The boys around the way holler at me when I’m walking down the street
Their machismo pride doesn’t break my stride—
It’s a compliment, so they say
The boys around the way holler at me every day but I don’t mind, oh no
If I’m in the mood, it will not be with some dude
Who is whistling ’cause he has nothing to say
Or who’s honking at me from his Chevrolet!
– “It Won’t Be Long Now,” In the Heights
One common struggle of living in Nicaragua is figuring out how to deal with unwanted attention. This comes in a variety of forms, but a lot of us—women especially—get a lot of unwanted (romantic, gross, lecherous) attention from men. Strangers, members of our host families, our students, other teachers, administrators, and the list goes on. Other female volunteers often share their experiences, and it is almost always met with a chorus of “I’m so sorry, that sucks” followed by “I have a similar story.”
I’m thankful to the ladies in my life who share their stories with me, because even though we’re all having slightly different experiences, we have all faced machismo, and we can try to support each other.
I want to be clear: This is not exclusively a Nicaraguan problem. Most of us have faced similar problems in the U.S. One time, a man insisted on talking to me as I’m tried to walk down the street, grabbed my arm, kissed me without my consent, and refused to leave until I walked into a museum that he didn’t have a ticket for. Every woman I know has dealt with guys who have felt entitled to our time, attention, or bodies. Guys who won’t listen to a simple “no.” “Nice guys” who just don’t understand why we don’t want to date them. This is not a Nicaraguan problem.
That said, I have had problems here in Nicaragua. Mostly, dudes just yell at me or try to get my attention as I walk down the street. It’s annoying, but it’s nothing I haven’t faced before, and it’s generally pretty easy to ignore.
I’ve had teachers in my school ask if I’m single, and when I said I had a boyfriend (even though I didn’t actually have one) one of them responded (in Spanish) that I must not love him, because women are as needy as baby cows on their mom’s tit.
Most recently, while I was sitting at the park (a place where I can usually enjoy peace and quiet and wifi) three guys crowded onto the bench with me. The following are messages I sent to Thomas at the time.
I appreciated his response:
There were endless empty benches, but these men chose to take over my space. I decided to keep my headphones in, not make eye contact, and wait them out. The guy closest to me (we were literally shoulder to shoulder) looked over my shoulder as I scrolled through photos and live-messaged Thomas what was happening.
Finally, one guy left.
A few minutes later, the second guy left.
Last, the guy who’d been reading over my shoulder accepted that I wasn’t going to acknowledge him and walked off, defeated.
And I stretched out on the bench in victory.
Not even a minute later, as I was still stretched out across the entire bench, a different guy came and sat on the edge of the bench, right in front of my feet. I moved my legs. Ceded territory.
I thought that I could wait this guy out too, but he motioned for me to take out my headphones.
I took one out.
He started talking to me, and he asked for my phone number. I told him I didn’t have a phone number. He insisted. I put in a fake number. I told him I had to leave. He grabbed my hand tightly and wouldn’t let go. He told me how happy he was to have my number. I pulled away, left the park, and called Thomas as I walked home.
A couple days ago, the same guy noticed me again. I accidentally made eye contact, and he recognized me and sat down. He started asking me questions.
Where do I work? Oh, I’m a teacher. How much money do I make? Probably a lot. Do I have a boyfriend? Yeah, oh, well that doesn’t matter because you can still be with me. No? Because you have a boyfriend? But I have a farm! Look at my boots. They’re nice boots. I have a farm. I like you. Why don’t you want us to be together?
I stood up to leave, he grabbed my hand. I said had to go teach. I left the park. I called Thomas as I walked home.
It’s always so, so easy to assume you know what you would do if you were in a certain situation, but until it actually happens, you have no fucking clue. It’s easy to look back and say, “why didn’t you just walk away after you realized who he was the second time? Why did you answer any of his questions? Why did you make excuses for why you don’t want to be with him when a simple “no” should have been enough?
In the moment, it is very, very easy to freeze. Sometimes, your mind goes blank. Sometimes your Spanish vocabulary doesn’t include all the curse words you want to use. Besides, you have to keep living in this community with these people for two more years, and you’re trying to figure out the best way to manage that. Sometimes, as much as you wanna punch a guy in the face after he makes physical contact with you, you don’t, because you haven’t made friends with the policía yet.
I feel lucky that what I’ve faced here isn’t as bad as what some of my friends have faced. I’ve faced worse in the United States. I feel safe at home and in my schools. I feel safe in my community, but pissed that I sometimes have to leave the park when I’d rather stay there another hour.
For all the people who have dealt with (or are currently dealing with) shitty situations: I see you, and I’m here if you want to talk about it. You’re not alone.
To all the wonderful men in my life who listen to our stories, acknowledge your privilege, offer to be our fake boyfriends if/when we need it, and support us however you can: Thank you. You make trudging through this shit so much easier.
Sending lots of love to all of you.