Lydia Cacho and the power of symbols

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Today I woke up thinking that, even if I’m dedicating these few months to writing, I am profoundly happy -and proud- of my work.  I say it because people often tell me “I do see why you wanted to leave your job and…”, if you say it, you evidently don’t “see” very far.  I liked, loved, adored my job.  I left it because it’s very demanding and I needed to recharge my batteries to be able to dive back into it with a clear mind.  Being an “expert in gender development” is a broad definition which, in my opinion, doesn’t have a very clear meaning.

I am a woman with a degree and a masters degree in economics who has chosen to use her hard skills to do something not as financially rewarding as becoming a businesswoman, a stock broker or an investment banker.  I have decided to change my tiny slice of the world for the best (and as soon as I decided it I realized how hard, frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking it was) and I stopped doing it when I realized that slice of the world was sucking me in.

I recently spoke to Lydia Cacho, for those who don’t know her, she is a mexican writer and journalist.  After she wrote a book on child trafficking and pornography (The Demons of Eden) she was arrested and tortured upon the request of a Mexican politician who was directly involved in the exploitation of children and young women for sexual purposes.  Following the publication of the book she opened a foster home for the victims of human trafficking.

She has told me her story in plain English, with no emotions and no tears, in the surreal beauty of Bali, with the silvery sound of the palm leaves which, at once, had become sinister.  The first time a woman told me she had been raped it was through a translator, I remember how she spoke in a dull voice, monotone, as if there was nothing more to it than the description of an act.  I remember thinking “Don’t throw up, don’t throw up” and zoning out, hearing her words like a mosquito in my ear and try not to listen to them.  When she left, going back to her job (making gravel out of a gigantic stone on the side of the road) I did throw up and felt ashamed for it.  I thought I would have never have had sex again, I would have never dared love a man again.  The memory stuck, thick and slimy like a slug, for a few days and then I moved on.  Like everyone.

The following times have been less and less painful, until one day I surpised myself thinking “Fuck, not again…”.  And that was the day I realized it was time to take a break.  If you do this job you have to grow a thick shell around you, you can’t suffer for each one of the victims and you can’t be there each one of them because you work on a so called “critical mass”.  One is a sad story, 100,000 are a worldwide UN funded project.

When you start working for an aid agency or an NGO the first thing you are told is “Be brave but not reckless”, well, Lydia is reckless.  It seems almost that having survived once gives her the thrill to see if she can do it again.

I like Lydia but I’m not like her, I can’t talk about rape and tequila in the same sentence but I like her, I like how she never gave up and how she never bowed her head.  She may die, she knows it.  And her strength, in my opinion, is to know that life can end.  She ended her interview with me saying “I enjoy every minute”, and I understand, because having learnt what death is at a very young age, I know what it means to think that tomorrow it may all be over.

The extraordinary thing about her though, is that she, unlike most of us, is reminded every single day that someone wants her dead.  In spite of that, a thought that would paralyse the majority of people I know, including myself, and who I consider fairly brave, she dances salsa and enjoys sex.

I am extremely proud of having met her, for what she represnts, mostly, but also for what she made me realize.  Our world, our modern, fast paced world needs people like her, people who can be, who are not afraid to be symbols.  We, (I was going to say atheist feminists but, really, all of us) need symbols now more than ever.  I don’t want to be her, I don’t want to be like her, but I want to know that she’s there, that people like her are there.

It’s strange because we work with similar people (in her case they are called sources and in mine beneficiaries, but behind each of them, in Mexico or in India, there’s the same helplessly void look) and yet our work is so different…  I had an interesting conversation today with a colleague.  When I told her about my interview she answered “Yeah, she shatters the vase and we pick up the pieces…”.  I confess I hadn’t thought about this interpretation.  Unlike my friend I think that our work, despite being different, is very symbiotic: she (people like her) exposes what we (development workers) don’t know.  And yes, we pick up the pieces, but is it better to pick up the fragments of an ugly vase and turn it into something that could be beautiful (taking a girl who has been forced into marriage and send her to school) or to work independently and risk achieving nothing?

I prefer to pick up the pieces of the Lydia Cachos of the world and work together to try and give women around the world a better future.

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