Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

Archive for the ‘Latin America’ tag

On the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death, brief thoughts on Cuba and the US American Left

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I wrote this yesterday, as the world learned of Fidel Castro’s death, on my phone as a Facebook post. Today, with both kids napping, I finally have a moment to make it into a blog post.


In the upper left, my traveling companions and friends, Sandra and Clare. On the right and bottom, the gregarious and adventurous children we met in La Sierra Maestra.

Fidel Castro’s death comes at a time when the US American left-of-center is asking a lot of the questions about unity vs. diversity of cause that my friends Clare and Sandra and I were asking when we spent 3 weeks in Cuba in the summer of 2005. (This was Clare’s return to Cuba after having studied abroad there 2002 – 2003, the first trip there for me and Sandra).

We wrestled with many questions that trip, as we talked politics and history with our friends and hosts throughout the island (including La Sierra Maestra, where the revolution was fought and where I took the photos above) and as we poured through essays on the Bautista dictatorship and US Imperialism, La Revolución, the literacy brigades (a host family even taught us the song of the brigades — “alfabetizar, alfabetizar, venceremos!”), the healthcare system, public transportation, and more. We were so impressed by the egalitarianism and base level of health: everyone had food, shelter, potable water, healthcare, mental healthcare, education, and jobs. No children died of vaccine-preventable diseases or diahrrea. There was not much crime. Women and men were camaradas. The only people with a whole lot of extra stuff were those with family in the US sending them Playstations and dollars they could use to get “Divisa,” the tourist money. We were very impressed by the government support for artists and the arts, the celebration of cultural diversity, and the revolution’s efforts to increase gender equality.

And yet, from what we could gather, all of these reforms were done because of a “unity” that required repression of diverse viewpoints and a repression of the voices of those who were still not enjoying full equality. Race equity was better there than in the US, but most top government posts were filled by light-skinned Cubans, and the largest houses seemed to be all occupied by lighter-skinned Cubans as well. The government’s support for the rise of women in the professional world was not accompanied by as strong of a push for men to take up an equivalent share of the housework and childcare duties, or significantly reform sexist treatment of women. (Related to this, we experienced sexual harassment in the big cities, but never in the small towns.) Universal healthcare was great, but the standard approach to childbirth left much to be desired, from my perspective as a proponent of the empowering midwifery model of care. With few opportunities for advancement in certain kinds of jobs, the quality of effort and innovation seemed to be compromised. The limits on seafood for Cubans, which in effect meant that most of the time only tourists could eat the amazing lobsters and shrimp that were abundant in their oceans, grated on us (so we bought some lobsters from a fisherman we literally met while in the ocean, and cooked them with our friends in La Habana). In fact, there were a lot of systems that favored tourists at the expense of Cubans, and in one experience we had, used race informally as a marker of who to exclude. And of course, the imprisonment of gays and political dissidents, the government control of press, and the fact that Fidel still hadn’t ceded power was super messed up.

We had rich political conversations with many Cubans of all racial backgrounds and different professions and ages. Their perspectives were often a complicated mixture of admiration for and disappointment with their system and their leadership. Clare and Sandra and I asked ourselves a lot of questions about whether the US American Left would be more successful if we could concentrate on fewer issues and all gather behind a charismatic leader and an economic and egalitarian vision like Cuba had done. We wondered if each person concentrating on separate causes divided us too much to be able to compete with the hyper-organized and controlled Right. But we couldn’t reconcile the Cuban “unity” approach with the intersectional, anti-racist, feminist, pro-LGBTQ, freedom-loving vision we had for our future. We really couldn’t.

I have been thinking about those questions a lot in the last few weeks as I hear Dems saying we lost for lack of focus on a singular economic vision that Blue Collar whites in the middle of America could get behind, that we lost because our voices and causes were too diverse. I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I would hope that we could learn from Cuba how to gather behind a bright and beautiful idea, but avoid the repression of voices that Fidel propagated, which left them a more hollow version of that vision.

Ciao, Fidel. A complicated legacy you left.


Billboards are used for public health and social messaging. This one says “Ideas are more powerful than nuclear arms.”


Our friends Beatriz and Denis, who we met at a party in the Verbenal neighborhood of La Habana. I am still in touch with Denis, 11 years later.


Children I met in La Vieja Habana while waiting for food — a cardboard plate of congrí with pork and green beans sold from a residential window.



