The Rebellion Inherent in Being Who YOU Want to Be

I wrote this for my dad’s magazine Under the Same Sky. The upcoming issue’s theme is “Rebellion” and I thought I could add something to the conversation by talking about my travels. Enjoy!

Rebellion is a heavily-loaded word, one thick with connotation, a word whose meaning if not form dates at least as far back as the human race. In its historical sense, it usually comes armed, wielded in the hands of the colonized, the oppressed, or simply the dissatisfied. In art it often manifests as abstraction or the surreal, breaking tradition with a brushstroke. It can be bloody or peaceful, silent or cacophonous, but it is always, at its heart, a breaking away from what is expected.

Rebellions have accounted for some of the most important developments in history: the American Revolution (revolution being a more sophisticated form of rebellion), the women’s suffragette movement, the battle for gay rights, etc. But there are an infinite number of rebellions that happen every day, that will never be written down in any books, that may not even go by their proper name. Sometimes we don’t even realize we are in fact rebelling until, slowly or all at once, it becomes clear.

As a woman traveling South America alone, it has been the comments of both friends and strangers as well as their reactions to what I’m doing that has convinced me that I am, essentially, rebelling against the norm. In the United States, it has become accepted and even expected to travel when you’re young or in college because, as I’ve heard countless times in my life, “it gets harder to do as you get older”. But while it may be more common in my generation, what is not quite as explicit is the assumption that one will eventually put aside childish things and put on the yolk of adulthood and the trajectory of a life, a woman’s life especially, is expected to include marriage and children.

So if traveling abroad is so common, what about my personal experience is rebellious? Just this: that I am a 26 year-old woman and in Latin America, specifically, I should already have at least a husband, if not one or more children. Probably about 80% of the conversations I have had with people in Colombia and Ecuador have included, within the first few sentences, “Where is your husband?” or “How many children do you have?” When I answer in the negative, or, more often, laugh, they smile and say “Oh, then you must have a boyfriend?” It is only then, when I answer that I am single and not only that, but happily so, and even worse, have no intention of either getting married or having children that their smile turns uncertain, as if they are no longer sure exactly who or what they are dealing with.

What is happening here is that I, as a single woman who finished school almost 5 years ago, fall outside of what is considered the norm in Latin America. I have been asked if I am “worried” about the fact that I’m single or offered, as if it was an Advil for a headache, to be set up with friends of these people, people I know little if at all. This is not to say that back at home there are not other women like me, as I know many, but here, in a place where it is very common to marry and have children at a young age and not common at all to actively not pursue either of these things, I am an oddity. 

But it is not this alone. The idea of macho men as well as stricter gender roles are embedded in Latin culture and as such I have found that men are substantially more prone here than in the U. S. to catcall women. Back at home in California, I feel equipped to handle catcalling, armed with the comfort of being in a place and within a culture I am intrinsically familiar with. But when I am in new cities, in a constant state of uprooting and traveling, catcalling takes on a much more threatening cast, especially when I’m alone. Men have even attempted to rob me here, luckily unsuccessfully, in part because as a woman I am seen as vulnerable. Thus, I have found that it has taken a good deal of courage to continue on, to wear the clothes I feel represent me, and to walk the streets of foreign cities, exploring and finding new places to love, in spite of the moments when men have made me feel as though I would like to hide or wish that I did have a boyfriend or husband to “protect” me. 

Rebellion does not have to be a momentous and organized event. You do not have to march bare-breasted through the streets of San Francisco or wear anarchist badges on your distressed denim jacket to be a rebel (though by all means, do so if that’s your thing). It may not even be noticed by other people, since the smallest act can be a rebellion, too. Even walking down a street and ignoring (or giving the finger to) catcallers is a rebellion, or unashamedly answering questions to which the askers assume they already know the answer. Being a woman, or a man, or anywhere in between for that matter, and brazenly asserting your right to live the life you want, even if it goes totally against what is expected of you by society, is the ultimate rebellion.

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