A different kind of feria report
“Here you go, gorgeous!”
This is what my casero (the man I buy veggies from at the Saturday and Sunday market) says to me.
He then turns to the 70-something woman beside me and says, “That will be two dollars, beautiful.”
I have been taught and re-taught what it means to be called pretty. First it was desirable, a way to talk about a baby in a carriage, a toddler in a poufy dress, an awkward preteen with hair that refused to stay anywhere, put or non-put, but who still had a sparkle in her eye. Later I was older, and pretty was what people said to a woman if they wanted something from her. For her to like them, for her to accept an invitation to dinner, to drinks.
And then pretty turned hateful. It was said to women to belittle us. To say that the rest of us wasn’t good enough (such a pretty face), or to categorize women into worthwhile or worthless. Tirades like Katie Makkai’s (which is awesome, thought-provoking, resonating and NSFW), told me to reject pretty. It is a word foisted upon me, not big enough to encompass who I am, a fiction sold to make women feel inadequate and strive to be something unnatural.
And then I go to the feria, the fresh market where I live, in Santiago Chile, some 5,000 miles from my family’s original landing spot in the Americas, migrating west from Poland, Russia and England, before I took the show further south.
Que buscas, linda? (What are you looking for, beautiful?)
Hola preciosa, que vas a llevar? (Hey precious, what are you going to buy?)
Mi reina, tengo tomates a cuatrocientos. (My queen, the tomatoes cost 400 pesos (80 cents a kilo).)
And I find I have to rethink pretty again. This is the feria, in Barrio Brasil, a kilometer bike ride from my house in República, downtown Santiago. It is a Titanic life-boat population, mainly women and children, though not particularly upper crust. I have unwashed hair tied into a sloppy ponytail, not in a purposeful, tendrilly way, just grab and go. I’m wearing jeans, and one too-loose jean leg is rolled up so it won’t catch in my bike chain, and this shows my stripy sock, and I’m wearing a boxy turquoise t-shirt I got free from a bike tour I reviewed in Los Angeles last week. And in beauty-conscious, eyelash curling, makeup-wearing Chile, this is nearly unforgiveable, the equivalent of Crocks and pajama pants at the mall.
Yet I’m pretty. And so is the small, grey-haired, woman next to me, her chauchera (coin purse) in hand, and the woman after her, with a kid sitting on the canvas bottom of the cart she pulls behind her. And the pregnant woman who tastes some honeydew a vendor is selling and then picks one to buy. We are all pretty.
And it rushes through my mind, in rapid succession, like a light flicked on and off.
Boo, you may not call me pretty. I am not allowed to enjoy being called pretty.
Pretty is used to encasillarme (limit me, literally “put me in a box”), to diminish my accomplishments, to reduce me to dateable or not dateable. To convince me to buy fruit and vegetables that will wilt before I have a chance to finish them, because I am only one person, and at these prices, it’s hard not to buy too much.
The caseros call us pretty, my queen, beautiful, precious, because it’s good for business. This is a machista (which is different from sexist in that it involves complicity, in that women participate, too) society, and men calling women pretty is part of it. And women enjoying it (or pretending to) is another.
And then I think about how in an egalitarian society, everyone can and does do everything. And that I don’t live in an egalitarian society, and that is troubling in a million ways, with women’s rights being a small, scoff-worthy smidgen of the conversation. And this is capital W- wrong, but it also makes my role here much clearer. It means that when a new friend offers to walk me to my door because he is a man and I am a woman, he is saying, please, just for a second, let me be a knight. And I am saying, ok. Just for this one second, and then I open the door to my apartment, independent and completely capable of walking home alone, but also capable of letting someone “help,” if only for the time it takes to get to where I live.