One of my journal entries from Santiago de Cuba, on the Eastern end of the island



Enjoying lobster and congrí with Denis and his family in La Habana Vieja

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November 27th, 2016 at 1:31 pm

Día de muertos

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I am called to reflect, with gratitude and love, on my first experience of Day of the Dead a decade ago. I am called to share how I have seen it celebrated in Oaxaca, México, where the traditional is still very much alive, and I am called to thank those who introduced me to this tradition and those who have shared it with me in the years since.


November 1st, 2012

10 years ago today, I woke up in the small, cement floor home that my friend Cynthia Caballero Rojas shared with her mother, Serbia Rojas, in Southwest Oaxaca City, México. We made breakfast to feed ourselves and to offer fresh food and chocolate to the altar that we had spent the last two days preparing for our muertos (our dead).

I’ve always regretted not taking a photo of that altar, because in all these years it is by far the most beautiful one I have helped build. It was made tall by the two milpas (corn stalks) that Cynthia had lashed together to form an archway, and which we had then stuffed full of cempasúchil (marigold) and cresto de gallo (cock’s comb) flowers. From the apex of the arch, Cynthia hung an apple. The altar was covered in photos and candles, fruits and nuts, marshmallows–because they were her brother’s favorite food–hot chocolate, beer bottles, and tamales de mole negro that we had wrapped in banana leaves under the expert guidance of Serbia and cooked over a fire in a hug pot in the dirt floor kitchen yard. On the ground we had made a tapete (floor mosaic) of flower petals around the stone bowl in which we burned copal. Alongside Cynthia and Serbia’s loved ones I placed my wallet photo of Stevie, my high school best friend who had killed himself two years prior, and a little piece of paper on which I had written “ti voglio bene.”  For the first time since his death, I had found a way to pay attention to and honor this young friend I had lost in a way that was both solemn and joyful, and that was culturally-supported and in community. I was gifted this by Cynthia and her mom, who knew I needed it, and by the people of Oaxaca who have held to their indigenous traditions and could therefore teach their children and the world to do this.

Cynthia outside the Mercado Central de Abastos as we buy food and altar ingredients

Of course, the gift was not simply the altar and my own relationship with my muerto, but seeing how this relationship with our loved ones and ancestors is celebrated on a community level. The night before, our Oaxacan friends Cynthia, Claudia, and Gil had taken me and another exchange student, Katherine, to the village of Xoxocotlán where the people spend the entire night of October 31st in their cemetery, holding vigil and sharing food and music with their muertos. The 31st, Gil explained, is the day in which the dead are called back with music and good smells, the day in which they first get the message to return. For this reason, many communities have musical events in the street on the 31st, and some, like the people of Xoxocotlán, stay up all night.

On the morning of the 1st, Cynthia explained in the morning, we welcome back the angelitos, the spirits of children who have passed away. With this in mind, Cynthia, Serbia, and I brought tamales over to the neighbor’s house and paid her angelitos a visit. Serbia was speaking animatedly to the neighbor when all of a sudden she noticed the neighbor had placed a petate (a woven grass rug) under the altar. Serbia began to cry: “Se me olvidó poner un petate bajo nuestro altar. Dónde se van a sentar los angelitos?” (“I forgot to put a petate under our altar. Where are the child angels going to sit?”) It was clear to me then how real this was. These altars and these visits to the cemetery were not simply remembrance or ritual; they were an earnest invitation to those who were gone.

Cynthia and I walked to the cemetery to visit her father’s grave, and back through neighborhoods whose streets were filled with comparsas: men dancing to brass instruments in full costume. Some were dressed as Vicente Fox or George Bush with plastic masks and suits. A good number of men wore various kinds of sexy woman outfits, replete with very tall heels (and they sure could dance in those heels). Inviting back the dead by offering them a raucous good time.

The next day, November 2nd, the primary day celebrated as día de muertos, the five of us set off to see how the day was celebrated in the neighboring pueblos of Teotitlán and Tlacolula.

Claudia, Feyley Gildardo, Katherine, Cynthia, and me in Teotitlán when we were all about 20 - 21 years old. These are the friends to whom I will be eternally grateful for sharing the tradition of día de los muertos, and for sharing so deeply about culture, art, politics, language, and so much more.

