I spent the month of July in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. I befriended Jana, a Peace Corps volunteer in town. Us American expats just have a way of finding each other, I suppose. When I was back down there this past week, I interviewed her about her experience thus far. This interview is so rich and full of substance. Jana will change the world for sure. I hope that by reading this, you gain a new perpspective on the world.
Name: Jana Hodgins
Location: Matagalpa, Nicaragua; from Portland, Oregon
So tell me, why did you join the Peace Corps?
Oh my gosh, a lot of reasons. There’s the total humanitarian aspect of it. I wanted to come to a country that I could help out in. There were a lot of personal reasons as well. I really want to grow as a person. I had never left the United States before. I wanted to see and understand another culture. I think that being in another culture and helping with public and global health is what I want to do as my profession and for the rest of my life. I think this is a good starting off point.
What draws you to public health?
Well I guess I wanted to be a doctor for a large portion of my life and when I got to college, I kind of realized what your day to day life would look like and the reality of it, I guess. As much as I think it would be cool to have patient care and all that, I really want to reach more people. I think it’s a pure numbers thing for me about the amount of people I could see in one day as a doctor vs. the amount of people I could affect in one day as a public health advocate.
Do you feel like we are lacking as far as healthcare on a global scale goes?
I think so. I was really shocked to see the lack of general health education. Students said on these surveys that they got a health education but then when they asked if they knew their own anatomy and the anatomy of a male or a female, they didn’t. So they said they got a sex health education and then they didn’t even know their anatomy.
So yeah, tell me about these surveys that you’re doing right now?
So I picked a focus for sexual health and violence, and youth. So I went into the public high school here in Matagalpa and did about 200 surveys, all just kind of gaging. The first page was just gaging when they had had sex, at what age and at what age their partner was, and if they used a condom, and if not, why not. And then the question on that first page also was “did you know about sexual health at this point in your life?” I got a majority of yeses. Like high majority. Like 90%. Then on the back it was true/false and there were a lot of like “I learned a lot from my friends, I learned a lot from my parents, you know like where did you learn this?” Then it was like “I know and understand the anatomy of a male and a female.” No. Or stuff like that. So that was one of the big contradictory things that they’re lacking in education. But another one that really got to me was that both men and women who said that men are naturally more powerfu, which was a true or fale, and they said that was true. Also said that it was false for women to be the victim of violence, commonly. So they said that men are more naturally powerful but that women are not commonly the victim of violence.
Which women saying that men are natually more powerful is a form of violence to me, them thinking that. It’s just a big contradictory thing and I think that’s a global problem, especially for women.
So how do you think that women are seen here in Nicaragua?
Well I along with those statistics, I did get another one that said 4 out of 10 Nicaraguan women think women are the inferior sex. So womem actually see themselves as inferior. Yeah it’s just shocking that I think women actually see themselves as inferior and it’s portrayed that way because men think that as well.
So how do you feel as a woman here from the United States? What’s the contrast that you see?
I think I get a little bit of respect. I think it’s known that I come from a different culture in my work place and in formal settings. However I think I am subject to a lot more street harassment just because I look different. A lot of people think that I don’t understand Spanish. That’s a big factor in men treating me, you know, like I’m stupid because I can’t understand what they’re saying.
Yeah, what sorts of things do you hear yelled at you?
Oh goodness, well chilita is what I get most often. Chelita guapa, chelita hermosa, preciosa, princessa. And chilita means “little white girl.” So I get that pretty frequently. Sometimes it gets a little more vulgar when they’re saying rica or … what’s the word for papaya? I can’t remeber, but rica is very vulgar in the sense that they’re saying that I’m delicious. And then the word for papaya, which I can’t remember right now, is a slang term for vagina. So they’re saying things like that at you. Lot’s of slang about female genitals and a lot of like what they would want to do kind of thing.
So how does that feel to you when you’re walking?
It’s really hard. I tried … I feel like I went through some stages of sort of like acceptance. I was ignoring it at first and then I was talking back, and now I just take measures to try and avoid hearing it in general because it’s just so frequent and so forceful. I don’t know it imacts me more than it might other people. I’m a pretty sensitive person, so it’s really hard for me to hear these things and then let it go, and then hear these things five seconds later. Even if I do let one go, the next one is … it just really grinds my gears.
So when you would confront them, what was that like? What reactions did you get? Because you would confront them in Spanish too, right?
