Far from Home

Why some women don't run in the park in Peru

By Isabel Clay
Republished with permission from the Swarthmore Theta blog.

One reader shares her experiences of her great trip to Lima, sexism in Peru, and life in a US sorority.

Why some women don't run in the park in Peru

Do you ever feel uncomfortable running in the park? (Referential photo: Miraflores Municipality/Flickr)

This winter break I had such an incredible experience visiting my grandmother in Lima, Peru. While I have visited my family there before, this trip was fundamentally different than any of the others I have taken. This was the first time in my life I had a break long enough to visit during their summer when all of my family friends were off of school and could spend time with me. This also was the first time I had visited my grandmother without my family, because this was the first time I could speak Spanish with fluency.

I woke up every morning and went to the market with my grandmother to buy food for the day, made plans with one of my friends, came back for lunch, usually did the same after, and then I’d come home to eat dinner and Skype with my mom, who was excruciatingly jealous of my ability to wear short sleeves. My mom, having grown up in Peru, is still close with her childhood friends who still live on the same block my mom grew up on. By some incredible coincidence, every single one of them has a daughter within a year of my age. This girls have been people I have known my whole life, but being able to overcome the language barrier and to really engage with them was so special that I know is a unique and lovely experience.

Whether I was museum hopping, going shopping in the open air markets, walking around the historic district of the city, rock climbing, sitting by the ocean, surfing, riding around in a dune buggy, or literally dancing the night away, my three weeks here were really and truly incredible. I am at a loss for words every time someone asks me “how my trip was.”

These things were all remarkable, but the tourism was only half of my experience. My days often included these amazing experiences, but I also got to live the type of life my mom did. Being able to really understand an entire half of my heritage that had previously been mostly lost to me was something so powerful. My mom moved to the US for college when she was eighteen years old and has lived here since. She was enticed by MTV and John Hughes in the eighties and has loved it here ever since. Growing up ten minutes from where my dad lived and knowing virtually no other people who were Peruvian, as a child it was often difficult to understand what that word even meant.

While there are many similarities within Hispanic cultures, there is something to be said about being able to know what makes my country unique. Being able to wake up in the house my mom grew up in, walk down the streets she and her friends spent their days on, and spending countless nights just sitting on the couch at her best friends’ houses with their daughters, my very own friends, and a bag of popcorn and a cheesy movie.

While the tourism and the warm weather were incredible, living life like I grew up here was equally as amazing and powerful. Being able to actually speak the language with them for the first time was amazing. Prepared from spending a summer in Spain during high school, I was nervous and excited to get to talk to my friends. They all had questions about my life in the States and wanted the back story to every picture they have seen on Facebook. We laughed and shared stories. We talked about love, friends, school, and in a few of our conversations, we stopped discussing what we had in common and started to talk about what makes our experiences unique.

When I mentioned how uncomfortable I felt running in the park, they immediately nodded knowingly. “You must not be used to the old men saying things like that, are you?” I explained that while I am used to occasional cat calling, I am not used to the degree to which their comments were ignored and at which they persisted. My one friend shockingly said to me “I never run anymore. That’s just the way it is for women here.”

My mind starting racing with shock at the comment. How can the world still be like this? How can everyone see that something is wrong, but no one do anything about it? My friend explained that it is easier just to stay inside with your girlfriends and pretend it isn’t happening. I was infuriated by how powerless these women who are exactly like me have been made to feel. They were so surprised at how passionate I got about the subject. It was then that I realized how different my experience has truly been, and how different it is positioned to be moving forward.

Being able to go there and talk about my first semester of college was amazing. Through our conversations I truly was forced to reflect on my experience at Swarthmore. I realized how big of an impact only one semester has made. When describing why I joined certain groups and clubs in college, and they all proceeded to laugh when I told them that I played rugby seeing as I was wearing a lace top and pink skirt. Again, I started realize how the rest of the world still perceives what it means to be a woman. When describing my involvement, my friends were enthralled by how “womanly” the sport actually is. My team is a group of women, for women, led by other women, playing a sport that empowers women to feel strong regardless of their particular skill set. There is a spot for every type of woman on the pitch. They were so jealous of the ability to have such an empowered sisterhood.

At a school like Swarthmore, it is easy to take for granted how generally accepting and safe the space is. The bubble is no utopia, but after spending a month in another country, where standing up to an old man’s comments, which make you feel unsafe to leave the house, makes you the feminist of the year, it became so clear to me how fortunate we all are. It also made me remember how in so many places, an empowering sisterhood is a clear and present necessity. I am blessed to have this through a number of outlets.

Yes, Swarthmore is already a fairly safe space. Many have pointed out that my searching for a sisterhood is extraneous at a school like this. Especially compared to women who survive in a place as “machista” as Peru, I replied that I sometimes feel absurd to have so many sisterhoods and support systems. But as one friend pointed out to me, “your world is different than mine, but our problems aren’t. We all need sisters. This world can be scary.”

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