After a day of bus rides, churches, copal, dirt streets, and eating fruit and tortillas bought in the markets, we made our way through the Tlacolula cemetary at dusk and then another in the dark. It was there in the crowded cemetery, its darkness illuminated by so many flickering candles, that Gil explained to us the theme across many places in the Northern hemisphere.  At this time of year, the veil between life and death is thinner. As the earth dies for winter, food–life–is harvested from the earth. Life and death meet, cross paths, co-exist. It is for this reason that the pre-Christian Europeans celebrated Samhain, when spirits would come back to visit (the origin for trick or treating), that the Catholics worldwide celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, that the Aztecs have the mythology of Quetzalcoatl going into the mountain for the winter at this time of year, and why Mexicans sit at their altares to chat with their ancestors as they come back to visit. (Indeed, Gil told me a year or two later that the year after his abuelita died, he was crying as he built her altar, so she came back and scolded him for crying and told him to appreciate her visit.)

Cemetary in the village of Tlacolula. Families clean graves; adorn them with cempasúchil, cresto de gallo, alcatraz, and other flowers; and provide fresh water, nuts, fruits, candles, and other nice things.

As we arrived back in Oaxaca City, we came upon a group gathered on the stone plaza outside of a church built a few centuries before. There was an altar built over the ground, and in front of it, a tapete made of beans, flowers, corn, and other plant materials in the shape of a woman.  The scene was lit by candles and accompanied with a man’s soft playing of the guitar. People wrote messages into the paper laid over the stone walls of the church. Pamphlets were distributed that explained the messages and explained the woman in the tapete: this altar was dedicated to women lost to gender violence, including domestic violence homicides, human trafficking, and the hundreds of rapes and disappearances in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border. The group organizing this was La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, who would eventually become the organization on whom I based my undergraduate thesis research. They represented the somber side of this day, but did so in a way that was beautiful, congruent with the tradition, and that brought community together.


Me in front of my home altar in 2004. Unfortunately, Bush got re-elected the night of Nov 2nd that year, so it ruined the día de muertos environment.

A year later, back at Mount Holyoke College, I called on my Oaxacan friends for help explaining día de muertos to my friends at school, who had agreed to bring their muertos and build an altar with me. For the first time, I was able to gift–to some small degree–what had been so kindly shared with me. I have tried every year since to celebrate by building my own altar at home (which always includes salmon, Stephen’s favorite food), and by sharing altars and celebrations with others, making a space for our muertos and our memories and our love and to be together. As a 3rd grade teacher, we had a día de muertos celebration in the classroom and parents came for a potluck and art. In grad school, as an effort of the Latina/o Social Work Coalition, we built an altar in the common area for women killed in Ciudad Juárez. Last year, Oscar and I invited friends over to eat and make art and build things for the altar. Among other things, the event served as a way to honor a baby lost from our community and lost to our friends, little Seketl’e, who you can see in our altar this year.

Minimalist home altar this year, due to being sick and busy. We are missing a few departed dear ones and many of the decorations, and I believe it's the first time I've included dogs in an altar (Oscar's idea). But it is our little altar, and it feels sacred nonetheless.

One of my most significant experience of día de los muertos since returning from México was in 2010, when I worked with artists Dena Drake and Melanie Lombard to create an altar at the Out North exhibit dedicated to the topic of suicide in Alaska. The altar attempted to honor those who we’ve lost and to use art and metaphor to explore the feelings that might lead someone to suicide, alerting friends and family to what they could do to help prevent suicides in their communities.

Día de los muertos 2010: Suicide in Alaska altarback of día de muertos altar

What I’ve found is that there is no way that I will have here an experience like that I had in 2002 in Oaxaca. But I can use each día de muertos, each Samhain, each time in which the veil between life and death is thinner, to reflect on and give great love to those who I have lost and to share the space so others can do that as well.

This year, we add la abuelita Betulia to our altar. This year, I honor my grandmother Pat, la abuelita Betulia, my great-grandmother Ann, my grandma Dianne, baby Seketl’e, and my friends Stevie, Anthony, Lorenzo, and Sig. (Yes, and the dogs Ruby and Nena too.)

If you are in the Anchorage area and looking for a way to celebrate, Out North is hosting the 8th Annual Día de Muertos celebration and exhibition of altars:

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November 2nd, 2012 at 9:51 am

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Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue

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I took this photo in 2002 in the market of Juchitan, Oaxaca.

I took this photo in 2002 in the Zócalo of Oaxaca City. I spent a lot of time with these sisters who sold scarves in the streets and didn't attend school.

I was reminded recently of why I should share my undergraduate thesis. Janie, the intern at the Alaska Native Epidemiology Center, where I work, found online a Master’s Thesis about the very little researched topic of Iñupiaq women’s pregnancy and birthing beliefs and experience. This was very useful for the work we were doing. I felt  grateful that this young student researcher shared his work publicly online. I told Janie about my student research and thesis, and she suggested I share it too. So here it is.

