“You know how the Jews were slaves in Egypt? I feel like them.”
My co-worker Yelba is a middle-aged mother with innocent brown eyes and a tired face. She recently exposed some of her deepest hurt to me.
I considered saving this post and its theme for Mother’s Day or International Woman’s Day or something, but decided the best way to comprehend and overcome suffering and strength is to share them.
We were in the library before a meeting, praying over a passage in the Bible about peace and freedom, when Yelba told us that her mother-in-law had chewed her out the night before for being a bad mother. The suegra had stood defensively behind her son, chastising Yelba for allowing the children to run freely in the street and develop horrible habits like swearing and neglecting their studies.
My own common sense and experience kicked in. Yelba’s three children are the best-behaved children and most avid readers I’ve met in this country. What’s more, I know that Yelba reads to them every night and rushes home during meal breaks to cook for them.
Then Yelba dug deeper. She told us of her husband. He is an angry, catatonic and abusive macho who sits in front of the television all day waiting for Yelba to get back from work so he can be served meals. Sometimes he beats his children with his belt without giving them a reason for it. Yelba confessed that all her family and friends have wanted her to leave him for years. “But I stay with him because I know what it’s like to grow up without knowing your father, and I don’t want that for my children. I am a slave to him because I love them.”
Perhaps her logic is flawed, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is her love for her children and her commitment to a life she compares to hell, for their sake.
Her story is one of many. I wrote about my campo mother, Cándida, who feeds the drunk and abusive father-of-her-children lunch and dinner everyday without a complaint. Then there are the almost 500 women who come to the Project where I work in hopes of obtaining small loans to build their businesses--making tortillas, mending hammocks, selling fritanga (street food).
The truth is that my life in Nicaragua has been full of powerful women. There are six female JVs in the country and three males (who are wonderful, to be real). I work with 15 women and 3 men. We’ve met three US groups of students in Nica for the semester, and 80% of them were women. My boss is a woman, my favorite neighbor is a woman, and the people who come to me when I’m confused on a new bus route are caring old women.
I have always been a feminist, according to my own definition. But in the macho culture this country has revealed, I must resist sexism, because I fnd myself asking, what do men do here, exactly?
The answer is too often that they work all day and go off on their own to spend their earnings, or if they can’t find work, drink all day, returning “home” for meals and nada más.
And what do the women do? Bread-winning, raising children, cleaning, socializing, holding together broken but intimate families, welcoming strangers, starting businesses, organizing communities, all the time dealing with the difficulties that “their men” dish out.
In other words, life isn’t fair for them. To the point that they call themselves slaves. I hadn’t heard it put so pointedly before Yelba began to cry.
And so I compose this post for the silent heroines I know in Nicaragua, in the hopes that spreading the word of their silent strength somehow sends them more.