One of the roles many women have in Chile (as in many places), is cooking. Your mother (if you are Chilean) makes the best humitas, charquicán, cazuela and leche asada you have ever eaten. She goes to the feria, and she buys food to chop, slice, cut, sautée, simmer, fry, boil and serve. Or maybe it’s your grandmother, or your aunt who goes to the feria. Whichever woman it is, she will be called pretty while she is there. Friends of mine (men and women) call their mothers to get the right proportions of corn to squash to beans for porotos granados, and this resonates with me, because I call my mother (or sister) on the phone, thousands of miles away, to find out how many tablespoons of ice water to put in the pie crust dough, or what the purpose of seltzer is in the matzoh balls.
It’s not that men can’t cook (my father was superb in the kitchen), it’s just that in many places, and especially here, women take care of feeding people. And this is the dynamic we’re part of when we go to the feria and when they call us “linda.”
There are so many things about how the Spanish language works that ruffle my fur. Women alone get their own adjective, but when mixed with men, they/we disappear (only women-ellas son altas, only men- ellos son altos, men and women, ellos son altos, as if the women didn’t exist in the sentence at all). My famous example of my gynecologist asking me “when I took ill” to mean when I had my first period (cuándo te enfermaste?). The fact that I can’t just go out with “a friend,” I have to go out with a “female friend” or “male friend,” as if this bit, the person’s gender must be known, or the sentence may as well not be said. And if it’s a mixed group of friends, they are all magically male, mis amigos.
I have thought about the ways in which Spanish keeps women apart, or maybe down, or maybe just apart, and for a long time, the not-really-flirty piropos (flirtatious comments) at the market came to me aggressive and smarmy, equal to the ones from strangers who saw me running in the park and hissed preciosa in my direction. I still believe that random strangers should keep their mouths shut regarding my appearance because hey, who asked you, I am trying to be alone here, and what makes you think I care? But I also have come to think about the piropos of the fruit and vegetable vendors as meaning something more than “you’re cute.”
What I take from the men at the feria saying that the mothers, aunts, grandmothers, godmothers, sisters, daughters and I are pretty is the following: It means, “I am happy you are here, and buying fresh fruit and vegetables for yourself and whomever shares space with you.” or ” I am glad that the weather is nice, and that you have a smile on your face, and that you didn’t knock anything over with your bike and panniers (in my case).” It means “I remember you from last week, and the week before” or “I haven’t seen you in a while.” It’s shorthand for, “Nice day, isn’t it,” and “Please come again.”
I take it to mean, this shopping, this waking up early, this talking to me about what I’m selling, and telling me it looks delicious, this treating me like I’m a person too, and not just a faceless entity whose early-rising, hard-working hands move the food from field to table, this iteration of you, this facet of you, I find lovely.
And I find that despite many years of teachings that instruct that I should reject the word pretty, I can’t take umbrage with that, because (when I let myself,) I find myself lovely, too.
And I’m not undoing 200 years (or more) of feminism by not screwing up my face and being mean to someone (like my friend who walked me home the other day) who was doing something to be nice.
And the man from whom I bought cucumbers, spinach and cilantro placed it all in my cloth bag so as not to sully the stunning country that I live in, and told me I was beautiful, and the woman beside me gorgeous. I turned to her and said, “I guess we all wake up beautiful on Saturdays.” And she laughed.
And the man smiled, and said, “exquisite. And on Sundays, too.”
p.s. This is absolutely not an invitation to talk about whether or not you find me pretty. I prefer it when you talk about me behind my back. Really.
I wondered the same thing about the he/she words (I know there is a technical word for them) in Portuguese. Women also disappear in mixed groups there. Though German, interestingly enough, uses the word ‘man’ as being unisex (Mann/Frau is gender specific), and there are no genders to groups – they seem to just be sexless.
And that is about the most intelligent thing I can add. Because you are right, the feminist stuff can be complicated, but it shouldn’t mean than something said with the genuine intent of making a person feel good (or buy vegetables) should always be scooped up in that same feminist net.
Thanks Richard, you are among the most self-realized, equality-seeking, non-judgey people I know, and I’m so glad you got what I was trying to say. Complicated, like feelings themselves.
