, overmedicated expression, aggressively overweight and had abrupt, guttural outbursts as she searched for a snack. She was on her knees looking for fruit that hadn’t already been claimed by insects. Her hands were tied together behind her back with a dirty red rag. I watched her dip her face into the dirt, licking the overripe mango, scraping her teeth against the peel.
Last week, Marah and I entered the home of Doña Olga, where she and her husband were hosting a flash church service in their home. Next to us sat a friend of Olga, Camilla, and her daughter. Olga’s husband promptly informed us that the daughter was crazy, twirling his hands around his head, making that familiar, universal hand signal. Her eyes were slightly crossed, shoulders hunched, and overall had a very quiet, well-behaved demeanor.
Both Camilla and her daughter looked rather bored by their friend’s zealous service, clapping their hands half-heartedly to the beat, not bothering to follow along in the bible Olga had placed in my lap. When the service ended, I introduced myself to the daughter as Marah began to set up for her interview. I couldn’t quite catch her name as she mumbled it quickly, and her mother did not speak up to clarify. When I asked her age, she told me she was 16 years old, then walked across the room to stare out the window. She wasn’t interested in having small talk with me, which was fine, but did watch us curiously as Marah and I conducted the interview. Her mother sat with Olga on camera, occasionally checking on her daughter who sat sipping tinto calmly in the corner of the room.
A few days later I returned to Manantiales. As I stepped out of the cab at Santo Domingo station, I looked up and saw them walking from a market. Camilla held groceries in one hand, her daughter’s hand in the other. I waved and smiled brightly, excited to see familiar faces. The daughter looked at me right in the eye, and I know she recognized me. The mother avoided my gaze for a moment, but when I didn’t look away she met my eyes quickly, smiled briefly, and crossed the street with her daughter.
My oldest brother has autism and mental retardation; a fact that I strangely have always included when describing myself, as if his condition was as much a defining part of me as it is of him. My brother may not have won the genetic lottery, but whenever I travel, I thank god he won the geographical one. The representation of the mentally challenged in the United States definitely has room for improvement in all sectors of our society. But how would my brother have fared in that Costa Rican orphanage, or Manantiales? What would my mother’s life be like? Sewn to my brother’s side, not having a moment of her own, inaccessible to her other children as she was always at the aid of one? There are no resources available to families like this, no Medicaid waiver to provide support and, in turn, save my brother’s as well as my own life as I know it.
I would love to interview Camilla and her entire family, to represent the perspective of a family supporting a special needs child, but I understand their hesitance. Living in a neighborhood that doesn’t even receive help from Medellin for running water and electricity, how could she even dare to hope for assistance for her daughter? And how would someone like me be able to help her? I truly don’t know what I could do besides circulate their story. I feel as helpless as the little girl with her hands tied behind her back, licking the mango peel.
|Photo intentionally left blank.|
I’ve gone through the motions a hundred times before. My hand around her waist, hers around shoulders. The smile that comes easily because I’m having fun. Because it’s a beautiful day. Because I’m with a friend. My phone is handed back to me and we gather around the device for the post photo ritual; cupping our hands to block the sun, telling each other how great we look, wrinkling our noses at our own imperfections.
“Ah, que lindas!” Veronica exclaims. And we both giggle. Looking at our picture then I was glad that Veronica had wanted to take a photo with me. Proud that she called me “amiga”. But later, as I was scrolling through the pictures from the field that day, this one made me pause. I realized, I don’t know who I am in that picture. Because while to me Veronica is a friend, and admittedly, also a curiosity, I have no idea who I am to Veronica.
She’s fifteen years old, but when she speaks she seems much older. She has dark hair and an open, friendly face. She’s small for her age, but I don’t think she knows it. When we arrived at Manantiales de Paz, a neighborhood built on the fringes of Medellin by people who have been displaced from their homes, usually as a result of violence, she was one of the first to greet me. She laughed good-naturedly at my broken Spanish and, without a moment of hesitation, welcomed me into her home, and into her life.
She told me about having to move to Manantiales; about missing her old home, about being proud of her knew one. She told me how her father used abuse her mother. And how proud she was of her mother now; for leaving him, for the important roll she has running a community center in Manantials. She showed me scars on her wrist from cuts she made herself. From the stress she said. She told me loves to read, and she wants to be a singer.
I told her about my life too. And in spite of my difficulties with the language, we began to speak like friends. We are friends. That I’m sure of. I’m just a little unsure as to exactly what that means. Each time I visit Manantiales, listening to Veronica speak is a kind of adventure on its own. It’s hard to keep up. She’s a natural storyteller, weaving together lighthearted jokes and sobering reflections on what she and her family have endured. She is almost always smiling. One day, somewhere in the midst of this colorful tapestry, she informed me that she was going to come visit my house someday. Her tone was joking, but after I replied that of course she is welcome, she was suddenly silent, her expression serious. Not sad exactly, but somehow empty. And what she didn’t say out loud was the most abrupt and painful reality check of my life. I felt paralyzed.
