Well, just for a little while. And then return.
Today, I was cat-called on my way to work. Well, not just today—almost every day I walk by myself. It takes me about an hour to go from my house to my office. I walk down an unpaved hill with bits of torn grass, wait for the bus that is always late by ten minutes, hand 10 cents worth of money to the driver who sometimes asks me for more, hold on tight to the seat grips as myself and fifty others crowd in a bus meant for twenty people, and get out of the bus to walk another fifteen minutes through the bustling streets of Managua, Nicaragua to the office.
On this walk—filled with hot humidity, street dogs, and honking horns—I have an opportunity for daily reflection. It’s quite nice. I can look around and see that the organization I work for, AIESEC in Nicaragua—whose purpose is to develop youth leadership in the country—has an immense demand for a community impact.
Note: For what I am about to say, please do not judge Nicaraguan culture or the people in it. Unless you are from here or have lived here for some time, I suggest you simply listen, reflect, and be inspired.
I walk over a bridge on this walk. Under the bridge is pavement, which you can barely see due to small and large pieces of trash pileup. Sometimes you can smell old garbage that has been sitting there for too long. But always atop this five foot wide bridge are groups of men in their twenties and thirties. Men that look at me—up and down, down and up—and shout out words about me, me and my body.
No. I do not think is right. In any part of the world it is grossly wrong for a man to look at a woman as a sexualized object. However, this is not my battle to have, and I won’t spend more time discussing gender equality in a country I am not from.
What this year working as a national executive for a youth leadership organization has taught me is that the biggest impact I can make is on the people here who will go on to influence their country. What this year has taught me is that before you judge, speak, or articulate complex wrongs of another culture, just listen; and then check yourself—because chances are, hypocrisy will exist.
While it is extremely uncomfortable and makes me angry every single day I must endure men’s whistles and comments about my appearance, what is even more uncomfortable and makes me even more livid is to face and question the problems going on at home. Every time now I am cat-called here, all I think about is the United States, and my people. One in five women at a college campus or university in the US has been sexually assaulted or raped. No, this is not right. And yes, this is my battle—and many following—to have.
I originally chose Nicaragua because I thought that if I went to one of the poorest countries in the Americas, I could easily make an impact. What I found is something different, and more. Nicaragua has 48% of its population living in poverty and most off of less than $1 a day; while the United States has more than half of a million people in homelessness and most without access to proper shelter. Nicaragua has undergone a violent history of wars and civil conflict between the 1920s and 1980s; while the United States has started wars or intervened in more than twenty countries since World War II(including a decade-long violent intervention in Nicaragua). Nicaragua has more than 90% of its high school students unable to pass a university entrance exam due to poor education accessibility; while the United States has almost 70% of its university students going into debt after they graduate and take almost two decades to pay off.
If you have the opportunity to become a part of a different culture, I challenge you to ask the questions that can better help you understand the uniqueness of its people. The Nicaraguans are some of the proudest and most welcoming group of people I know and US-Americans have a lot to learn from us (referring to myself, too, as a proud, new Nicaraguan) of how to have a healthy sense of national identity and welcome people from outside cultures. But more than that, there is something else we can learn from the country that is half of the size of the state of New York with a population similar to the area of Los Angeles.
When I first arrived to the country I asked young Nicaraguans, “What is the biggest problem facing your country?” Their answer added a new word to my Spanish vocabulary that does not have a direct translation to English. They said conformismo. This word means more than just conformity—it specifically means feeling complacent about the status quo and feeling like you do not have the power to change it. However, after living here and being forcibly proud to call myself a “Nica,” I challenge this problem. As both an insider and an outsider to the culture, I believe that there are leaders in this country that are changing its status quo.
In economics, Nicaragua has changed its policies for better macroeconomic stability to drop its level of extreme poverty from 40% to 8% in just the last decade. In violence, Nicaragua has made itself into a strong post-conflict country with longstanding and deep-rooted peace to earn itself the title of the safest in Central America. In gender equality, Nicaragua has been ranked sixth in the world after Scandinavian nations in terms of political empowerment, economic opportunity, and access to health for women. And this is a conformismo lesson for the United States:
You do not need to go far to make an impact and make a change—we just have to look in our own backyard. Stop fantasizing about making an impact abroad. Just go abroad. Be impacted by your experience. Listen. Reflect. Be inspired. And then dream about how you can make a positive impact on yours. And then do it.
Originally posted February 2016