That one time I went to a BA drag bar…

Latin America gets a bad rep for sexism. Many point to machismo culture as one of the main factors in inhibiting gender equality. I don’t think that I’ve spent enough time here in order to really say anything definitive about the state of machismo culture in Argentina. I am also very aware of the fact that as a visible foreigner, my experience of the local culture will always be somewhat filtered. Though I’ve gained a better understanding of the political status of women in this country through my internship with ELA, I still have a lot to learn about what it is like to be an Argentine women.

Upon arriving, I was expecting the city’s incredible boliches to be one of the places where I could really observe machismo culture up close and personal. And while there have been a couple moments in boliches where I’ve been approached creepily (this one guy stroked my hair – not a cute look), I can’t really say that it was any more sexist than a club in Hong Kong or a frat party in Cambridge. In fact, I can actually report the opposite after a great experience that I had at a very special boliche just last week.

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Every Thursday, Niceto Club in Palermo turns into the aptly named Club 69, Buenos Aires’ premier drag club. It’s not hard to get in. One simply has to sign up online with an email address in order to get on “the list” so Nat and I decided to check it out last Thursday. Not going to lie, even though I had literally just typed in my email online an hour before, it felt super cool to be able to march to the front of the line and say “Hola, me llamo Rachel Chiu, estoy en la lista” (Hi, my name is Rachel Chiu, I’m on the list *insert optional hair-flip).

The interior of Club 69 consists of a long bar, a large dance floor, a balcony, and a stage with flashing strobe lights. What really set Club 69 apart though was that there were these incredible drag queens stationed on the balcony fiercely posing to the trance beat. It was really just a taste of what was to come.

At 2:00am, the performance began in proper. The theme that night was very Little Mermaid inspired and these gorgeous, fishnet clad, red wig wearing, shell bra rocking, snorkel donning, dancers were completely bewitching the audience from the stage. Other than the Hasty Pudding show back at Harvard, this was my first experience dipping my toes into drag culture. I must admit that I’m not very knowledgable of the importance of drag culture and it’s relationship with LGBTQ movements. I need to read up on this. What I do know though, and what I experienced that night, is the fact that there is something deliciously subversive about a group of gorgeous men in sky-high heels, all incredibly confident in their own bodies and their own sexualities, dancing around a stage in front of an adoring crowd.

But aside from the wonderful rupture of socially imposed gender norms, the drag show was just a sheer display of talent. Any one of these drag queens could have been on an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. And no, this isn’t the mojitos talking. Do you think it’s easy looking so sexy while wearing a snorkel? I was so mesmerised by the amount of energy they brought to every routine and the spontaneity behind every improvisation. Everything about the performance worked. The set design: fabulous. The music: so hip, so cool, so edgy. The vibes: so positive, so free, so loud.

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I think what’s powerful about drag culture is that it is so unapologetic. And when it’s done as well as it was at Club 69, it is a great showcase of dance, personality, and, of course, pride. I bet you didn’t know that Argentina was actually the first Latin American country to legalise same-sex marriage and the tenth world-wide. I certainly didn’t before coming here. This progressiveness really shows at a place like Club 69 where the crowd was visibly LGBTQ friendly.

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Thanks for a great night Club 69!

I can safely say that this show/club/rave was one of my best night-life experiences so far. And in truth, it was one of the most interesting and empowering experiences from a feminist perspective from my time in Argentina thus far. I am in the process of dissecting the generalised Latin American stereotypes about sexism in this part of the world and while there are certainly fights that must be fought here, I have thankfully had the privilege of experiencing other moments of female empowerment as well. These moments include: that time I watched women taking care of each other on the subway, that time I was inspired by feminist street art, that time I bonded with my host mom over good food and the importance of motherhood, and, last but certainly not least, that one time I went to a Buenos Aires drag bar.

The Intimacy of Home Cooking and the Importance of Motherhood

When I first applied for this internship in Buenos Aires, I greatly overlooked how significant the homestay experience would be. I was just so excited to be in Argentina, to see Iguazu, to drink wine in Mendoza, to see tango, and to fulfil any number of other Argentine stereotypes. I completely underestimated how a significant chunk of my experience would revolve around this concept of building a home in this city with my new Argentine family.

If you really think about it, the entire idea of a host family is actually quite amazing. A local family literally decides to adopt you for a prolonged amount of time based on nothing but the trust they have in the program coordinator. The family knows nothing about you other than your name and your university before letting you stomp all over their home upon arrival. For all they know, you could be a totally inconsiderate jerk and yet they’d still have to feed you and wash up after you. The generosity and trust that these host families possess is really quite astounding.

I completely lucked out with my host family. Strictly speaking, I just have a host mom, but I used to have a host sister as well (Olenka, another girl who just finished a semester abroad), and we were a lovely little family. Now, it’s just me and Ivonne, my host mom, but we still make a cozy family of two. Words cannot express how grateful I am for madre, as I call her.

Of all the amazing experiences I have had so far in Argentina, I’d say the one I value the most is building my relationship with her. This happens primarily over the dinner table where madre and I break bread and work on my equally broken Spanish. I love it though! It makes such a difference that I have someone to ask me how my day was every time I come home.

I don’t think I really realised how intimate cooking is until I started eating with madre. I could see that she was concerned with whether or not I enjoyed her cooking which made me extremely aware that every bite I was taking was not only a bite of her hard work, but also a bite of her culture. And while I was tempted to just nod and say that I loved everything, madre was thick-skinned and insisted on honesty. Luckily, we do have very similar tastes and she is a fantastic cook so I genuinely loved most of what she cooked the first week. But after I told her that I didn’t like mayonnaise, coleslaw disappeared from the table and was replaced by a green salad. After I told her I was meh about bananas, apples and oranges suddenly filled the kitchen drawers and the bananas were banished.

