Walking the Latin American City

by | Dec 28, 2003

A street in Guadelajara. Photo by Magda Kowalczykowski.

We were waiting for the light to change to cross the street in Guadalajara. It was the middle of the day and Luisa, Julia and I had decided to have lunch outside the hotel where the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) conference was being held. It was a wide avenue, and the cars sped past. I noticed a young man selling cigarettes, also waiting for the light to change so he could offer them to cars that stopped. He was leaning against a car. I didn’t see him unzip his pants, I only saw the disgust in Luisa’s face, and then I heard her say: “He’s masturbating.” The three of us hurried back to the safety of the restaurant, and once again, I felt the familiar wave of disgust, hate, and fear.

I have been harassed on the streets of Latin America since I was ten years old, growing up in Cartagena, Colombia, and I still feel the same paralyzing fear. That first time, an old man sitting on the curbside offered to “suck” my “hairless cunt” (chuparte esa chuchita sin pelos). I didn’t know what he meant but my friends soon explained, and thus began my introduction to a female mapping of the city. “You can’t cross that corner alone” one of my friends said, “there are always men there.” (“Ahí siempre hay hombres”).

Mapping the city as a young woman means you have to know where there are men. Men in italics, of course, not men as in my father, his friends, my schoolmates or my teachers, but men like that old man sitting on the curb or the cigarette seller in Guadalajara, men whose words leave me speechless with fear, anger, impotence and fear all over again.

Men are not everywhere, I learned. In my barrio, they stayed in certain corners, in construction sites and in parks. I found out that if you avoided those places you were safe.  However, avoiding them sometimes meant going out of my way to get to where I was going — following the safe routes meant going around the park, instead of through it.

I now realize that by learning the “safe routes,” I actually learned to stay only inside the familiar places. Cynthia Bowman characterized this practice as the “informal ghettoization of women” in a 1993 Harvard Law Review article.  “Ghettoized” into my barrio, I grew up in a city I never experienced. Although men were not everywhere, any street, corner, park or barrio that was not proven to be safe was unsafe by definition.  While my carefree male friends rode on their bikes and explored the city, I stayed in my barrio, my school, my home.

My mother is 53 and she still lives in Cartagena, my hometown. As far as I know, she has never wandered alone far from the same familiar streets that held me in as a child. The city she knows is only the safe one and the same is true for her mother, grandmother, and all of our female friends. We knew our city from afar, down the proven safe roads and from the window of a bus. Any new place was unsafe until proven otherwise. When I grew up and traveled to other cities, I stuck to this same rule: any public road or park was unsafe until proven otherwise. This unwritten travel advisory had been ingrained in my body since I was ten.

Street harassment is a well-known reality, and has often been theorized as one of the many forms of violence against women. It is an insidious form, one that doesn’t manifest itself any more than the veiled threat, but one that keeps women in their place, walking fast, looking straight ahead, behind closed doors and in fear. At times, it makes you long for a veil, which is thought to be effective in stopping harassment. Harassment is one way in which society, through those foul-mouthed men, can exercise social control of women. This leads to a society that compels women to willingly accept traditional roles of “wife of” and “mother of,” roles that make them feel safe.

Around the age of sixteen, I discovered two ways to walk past men and not even get a stare. To travel between my two grandmothers’ houses, I had to either walk past a construction site or walk two blocks out of my way even when it was 40  degrees Celsius in the shade. So I braved the shorter path and promptly found out what made the whistles and name calling worse. If I walked proud, looked back, or if I was happy, the harassment was severe. It was like throwing meat to a hungry dog. However, if I looked down, held my books to my chest, acted shy and frowned, there was much less harassment. But I hit the jackpot when I learned that if, in addition to all of the above, I limped, there was total silence. So I faked a limp, a really bad limp, for that block for months until the construction was over and the men had left. This was my introduction to feminist agency. My second strategy to avoid harassment was much simpler: ask my brother to walk me from one grandmother’s home to the other. Since I was with a man, albeit nine years old, the men stayed put.

I am not the first or the last one to find out that the city is another when walking with a man. All documents on street harassment mention this remarkable fact. With my little brother, I dared cross more corners, walk through certain parks, even go to the stores downtown. He worked like a charm. The worst remark I got was “Adios, cuñado” (bye, brother-in-law), but none of the more graphic offers.

Later I discovered boyfriends worked even better. When holding hands with a suitor, I could walk around the city and discover streets and plazas. By this time I lived not in Cartagena but in Bogotá. With boyfriends I walked most of the Centro of Bogotá, even at night, even down poorly lit streets where they did not understand why I was so scared. With a man, I could walk in wonderful places like Billares Londres in downtown Bogotá, admire the walls painted with a surreal depiction of London, and have a beer and watch men play pool without even getting half a stare.

Theorists say that harassers, by harassing women who walk the streets without an owner are upholding the patriarchal code that states that all women must belong to a man. Unconsciously or not, men know what they are doing when they stare and hiss and grab and insult—they are keeping patriarchy alive. If you are a young woman, you are not supposed to be alone in a Latin American city except in the corridors of safety and you should always be walking briskly, eyes on the ground, books or purse held to your chest, never stopping and especially never sitting down. Stopping is only allowed in places where you pay to be protected, such as in cafes or restaurants or malls that agree to provide safety and where women who wish to be alone are welcomed, or mercifully ignored.

