The Med

I swim in the Mediterranean on a sunny day
its waters are warm
pleasantly, they rock me to and fro–
I lie on my back,
basking in the sunshine,
soaking up the experience
of swimming in this
expanse of water.

Miles away others lie face down
immobile
after their Herculean strife to
make it to this continent
in the pursuit of a dream.

Europe, you have become my home
but when this happens I am reminded
that I am an unwanted presence.

Je suis une migrante
And if it weren’t for a piece of paper:
I’d be un sin papeles
illegal
a target for unlimited detention
and deportation.

Today I am just another person
swimming in the Med
I travel across the Continent
without thinking of fences
and borders;
without fearing La Guardia
or the Home Office
But there was a time
when Dutch police
seemed intimidating to a gut-wrenching degree
And there are times when newspaper articles,
government campaigns and uninformed opinions
remind me that I don’t belong.

But it is much bigger than I am.
I wonder if I would still be human
were I trying to jump the fence in Melilla
or on a dinghy on my way to Lampedusa.

What does it take to belong?
What does it take to be seen?
Not as a victim or part of a crisis,
not as a number, not as a burden…
but as a person.

We’re all mixed but… — A reflection on racism among Latin Americans.

I’ve been reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The many stories in this book have sparked thoughts, opened up old wounds, helped me understand my family better…and so many other things that will take a long time to process.

One of the things that I’ve been struck by is the shapeless, oppressive enormity of the issue of race in the US. I find the whole thing confusing to an embarrassing degree. More so because of sentences like “in America you do not choose what race you are, it is decided for you”. Throughout the book there are instances where the story briefly dips into how Latinos/Hispanics view themselves, how it works in the US. Apparently, I didn’t know this, “Hispanic” is also a race. And race is about sociology and the way you are perceived, race is about looks. It is not, as I’ve often thought, about heritage. I have often tried to explain to friends that where I come from people are of mixed ancestry — because of the way history has gone, in my family there have been people from different ethnicities and backgrounds. I thought the way I see myself, what I know about my history, should have an impact on my “race”. But I’ve learnt in the past few years that it doesn’t. People will tell you what you are and that’s that. So I gradually stopped arguing. People tell me I’m white, so I’ll be white. Even though I’m foreign wherever I go and that brings its own problems. I guess this post is me saying: I don’t care anymore. I will talk about it because it’s on my mind and because I care.

Whilst reading Americanah I came to the conclusion that many Latinos are in denial about this race business. Where I live there are very few Latinos so I haven’t had a conversation with any about this. So I went on the Internet, did a bit of looking around and found that Latinos are wary of identifying as black. I watched an AlJazeera news report about this blatantly racist advert that ran on local radio in Esmeraldas, Ecuador a couple of years ago — for some incomprehensible reason the people who made it and those who ran the radio station thought it was completely fine. And if that wasn’t enough, the comments section on the video was full of hatred. There is also a documentary about being black in Latin America, which I intend to watch. I am appalled by some of the things I’ve found. Just looking around it seems like any attempt at calling racism out in Latin American countries and in Latin American communities in European countries or in the US is met with dismissal. Apparently Latinos often hide behind the “we’re all mixed/mestizo” mantra. Call me naive but I didn’t know people did that. When I tell people that my ancestry is mixed, I’m not trying to erase the fact that there is discrimination and prejudice on the basis of race in Latin American countries, and particularly in Ecuador (where I’m from). Yes, we are all mixed. We are mixed because sub-Saharan Africans were traded by Europeans as early as the 16th century into what was to them “The New World”. We are mixed because when the Spanish and French and Portuguese were busy colonising (and “evangelising”) the native peoples of what is now Latin America, they also raped women. See the pattern? If you’re white European, please don’t see this as an attack. It’s not.

Latinos are mixed but that doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist. I haven’t lived in Ecuador for 15 years now. I left when I was little. But I remember looking around and clearly seeing the divide among races. And whoever is thinking that it’s about class and not race, think again. I was a child but I remember being told I couldn’t go in “that neighbourhood because that’s where all the blacks live, and it’s dangerous”. I remember going to the market, where all the white people bought groceries and the indígenas sold them. I remember my father talking about how he’d been hired at a particular job because luckily his skin wasn’t too dark and his accent not too heavy. I remember people on television being white, speaking a certain way, making fun of people who were different. Despite being Ecuadorian I was never encouraged to learn any local languages, either by my parents or school.

Racism — nowadays understood as a sociological system whereby people are discriminated according to the colour of their skin. A system that hands out privileges to those who fit the acceptable mold and hands out punishment and rejection to those who don’t — is an ugly thing. Just like with things like sexism, if asked a question about it, we’d all probably say “Of course I’m not racist/sexist/in favour of rape culture”. We don’t want to admit that something that is so ignorant and hateful perseveres in our societies, communities, and in our minds. We don’t want to admit that people who are otherwise kind and friendly harbour hateful thoughts and prejudices towards someone just based on the colour of their skin or the texture of their hair. It’s there though. There’s no point in trying to hide it. This goes for Latinos as well as for everybody else.