After the first week, it’s really just been hit after hit from madre. In particular, I genuinely appreciate how seriously she has taken my request to eat healthy. You are what you eat which is what makes cooking for someone else so intimate. What you cook directly impacts someone else’s health. For the most part, madre and I eat incredibly delicious yet nutritious and light food. Madre really moved me one night when she made a healthy chop suey (veggie stir-fry) with rice after asking me about food from back in Hong Kong. Other favourites of mine include her wonderful pea soup, her grilled vegetables, and her delicious steamed fish. She’s an artist by trade and you can tell that she loves working with her hands and puts care into everything she touches.

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Only an artist would have such an aesthetic cutlery organization system.

Sometimes though, we eat a little naughty (all in the name of cultural immersion though of course). Madre cooks a mean steak (this is Argentina after all), a banging milanesa, and great homemade gnocchi.

On the 29th last month, I walked into the kitchen to see a little ten peso note laid underneath my plate.

“Madre, ¿has perdido diez pesos?” (Mom, have you lost ten pesos?).

“No Rachel, es porque hoy es el día de ñoquis” (No Rachel, it’s because today is the Day of Gnocchi), while loading a mountain of gnocchi and tomato sauce on my plate.

Yeah, you heard that right, Argentina has a monthly gnocchi day. The story of the tradition is that the 29th of every month use to be the day before payday so money and supplies would always be low. Families usually only had potatoes left at that point so delicious little gnocchis, essentially small pillows of potato, was the obvious way to go. Now, families gather on the 29th to eat gnocchi together for good luck. For extra prosperity, the tradition is to put pesos underneath the plate.

Little stories like this have greatly enriched my experience here (at the expense of enriching my waistline as well). I’ve loved learning about my madre and her culture through the amazing food that she puts in front of me every night. After each meal, I wash the dishes while she drys. We’re a perfect team. I am so thankful for being let into this home and for being so welcomed. This experience has shown me the importance of home cooking. It has reminded me how linked home food is to motherhood (I don’t call her madre for nothing), to nourishment, to wellbeing, and to tradition. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but salivate a little at the thought of what madre is going to serve up tonight. Whatever it is, it is sure to be made with love and entirely mayonnaise free!

The Origins of Imperfect Feminist

This past semester, I took part in a photo project by Diana Im, one of the cool seniors in my history of feminism class. For her final project, she decided to tackle the pressure that many young feminists feel to be perfect. To be intersectional enough, to be well-read enough, to be woke enough, and to be inclusive enough. While these are all wonderful aspirations, fear of imperfection often leads to silence for fear of getting something wrong. Diana’s project chose to highlight growth and effort – the process of being what she coined, an imperfect feminist. I’ve been struck by this phrase and I’ve decided to borrow it for some of my own writing.

This is a piece of what I originally wrote for Diana along with some cool photos that she took to go with it:

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 I think that it’s a beautiful phrase to capture how I feel about my own feminism, as someone who is still learning, I think that there is a tendency to want to be perfect because very ironically, I think studying institutionalized women and gender studies just ties feminism in at least for me with all the trappings of academia. It’s like always having to have read the right authors, to have been exposed to the certain theories and being able to talk about them and apply them properly… And so just being able to balance the imperfections of reality and of my own life with the want to be perfect in an academic sense has been really interesting. We talk about it a lot but there’s almost no way to translate what goes on in the ivory tower to what goes on in the real world, and so I am so down to embrace this idea that we’re all imperfect and we’re all bad feminists.”

Please check out her blog and the other entries here!

 

An important reminder:

I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of street art the other day while wandering around Palermo Soho, the chicest barrio of Buenos Aires:

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“Mujer ¡Empiece una revolución! Ame su cuerpo”

It reads: “Woman! Start a revolution! Love your body!”

Wow. What an important reminder to us all.

I am currently doing a 2 month internship in Buenos Aires at ELA, el Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (The Latin American League for Gender Justice), an Argentine NGO dedicated to improving women’s rights, increasing female political participation, and bettering the lives of Argentine women. It’s a great organization and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work with them. I am very excited to learn more about women’s rights in this country and to learn about how advocacy groups operate and fight to make the world a better place.

I also encountered another more sobering reminder while walking the streets of Buenos Aires:

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“1 femicidio cada 24 horas – Vivas nos queremos!”

It reads: “One femicide every 24 hours – We want to Live!”

Estimates put the rate of femicide in Argentina, or the killing of females due to their gender or factors related to their gender, at somewhere between one every 18-24 hours. That. Can’t. Stand. The fight for women’s rights is one that very much must still be fought and I am constantly in awe of my colleagues at ELA for the work that they do.

It’s safe to say that  I have been inspired by the incredible street art in Buenos Aires. The following photo was taken in La Boca, a colorful old barrio. Notice that little hood in right corner? That’s the symbol for Las Madres, a group of mothers who’s children were “disappeared” by the government during Argentina’s Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”) of the 70s.

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To this very day, las madres gather in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday to publicly protest government corruption and to raise awareness for los desaparecidos, the term given to the dissidents that were taken against their will. The whole topic of the Dirty War is still quite controversial and it has been interesting talking to locals and hearing a wide range of opinions. I hope to head to the Plaza de Mayo myself one of these Thursdays to hear directly from these brave women.

Until I do though, here are some pics of other beautiful street art – work that reminds us that as much as art can be political, it can also just be beautiful.