“Racism intersects with sexism to pit women of color and white women against each other. Women of color are sexualized and racialized. White women are reified as the incarnation of both sexual and racial purity. That reification is bought at the price of the devaluation of women of color.” – Antonia I. Castañeda, in Living Chicana Theory, edited by Carla Trujillo.
“It’s just that Male Sexual Power–I allowed it because I was taught to accept it.” –Monica Palacios, in Living Chicana Theory, edited by Carla Trujillo
(Please note: This essay discusses sexual harassment and sexual violence)
What of a woman but her own relativity to man. What of I but the object of desire. Paint me like one of your Mexican women. Nude, posed, with a mirror and call me vain. Paint me with hips, wide, that extend farther than the length of my body. Fetishize me. Then call me vain. Call me chonga. Una puta. A man is in the right being a man; it is the woman who is in the wrong.
Place me in your pocket and discard me when you are sick of looking at me. When you think of me again, stare deeply so that I can look back and see myself in the reflection of your eyes. So I can feel your gaze wash over me and seep into the deepest parts of me, the darkest, the places I cannot hide and dare not find. While men watch women, women watch themselves being looked at.
My body is larger on the inside. It holds so many things: my organs, my blood, the stares of men as I walk down the street. I collect them like pennies I pick up off the sidewalk. The heads off those rusty things shaped like the heads wagging at me. When I was fifteen, I was told to smile and when I kept walking, I was told to get raped. I was followed until I ran onto the beach where the silence of the shores could protect me. I am called mami, mamacita. I was called puta by a 4-year-old who didn’t even know what he was saying. Too young to know the meaning, but knew to direct it at a woman. A Latina, full shaped. Like his mama. Like his papa had done.
I bled at nine and became a woman. A woman at the age of nine. At a family gathering that summer, my step-grandmother’s sister’s husband cornered me. I remember the beer breath down my face as he towered over me, tauntingly, well aren’t you just the most beautiful girl in the room. I soon learned “confidence” looked like him. Every time I saw him it was the same. Beautiful girl. He was the first to ever call me that. He wasn’t the last older man with power over me to do it. I came to hate that word.
Growing up, my mother always told me what not to wear. She never let me take public transit like the other white kids, fearing for my body. She othered me to protect me. But she couldn’t protect me from the streets. When I walked into a store with my white friends, it was me who got the look downs. It was me who got the second glance, the whistles. Standing on the corner with my white friends, I got the hey mama shouted from the passing car. I began to grow scared walking alone. My mother, having grown up in the same white spaces I was finding myself in, faced the same degrading and objectifying stares she knew I would face and did everything she could to warn me early on: I was not like these people.
Like the time in middle school when I was the only Latina in a school of white kids. A moth in a sea of butterflies. All the girls were wearing uniform jumpers too short. Rolling their shorts underneath up too high. I tried to fall in line. Assimilate. The other girls passed the ruler inspection and I got detention. Called out by the authority. I was othered for my body. Too full. Distracting the boys. The other girls weren’t shapely enough yet. My body looked ready so the boys must be ready for me.
Later at this same school, a boy liked me (or so I thought). He told me he liked me on a camping trip. We spent a week in middle school love. At the end of the week I almost kissed him. Then on the bus back, our class reconnected with the other class and I found my friend. That’s when she told me: don’t. kiss. him. I didn’t understand, we were in middle school love. But it was all a bet. It was a bet. The mean, blonde girls had bet him to make me like him, kiss him, and then dump me. I confronted him, I said why would you do this, I thought you liked me. He said why would I like you, your mom probably cleans for a living. He called me a bitch. I learned a new word that day. I learned the string of letters that made up my white last name, a name given by a father I never knew, were not enough of a mask in this world. I learned to be the object of his desire meant not to wear my skin. I learned that to be pretty meant not to be me.
