Before entering Peru, I was nervous about the machismo that my friends and travelers had warned me about. I thought I’d be distraught by the end of each day from the aggressive catcalls. And while I’m not immune to this form of street oppression, I’ve been surrounded with a lotta female strength. And furthermore, while Tacna’s not on Huffington Post’s “Top 20 Places You Should Travel as a Hipster,” if you do visit (even if just the bus terminal) you will quickly learn of the importance Tacna places upon female leadership in its recent history. Tacneñas served as the backbone in the war against Chile guiding their husbands and sons towards la patria for their Peru. In fact during my morning commute, I pass six statues of women in various heroic positions: arms sprawled out, torch in the air, and baby on back. Each day, I experience my own version of heroic women leadership and kinship.
And since I haven’t given a proper introduction to my life here, I’ll introduce you to the women who’ve helped transform Tacna from a foreign city to one in which I’ve begun to say “I live and thrive here.” In bits and pieces, I have begun to celebrate the women that sell me basil and eggs, the women who dedicate their lives forming the next generation at Fe y Alegria, the women who collect my bus fare, the women who harvest our food, the mothers who allow me to enter into their lives in counseling sessions, and the women who let the whole bus know they are breastfeeding their baby. I do this by living, observing, eating, laughing, and praying with the women that follow:
Hermanas de San Jose. Each day I work, eat, and pray alongside two rad Sisters of St. Joseph. I have the privilege of witnessing two people continually say “yes” to God’s call whether that means accompanying our school’s director after they both retired from said position, chatting with a lonely kid at recess, preparing breakfast for hundreds of hungry kids, giving new life to our school’s Campus Ministry team, and more. Hermana Maria Inez joined the religious life because she wanted to dedicate her life to give. And this life for Hermana Zaida became the way in which she would learn how to value each person around her. To me, it’s amazing to see two people joyfully live out their vocation as female leaders in the Church. I feel blessed and nourished each day when Hna. Zaida and Hna. Maria Inez accompany me. Because of their example, I hunger to live a Christianity that means to do.
Host Family. For the first month we live with a host family helping us integrate more deeply into Tacna life. But I didn’t fully appreciate this host family relationship until I moved out. With my own keys, I get to pop in and out as I please. These strong women that make up my host family—Maria Luisa (or Malu, my mom), Javiera (7 year old sister), and Rosita (live-in family friend)— support me through long workweeks and homesickness, care for me while I endure weird sicknesses, cook Saturday lunch for me, and make me feel completely at home. Malu, a single mom and teacher, overwhelms me with her love and catches me by surprise with her sixth sense as to how I’m feeling. Javiera often swamps me with her playful energy and reminds me of the importance of being a kid. Rosita, a full-time obstetrician and director of Tacna’s Jesuit spirituality center, offers comedic relief with her frankness and tips on self-care habits like…how I need to shower more and wear more scarves to avoid catching a cold. With so much on their plates, I am continually humbled by the room they carve out to show cariño.
Señora Antoña. My friendship with Antoña covers the whole gamut. She shares stories about her time as a young missionary in the Peruvian Amazon and her life as a mother of seven, she teaches me slang, cooks mouth watering Aji de gallina (my favorite dish), and even exchanges recipes about the latest Peruvian dish I should tackle, and always offers sage advice. Most of our friendship involves just hanging, baking, and laughing, which is a much-needed break that falls smack dab in the middle of the day.
Inez and Teodora. When life got me down during Mes de misión– that month I got stuck living with high schoolers and working on Peruvian farms, I found respite in Inez and Teodora. Inez served as our farm boss and teacher. Coupled with Inka Cola and incomprehensible inappropriate jokes, Inez encouraged us to work harder. Teodora aided us in the kitchen. She always appeared ready to help in the midst of distress like when we were left cooking potatoes in a mud oven under the pouring rain. God bless them both. I’m thankful for this human connection, and for their earth connection for harvesting food with love.
Community Mates. These are my confidants in Tacna. Our girl Dorothy (Day) gets it right, “the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” When you speak a foreign language for 75% of your day and are nudged every minute by cross-cultural mishaps and exchanges, I am replenished when I come home. It is here where I see the importance of girls sticking together, like when we write a Michelle Obama inspirational quote on the wall to remind us to strive to be our best selves. These friendships expand into other layers of my life—they make being a better teacher, improving my listening skills, unpacking the inner-workings of my burgeoning Catholic faith, becoming an excellent bucket-flusher, and always having some fun attainable. I feel safe and challenged with Shannon, Maddie, and Kristin. Their commitment to justice, faith, simplicity, and wisdom inspire me. This community nurtures my inner Pillsbury, and meets me where I’m at.
But society teaches girls many different things about friendship, and the dynamics that rule it. Pop culture portrays women as monsters, ready to pounce on the weakest link. Girls are encouraged to build themselves up by tearing others down. Think Mean Girls and Princess Diaries. But pop culture also often teaches that female friendship is a strong bond. For example, Moana, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Clueless show that by building each other up we empower each other to be the best women for each other. Part of being in loving female kinships is letting go and letting your friends be who they are meant to be. It is in valuing these friendships that transcend economic, age, cultural, language, hemispherical, and racial barriers that help me abandon cultural myths and embrace relationships with mutual respect and value.
I’m lucky I get to celebrate with these nasty women every day. And with gratitude, thanks for bringing me consolation.
Women of Tacna. Siempre presente.