On the power of image.

Last week I listened to a talk by Cameron Russell. She is a model and co-founder of Interrupt, an on-line magazine that addresses issues of identity among other things. She went up on the TED stage wearing a short, black dress and very high heels. When I saw her outfit I started to think of ways to focus on what she would be saying rather than the way she looked – she looked stunning, by the way. I didn’t want to roll my eyes and dismiss her ideas because of her choice of clothing. Surprisingly, she changed her outfit on stage. She changed the heels for a pair of flat shoes, she wrapped a skirt around her waist and put a sweater/cardigan on top of her dress. That was one of those moments when you realise where you stand in terms of judging people by their appearance. I can’t speak for anyone else but I felt uncomfortable when I saw her walk on the stage, I found her appearance a bit intimidating and in just a few seconds made several assumptions about her.

She officially opened her talk stating that image is powerful – a simple and maybe obvious statement. When I look around I see that our attitude to image in Western societies is contradictory. On the one hand, we want to convince ourselves that the way we look doesn’t matter, as a writer in The Guardian put it recently, “…I want, desperately, to say that the framing of a hero on the cover of a magazine doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, as Cameron Russell pointed out, people often enjoy certain privileges or suffer because of the way they look. Just think back to when you were a teenager, were there people in your school that were bullied because of their appearance? What about the people who were considered beautiful, were they treated differently?

There are all sorts of issues that come into play when we talk about body image; attitudes towards ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, health and so on. Even though these are all important, I’d like to focus on how we perceive image and how we use it. Maybe that’s where the tension lies. We want to live happy, fulfilling lives but when we look in the mirror we are often discontent with the way we look and that can be a source of disappointment for many people. We want young people to grow up with healthy attitudes towards their appearance, we don’t want teenagers to feel like they have to radically change the way they look in order to be noticed and liked. And yet the way we use images of people in media suggests something very different. In Canterbury city centre there is a La Senza shop, a lingerie retailer, that has enormous posters of a young woman wearing bright turquoise and pink lingerie. I walk past this shop very often and since it’s an ad for a shop that sells something, I have often wondered: what am I being sold here? What do men think when they see this ad? Surely, the retailer largely targets young women. So why use a pretty, young, white woman to advertise their product?

Cameron Russell did something interesting during her talk, she juxtaposed images of her in ads and on the runway with photos of her doing day-to-day things, e.g. hanging out with friends. She hoped the audience would realise that the images of her modelling aren’t really photos of her, but rather constructions of her. This is usually what I see when I look at magazines and images of models. I see a composition; I look at the colours, the position of the bodies (note, bodies, not people), hairstyles, accessories, use of light, use of props, the type of shot…and so on. I have to admit that even though the way I look at things has to do with my personality, my approach to fashion photography, for example, has been greatly influenced by my education. I have a similar approach towards film, literature, paintings and sometimes music. I don’t expect fashion shows to tell me about the real world, I don’t look for realistic situations in films and I avoid TV adverts at all costs. But ten years ago, when I was about to turn 15, I loved watching music videos and I remember wishing I looked like the women in the videos. I remember constantly feeling awkward about my appearance, I remember feeling invisible at school dances, I remember thinking that my eyes were droopy and never letting my hair down in public because I thought it looked really big.

I have resisted writing about this for a while because I don’t have a problem with the way I look anymore. I don’t need a magazine to tell me what is beautiful, I see beautiful things and beautiful people everywhere. I look for beauty everywhere. I’ve realised, however, that just standing on the outside of the issue and observing is selfish. The truth is that image does matter and that the only reason we see constructions or representations of people in advertising is because they are trying to sell us more than a product. There are reasons for the way women are presented or choose to present themselves; there’s a reason why Beyoncé’s use of her body is widely seen as female empowerment and she’s lauded for her confidence but Lena Dunham is criticised and constantly asked why she appears naked in Girls. Going back to the La Senza advert, I guess that it’s prompted questions in me because it’s an ad I cannot exactly remove. It’s there, on a wall in Canterbury city centre and I can’t take it down and, well, I don’t like it. I don’t like the colours or the underwear in that shop. The only thing that remains is looking at the girl and that’s when I started thinking, are they trying to sell me the image of this woman? Maybe I’m being sold the crazy idea that if I wear their underwear I’ll look like the woman in the add! And maybe it isn’t unfair to say that as well as being persuaded to buy underwear I am being indirectly told that to be beautiful is to look like that woman. I don’t have a problem with the model in the ad, I don’t even know who she is – on that poster she isn’t a person, she is two-dimensional, she doesn’t have a name or personality. And that’s exactly the point. Image, however powerful, is superficial. Beyond whatever ideas of beauty or female empowerment we are sold through visual media the most important and detrimental one is the idea that if only we could change our appearance we would be happier, healthier, more fulfilled human beings.