Hot-blooded. Passionate. Flirtatious. Teasing. The color of my skin has labeled me these things. If I am mad, I am hot-blooded. If I show desire, I am passionate. If I smile, I am flirtatious. If I say no, I am teasing. I am always teasing. The eyes that look at me are always eyes of greed, devour, conquest. I am sexualized endlessly and any move I make is sexualized with it. I am feisty, exotic. I am what they cannot have. They reject me because I am an other but they must know they can still have me. That I am submissive. An object. Not desired, but owned. I can either fall in line with the ideals of marianismo or be deemed a chonga. To be pure is to have status. To be domesticated. Pleasant and quiet, pretty and helpful, pure and chaste. Wait until you are married: men cannot control themselves, but you sure can.
The women in my family serve the men. Submission. The women in my family hate my mother. She does not serve. She does not submit. At dinner during family gatherings, the men all sit at the table, talking, catching up, roaring with laughter at their exclusive boys club. The women resort to the kitchen, making tortillas, recounting their chisme, domesticated. Then they serve the men. My mother, she did not want to set that example for me. She never wanted me to learn to be an object for the men in my life. For anybody. She sat right down with the men, she asked questions, she never waited to be called upon. She called me to the table and sat me right on her lap. She laughed right with them. They did not laugh back.
But if you are from my family, you are also a chonga. You had a child at nineteen, sometimes with a man that didn’t stay. Every woman in my family had a child at nineteen: grandmothers, aunt, cousins, my own mother. I was taught early on this was the way of our family, and I was taught by my mother this was not the way it had to be. When I went to a predominantly Mexican elementary school, all of my friends had young mothers, most of whom did not have fathers. When I went to a white middle school, all of my friends had older parents, nuclear families. My mother was asked at class meetings if she was my nanny, my sister. She was asked what her husband did for a living. She told them she didn’t have one, that she carried the household. They stopped listening. My brother was brought into the world when I was seventeen. We were at the park one day and someone thought he was my child, my mother the nanny, my step-father my husband. I, a young Mexican woman, had no problem being mistaken for the teenage mom. This was just the way things had to be.
I thought I was an adult before I was. Told I was a woman when I was nine. Had a teenage mother who was so tired from working two jobs and getting her degree that I began caring for myself by the time I was eight. I had to figure most things out for myself, out of necessity, out of fear that if I didn’t, those things would find me themselves. I wanted to be ready for when they eventually did. I learned about sex from the internet. When I was in third grade, I was told by a fifth grader that he wanted to have sex with me. I didn’t know what that meant, so I went home and searched it on my grandfather’s computer. I found Latinas in all kinds of positions. I said that’s … me? I was nine when I watched Justin Timberlake’s music video for “Señorita” as he dipped a Latina over a pool table in a short skirt and thought I guess that’s supposed to be me. When I was caught going through my grandfather’s computer and searching these things, I was yelled at, shamed. Made to believe I had committed the worst of sins and an idea formed in my head that the world around sex was a world that was shameful. And when I learned that I was a part of this world, after being so conditioned my whole life to understand my body as a sexual thing from music videos-porn-boys-strangers’ stares-teachers-my own family, I learned to find myself just as shaming.
Shame. It started in the third grade when a boy said I had hairy gorilla legs. I was nine. I was already a woman. I started shaving my legs in seventh grade, my mom bought me everything I needed, hesitant, asking me multiple times are you sure about this. She said once you take this step, you can never go back. I cried. I had already begun the steps of body monitoring, pulling my dresses down over my legs when I sat so no one could see. Wearing one piece bathing suits because of the hair on my back. She told me a story about when she was my age, with a white friend of hers on a trip to Catalina Island. She said they were changing in their room and saw each other’s backs. Her friend saw the hair on my mother’s back and immediately touched it, exclaiming how beautiful it was and how she always wished she had hair on her back. She told her friend how she always wished she had a hairless back like hers. She told me this story so I could understand how beauty was subjective, how we always want what we do not have. I looked at her, I looked at the posters on my wall of white pop stars, hairless. I grabbed the razor and headed to the bathroom without another word. You see, the other white girls in my class, their hair was always too light to show on their legs. Pristine. I mistook it for no hair. Mistook it for my mistake. I thought I had to be like them. I started waxing my mustache my freshman year of high school. So many boys would say to me, man you can grow that thing better than I can. So many girls would tease your face must make winters easy. I waxed my mustache. I waxed my eyebrows. I shaved my armpits. I shaved my legs. I even shaved the small of my back. I cried to my mother: Why do we have to be so hairy? Why do I have to be Mexican? Why couldn’t you be white? I am so ugly.