Yes, I’ve confronted several. But I guess as an example, let me tell you what happened this morning. On my way to the rural health post, I got cat-called by this group of three young men sitting on the curb. And I turned around and said “no, I don’t like that,” which is my general, like … that’s harassment, so you’re supposed to say “I don’t like that” and you take measures if it continues. And often times, unfortunately, when I say I don’t like it, they refute. They say “well I like it!” That’s what the men said this morning. One of them said “Well that’s Nicaraguan. Welcome to Nicaragua.” He said that to me in Spanish. And after that I just kind of brushed it off and I didn’t say anything more because I was on my way to work. So on the way back down, I came back and I walked right up to them. They didn’t say anything to me … because I was walking right up to them. They were like shocked. And I was like “what’s the point of your cat-calling? Like what is the point? Like I want to know.” No answers. Nothing. Like were like staring up at me and one of them was just like “just decir adios.” Which is the normal greeting and I have no problem with. And I was like “if a girl says she doesn’t like it, there’s really no point, right? Like there’s no point at all?” And they were just staring at me. Like blank stares, just no responses. They don’t know what to do with themselves, basically. I don’t think that they can come up wkth a point, honestly. As I started walking away I was like “yeah, there’s no point.” So I started walking away and then as I started walking away, they’re again yelling like “chile, chelita..” And it was just like “seriously? I was just over there asking you!”
Yeah, so that’s really interesting! I mean it is so much a part of the culture. I don’t know.
I’ve heard several times, I think it’s an example in Nicaragua as a part of the culture. I also think street harrassment happens everywhere. And a lot of arguments I’ve heard in favor of it, by men, are that men are supposed to be, if they want to get with a woman, if they want to date a woman, if they want to be with a woman, whatever it is, they have to be the forward factor. They have to be the one stepping out. That’s what women like. I think perhaps that’s true if you’re in a coffeeshop or a bar setting, and a guy comes up to you and asks how you’re doing, if he can get you a smoothie, or whatever. That’s a forward factor that I would enjoy. I really want to make a clear distinction that street harrassment is not about obtaining a woman. I think it’s a power situation and everytime a man yells something at a woman in the streets, it takes away her personal power, in that situation, in that moment.
So now you’re just in a place where you’re trying to maintain your personal power?
Yeah and that’s what it feels like to me, and perhaps I’m going a little strongly on that opinion and that’s why it’s getting to me so much. But I want men and women alike to recognize that this is harrassment and it if they can’t even come up with a point as to why they’re doing it, why is it still a part of everyday life?
So have you talked to Nicaraguan women about this? And if so, what have they said?
I have. Before my surveys, I had to interview community leaders to kind of see where I should focus and I asked about piropos, which is the cat-calling. Most women said that they didn’t like it but I did have a few women say that it was fine. They’re fine. I had one psychologist woman say “that’s fine. They’re bonito excepto cuando esta vulgar.” Like when they’re vulgar, they’re offensive, but otherwise if you say I have nice eyes in the street, fine, whatever.
That’s really interesting. So women don’t really like it and yet …
I think some women do. Some women would rather receive a “you have a nice dress on” in the streets than not. But they do get vulgar and that’s a big point. Peace Corps gives you a lot of information when you get in-country and there was one study that said that the men thought, well … I guess the reason that it’s a part of culture I guess in the nicer sense, non-vulgar cat-calling, the men thought they needed to tell a woman she looked good because otherwise she wouldn’t know. Some of the women even said in this study “how would I know if I looked good that day if they weren’t saying anything about it?”
Oh, so your opinion of yourself is wrapped up in what a man thinks of you? What is that?
That’s like a cultural thing that probably goes back pretty deep that could change, but … so I guess what do you see your role as? I think this rightfully riles you up in a way that you want to make statements and do things about it. But yet you’re also a foreigner in the culture, so not that you can’t make change but …
No it’s really hard because I came here to learn this culture and I don’t want to strip a culture of it’s body basically. You know what it embodies and everything. I guess I see my role as far as I can see it as educating the youth. There were several campaigns, I guess, educating the youth to let them know that that’s not really an appropriate thing. I think that’s probably where the future of it lies. I definitely don’t think that I could change a man’s opinion on the street and have him stop hiroping. I’ve tried to have conversations with some of the men who frequently harrass me on the street and they’re very unwilling to change. So I think the youth is really where I’d like to target and basically in education for sexual health and violence, because I think it is a form of violence and I think it could be done differently if they still want to continute yelling at people in the street.
