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Orchard Street, Copyright Xiomara A. Maldonado 2011
Two blocks later, they are still following me. "You fucking conceited bitch, answer me!" screams a man at the back of my head. I press my lips together, working hard to keep my head up and eyes forward.

"You're a whore!" one voice calls as we pass the elementary school my cousins went to.

"You're a prude!" yells the other when I make it to the front of the local pizzeria.

I can see my building from here, but it's still two blocks away. The thoughts speed through my mind: "Will I make it home? I didn't even look at them. If they try to hurt me, could I identify them?" My heart pounds as I start to walk so fast I almost fall into a run.

"You can't escape us," come their voices from behind me, and tears fill my eyes as I rush into the Yemeni-owned bodega. The store is crowded with customers grabbing snacks and pulling cash from their pockets, oblivious to me. I press myself against shelves of cookies and soda and peek through the transparent door. I thank God when they look at the store, look at each other and decide to walk away.

I was just 15 years old in this incident of sexual harassment. On my walk home from the train station after a long day at school, two males approached me and asked if I had a map. I replied, "No," and continued to go on my way. When I refused to respond to their subsequent suggestive remarks of hanging out and hooking up, they followed me for blocks, loudly insulting me.

It wasn't the first time I had experienced street harassment. The first time, I was 12 years old and the catcaller, who was about 50 years old, received a good tongue-lashing from my mother. However, this instance is the one that haunts me. I went home that day feeling more confused, frightened and worthless than I had ever felt before. How an initially innocent conversation rapidly morphed into a terrifying encounter astounded me.

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Even now, as I relive the moment through my writing, my chest is tight and my forehead creases into those lines a friend calls my "steps." Their words and actions continue to upset and confound me a decade later - it is clear these men damaged my young psyche. 

They taught me how to look at myself through their eyes and to determine (all throughout high school) my level of "hotness" through the number of unwanted groans, whistles, turned-heads and comments I received that day from catcallers. 

Although I tried to use male perception of me to validate my self-worth, I knew that their catcalls did not actually make feel any better about my body. Instead, countless threatening encounters with men (including an instance in which a man grabbed my arm and pulled me towards him) made me feel increasingly unsafe in my home neighborhood.

Over the course of my adolescence and young adult life, I've been made to feel less than multiple times a day by men of all ages. I have been sexually harassed in the street, in restaurants, in movie theaters, in class, in clubs, in the library, in grocery stores and even in Babies 'R' Us. Out of the hundreds of examples I can pull from, some of my (least) favorite catcalls include the following:
  1. Comparisons to Food (because I just LOVE being talked about as an object you can consume)
    --"Hey, Baby, can I get a bite of that muffin?"
    --"Oh, Girl, you've got a sexy apple bottom. I want a slice."
  2. Religious References (because God made me and my child solely for your pleasure)
    --"Mmmmm, Goooood bleesss you, Beautiful! ...And your son."
    --"Ay, Mami, you must be an angel sent from above to bless me."
  3. Commands (because strangers telling me what to do ALWAYS turns me on)
    --"Smile, Gorgeous!"
    --"Sweetie, let me get your number... But why not? I just want to be your friend."

Catcallers may view these remarks as compliments, however sexualized. However, such comments actually degrade the women they target. 

As Naima Coster, a Brooklyn-born feminist, so eloquently writes in her post named "Beautiful" for the blog Catcalling Chronicles, "Being called 'beautiful' in the context of a catcall does nothing to make me actually feel beautiful --- in fact, the effect is quite often the opposite. I feel unsafe, objectified, nameless, consumed, racialized." 

I feel similarly: being called "Mami" or "Baby" or "Sexy" by a certain male friend of mine does not hurt me because I know he cares for me and means it as a term of endearment; however, being called any of these words by a stranger frightens and demeans me. 

"Smile, gorgeous," is a particularly frustrating remark because I don't always feel like smiling, especially when I'm worrying about my infant son being in 100-degree weather and rushing to get him out of the sun. (Check out Stop Street Harassment's story about a woman who confronts a man after he commands her to smile.)

Men who make such comments force me to fear for my body, which they obviously view as public property to be commented upon, leered at, touched and judged. 

Fear causes me to be careful about the way in which I interact with street harassers: instead of ignoring them, I mostly respond with a quick smile or nod even though I'd rather yell at them to respect me. 
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I often say, "Thank you," in response to a man's remark on my face or body or, "Sarah," if asked my name; if a man demands my number by pressing a pen into my hand, I write in one wrong digit on his business card; and I push my stroller to the supermarket that is four blocks away instead of the one across the street because the white-haired manager there refuses to take "No" for an answer to his requests for a dancing date.