As I got older, I learned that my relationship to men rode on the back of my Latina attributes. My wide Latina ass became not only the center of attention in high school, but a disembodied entity I no longer controlled. While sitting in a fast food restaurant one day at fifteen, I had a friend turn to me and tell me he wanted to take me to the bathroom and fuck me. I froze, intruded. The wall that had kept me safe from the gaze became penetrated. He then laughed and got up and slapped my ass. That wide, Latina ass. During a theater class in school, my teacher wanted us to massage each other, and told us to find partners. He didn’t expect all the boys to glance at me. They wanted to massage me, sneak a chance at my feeling my ass. That wide, Latina ass. In between classes, I couldn’t even go to get a drink of water from the fountain without male classmates coming up behind me and pinching my ass and slapping it. I had a boyfriend at the time, and when I told him he just laughed and said, well no one’s got an ass like yours. I had been hyper-sexualized for so long, I quickly learned who I thought I was: a piece of meat. At fifteen, I steered into the skid and lost my virginity in a stairwell to an ass-grabber. Externalized the internalization he had imposed on me. I cried for hours in the library afterwards and never looked back.
In college, the first man I started seeing asked me if I spoke Spanish. When I asked him why, he said because it would be so hot. A few years later, on a bus, a man sat next to me and wouldn’t leave me alone. He started telling me how hot I was, for a Latina. Started telling me about how he has a thing for Latinas. How Latinas are so freaky. Latinas are so wild in bed. And when they start speaking Spanish to you. And call you papi. It drove him crazy. How he’s gotta find him a good Latina girl with a big ass. He finally asked me if I had a boyfriend and I told him I was gay. He asked me for my number.
One winter during college, I was living in New York. I got on the subway to find a white man sitting on one side of the train, a white woman sitting on the other, and the rest of the seats in the middle empty. I sat in the middle. A white man walked on with two large bags. He surveyed the scene. He saw the man. He saw the woman. He saw me. He laughed. He came right up to me. He placed his bags on the ground in front of me. He stood right in front of where I was sitting, his legs touching my legs, blocking me. He placed his hands on the railings above him and looked down at me, smiling. He said wassup mami. I moved to the right to get out and he moved with me. I moved to the left, the same. He was very tall and with his legs spread open at this point, I slipped out underneath them and walked to the end of the train and sat down. He laughed again. He sat down next to the other man and said man, had to try, right? They both laughed. I looked at the woman but she stared at her phone and wouldn’t look up at me. I got off at the next stop and collapsed. And cried. I cried for years of stares. And ass-grabbing. And beautiful girl. And mami. I cried for my nine year old self who was not ready to be a woman. I cried for the hips that had birthed generations of women at such a young age, for that’s what the culture had taught them. To be submissive. To not ask questions. I cried for a body that had been sexually objectified its whole life that it no longer felt that it belonged to me. I cried for the years I tried to fit into white beauty standards only to be rejected by the same gaze that made me. I cried for being a Latina. For being singled out. For being so constantly othered. I cried.
I once had a white friend ask me why I didn’t like when strangers complimented me. She said she thought it was nice to be complimented. How nice it was for them to acknowledge someone for their beauty. How rude of me to be so dismissive. I said I felt afraid, that men scare me. She didn’t understand. You’re overreacting.