The feeling comes back as I look at our picture together. The picture is of friends, yes, but it’s also of two people who inhabit completely different worlds. And I’m not talking about geography, that doesn’t matter so much. Here I am, waltzing into her life with a camera and a gift of Vermont maple candy. But soon, in less than a month now in fact, I will waltz back out. It will be easy for me to do what is impossible for her. With almost no effort on my part, I will fly back across the ocean and return to a world that, if I am honest, she has no hope of ever seeing.
I didn’t come here expecting to be anyone’s savior. I know the image of the privileged traveler with a plan to save the world to be not only false, but an insult to the challenges that people like Veronica face. It represents a product of ego and, albeit well-intentioned, bigotry. It does not represent me, nor would I want it to. I came to Colombia to learn. I hoped to get something from the experience, and to give a little back in return. I was content with what I imagined to be my roll in this program. I just didn’t expect the reality to be so hard.
Because in the picture with Veronica I may not be trying to be her savior, but still there is an incredible imbalance of power between the two of us. I look forward to worrying about making A’s and finding a career that is meaningful to me, rather than to worrying about having enough to eat. I have so much power, and yet none that I can share with her. She wants to be able to attend a school where she can take singing lessons. Can I really call myself her friend when such a dream could easily come true for me, if I had her voice? And even as I ask these questions I am forced to admit how little I understand about her reality. Who am I to presume that her situation is something to be pitied; that her life is somehow less full than mine? And yet, try as I might, I can’t ignore the feeling that she deserves more than what she has, and that I don’t deserve to have what seems like so much more than she does. And I wonder if the picture of us, though it was her idea to take it, is in fact just as unethical as a picture of me surrounded by children I am supposedly saving. It doesn’t depict our separate realities, and it certainly doesn’t depict my own ignorance and uncertainty. This is what I mean when I say the photo is haunting me.
My challenge now, as I look at the picture and contemplate deleting it, is how to move forward. How to not be paralyzed. There is a part of me that wonders if my friendship with Veronica is an entirely selfish one. If it will hurt her more than help when I leave in a month. I don’t think there’s any way for me to know. But what I can know is that Veronica wants to share her story. And I can avoid paralysis by giving her the gift that costs me nothing. The littler power that I can lend her. I can listen to her story, and then do my best to share what she has to say.
I have already conducted an interview with the incredible Don Antonio, a community leader in Manantiales. It is clear that he wants his story shared with citizens of Medellin, and with the local government in particular. He is on a mission to strengthen and build his community and I am honored that he believes the videos we are making can help him achieve his goal. I also want to share his story with people in the US. His resolve, his kindness and his pride in his work completely contradicts the warnings I received about the dangerous people living in slums in Colombia. Despite being marginalized by his own country, and having his home classified as an “invasion” he has worked tirelessly and peacefully to pull himself, and his entire community, up by his bootstraps. He is everything that we Americans claim to admire.
Veronica’s story is different. For one thing, I haven’t conducted the actual interview yet and I’m not sure what she will want to share with the camera. But more than anything else, I want to share her story with some of my friends at home. I think she would like that. I think she would like it if they chatted with her on Facebook. I want to set up a reading group with her, and some friends back home. Again I don’t know if these things would help her, but maybe I just can’t think about it like that. It would be fun for me. It would be fun for her. Maybe that’s enough.
A group that I know I will share these videos with is Ubuntu, the SLG I’m going to be living with next year. First, because they are my friends and I know they will be interested. Second, because most members of the group are constantly involved in some form of civic engagement. If an opportunity came up to share the videos in a wider sphere or do something else to help out the people of Manantiales, I know I would be able to find people excited to help out.
I am not sure who Claudia wants to share her story with. I think for starters, she just wants to share it with me. As brutal as it is, I am someone who has opportunity. I’m American; I’m young. I can take her stories places she cannot take them. And, to be honest, I am probably one of the first people to come into her home, all the way into Manantiales and listen to her. But that’s the easy part. After that it gets more complicated.
Foremost, I am going to ask Claudia whom she wants to share her story with. That will be my first priority. From there I am not sure where I will take it. Part of that depends on the central narrative the film will have. But I think I want to show it to the people of Carlos E. Or at least our host moms and the people who were afraid to let us go into Manantiales.
With that, I want to show this video to anyone and everyone who will watch it. Because I think there are a lot of people who can learn from Claudia’s strength.