SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic— The man on the bus reached over and caressed her bare thigh, warm from the sun’s heat after a day at the beach.
Yet, she had not asked him to, at least not knowingly and certainly not verbally.
She felt violated, uncertain of her place despite her prior confidence. He smiled at her, desire seemingly in his eyes.
Staring back in shock, she focused on her peripherals, hoping someone would interfere.
No one did.
“In Latin America in general there is a sense of machismo,” Ms. Gabrielle Equale, who spent time in Chile and Mexico while studying Latin American studies, told the Viễn Đông. “It’s a very cultural habit.”
Machismo is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a strong sense of masculine pride,” and an “exaggerated or exhilarating sense of power and strength.” It is considered to be a deeply rooted and acceptable attitude in countries-like the Dominican Republic-displayed by competitive actions among men, including their sexual conquests of women.
Ms. Equale told the Viễn Đông that she did not notice machismo in Chile as much as she did in Mexico, though “that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.”
“Women in general are seen as inferior,” she told the Viễn Đông of her experience in Guadalajara, Mexico, adding that she noticed women walking behind men and men ordering for women at restaurants.
During Ms. Equale’s stay in Chile, bà Michele Bachelet was the country’s president. Women were treated better in Valparaiso, Chile than in other countries Ms. Equale had traveled to, she told the Viễn Đông.
Though, “there was a larger difference between men and women in the lower social classes,” she continued, adding that the richer people lived closer to the water while the poorer people lived in the hills.
Latin America: brief history
As of the 2010 census, there were over 590 million people living in Latin America.
Before mostly Spanish, Portuguese, and French people began colonizing the region in the 16th century, numerous Indigenous peoples inhabited the area now known as Latin America. Some of them, like the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas, developed advanced civilizations.
As Indigenous populations began dying off from disease, slavery, and wars, the Europeans brought Africans to the region as replacements to do the slave work. The mixture of Indigenous peoples, Europeans, and Africans is still prevalent in Latin America’s racial diversity as some countries reflect the mixed genes and other countries are populated with mostly one ethnic group.
Though, still influenced by their colonial past, Latin American countries have gained independence, mostly resulting from movements and wars from the late 18th through 19th centuries.
Latin America has been considered one of the most unequal regions in the world in terms of socioeconomics, stemming largely from institutions put in place during colonial times that generally kept people of color, women, and poor people from attaining social status.
Although, there are deeply rooted ideologies-like machismo- prevalent throughout Latin America, there has been progress made in certain social areas, specifically regarding women.
Progress a process for women
In 2009, the magazine Dissident Voice published an article that called the political left shift in Latin America positive for women in the region.
For example, Venezuelan Socialist President Hugo Chavez has been self-proclaimed as a feminist, his voter base in every election since first running for presidency in 1998 being poor women.
Most people living in Venezuela are reportedly living in poverty, 65 percent of households are headed by single women, many of whom support President Chavez’s social welfare programs-including care for women who have suffered domestic abuse.
Under the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, women are guaranteed social, political, and economic equality with men. The Constitution recognizes that housework is an activity that stimulates the economy, thus giving social security benefits to housewives.
However, not all Latin American women are supportive of left-wing ideologies and social programs, as there is also a right-wing middle class segment of women who are not necessarily struggling for the same rights as their poorer sisters.
Women’s movements that center on economic difficulty will more likely include women and men in the lower classes than women along class lines. Also, there is not always unity in organizing among women of Indigenous or African descent and women of European descent, as some movements also focus on race.
Indigenous women, for example, receive triple discrimination as they are women, non-white, and largely poor. In Bolivia, where Indigenous people are over half the population, women are struggling to preserve their country’s natural resources as their land is subject to devastation for commercial purposes.
Abortion is illegal in Bolivia, unless the woman is a rape victim or could have a life-threatening pregnancy. Still, the country has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, though lower than it could be since there is a fee of $150. That kind of money is often difficult for the women to come by.
In Chile, abortion is completely illegal, no exceptions. Though, former President Bachelet did expand contraception access, including a policy that distributed the morning after pill for free in public health clinics.
Though, Ms. Equale remembers women being respected relatively strongly in Chile, she does recall being treated differently herself during her stay.
“It could have been that I was seeing things or being treated differently because I was there as a foreigner,” she told the Viễn Đông, adding that people often treated her as though she understood little. “[It] Could have also been because I was a woman.”