I grew up with my maternal grandmother – whom, hereinafter, I will name Doña Bárbara –. To grow up in her vicinity was to grow up in an environment of male chauvinism.
I was left in her care when I turned six months old, and my parents visited me once every thirty or forty-five days, because both of them were college students and had quite tight schedules and budgets. I don’t remember exactly when it was that I started noticing the difference between the functions expected from my cousin (the second oldest grandchild) and the functions expected from me (the oldest grandchild of the Bermúdez family). Actually, there were 3 cousins who were older than I was, but they amounted to naught in the eyes of my grandmother, since my aunt (their mother) got married not having asked for her blessing first.
Doña Bárbara brought fruit from the market every day when she got back from work, and every single time, my bullying cousin was awarded the privilege to be the first one to choose the fruit to eat; or sometimes, to make matters simpler, he was given outright the reddest apple, the biggest mango, the juiciest slice of watermelon, or two oranges if I happened to be given one. Whenever I asked my grandmother why the distinction, her answer was: “it’s because he’s a man, he has to eat more and he has to be fed better”. I always had trouble understanding that answer.
My everyday itinerary was:
- Wake up at four in the morning.
- Go up to the chicken pen to pick up the eggs.
- Feed and give water to the chickens, the guinea pigs, the geese and the ducks.
- Collect chicken heads (my grandmother worked selling chicken meat in the market).
- Wait for my “payment”: fresh chicken giblets for me to season and fry and eat at my leisure.
I did all that, but when the time came to collect the “payment”, it was always divided between my cousin and me, despite the fact that he hadn’t done any work to earn it. My grandmother always said that he was weaker than me and that he was susceptible to the cold weather, ergo, he was unable to wake up early in the morning, even though I was the one who happened to suffer from untreated asthma, and the close contact with animals did nothing to help with my constant wheezing. Even so, I felt I had to make myself useful around the house. I really don’t know if all those chores were appointed to me by someone, or if I started doing them acting on my own volition because I never liked to feel useless ever since I was a little girl. I’ll never know the answer, since I can’t summon up the courage to ask anyone.
It is of certain importance to mention that my bullying cousin’s only chore was to feed and play with our grandmothers Great Dane dog, whereas I was responsible for all the other animals aforementioned, and also I was responsible for taking care of my younger cousins (children aged 2 to 3 years old), and make sure they played without their getting hurt.
Sad truth be told: my cousin was a bully. He liked to abuse dogs and cats, and these being quasi–wild animals, they always ended up “fatally” biting or scratching him, and that’s why Doña Bárbara kept on breaking down in tears, resorting to ointments, attempting to summon a saint through prayers and beating her breast, everything she could think of to get him to get well again. Whenever I had an asthma attack, Doña Bárbara rubbed my chest with menthol, wrapped me up in sheets of newspapers and covered me with two blankets. Even though I’m sure that making a “human tamale” out of me was her method of taking care of me, I’m also sure that I would had preferred to have her restrain herself to just breaking down in tears and pray.
My bullying cousin was protected by the CIA, the FBI, the police force and every kind of higher power that could be compared with my grandmother’s power in the house, and of course, by his own father (who happened to be my grandmother’s first born and her favourite son according to my aunts). My bullying cousin was allowed to hit you, smack you, pinch you, shove you, take your candies away, pour oatmeal all over you, splatter your clothes with the ducks’ filth, take away from you the chickens you were petting, and even to demand you leave the sofa the way Sheldon Cooper says “that’s my spot”. He was given full liberty to do all those things, and if you complained, Doña Bárbara would say to you: “be understanding with him, he’s still a very small child”, “leave him be, next time I won’t bring fruit for him”, “don’t fight him, don’t hit him, don’t hit him back”; which was sort of funny, considering that the little bully weighed 15 pounds more and was 4 inches taller than me. By the way, despite what my grandmother said, in the end she always gave him fruits, so he was endorsed to keep on abusing everyone. Anytime I decided to stand my ground and hit him back, I was deemed the abusive one just because he was a year younger than me.
That’s how my family forged a bully in its ranks. That is to say: a new one, since his father had been the bully of all the nine children my grandmother had, the one kid who enjoyed to physically assault my mother and to reduce to shreds her comic books. That way, a sad notion got embedded in my mind: he was always going to go unpunished despite his bad behaviour because he was a man and because I was a woman. “He’s a man, darling”, my grandmother kept on repeating, ergo, he was allowed to eat whatever he wanted, hit whomever he wanted, throw tantrums whenever he felt like it without getting scolded for it, and still be entitled to receive the huge amount of love and tender caring only a grandmother can provide.
