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Chabela sits across from me with a nearly finished cigarette pursed between her wrinkled lips. As she watches me, I pour myself a cup of coffee and butter the one slice of white sandwich bread I’m allowed to consume each morning. My head is foggy with sleep so I gulp the coffee, not caring that it sears my tongue. My toast tastes like ash and empty calories. The staticky TV on the counter is already blaring, and little black numbers at the bottom of the screen read 7:30 a.m. I have precisely 30 seconds to snap into consciousness before the peace of morning will be shattered. I chug the remaining coffee. “Buenos dias,” she says, a tentacle of smoke wafting out with the words. It has begun.
Morning discussions at Chabela’s are always controversial. They get my blood boiling before the sun has risen. Topics include gay marriage, divorce, contraception, and abortion rights. A retired professor of Catholicism, she flings her opinions at me in rapid fire Spanish. Simply nodding my head and muttering “si” is not acceptable; she says she can see it in my eyes, mis ojos, when I don’t understand. I have the choice to either agree in a few simple words, or summon my internal Google Translate and come up with a counter argument. I want to scream how I disagree, but the words stick in my throat.
Chabela’s political stance is alien to me. I grew up surrounded by liberalism and free-thinkers. After attending a Waldorf school for 11 years, I have an academic foundation that is grounded in alternative, project-based learning. The pedagogy was to inquire for understanding, not memorize facts just to pass a test. Transitioning to an urban, public school after eighth grade, I was fortunate to discover a community that celebrates individuality, where shopping at secondhand stores and wearing my mom’s Levis is cool. I am a product of my Portland environment. I never questioned my empowerment as a woman. Gender wasn’t seen as a limitation. But here in this foreign kitchen, I see a different reality.
Something within me dislodges. “Chabela, my parents are getting divorced,” I say. “I’m happy without a novio. I don’t need to look for a husband.” Tears begin to form. I’m working so hard to find the words in her language. For a miraculous moment she’s silent. Little did she know, I too am a woman with a voice. Her gaze shifts to the TV. There a mostly naked dancer is performing on a news show. Her skin is a fake orange and her plastic surgery glaring. I know Chabela’s itching to objectify her, judging whether she’s flaca or gorda (thin or fat) as usual. However, I’m out of my chair and into the next room before she can open her mouth.
Interacting with Chabela inspired me to pursue activism. I don’t resent her; she is a product of her environment. I appreciate hearing her beliefs because they drove me to research womanhood. I learned about Guadalupe Vasquez, who was sent to prison for having a miscarriage in El Salvador, and about the Peruvian 10 year old denied abortion after incest-rape. For years adults have advised me to “find my passion.” The fiery sensation I experienced from learning about women’s rights in Latin America was passion.
One week into my Argentina trip, I was already planning my return to South America. I decided to increase my class load for my upcoming senior year and graduate a semester early. Hours were spent typing emails to International Planned Parenthood. I found health centers and women’s shelters in Chile and Peru where I could work in the spring. As a young woman born into a culture that allowed me to have a voice, I’ve discovered that it’s my social responsibility to empower my global sisters. Caring about injustices is not enough. With intercultural knowledge comes the duty to act.