For a long time I used to think that my shame for my body and my sexuality was my own doing, my own fault. I thought I made my bed, I must die in it. I repressed so many memories, so many angry men yelling hey mama oh you’re one of those feisty types at me on the street. I kept my head low for so long, I forgot what had me start in the first place. I normalized the behavior of others and internalized it as something that must be wrong with me. I became a sexual being out of the representation I saw in the media, in the porn I watched, in the way people stared at me and not my white counterparts. Growing up in white spaces really fast tracked this consciousness for me. I was singled out as Latina and sexually objectified and fetishized in comparison to my white peers. But it wasn’t only these spaces, it was from my own community. I think back to my predominantly Mexican elementary school where the boys shamed me for my hairy legs or grabbed my ass during recess or put their hand on my thigh during third grade class, staring me down as if daring me to tell the teacher. Passing me notes about how I had the best “butt” of all the fourth grade girls. And the girls caught on and shunned me. Began an “I hate Catalina” club, calling my landline and calling me a perra or puta. It was from an early age that I not only began to learn that the boys wanted something from me, but that the girls were going to fight me for it. And I had no control over the role I played in this game I never asked to be apart of.
As for my family, I was objectified by my own blood while everyone was busy filling their predetermined roles. We are placed on an impossible pedestal, asked to be chaste, and yet in the shadows, leered over. If it weren’t for my mother, I don’t know that I would have been able to unpack the things I understand today. From an early age, she worked hard to subvert the narrative for me that we are destined for submission. That we subscribe to patterns that are expected of Latinas from society, patterns that we have no choice but to fall into. She taught me to have goals and to have passion and not to live in fear. She learned that from my grandfather, someone who went from being what everyone expected him to be, an East LA gangbanger, to a best-selling author. She sacrificed everything for me to protect me. What she couldn’t control were the things I had to learn the hard way. She couldn’t protect me from the world and how it imposed upon me a sexual eye that I would never shake. But she could teach me how I came to understand myself amidst that objectification and how I shaped my own narrative. I could have easily fallen into the traps that were expected of me: give into the stares, learn to hate myself and my body, learn to hate the world around me, live in fear, have a child at nineteen, become an object and serve the men and women around me. But instead she taught me to find control amidst what I could not control.
I cannot control the stares of strangers on the street. The racialized catcalls or when men sit next to me in public spaces and comment on my identity like they know more than me or fetishize me. I cannot control the ass-grabbing or the fact that I was made to be a woman before I was ready. I cannot control the representation of Latinas in media or porn. How we are made to be exotic, how statistically, we are put in a spectrum of categories that consist of hot-blooded or feisty. I cannot control the stereotypes made about Latinas, that we have fuller figures which must make us more sexually gratifying. Ripe for the picking. I cannot control the ages of presumption about Latinas, that we are all destined for teen motherhood, that we come from broken families, that we are objects to our communities. I cannot control that we do not always fit the societal beauty standards. I cannot control that men feel they can have their way with us because they see us as dirty, less than, teasing. These are all things that have been normalized since the time of the casta system, since the time of the conquests. We, Latinas, are thrown into a landscape that is unforgiving at times, and when placed next to our non-Hispanic counterparts, we are told we are overreacting.
But amidst what I cannot control, I was taught by my mother, by my grandfather before her, that I can change my own narrative. I can control how I internalize the world around me and I can control what is expected of me. And it’s a never ending battle, some days I feel like I may never make it to the other side after years of the trauma this objectification has placed on me. But I persevere because my grandfather made it off the streets and onto the page and my Latina mother worked so that I could have a life of my own, a life that wasn’t dictated by patterns repeating. A life that wasn’t dictated by cowering in fear from the sexual stares and comments and degradation that think they have power over me. A life that wasn’t dictated by the media that shapes a narrative of the Latina, fetishized, and put on display yet rejected when up against the white beauty standards of society’s eyes. I am here to say, I am not your mami. I am not your Latina phase. My mustached lips will not speak Spanish for you to get off. This “no” is not a tease. These are not birthing hips. This ass is not for grabbing. I am not your submissive doll, posed next to you while you eat. No, I am not being feisty. No, I am not your beautiful girl.
Photo Credit: “IMG_4174” by Flickr user GGAADD is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Unfortunately, I understand this all to well. I would hope that times will change this narrative. Powerful essay.