Despite having written this thesis 8 years ago and it containing some errors, and perhaps there being moments of naïeveté in my theory, I decided I should make it available because it is useful. It is original research that has not been published anywhere else, as far as I know. It brings together original research with feminists in Oaxaca and global human rights theory to make an argument about the need for dialogue about justice and gender justice across cultures. It makes an argument that I still stand strongly by and practice in my daily life and work, in ways beyond what I would have imagined when I wrote this as a 21-year-old.

This is my honor’s thesis from my senior year of college at Mount Holyoke College (2004), based on interviews I had conducted in the summer of 2003 in Oaxaca, México and a lot of immersion in history, feminist theory, sociology, political discourse, etc. Unfortunately, I have lost the cover page, which had a wood block print I made of downtown Oaxaca City, and I’ve lost the table of contents.

So, to give you a brief preview:

The introduction explains how I came to this topic and why it matters, and the theories behind it. It introduces why I think we need transcultural feminist dialogue in order to arrive at globally-valid concepts of justice and human rights.

The 1st chapter provides a history of feminism in México and its ties to other social justice movements there.

The 2nd chapter covers what I learned from the feminists at La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos, a feminist organization based in Oaxaca City. (Oaxaca City is the capital city of the state in México that has more ethnic diversity, in terms of indigenous groups, than any other state in the country.) This chapter discusses the organization’s work, how each woman became a feminist, how each woman conceives of the concept of justice,  and how that translates into the feminist work she does.

The 3rd chapter uses the themes about feminism, gender justice, and justice that the women from La Casa de la Mujer brought up to make the argument that feminism arises organically out of everywhere. Because feminism arises out of different environments, it is necessarily different across cultures, countries, etc. At the same time, there is an “hilo conductor,” that is, a wire that connects all feminisms everywhere. This hilo conductor is the idea that we should be able to live lives with dignity and free of violence. Because feminism is both universal and grounded in the local, we need democratic, equitable, transcultural feminist dialogue in order to establish what about gender justice–and justice in general–is universal and what isn’t. That way, we can create human rights standards that people all over can buy into and feel a part of.

I sent this thesis to La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos in 2004. When I visited in 2005, they were almost done translating it into Spanish, so I got to assist with some of the translation.  I have not returned to Oaxaca since, but when I do, I hope to find that is has been useful. And I hope that is is useful for you. If you do use it, here is a suggested citation (although when I wrote it, my last name was Norton-Cruz…):

Avellaneda-Cruz, Laura. (2004). Toward Global Justice: La Casa de la Mujer Rosario Castellanos and Transcultural Feminist Dialogue. Undergraduate Thesis, Mount Holyoke College. Retrieved online at author’s website:

Thesis_Global_Feminism_Oaxaca_2004_L. Avellaneda-Cruz_p

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June 3rd, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Things I Learned in Colombia: a List

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Partly from guilt but primarily from curiosity, I can’t travel without needing to learn about the places I go and learn from them. And since my learning is never as solid when it’s only bumping around in my head without being organized onto paper (or the blogosphere, as it were), I have felt some of that guilt creep in. I spent months this fall in Colombia with Oscar, living with his grandparents and getting to know his country and family, and I have not yet organized my thoughts into writing longer than my photo captions on Flickr. It is time to do so, but in the simplest format I can, in order to make the task less intimidating for myself: So here’s a list!

***But before reading it, I should tell you that I don’t think I or my culture or family or country or state or city are above the things I observed in Colombia. Many of the phenomena I observed there are similar to things that happen back home, and I try to relate them as much as possible. I also don’t think I am an expert, by any means. Some things I learned, but most things provoked questions about what’s left to learn***

Things I learned in Colombia (in no particular order):

1.) How to cook creatively with available ingredients

El Jardiñero

The challenge of not having a refrigerator and the blessing of having a large garden, tended to lovingly by Oscar’s abuelitos, pushed us to be more creative and resourceful than usual about what to cook (or me anyway; I think on the road Oscar acquired the ability to cook with whatever was available, no matter what). Therefore, many meals involved soups made from whatever we had to use before it went bad + whatever there was plenty of in the garden + what we could pick up at the corner store or farmer’s market and, on one occasion, the rabbit that Oscar and I hunted and skinned (it was delicious).