Hope German is treating you well. Have you thought about my suggestion to spend the day in Afrikaans? I am still thinking about trying to spend my day in English. It would be so hard!
I loved this line: “And I’m not undoing 200 years (or more) of feminism by not screwing up my face and being mean to someone (like my friend who walked me home the other day) who was doing something to be nice.”
I assumed that moving away from Chile would mean leaving the piropos behind, but here in NC they are just different. Instead of “pretty” at the feria, I get “sweetie” at the gas station when I ask if they have a rest room, or “honey” at the post office when I go pick up a package. And it’s really hard to be indignant about it because at the end of the day, it’s the intentions that matter. And I’d rather go about my life being positive about my daily interactions than getting mad every time the checkout guy at the Food Lion calls me “honey”.
I agree with Abby and with your ultimate conclusion, Eileen. It’s a way of life, not meaning to disparage nor put anyone down. And it’s not only men. Women also call us “linda,” “mi amor,” “mi niña,” etc. just as they call you “Honey” or “Sweetie” in the southern USA. I much prefer hearing, “¡Mi reina!” over dealing with some grumpy sourpuss who is also trying to sell me tomatoes.
De pronto me acordé de ese viejo chiste chileno:
– En este país, el hombre siempre tiene la última palabra… “Si, mi amor…”
El español es sin duda un leguaje de una socidad machista, pero en Chile el machismo es incentivado y enseñado or las madres… lo que hace al final a este país un matriarcado, lleno de hombres mamones que hacen como que mandan en la casa, pero disfrutan siendo el mamón, el “hijo de mamá”..
would say that this is a touchy subject. As somebody once told me, everybody is normal where I come from but here everybody is crazy.
Cultural differences are funny, entertaining and amazing. There are always things that are difficult to understand and things that seem out of place, and of course things that feel like at home.
I remember my first trip with my girlfriend. We decided to spend a week in Italy and since I speak a little bit of italian (and italian is just fancy spanish with a twist :-P), we ended up out of the touristy areas. Since we were alternating who paid what, at some point my gf had to pay the bill at the restaurant. So I asked for the bill (il conto per favore), and the waiter brought the bill to the table. His mouth dropped half a meter when I did nothing and my gf flashed her card to pay the bill. The guy looked at me like if I should be ashamed of myself for letting my lady pay. After a few seconds, and seeing that I had no problems with it, he just took the card and proceeded. Or when we were buying some groceries at a store and the lady gave me all the bags to me and added: “logicamente le portai tu” which roughly translates to “logically it is you who will carry them”.
It is also interesting here in Norway when I open the door for a woman. I can’t help it, it is something that has been engrained into my brain since I was a child. But here in Scandinavia, the land of “liberated women”, it is looked as if you had offended somebody. Not to mention trying to give your sit on the bus to an old lady. That is, literally, asking for troubles.
For me those things are common and I don’t get it. Not to mention that during my first week on Norway, I said to the receptionist at work that her dress was pretty. Little did I know that you are not supposed to make such comments here otherwise you will be considered sexist.
But again, this is not my country nor my culture so I’m allowed to be eccentric to a certain extent 🙂
Carlos, I have to comment again because of your note. Those “common courtesies” that you mentioned, such as giving up a seat on the bus or holding open a door are precious and scarce. And becoming more and more scarce for the very reasons you cite. We have “liberated” ourselves out of even being able to accept a compliment. God forbid we should appear “helpless” by allowing someone to open a door for us. It makes me sad to think that, soon, there will be very little courteous behavior left. Am I capable of standing up on a bus? Yes. Am I capable of opening a door? Yes. But in a few years, I might not be. I can only hope that, by then, there will still be a few courteous people left on the planet.
You have captured so well that conflict and nuance that I often feel about not only this particularity of life in Chile but also feminism and life as a women in general. Dare I call your prose beautiful? 🙂
You may, Emily. Thanks!
