Not long ago, I stayed with a family in Managua for about a month, when I was working there. The couple were in their mid-30s and had two children, a boy and a girl. The woman’s mother lived there as well, helped around the house, and painted small flower watercolors. The room they rented me was at the rear of the house, so far back that it flirted with detachment. The slotted window above my bed looked out on the area where the women scrubbed clothes with a brush in a ribbed basin. They hung them on lines to dry in the baking afternoon sun, which would dispel the moisture from a tee-shirt within a half hour, leaving it crisp and warm to the touch.
The man was a taxi driver and kept his cab parked in front of the house. He also told me at some point that he ran a small construction business, though I never found any evidence other than his words to support this; nor, frankly, did he project the discipline and professionalism of a business owner. Perhaps there was a business and it lay fallow because of economic conditions, I thought. His wife stayed home, kept up the house, helped the children with their homework; a homemaker as it used to be called. The man never washed a dish or swept a floor. It is the situation a great number of women in the country find themselves in, even in the wake of female liberation following the 1979 revolution. True, the nation had elected a female president, but it was women of a privileged class who had been liberated from traditional roles and given options; outside of that class, the fundamental patriarchal organization of the family, and the woman’s place in it, had not changed.
The woman was short and fleshy. She constantly poked fun at her own weight, with the apparently emancipating self-derision so common to the Nicaraguan sense of humor. Her husband was twice as big as her, but I rarely heard her criticize him for it. She was addicted to soda, and went through at least one 2-liter bottle of Coca Cola a day. “Coca Cola is everything to me,” she once swooned, while acknowledging that it was the main reason she weighed more than she would like. When she wasn’t working on the house, she sat in the living room sipping on soda over ice in a big plastic cup and watching true-crime shows from the U.S., dubbed in Spanish.
She came across as reluctant to talk at first, either suspicious of me or under the impression that I wanted to be left alone. Meals were included in what I paid, and the first time she cooked she brought the plate to my room; I had to explain to her that I would prefer to eat in the dining area. As she warmed up to me, she began to give me advice over these meals. She warned me to keep clear of the youth who hung out on the corners, telling me of several occasions where they had robbed foreigners. She also told me to stay away from the little general store, or ventas, two doors down.
“The woman who runs that place is a meddler,” she said, exasperated just in the telling. “Every time someone stays here she ends up telling them all sorts of stupid things. You’d be better off going around the corner to the other store.”
It was true, there was another ventas right on the corner. Without prying any more into her reasons for this suggestion, I decided to try and honor it, rather than cause any sort of trouble. It was a little strange to walk by that store on my way to the other and then return with groceries, but I avoided meeting the gaze of the owner, an older woman who would often sit outside the store in a rocking chair, fanning herself.
It was hard to determine what the man’s work schedule was. Often in the mornings as the wife was getting the kids into their uniforms and ready for school, he would be sprawled in a chair in front of the TV, snoring, eliciting looks of disgust and sometimes a slap on the arm from his wife. He had been out all night, obviously, whether working or involved in something else it wasn’t quite clear, nor really mine to ask about. His belly spilled out of his tee-shirt; his eyes drooped.
Once, sitting in this chair, he said to me, apparently without being aware that his wife had already done so, “don’t go to the ventas next door.”
“Why?” I asked, expecting to hear the same reason.
“She charges too much for her goods,” he said.
When it got dark about 5 o’clock, the family would set chairs outside the door and socialize; often the wife’s niece, a woman in her early 20s who favored tight, short skirts and heels, would join the gathering. One night when we were all sitting out there, the niece walked by and the husband reached over and snapped the band of her skirt. She scowled and raised her hand, said, “that’s what your wife is for,” and went inside. He laughed and his wife sipped at her drink. I got the feeling that this was an episode in an ongoing drama of machismo they all played out somewhere below full awareness, almost like involuntary muscle twitches. In Latin American culture, it is important for men to constantly establish their virility; it is often more important than it is to establish their faithfulness, which can be taken as a sign of a weak libido. Women don’t enjoy this freedom. The roles are stark, and deeply unequal, but they are comfortable, familiar. The contours are well-known.
One morning while brushing her daughter’s hair, the wife told me that her husband had cheated on her and they had split for a while, but decided to reconcile. Things had gotten so bad lately, though, she said, in front of her daughter, that she had told him maybe they should really just forget it, that they’d be better off on their own. But I got the impression as she said it that it wasn’t a realistic option for her, that it was more like a daydream, the ability to live in a different way, with a different relationship to men. She seemed enmeshed.
As the weeks went on, the couple began to fight more and more. Perhaps they had been putting on a good show for me at first and couldn’t sustain it; maybe they just hit a bad patch. Days would go by when the wife wouldn’t say a single word to the husband, who would stare, dazed, at the morning news before going off in his cab to wherever it was that he went. I retreated somewhat into my work and my room, not sure what I could do about the contentious atmosphere and not wanting to take it on. One day the wife knocked on my door and asked if she could talk to me.
“You’ve been keeping to yourself a lot,” she said. “I wanted to know if I’d done something to offend you.”
“No,” I said. “Not at all. It’s just that sometime you’re having problems with your husband and I don’t want to interfere in any way.”
“You haven’t spoken to the woman at the ventas?” she said. It was true that I had begun to shop there once in a while, though I had never held a conversation with the woman.
“No,” I said.
“I thought maybe she had said something to you about me,” she said.
“Well, if she told you I was a prostitute, you should know that isn’t true. I mean, look at me. I don’t have the face or the body.”
I didn’t know what to say, about why the woman at the ventas would call this woman a prostitute, about how I had gone against my word to go there, about the relationship she had with her husband, about the way she so recklessly derided herself, about a culture I loved that also relegated women to a certain role. As I realized there was no way beyond the perplexity of it all, I found myself laughing, and the wife laughing with me. And I’m pretty sure, though not positive, that we were laughing at the same thing.