A few highlights:

coconut fish squash soup

  • The coconut fish soup pictured above, made with fresh coconut that Oscar broke apart and dissembled & plenty of hot red chilies (ají, as they call them in Colombia) from the garden
  • Cuminy spicy soup with acelga (a green leafy vegetable similar to bok choy) from the garden that we cooked with beef bone, cubios and chuguas
  • Breakfasts of arepas de choclo (like fluffy sweet corn pancakes) with fresh farmer’s cheese, eggs, fried plantains and mangos

2.) To be careful when calling people on their racism

This isn’t the first time I’ve learned this lesson, but I certainly had an enlightening experience in Colombia of how not to go about it. The consequences weren’t dire, but it certainly gave me an opportunity to reflect on how self-control is key to effective social change.

The backstory is that we had been spending a bit of time with Oscar’s cousin, Juan José and his wife, Dinaluz. They work in advertising/commercial media and were some of the most educated and in some ways, curious and exploratory members of the family. However, we had also noticed that they would make offhand comments about “negros” or “maricas” (the constantly-used, both derogatory and “affectionate” term for gay men in Colombia). One day, after a long and somewhat frustrating day of biking, we spent a few hours in Oscar’s auntie’s house with them and others when I was exhausted and wanted to go home and sleep. His auntie fed us some delicious soup and we were finally preparing to go. Dinaluz, wanting to aplogize for her eating and dashing, said, “Indio comido, indio ido.” It roughly translates to, “Eating like an Indian, leaving like an Indian.” She turned to me after, smiling, and explained to me that this is an expression in Colombia and it means you are being very rude for eating quickly and going away. The fact that Indian/indigenous/Native was being associated with rudeness and lack of manners had not escaped me.

Now, in that split second in my head, I—righteously angry, empathetic, overly-sociological me—am going through my mental Rolodex of incidents of anti-indigenous racism I had seen or heard in Colombia, in México, in the continental US and Alaska and all of the ways in which anti-indigenous racism has been transformed into children’s songs and expressions or the “Cigarillos Piel Rojo” (“Redskin Cigarettes”) or “Land of Lakes Butter” logos and my role as a white ally in changing this and before I know it, I blurt out—sleepy, exhausted, frustrated, impulsive me—“Pero ésto es racisto.”

In that split second in my head, I should have asked myself for a time extension so I could have thought of a better way to get at this point, perhaps through asking questions and helping Dina to get there herself. But I didn’t, and I imagine that this made her put up some defenses. Her first defense was that it wasn’t about feather-on-the-head and [hand moving over mouth making stereotypical “indio” sound] indios; it was just about rude people. When I asked her why the word “indio” was used for rude, and then explained that I grew up hearing similar expressions such as “Indian giving” or “Indian cuts” or the “Ten Little Indians” songs, she conceded that the expression had something to do with indigenous people. But  I had not succeeded in making her enthusiastic about discussing white/mestizo privilege. Nor did it endear me to the new family.

We had a very different experience with Oscar’s auntie and cousins in Palmira, a small city in the state of Valle–maybe in part because I was on better behavior, maybe because they have been exposed to different people and experiences.  After we bought delicious boiled squash-like fruit from an AfroColombian woman on the street, Oscar’s cousin, Hadie, told us about the importance of this fruit to the largely AfroColombian and indigenous populations in the Pacific states who suffer high rates of poverty and even starvation. She spoke about racial disparities in a way that was reflective and critical, and spoke of wanting her niece to have an open mind about Black Colombians. Clearly, in Colombia just as in Alaska, despite the ubiquity of racist ideas or comments (and in Alaska, believe me, racism’s ubiquity shows when people spit out “drunk Native” like a slur, and if you’ve been around long enough it’s hard to avoid hearing this slur), people can come to think critically about it. Hadie did. Colombian human rights organizations do. So my task is to figure out what role can I play as an ally (and in this case, as an outsider First Worlder) to ask the right questions and provide the right information, to help people at least step back and look critically. I don’t know what that involves, exactly, but I know it involves patience, impulse control, and a few more seconds to think.

3.) What it’s like to have grandparents again.

Tía Abuela Rosa


Although it made me miss the elders in my life that I’ve lost, it was so beautiful to spend time with Oscar’s abuelitos (grandparents) and tías abuelas (great aunts). They have so much energy and knowledge and giant, generous, loving hearts.