Harassers are simply telling us what even the police already know. In Lima, the non-governmental organization Demus  the surveyed policemen about their views on sexual violence. When asked if they agreed with the phrase “Men belong in the street and women in the home,” 45.5% of policemen said they did. 52.3% considered rapists to have uncontrollable sexual urges. 50% of policemen thought that women were sexually assaulted because they were wearing clothes that were attractive to the opposite sex.  47.6% of policemen thought women were sexually assaulted because they walked alone at night; 33% because they went to nightclubs; 21.4% because they were physically attractive; and 9% because they were extroverted.

I suspected as much since the early age of ten, when I first learned how to stay safe. With the city mapping skills I learned growing up in Cartagena, I have defied men and walked along the streets of Santa Cruz, La Paz, Santiago, Cali, Medellín, Buenos Aires, Bogota and various cities in many countries. I have chewed coca leaves in Bolivian markets, dined alone in Santiago, had beer in a Cusco bar, and empanadas everywhere. And yet where ever I go, in Latin America as elsewhere, harassers remind me the same rules apply.

The key is to understand how the city works. There are corridors of safety where women can walk alone and get from one place to the next. There are neighborhoods where only local women can walk alone unscathed. Stick to places where there are other women by themselves or where there are children. Never ask a man for directions, and never hold a male stranger’s gaze in public. You do so at your peril. Remember: the police think you should be at home.

But these corridors of safety are not safe all day. There are certain hours, certain clothes, and certain sides of the street that are not safe. The same thing is true in regards to public transportation; it is usually safe, but there are certain bus stops, metro stops, and certain times of day or night where a woman is no longer safe. There are certain seats on buses where you can be sure that a man will try to rub his dick against your shoulder, and certain ways to use your bag to keep men from jacking off against your butt. You have to ask the other tourists, the concierge, and women that you meet. Ask twice, just to be sure.

In 2000, I was part of a research project on sexual violence in Bogotá. As we were reading through criminal files, we found that prosecutors routinely asked women who were sexually assaulted what they were wearing and why they were out so late or in that part of town. For example, they would ask a victim:  “Why did you go to that meeting alone and in a place like Los Martires park that is so dangerous? Tell us if you have the habit of going out of your house to talk on the phone so late; Why were you alone at night in that place knowing how dangerous it was?”

It must be realized that the threat implicit in the harassment I have described is, of course, the threat of rape. The fear we were raised to have because it kept us safe, the fear of what might happen to you if you wear certain clothes, go out alone or speak to strangers. A friend of mine was raped; she ran out of gas and accepted a lift from a stranger on a motorcycle. Most women in Latin America know that you do not go out driving alone, but if you do, you do not run out of gas, but if you do, you do not ask for help from men. This you usually know even before you get your driver’s license.

However, and contrary to common sense, most women who are raped are not raped outside their homes but rather inside them. In fact, in Latin America, as elsewhere, women are hardly ever raped by strangers. In a 2000 Colombian national health survey conducted by Profamilia, 7% of the women reported they had been raped at some point in their lives, and 71.2% of these women had been raped by a person they knew. Most of the sexual violence forensic exams practiced in Colombia in 2001 were of girls younger than 14 who reported a relative as the aggressor. Available statistics show the situation is similar in Peru and Mexico.

It is clear, then, that sexual assault in the streets is not a common occurrence. Perhaps women learn to take care of themselves as they grow older. Perhaps they no longer speak of sexual assault or report it. But sexual assault, and fear of sexual assault, pervades the constitution of subjectivity as a young woman. The fear caused by words and gestures is the fear of the ancient, well-known humiliation and pain of rape. Easily avoided if you “take care” of yourself, walk only in the corridors, do not go out alone at night, have a man accompany you, be a good girl in the city.

Does a man see the city like this? Does he also walk knowing he has to stay in the safe corridors, knowing he shouldn’t stop, shouldn’t whistle, shouldn’t look men in the eye or even look around? Probably not. Sometimes I tell my husband the things harassers say to me. On one occasion, I come home distraught, and tell my husband of three strangers’ collective offer to have anal sex with me as I was walking home from work. I am still afraid. He holds me, and is also scared, introduced to my world.

Am I a coward, am I exaggerating? Perhaps. As a teenager, I knew an older girl who liked walking el Centro for the compliments she got. “It boosts my self esteem,” she said, “I feel I am in control, and they all want me but can’t get me. It’s el Centro, everybody is looking, they are not going to hurt me. Que sufran.” Once a man sat beside her in the movies and started masturbating. She took off her spiked heels and hit him, right on the head of his penis. He ran out of the movies and she laughed and screamed after him, shaken but unbeatable. I remembered that story in Guadalajara when Luisa, Julia and I were scurrying back to the restaurant. I picked up an empty coke bottle off the floor and turned around, intending to throw it at the cigarette vendor, but he was gone. Who knows, maybe next time in the next city, I’ll have the courage to throw it and the luck to run away unscathed.

Winter 2003Volume II, Number 2

Julieta Lemaitre is a 2003 LLM candidate at Harvard Law School. She graduated in law from the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, and has an M.A. in gender and religious studies from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies. Her hobby is walking around. The strong language used in this article reflects the harassment she and other women are subject to before they “learn to walk.”

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