Lauren Raffo states, "Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one," and there are moments in which I impulsively feel brave enough to confront street harassers about their behavior. 

At times, I'll respond with statements like "Don't talk to me that way!" or "You saying that just makes me feel bad." I usually receive mixed reactions. Some men apologize, but many simply increase their level of harassment, calling me a "bitch" for reacting negatively to their being "nice" to me. 

Then, I feel stupid for doing so. I end up berating myself, "Why did I stand up to him all alone at 11:00 PM on a darkly lit street corner? Is this guy going to follow me all the way home now? Ugh, I knew he wouldn't care." Although a woman should be able to defend her right to walk freely in a public space, doing so is often frightening.

Besides worrying for my life and body, the most difficult part of confronting a catcaller is feeling as if stopping street harassment is an uphill battle (just as fighting sexual assault and rape is). It is obvious that such men believe it is their RIGHT to objectify women and do so without shame or a thought about how their mothers, daughters, sisters, female cousins and wives must feel when placed in similar situations. Worse yet, it seems that for every individual I confront with information about how their unsolicited sexual advances makes me feel, there are a dozen more people who will remain either ignorant or immune to the damage they are causing to women of all ages.

For now, I will continue to confront or ignore a catcaller as I deem appropriate in regards to my safety and peace of mind; but I am reminded that I am raising my son in a patriarchal society every time a man calls out to me as I walk down the street with the stroller. I wonder about what catcallers' parents taught them about the way the world works. Did their fathers do as one man did next to his 4-year-old son in the movie theater? Moan "Ay, Mami, que sexy!" when Jessica Alba popped up on the screen? Did they notice their uncles craning their necks to watch a woman walk by in Yankee Stadium? 

I do not want my son to learn that it is okay to act towards and speak to women in the way men treat me on the street. I intend to teach my son that sexual harassment and assault, whether done in public or private, is WRONG. Ultimately, I think my biggest act of courage will be to raise a son who refuses to catcall women and discourages his friends from doing so as well. If I can teach my son to recognize that catcalling disempowers women but respecting them truly shows that he cares for them, I think I will have done a good job fighting back.

To share your stories of Street Harassment, follow @iHollaback on Twitter or click here to visit their site.

This post was edited on 10/20/12 to include the female silhouette images and minor revisions to wording. 
First female silhouette image is credited to Ambrozjo and the second female silhouette image is credited to Moi Kody. I added the text to these images.

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Brooklyn Bridge 7-27-11
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Equis on our walk 7-27-2011
 
 
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Equis being a cute cowboy.
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Smiles for the Magician.
 
 
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Photo taken by Xiomara A. Maldonado 2011
I grab the cigarette from behind my friend's ear before he can stop me. "No!" he yells as I sidestep him. Rolling the white cylinder between two fingertips, I revel in its softness. I smile when a lighter appears in my right hand; and I quickly slide my thumb over its rough metal. I lift the familiar flame, breathing deeply in anticipation...

and then I'm awake, the cigarette left unlit. My son is rubbing his eyes and crying, and I realize I've had yet another dream about smoking.

It's been a year and a half since I quit smoking, but my subconscious clings to the habit, creating fantastical scenarios in which I scheme to retrieve and light cigarettes. I always ignore the urgent inner and external voices telling me, "Don't do it. Think of your baby." Then, when I awake, I feel guilty for choosing to smoke... even though it was just a dream. ...

 
 
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A toddler plays with the fire hydrant. Bronx, NY
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Barefoot in the East River. NY, NY
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Abandoned in Pump's Spray. Bronx, NY
 
 
"I can't believe you did that!" said the man before me. Children ran around the teenagers playing basketball, and Equis sat in his stroller staring up into the sunlight.

I was confused. "Did what?" I asked, as he handed my son's newly-printed NYS Safe Child Card back to me.

"Tried to combine your name and your dad's name to make his name." He looked at my son with a sad smile and shook his head. At first, I smiled back and laughed, assuming he was joking. When he continued to shake his head, however, as I explained the reasons as to why I named Equis the way I did, I cut the conversation short and pushed my stroller away from him.

Any negative commentary on my son's name always shocks me. I was raised to be polite, especially when broaching a sensitive topic: it is kind to tell someone they have spinach in their teeth; it is helpful to tuck someone's blouse tag back in; and it is loving to hand a stick of gum to a friend if they really need it. IT IS NEVER OKAY TO TELL A PARENT YOU DISAPPROVE OF THEIR CHILD'S NAME (no matter how ugly, weird, non-Biblical, "un-American" or long you think it is).