4.) How much I love the combination of yellow and turquoise, & the complexity of development

yellow & teal

I was drawn to these Aqueducto workers initially because of their turquoise-colored jumpsuits and the beautiful yellow rainboots and hats they wear. I was also fascinated by what they represented about the Bogotá government’s efforts to make the city more efficient and beautiful and to provide jobs. In some ways, the investments made by the government are great for the people (potable water, expanded & modern public transportation, bike lanes everywhere). But in some cases, development investments seem to favor the wealthy and shut out the vast majority of Colombians who work exceedingly long hours and make, on average, only four or so hundred dollars a month. Development of malls, cineplexes, and fancy restaurants may provide jobs, but they also seem to increase consumption without a proportionate increase in salaries for most workers. (Two notable exceptions are the local, pricey franchises Bogota Beer Company and Crepes & Waffles, who employ low-income female heads-of-household and pay them quite well.) Although produce was inexpensive, many things were not, especially imported items. I am suspicious of mainstream capitalist measures of development, such as consumption, when increased consumption may mean more debt. To better understand the Colombia that I observed from my own experiences, I’d love to look at measures of income disparities for Colombia; that seems to be a key issue in Bogotá and even more so between urban and rural areas.

Obrero de Acueducto


5.) How to get by with very little and take very short showers

It’d be nice for us First Worlders to get a refresher on this every once in a while from developing countries, because we sure do consume a lot of resources (myself included). People are ingenious there. For example, Oscar’s abuelitos had incredible rainwater catchment systems.

6.) That there’s a connection in Colombia, as in other places, between sexual & domestic violence, political violence, and poverty

Oscar’s cousin, Gina, who manages a rose production facility, sat across our small kitchen table over a cup of tea and told us about the low-income women who work in her rose factory—their frequent pregnancies by different men, their black eyes, their days of work missed because of abuse at home, their defense of the men in their lives, and the government aid they receive. Trying to look past the filter of her judgment, I could see in these women’s stories certain familiar patterns of internalized oppression, poverty and violence.

An article in La Semana, a weekly magazine published by the major Bogotá newspaper, described an alarming recent study. This study found that the majority of Colombian residents and the majority of public servants (police officers, judges, public health officials, etc.) blame victims of domestic and sexual violence. Large percentages of them believe that men can’t control themselves when angry, that women are at fault for inciting their husbands to anger or sexual provocation, etc.

Billboards over the main highway through Bogotá show a woman whose face blooms with bruises and cuts, the text reading something about how domestic violence is never okay. This is a relatively new campaign, trying to pick up steam and support in a country that has largely ignored the issue, but a country in which brave women and men feminists like those we met at a reproductive rights rally are organizing to create change.

día internacional para la legalización del aborto

It would be hard work, I think, combatting intimate violence in a country that has suffered violence of every type (often in ways that implicate the First World). Colombia is a country that endured colonization by the Spaniards, centuries of slavery, prolonged civil war and political violence, and training in human rights abuses by the US-run School of the Americas. Colombia is the country with the most displaced people in the world, where millions leave their homes because of guerilla and paramilitary violence (violence fueled by the First Word drug consumption). Therefore, I believe that the violence of guns and drugs and kidnapping that pushes people into homelessness and poverty also creates a culture of violence that places people at risk for abuse. Gina’s accounts of women speak not only to engrained psychosocial patterns of abuse, but also to the vulnerability to violence experienced by women and children living in poverty and in war zones, an issue seen throughout the world. In Colombia, the violence of poverty, of housing insecurity and unsafe working conditions, of houses in the poor communities that keep getting crushed in mudslides, and of militarism, is linked in complex ways that feminists are always trying to unravel to the violence of rape and battering.

We know in general that in war zones and prisons as well as in areas with lots of gang activity and police violence, there is more rape. We know that in military families, the rates of domestic violence are five times higher than in non-military families because you can’t train someone that it’s okay to kill people (including those  “collateral damage” civilians) but then assume it’ll be easy for them to be peaceful with their families.  We know that in times of job loss, domestic violence increases, and so we can imagine that the mass displacement and job loss experienced by over 2 million Colombians because of the violence has not contributed to family well-being.

However, it was clear from the article in La Semana and from victim-blaming discourses we heard from people we met and in the media, that it’s not only the poor and displaced, or the military/guerilla/paramilitary who abuse and suffer abuse. As in the US, violence against women and other forms of intimate violence are perpetrated and justified and excused away at all levels of socioeconomic status. This is because it is linked with patriarchal social structures, gender ideologies, militarism, and many other overarching cutural phenomena. This is true in all of the places that have high rates of sexual and domestic violence, such as the US. (By the way, not everywhere has high rates; in fact, there are some traditional societies in which sexual violence is almost unheard of, and most developed countries have  lower rates than the US.)