Well I think too, from everything I’ve heard about Nicaraguan education, they focus a lot on memorization and less on critical thinking, so when you have these conversation, I wonder if these men can even think critically?
So has there been anything else that has been particularly culture-shocking?
I think my biggest culture shock was the passed-out, drunk Nicaraguans in the street. Which is few and far between but does happen. I have seen people just sleeping. They look like they’re homeless, but they’re faced down, passed out, drunk on the street. It was the biggest culture shock to me because I’m an EMT and you’re supposed to check for a pulse and breathing. The first time I saw one I was like “is anyone going to do anything abouy this?” Were just like walking around this guy. I was told “No, don’t touch him. Don’t do anything about it.” So that was very interesting.
Because in the United States, you know …
If that were to happen in the states, you would call 911. That person would be transported off in an ambulance and have an IV in their arm rather quickly.
What’s your longtern vision for your time here?
My vision, what I’d like to see, is younger girls about the time before they start their periods, like 8 and 9, getting educated by the older girla, 16 and 17, that I’ve educated. So I educate these senior girls who educate these younger girls, who have their information changed from what they’re going tk absorb and what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. That would be sexual reproductive health and a better understanding of women, and women’s power and women’s empowerment.
What are some of the things that you just absolutely love about Nicaragua?
They’re very open people. This is my first experience out of the United States and there is just less of a personal barrier. People ask you straight up stuff that might be a little pushy or politically incorrect. There’s a lot of hugging and holding. Life if you’re sitting with your mom at coffee, it’s not uncommon to just be in an embrace. Or in the street I see mothers holding hands with their teenage and adult children. I also love that women pop their boob out to breastfeed here. There’s no blanket or coverup. It’s not seen as anything sexual like it is in the states. Here it’s 100% natural.
So what do you see after the Peace Corps?
I’m a little bit lost on that. I think that this is a good time to explore options. I have been looking at a few things. Another part of the culture that I really like is that it’s very very interdependent. You don’t need to move out of your house until you want to. People live in their houses until they’re 30 or even when you get married, your husband comes and lives in the house with you and contributes to the house. Grandma lives with you. Families live together or familes live next door to each other. I’m all about that interdependence. I’ve never appreciated my parents more. Never wanted to live with my parents more. I will be going back to my parents house and making dinner for them and cleaning up. And my grandparents are going to move to Portland so I’m hoping to stay in Portland.
What do you think needs to change most in our world?
My mom sent me an article yesterday that said “ISIS soldiers told to rape women to make them muslim.” So I think that the ideas of women being inferior need to go. We are way past that. I’m 100% equality and I don’t see it in any part of the world, so I think everyone could work on it.
Why did you choose to take the photos like you did?
The first one, the pink dress, I got from my boyfriend when he was here. When I picked it up, we were both just like it’s so Jana! I chose that one because it is so me and it’s an example of something I really shouldn’t wear here. So I got that to embody how I am, my style, how I’d like to portray myself but I can’t. I chose the black dress to be a bit more of an example. I usually wear an urban poncho over it. I put headphones and a hat with that one because walking down the street I often use headphones to avoid hearing piropos. If I can’t hear them still their eyes … their eyes are just hungry. They look you up and down, they lick their lips. It’s also offensive, so I keep my head low and try to avoid seeing and hearing those things on a day where I just don’t want to do that. The last one, the pink one, is a dress from my host sister. She got it for me for my birthday. It’s a little rischae. It has that backless part but with a sweater it’s not so bad. It’s a little bit long. I put the boxing wraps in that photo because I often use my boxing wraps and leave them on after practice and walk home in them as a way to kind of deter. I don’t know if it works, but it seems to work.
How does that make you feel? Not being able to wear what you want to wear sometimes?
Oh my gosh so hard. It’s weird because I planned on it. When I was packing I brought all these clothes … I just changed my style. I didn’t bring the things that I really like to wear. And then I was really saddened because I was with Peace Corps for like a whole week at this retreat and everyones wearing like their swimsuits and dresses, and I was just like I didn’t bring anything like that at all. It’s hard recognizing that I can’t really wear my style. I have dreams about picking out outfits at home. Like stuff I would be wearing at home.