Friday, August 19, 2011

Gender and identity in highlands Guatemala

One of the gals?
One of the guys?

I sometimes forget that I am a light-skinned, grotesquely tall alien. Then someone takes my picture in a group with local people and I’m reminded why small children usually either react to me with fascination or abject fright.

Yet beyond that, I put up these two pictures to illustrate an issue of identity that has been central to my experience here – gender.

I grew up in a small town in upstate New York wanting to think that my gender didn’t matter, that being female didn’t make me significantly different from any of my male peers. I distinctly remember the first week of third grade, when my teacher asked for some strong boys to help her hand out the math textbooks. The comment struck a strong chord – placed by whom and when, who knows – but I put my hand up and volunteered; and later that year I went on to beat all but two of the boys in my class in arm wrestling. I still remember so clearly those early affirmations that gender in itself is not a limitation.

So I guess it was odd for me to experience, coming here, that local attitudes surrounding my gender really did limit me, much more so than in the US. Having always wanted to be “gender-blind”, I didn’t really perceive it a lot at first. Yet over time I became more aware of the general inflexibility of gender roles - and accompanying attitudes. I also became more aware of my place as a pant-wearing female, smack dab in the middle of the two gender worlds, seemingly receiving the worst of both of them, especially as a foreigner to boot.

In a place where identity is assessed principally on two axes (first, foreigner or local; and later, female or male), I felt especially out of place, since locals – once having identified me as a foreigner - could not confidently place me on the female/male axis. I felt unwanted in either camp: uninvited to go work in the woods, even when I asked; uncomfortable walking alone at night; heckled by drunks in certain neighborhoods; plagued by the sense that my counterpart was frequently ignoring my comments and proposals; questioned by everyone whether I was afraid to live on my own. Yet neither was I invited to chit-chat with my female counterparts, or asked to help them at events, and am still met with skepticism that I can do my own cooking and cleaning.

It seems like I ought to offer some sort of breakthrough, a turning point to all of this; but there hasn’t been one, really. I’ve simply gone about figuring my identity here by getting to know more and more people, trying to prove that there are things I am capable of even if I can't fold 100 tamalitos in an hour or plant an acre of potatoes by hand in half a day. Overall, my experience hasn't been tough as some have it out in the really remote villages, and being female has given me a distinct advantage with the wonderful women's groups here.

And I've had the numerous little rebellions: taking joy in carrying heavy things in front of and with my counterpart and the park guards, wielding a machete, hiking fast with open enjoyment; fixing technology; wearing corte when it's appropriate; and always requesting in a quiet but firm way the respect I feel I deserve - not as a foreigner or a woman, but as a person.

[Note: 4/22/2013: As I remained longer in my community, I realized that like in many cultures, age was another important aspect of identity and social hierarchy. Being male would not have automatically brought me respect.  I still think that being a foreigner, first, and of ambiguous-but-female gender was more principal to the way I was perceived than age.]