In Colombia in particular, I couldn’t help but wonder how much everyone’s attitudes and viewpoints were influenced by the years of political violence they’ve suffered, including massacres only a few decades ago (the ones Botero paints so hauntingly).  Oscar and I found that strangers in Bogotá were often standoffish and rude, which, as an Alaskan, upset me. But we wondered if, in addition to just being a big city, the terrifying political violence and corruption Bogotá faced not so many decades ago could have been affecting them. I wonder if it’s affecting them in their intimate relationships. I wonder if there is un-accounted-for trauma and historical grief, aggravated by ongoing violence and poverty, and propped up by machismo, the powerful church, and cultural norms to not talk about it.

I wish I understood all of the mechanisms by which poverty, colonial and political violence, and patriarchy influence sexual and domestic violence and how that works in Colombia, in the rest of the world, and in Alaska especially, but clearly I don’t. These are just observations from Colombia strung together with the research I’ve been pouring through lately for my job studying intimate partner and sexual violence affecting Alaska Native people. What I think I learned from seeing some of the attitudes and conditions surrounding violence in Colombia is that intimate violence is intricately and painfully linked together with larger, more institutional forms of violence.

If you have some insight into this, please please share it with me.

6.) I learned a lot about myself, my wonderful husband-to-be, and about communication as a couple. But that’s another story…

Okip.s. Some books I’ve found recently that explore some of the topics in the last section really well:

Shout Out! Women of Color Respond to Violence, edited by Maria Ochoa and Barbara K. Ige

Domestic Violence at the Margins: Readings on Race, Class, Gender and Culture, edited by Natalie Sokoloff with Christina Pratt

And I could give you a long bibliography of other readings and films and websites on sexual and domestic violence if you’re interested.

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January 28th, 2011 at 11:00 am

Colombia by Pictures

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I am in Anchorage, Alaska, having just returned from a beautiful month spent with Oscar in Bogotá and other parts of Colombia, and am already hard at work on my mom’s campaign. My hard-working, honest, smart, compassionate mama, Barbara Norton, is running for State House, and I am caught up in the swing of the campaign. I want very much to write and reflect on Colombia, but it may have to wait until after Election Day.

In the meanwhile, I can tell some stories through pictures. Here are a few of my favorite Colombia photos I’ve taken. If you click on them, it will direct you to Flickr where captions tell the stories.

Supporter of Reproductive Rights

llanoa brief bright light #2aracacha

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October 25th, 2010 at 10:15 am

Posted in art

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Recently-Killed Chicken: Reflections on De-centering

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pig skins! pig skins!


Today I had of those moments of de-centering that comes from travel, maybe you know the type, the type that confronts you with how very non-universal are your views. Third World countries are famous for offering such experiences to First Worlders, and First Worlders are famous for trying to avoid or otherwise ignore the value of such moments.  I can see why; sometimes they’re really hard. But today’s was a gleeful decentering, easier to absorb.

I biked down to the busy intersection by the train tracks to get groceries for the next few days and to take a photo of three pig skins that I had seen hanging in front of a carnicería the day before. I locked up my bike on a pole next to the pig skin store while eyeing the chickens at a butcher shop nearby. The yellow meat laid out in the hot, exhaust-filled air by the intersection and the train tracks, and I could not bring myself to buy it. My fiancé, Oscar, and I have been eating almost entirely vegetarian here in Jalisco, México, in part due to the heat in which the meat hangs all day in the markets. But tonight he wanted to make me roasted chicken with achiote, and so I was on the hunt for chicken breast.

After taking my photo, squeezed up against a truck on the other side of the busy street and trying to make myself small as buses went by, I bought my naranjas and chayote and ejote, and asked the man helping me where I could buy chicken “que no está afuera en el calor todo el día” (“that’s not out in the heat all day”). I was thinking, in my imagination filled with grocery stores that have entire sections so refrigerated you can feel your skin stick up, in my imagination filled with chicken breasts wrapped in plastic packaging that fly from Montana to Alaska, that there may be a little store nearby with some sort of refrigeration. The man turned to the woman who seemed to be in charge and asked, “¿Dónde puede comprar pollo recién matado?” (“Where can she buy recently-killed chicken?”) They pointed me to a place just around the corner, where I found the same bright yellow chicken legs, feet and breasts out in the heat being sliced and sold by a woman with an apron. freshly killed chickenRight behind, however, was a young, short-haired woman grabbing a white chicken as it squawked, steadily bringing a blade across its throat and bleeding it, with great calm and equanimity, into a large steel drum. The old, peeling metal was lined with the feathered and bloody remnants of the chickens that came before it–the same ones sitting on the table for me to buy, I suppose. A telenovela played quietly behind on an old television set, and the Virgen de Guadalupe watched over the proceedings from the wall with that same accepting calm.