I believe that’s why I came to be known as “Little Enma, the naughty girl”; little Enma, the one who hit him back, the one who stood up to defend her younger cousins, the one who splattered him back with the ducks’ filth, the one who once locked him up in the chicken pen and left him there for two hours (of course, after that episode, I was not given any fruit for a whole week, and they gave him my fruits instead)… but come on! It’s not like he could have died in the chicken pen! He was fat, it wasn’t cold, he could have just as easily spent locked up in there a few more hours, and considering he even fell asleep during his confinement, I can safely assume that he was not uncomfortable. OK, I concede you that to lock him up was a mean thing to do, but he had cut off 4 inches of hair from the head of one of our younger female cousins, so he had it coming. Once I also had to endure an arduous 15–minute session of punching, kicking and head–butting, where neither of us rose victorious, but I ended up in the emergency room of the nearest hospital requiring urgent nebulisation due to an asthmatic crisis triggered by all that activity, and he ended up cuddling in my grandmother’s arms. Nonetheless, it was all worth it: he had pushed my little brother, who was just learning to walk. This last event, though, took place during a visit to Doña Bárbara’s house (my parents had a very distorted idea of what “vacations” meant, so every January, February and March I was forced to relive everything that surrounded my grandmother’s place).
The grandest victory out of all the battles I waged against my bullying cousin happened the day we had a shoving duel. I can’t actually recall why the confrontation started, but I do remember I was beside myself, with anger and wheezing (because of my asthma) filling my chest, and I shoved him hard enough to make him fall to the floor. Coincidentally, the cement in the spot where he landed was still wet, therefore, his plump figure got imprinted partially on the floor: a pair of hands, a cheek and a voluminous belly. One of my uncles – the youngest of all my grandmother’s children – did not bother to fix the cement, he just let it dry up the way he found it, and he told me: “this is for you to remember that you have the capacity to beat him up whenever you make your mind up to do it, he has no right to hit you”. I have to admit that I laughed out loud every time I looked at that imprint on the floor, and it was a reminder for me that I was able to defend myself.
That’s the way a bully was raised, and that’s the way a girl who refused to be loved less because of her being a woman was raised. It is certainly not the best way to raise a girl who defended her identity and gender, because I often asked myself (I don’t exactly remember how long into my teenage years): “would it all had been easier had I been born a man?”, and that is a question no woman should ever ask herself.
I never quite understood the hierarchy in Doña Bárbara’s house, because even though it was pretty obvious that she was in command of everything (business matters, family matters, economy matters, household matters), and despite her being such an alpha female – and my grandfather such a beta male –, still her every decision was infused with male chauvinism.
I think that I didn’t need to grow up fearing I could get hit, fearing that no one would defend me, fearing that my mother would not believe me (since my grandmother always told her an altered story favouring my bullying cousin); I don’t think it was necessary for me to grow up in Sparta until I was 4 or 5 years old in order for me to learn to defend my rights. It would have sufficed to have my grandmother saying to me that she loved best my cousin because he was a man, and the matter would have been decidedly closed.
When I was 4 or 5 years old, I was taken to live with my paternal grandmother, a woman I always associated with Madame Bovary, not because of her extramarital affairs, but because of the unnecessary suffering and drama by which she always strived to get surrounded. I was taken to her house for a few months because ‘I had to spend more time with my parents’. I will never forget that, on my very first day there, I was hit by the oldest cousin (of that branch of my family) while we were playing – we were attempting to re–enact a Kung Fu fight we’d seen on TV –, and I hit him back just as strongly. Immediately, Madame Bovary ran up to us, shot us a killing glance and she said: “ONLY SAVAGES HIT EACH OTHER! IF HE HITS YOU, HE’S A SAVAGE, YOU TELL ME AND I WILL REPRIMAND HIM, BUT IF YOU HIT HIM BACK, YOU BECOME EVEN A WORSE SAVAGE, AND I WILL NOT STAND FOR ANY SAVAGE IN THIS HOUSE!”. My cousin apologised, and I suffered an emotional apoplexy that lasted several days, and I think that it was because of that (and because I was terrified of Madame Bovary) that I always obeyed my grandmother, even in her weirdest commands, such as reading the Apocalypse book with her, or listening to a famous christian evangelist preacher (‘Hermano Pablo’) along with her.
That’s how my childhood was passed: between living with Doña Bárbara and living with Madame Bovary, I did not have a stable home until I was 8 years old and we moved in permanently with Madame. I developed a chameleonic ability to shift between ‘a little savage girl’ (description given by Madame) when I was at Doña Bárbara’s, and ‘a little savage girl in the process of being tamed’ when I was at Madame’s.
One time, both of my grandmothers met in a family reunion. Madame was there to witness how the bullying cousin and I fought fist to fist before the unaffected staring of the relatives of the Doña’s. So Madame said: “Doña, if you give them free rein to hit each other, he will learn that it is OK for him to hit, and she will learn that it is normal for her to be hit”; and Doña answered: “No, Madame, that behaviour is nothing more than child’s play”. Well, it wasn’t so, Doña, 25 years later
I say to you that it was not a game, it was a life lesson out of which luckily I got over, but my bullying cousin didn’t.
I am a woman, but first and foremost I am a HUMAN BEING and I want to be appreciate for what I am and what I do.