I found that even the Baby Name books and sites had frustrating advice for parents-to-be: ... 
 
 
Imagination Playground
New York City
Photos taken July 2, 2011 by Judith Mendez.
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Tiniest One Playing at Imagination Playground.
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Getting My Toes Wet at Imagination Playground!
 
 
Living Room, 6:23 PM
Baby's fuzzy hair, smooth small palm on thigh.
Salty sunflower seeds, sweet caramel coffee.
Two tiny teeth on bright red ball. Bopping boy.
Soy formula, tear-free sunblock, stinky dog farts.
Crinkling paper bag, Dada, Deedee, Rah Rah Rah!
 
 
A nurse wags her finger in my mother’s face:
“Do you know what your father did?”
(Grandpa had ripped the IV from his arm last night 
and slunk to the bathroom bleeding.)

Her chastising words - “Young immune systems 
cannot combat death!” then chase me into the elevator
and out on to First Avenue’s black-speckled streets.
I study the stroller canopy while I walk, fighting to replace 
the nurse’s scolding eyes with those of a proud man smiling 
as his great-grandson touches his shaking hand.

“You're my favorite grandpa.” 
“I’m your only.”

 I am not there when he gasps he cannot breathe,
 when residents rush a crash cart to his body.
 I am not there until later, when one uncle cracks
 jokes as he cries, another talks of sleep and work, 
and the last insists we move Pop to the Upper East Side.

My mother consults her brothers before she decides 
to sign to let the doctor prep his neck and put in lines.
We wait where the carpet is dull and the Bible passes
from hand to hand. We glare at the black television, 
its Out of Order sign, and at nurses’ aides who talk 
loudly into their phones, excitedly slipping 
green bills into the vending machine.

Two weeks later, in yet another ICU waiting room,
my son woos visitors with his lamp-like eyes 
and his gummy giggle. He blows raspberries
from an oblivious mouth; and, as a magician 
finds flowers in a sleeve, his coos cull sorrow
from our brows and wake our dormant laughs.

Soon it is my turn to sit at Grandpa's bedside.
I pass through automatic doors, then white bed 
after occupied bed until I reach his threshold.
His thinly veiled chest inflates… collapses; 
and between his teeth, a piece of yellow plastic lies 
as still as a tree frog in hiding.
I had forgotten growing up means 
the people I love get older too.

My mother has taped photographs of us to the wall.
In one my grandfather grins because it is his birthday.
He stands straight, his capable hands (that once counted
taxi fare change) gripping the top of an unseen cane.
Behind large glasses and below a New York 
Yankees cap, his eyes crinkle for the camera.

I hold my grandfather’s swollen hand and slick back
his sparse unruly hairs to kiss his sweating forehead.
I try to hide the heaving in my eyes 
when a nurse asks me to leave 
in order to switch his lifted side.

Copyright 2011 Xiomara A. Maldonado
 
 
8. Never Pay Full Price. It makes me happier to buy a pair of 50-cent shorts and a $1.00 collared shirt from the Salvation Army than to spend $16.00 on an outfit my son will only wear once.

7. Remain Calm. Being a mom means staying strong for my son. If he falls, I CANNOT freak out. Exposing my fear only makes him cry harder and longer.

6. Get It Done. It doesn't matter if it's 5:00 AM and I haven't slept all night because I've been up with a cough and fever. If my son needs me to sterilize his bottles and mix more formula, I have to get it done.

5. I'm Stronger Than I Think I Am. I can carry a 23-pound baby, a 12-pound stroller, and 15 pounds worth of bags up and down several train staircases and survive.

4. Take Advice With a Grain of Salt. How to fix my post-pregnancy body, what time to put my son to sleep, whether or not to let my son crawl on the floor. No matter the topic, people are more than willing to share unsolicited advice with me. I've learned to take every suggestion with a grain of salt.

3. Worrying is Normal. I've learned that my mother's overprotectiveness is not so far-fetched. Ater carrying my son inside of me for so many months, it is IMPOSSIBLE not to worry about his safety every moment of the day.

2. Growing is Hard Work! Growing is far more complex than one might think; and I'm awfully proud of my son for doing it and for forcing me to do it too.

1. I Am Not Just a Mother. I've learned it's important to set aside rejuvenating me-time because the way I live my life will affect the way my son lives his. It took becoming a mother to remind me that I am not just a mother. I am also a writer, and that identity is worth focusing on.

What has parenthood taught you?