In the U.S., watching a chicken being slaughtered by a young woman who stands, smiling, right behind the sales counter might be considered an offensive business practice. Here, however, this was not only a convenient use of a small space but also a way of signaling to the buyer that the meat is fresh and safe, a way of assuaging worries over salmonella. freshly killed chickenRefrigeration, the solution I had been pulling on in my mind without fully realizing,  was translated by the imaginations of the fruit and chicken vendors; translated by the brutal functionality required by these hot, loud streets; translated by a place that lacks the infrastructure for keeping meat cold.

It is as though the language, the streets, the infrastructure of our lives shape the little spaces in our brain where our imaginations are continuously born. We are built this way, I think–built to make sense of the world through our experiences, adding bits and pieces to the schemas we create as children, and then creating new schemas when something proves ours inadequate. I suppose we universalize our own thinking and expectations by design; maybe there’s not space enough in our imaginations to fit all of the things we have not seen, the religions and traditions and ways of eating. It seems that the best we can do is to take moments like this for what they offer: humility, the chance to reflect on how big the world is and how little we still know, the inspiration to ask more open-ended questions like, “What measures do people take to have safer food and how can I look for those?” rather than working only from within the schema we bring with us and judging on, say, the storage temperature alone. It is a reminder for me as a researcher of why research must be careful to not just hand out surveys, but first to draw out, in people’s own words and schemas, what they do or what they believe in, so that questions are fit to the contexts of the people, interacting truthfully with their worlds. And of course, it is a reminder that when we step outside of our normal lives, and even as we walk within them, we should always expect to be surprised.

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June 15th, 2010 at 9:26 am

A recipe poem: Salsa Verde Para Mi Amor

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Salsa Verde Para Mi Amor

1.)  Boil the jalapeños:

Yeah, seeds and all.
I mean, I know you’re Colombiano
y no se come picante allí,
but you know that story your mama tells?
The one where your abuela
made the sopa without cilantro
“for Nachito”
and your mama put the cilantro back in
(she flicks her hand as she re-enacts it)
because she knew she’d be eating with him
for the rest of their lives?
since I’m your future wifey
and you’re the chaparro de mi vida
and I’m your aguacate tree
growing in Alaska
to whose roots—and fruit—
you will come flying back
and we will sit across kitchen tables
from one another
for the rest of our days,
pues, te tendrás que acostumbrar.

2.)  Slice the onion:
And try placing it in the blender
but poniéndome aguila
because before I know it
you’ll kiss me with that onion
on your breath,
whole slices tucked away
into your teeth.
I’ll say “¡Guácala!”
and never understand it,
how you find the sweet
in its so acrid flesh.
But I quietly admire you for it,
this iron mouth of yours,
the way you see through
even the worst.

3.)  Skin and mash the garlic:
And this too I must guard
from your habit of drinking it
with cayenne and
waiting to do so, of course,
until I’m soon to come over.
The smell of it:
“Ay, Oscar, ¿Porqué
lo tenías que comer ahora
before kissing me?”
And I search out the line
between asking you
to be considerate
and control.
Then toss the garlic in the blender
with everything else.

4.)  Enjoy:
Disfrútala, with fish, with sopa,
with cuidado, mi Colombiano.
I learned in the cloud forest,
the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca,
from a small woman who
cooked her beans in a clay pot,
to make salsa verde sin tomate.
Y así, mi amor,
when you eat it,
the sweat beads up,
glints of light over the
redenning skin,
across your brow,
across your nose—
your nose, mi amor,
that perfect bridge of shadow
and light
that bridge of indígena and
None of our ancestors
ate like this,
the people of wheat,
the people of potatoes.
But we are adaptors
and you sweat your way through it
like we work our way through
each other
building bridges across
continents and
spirits and
from which we’ll create children
to pass the recipe on,
learning, over time,
to endure.


I was inspired to write this because a creative little girl who I taught in math was surprised when I told her that her poetry teacher, Ashley Skabar, was also a professional food writer. She asked, “Does Miss Ashley write her recipes as poems?” I replied, “I don’t think so, but that’s a great idea,” and I went home and began working on this recipe-poem. I am bringing the original to Oscar, drawings and cursive and all, for part of an anniversary gift. We will celebrate our anniversary together in Jalisco, México, eating comida picosa, camping, biking, swimming in rivers, reading the stars.

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May 18th, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Posted in love

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