After a weekend of no showering, an extremely burnt tongue (Argentines like their mate water SCALDING hot), and being surrounded by incredibly empowering women – I can now check a few things off my life bucket list:
- Travel through a foreign country alone
- Explain the U.S. feminist movement to a room full of Argentine women I’ve never met
- Participate in a protest
1. Travel through a foreign country alone
This weekend I attended XXVIII Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres in San Juan. It’s an annual conference in Argentina where women come together in the fight for women’s rights and equality for all. This is the 28th Encuentro, with participants including extreme leftist feminists to social change organizations to independent women seeking a safe place to share their personal experiences. I knew about this event before I even step foot in Argentina, so I knew it would be the perfect place for me to learn more about the feminist movement for my Lumen research.
This weekend was huge for me, not only for my research, but for my personal growth as well. Laura and I were planning on traveling with Marea Popular, a huge political group newly created through the synthesis of Juventud Rebelde, Corriente Rebelión, and Socialismo Libertario, three independent leftist organizations. They have a passion for activism and a commitment to social change through popular participation. Marea Popular had posters on the walls of UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires) inviting students to travel with them to Encuentro. We contacted them and were easily able to grab two seats on their buses to the Encuentro in San Juan (near Mendoza).
Fast forward to Wednesday night. First, you need to understand that I have irrational social fears. Yes, I know, shocking to hear from the girl who’d jump right up on stage since age 10 and perform in front of hundreds of strangers. I’ve never had much discomfort public speaking nor helping run regional theatre festivals, which included many improvised mic announcements and monologue performances. Yet, when it comes to new experiences with no crutch to hold onto, I become incredibly anxious. It’s hard enough for me to gain enough courage to open doors into important offices or places where I don’t know what to expect next. There’s something about that unknown that makes my palms sweaty, my breathing heavier, and it becomes harder for me to push myself to take that final step. I’ve discussed this with my father, who also shares my irrationality when it comes to making certain types of phone calls and the like. It’s difficult to truly explain, but I believe it a very specific and personal discomfort that we absolutely loathe taking part in – and there’s no real rhyme or reason which ones make us so uncomfortable.
So when I found out my dear friend Laura was not going to be able to make the trip with me, my heart dropped. The last thing I wanted to do was step on a bus full of strangers and travel 14+ hours away from Buenos Aires for three days completely alone. The entire concept was daunting and terrifying and I almost didn’t go. I’m not a fan of public crying and hate every time I can’t contain my emotions, but I think it’s important for the sanctity of this post and my journey that I tell the world – yes of course I cried. Of course I was scared. I cried because I physically didn’t know how else to express my anxiety, my nausea, my anger at myself for not having the courage and confidence in myself to do this alone. The range of the “could-be” was far too large for my wild imagination to dwell upon.
Thanks to Maria and Clari, who not only understood my irrational fear but also had the utmost faith in my social skills, I was reminded how amazing and empowering the experience would be simply by going solo. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t go. I needed this, to give myself a final challenge before leaving Argentina. I’ve lived a full life, but sometimes I hold myself back out of fear. I think we all do at times. But I’m tired of allowing the unknown dictate my actions.
I packed my backpack, grabbed my sleeping bag and headed to our bus meeting area. Besides checking in with a woman that told me which bus I was on, I didn’t speak to anyone. The women were all ingroups,sipping mate and smoking cigarettes. I didn’t know how to break the ice just yet, particularly in my blatantly non-fluent spanish. I quietly found an empty seat next to the window on the first floor of the bus where there were less seats, hoping for an easier environment to make friends. I have to thank Haydeé, the Madre de Plaza de Mayo, I interviewed earlier that Friday afternoon for keeping me at her house for 2 hours. If it weren’t for her, I would have made my 6pm bus and wouldn’t have been switched to the 8pm departure.
Fast forward through my awkward first 20 hours of barely speaking because I was too tired to make casual conversation in castellano. Looking back though, it must have been pure luck and coincidence that José (short for Josefina) happened to grab the seat next to me. Perhaps it was out of pure pity, or of interest when I finally engaged in a conversation and told her I’m an exchange student studying the Argentine feminist movement, or the fact that Jose was a bit of a lone wolf too. Nonetheless, she became my guide for the next two days. It didn’t happen quickly. It was subtle and in the little moments that I realized I had people to rely on for the weekend. Not just Jose. I somehow fell into a group of women that I could sit by and talk to during our down time.
We were a motley crew. Me: the practically mute foreigner who spoke up occasionally, always surprising them when I strung a few coherent sentences to add to the conversation because sometimes I think they thought I didn’t understand anything. Jose: the social butterfly who managed to read all of my charade faces without any audible explanation. Chivy and Dani, previous good friends who enjoyed our company and our love of Quilmes at any hour. Girl in the blue shirt: the one who hung out with us every so often, the one Jose and I never learned the name of unfortunately (then again, stating names in an Argentine introduction isn’t common). Finally, Milly and her mother. Milly is an adorable 5-year old, daughter to a woman who suffered a tragic accident where she lost her right arm and shows the results of a burn on the same side of her face.
The group began as we all shared two bottles of Quilmes at 2pm while waiting in the ridiculously dry and harsh heat of San Juan for a bus to take us to the plaza. It was how we all looked for each other during the marches to make sure we hadn’t lost each other. It was when Dani finally asked me how I found out about Encuentro. When I explained that I had come here alone she said, “Well not to worry. You’re not alone anymore.” We sipped mate, drank Quilmes, and took in the experience as it was the first time for all of us. It was the most comforting feeling, just to have people to help figure out where to be for the next event or share a refreshing beverage with during the exhaustingly hot afternoons.
The connections I made with these women aren’t long lasting. I won’t be facebook friending them anytime soon, but I do know that the bond we made within two short days will stay with me for a very long time. I was able to listen and learn about the Argentine perspective more than I could have with an American friend by my side. I still felt like an outsider,a bystander, to all that was happening around me. Until the march on Sunday night.
Hold up. So much happened between my first connections with women from Marea Popular and that final Sunday night march that I must rewind a little bit. And let you know right now that this weekend is going to be separated into two, yes TWO, posts because the impact was that grand and I have so much to say.
Here’s an exciting sneak preview of all that I encountered, thanks to the lovely Internet and people who are quicker than me at putting together videos. It will give you an idea of the women that attended and the energy of the weekend. This is the final meeting as they announce 2014’s location (Salta) amongst other exciting things. Excuse the Spanish to all my English-only speakers out there, but I don’t exactly have the time to translate it all for you. Use your imagination?