Cameron Russell touched on insecurity during her talk, she talked about some of her insecurities and the insecurity she sees among her colleagues. The interesting thing is that if we are honest  it is pretty obvious that all human beings have insecurities and that having longer legs, a flat stomach, a different skin colour or being taller doesn’t make us more accepting of ourselves or others. There is very little we can do about the way we look without going to extremes. We know that and yet we often pin our sense of value to our appearance. After all it is much easier to work on something superficial, however fragile and finite, than to look for the real sources of our insecurities. It would’ve been much easier for me to stay on the sidelines and watch people blame celebrities, films, advertising and pornography for how messed up the way women are presented is and how that affects everyday life. I honestly don’t think we’re ever going to crack the code and solve it all. I’m convinced that the way we objectify others and ourselves is just a symptom of what’s going on in our hearts and minds. And I know that as a society we are so obsessed with living fast and being comfortable that very few people actually want to know what goes on in their hearts and minds. It is uncomfortable stuff, it is much more uncomfortable than seeing the reflection of our bodies in the mirror. I do hope that as the conversation on image continues there will be people who are willing to be honest with others and most of all with themselves.

A link to Cameron Russell’s talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/cameron_russell_looks_aren_t_everything_believe_me_i_m_a_model.html

The evening of November 4th.

It’s been an evening jam-packed with interesting links to photographs, articles and videos. From hearing Zooey Deschanel, Zach Braff and other well-known people read mean tweets aloud to reading about a journalist’s struggle with anorexia, it has been an evening of letting my curiosity roam free and explore. My head explodes with information as I think about how late it is, 23.28 – I should be sleeping, not writing. Since my over-stimulated brain will find it hard to sleep, I thought I’d give publishing my spontaneous thoughts a go. I wonder why I spent a whole evening reading about all these things: it’s kept my mind busy but I think there may be more to it. I’ve been out of my head the past few hours, it’s nice. But is it a healthy exercise or pure escapism?

Anyway, if you care to read/watch some of what has occupied my evening, here are some links:

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2000/jun/21/fashion.hadleyfreeman A very old article but well worth a read. The writer shares some thoughts on anorexia, her own experience with it and how it all relates to the fashion industry. It’s not your typical blame-it-on-the-fashion-magazines kind of article.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFXl27z5sIE A teenager’s words and joyful tears.

http://www.mymodernmet.com/profiles/blogs/facial-changes-caused-by-smoking Interesting. Seeing the external effects of smoking might be helpful for some people.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bolz-webers-liberal-foulmouthed-articulation-of-christianity-speaks-to-fed-up-believers/2013/11/03/7139dc24-3cd3-11e3-a94f-b58017bfee6c_story.html An article about a woman who leads a church in Denver. One of my favourite lines in the article: “She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.”

http://www.aviddetention.org.uk/ Associacion of Visitors to Immigration Detainees. I’ve been looking into volunteering to help refugees or migrants. My heart aches at the thought of what happens in detainee centres. I used to live close to one in a southern European country and sometimes you could hear people cry at night… I might write some more on this subject another time.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hetain_patel_who_am_i_think_again.html Who am I? Think Again, by Hetain Patel. I watched this for the first time about a week ago. Insightful. Entertaining. Funny.

I started writing this more than half an hour ago…I’m so slow =( Ah well, please feel free to comment and let me know what you think about any of these topics.

Yessica Dædalus.

On unaccustomed earth.

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

– Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”

Thinking about migration.
Sometimes I can see how interesting it is to have travelled and seen so much of the world in such a short period of time. On bad days my being yearns for some sort of tangible collective identity, I want to claim a nationality, a language, a culture – I want one of those things to be mine, to define me. It never works. I know that even if I could fully identify with a specific culture I’d always be painfully aware that culture doesn’t answer the question of who I am.
Reading this quote reminds me that there is something very valuable in having lived in different places, however painful the experience. Unaccustomed earth can be confusing, extremely painful, humiliating at times… But if you choose to endure and learn to walk on it (even when it stings) you flourish. That sounds much better than longing for “the same worn-out soil”.

– Yessica Dædalus, 2013

Steinach.

Uhrzeit: 21:49 (UTC+1:00)
Ort: Steinach/ The middle of nowhere (to me).

4 people at a train station
2 smoke
2 write, numbers and letters
1 lifts her legs on her suitcase. She waits for a call.
1 wonders why her friendliness was met with blank stares and the shrugging of shoulders.
2 chat. They keep each other company.

Dozens of crickets sing to the clear sky, or to each other. Who knows?
We lift our head in anticipation whenever a train approaches.
We wait for the unplanned, the impossible.
Only big, bulky cargo trains rush by,
leaving us immersed in silence
until the sound of the crickets rises
from beneath the blackness of this summer evening
whose language I can barely speak.

 

– Yessica Dædalus, 2013