An interesting article. It brings up many thoughts about the on-going evolution of languages. I once had a Spanish teacher that was a linguist. One of his thoughts on language was that there are no incorrect ways of saying something as long as whoever you were talking to understood you, which is the purpose of language. In this case of this vendor it is not only acceptable, but preferable to the more mundane chatter that usually accompanies a sale in most stores. As you point out It is more engaging; muy amable; more likely to foster friendship and customers.
Besides, as I understand the terms of engagement when it comes to the sexes, pretty is a complement to females and handsome the same for males. Of course this is not a strict rule, and they may be used for whichever sex you chose. As always, no compliment is necessary. Should this custom be changed? It has worked for very long time. The use of these adjectives does reinforce and acknowledge the difference between male and female while at the same time paying homage to that distinction. A compliment makes us feel good and we all deserve to feel good about ourselves.
Like most, I have often had some insightful moments into the culture by the nuances of the language. They all have their absurd ways to save things as well as their succinct phrases. I enjoy them. Sometimes I mix them unintentionally, much to the consternation of the person that is not aware of the meaning of my metaphor mixing.
On the subject of the parts of a language that may grate on our carefully learned and cultivated sensibilities, I take them for what they are: a product of a society that is different from the one I know by virtue of how it evolved. This is, to me, a good reason for going to another place and interacting with the people. What a boring world if we all spoke the same language, thought the same way, and strived to modify our thoughts to never offended anyone (a form of being less than honest). If it were to occur (where we all speak the same language with total political correctness), we could all sit around and wonder at the sameness of life: how boring; how pointless; how cold and lifeless. A “One World Language with forced political correctness?” – not for me.
For me, it is the differences that make life interesting. I do not condone ‘bad’ behavior, but try not to perceive ugliness where there is beauty. Thank you for the article.
Thanks for your extensive comment Paul, and welcome aboard. I’m not sure if we’ve interacted before. I do agree that in many instances, language has developed that way (and we weren’t here to watch it), but sometimes there is room for change as well. I give the example of the Spanish expressions related to menstruation and birth, which rely on the word “enfermarse” and “mejorarse.” As these are natural processes, I don’t see the use in using negative connotations to refer to them (get sick and get better, for English-only followers), and think it is harmful to people (not surprisingly) women to continue to do so. When asked by my (female) gynecologist when “I got sick for the first time,” I took her to task (nicely), and said, I will tell you when I had my first period, but I was not sick then, nor am I now. And she answered “en realidad,” meaning, as you know, “that’s true.”
It’s a tricky path, and I’m open to more discussion on it, and glad you popped in. I will say that every interaction depends on the people participating in it, and if I for some reason have an (legal example of fragility) “eggshell skull” and get hit in the head (or sensitivity about a certain subject, and it is thrown in my face), then it may not be the other person’s fault if I am offended. But if they should have expectations that their comment might be taken badly, or lead to negativity, then they should question themselves as well. And I will forever be a product of where I was born, which asks for more egalitarian language.
And that’s all for me for now, amig@s.
I found your blog I think through an expat site about chile – I moved here last week after studying here and loving it. In a group of my friends from the us I would never get any comments, now alone in more residential neighborhoods, I hear whistles, cat calls, que linda, hermosa, you name it. Half of me gets very frustrated with this but sometimes they say “blanca linda” or something to do with the fact that I have naturally blonde hair and I must stand out in some other way. No one mentions my nationality in a negative way, like I’ve experienced with immigrants in the US, they seem to welcome me by calling me beautiful or pretty. Today, I had a man translate all his friends comments to me, just to make sure I understood.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the comments on the street but I feel like the man selling fruit, it feels like it shouldn’t be rejected as putting women in a box. I feel the same way when someone makes a comment about me + my nationality. It’s a good thing, they seem to welcome me.
Hi Samantha, yeah it’s kind of “relative” (if you look at a more recent post, you’ll see the humor there) whether it’s pesky or sweet or what. I have been here for nine years, and after a while it’s like “really?” Glad it’s not bugging you too much, and hat’s off for living here with blonde hair. I don’t know if I’d be brave enough!