Thou shall not have a tired man

There is sexism in the world and it comes in different flavors. In some demographics, sexism is bitter and more sour. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the discussion over sexism turns particularly flavorful when color is added. There is this notion, that I am not contesting, that women are part of the problem with sexism. It is vastly documented and supported by anecdotal evidence that a reason for why sexism survives time and change is that it works for some women. Some women have opposed important movements that sought to empower other women, such as the anti-suffragists or the all-too-good-ladies at the country club that tell mothers their daughters wont be allowed at the pool until they have shaved their armpits (this, is a true story that happened to someone in my family). An idea that has been floating around society is that black women are particularly inclined to promote sexist ideas. All that is bullshit.

I have been pondering upon a story I heard years ago that troubled the man who told me the story. He had been shocked at a black woman’s apparent acceptance and support towards an obviously sexist culture that dictated her marital relationship. The way he told the story truly made it sound like the woman kept choosing the sexist way. Recently, I remembered the story and found the key piece that was missing from the original interpretation. Now, I’ll tell you the story and the piece that was missing.

A man, a white man, was sent to Choco on a vaccination campaign. Choco is a region of Colombia predominantly black. Choco is also the most undeveloped region of the country. Residents of Choco live in mostly precarious conditions. There are hardly any public services and few economic opportunities. Life is difficult for everyone.

The white doctor from Bogota spent a few days in the region vaccinating kids and adults. During his trip he strongly experienced racism and sexism. First, he felt hostility against him from the locals because he was white and, likely, because he came from the interior of the country. He represented the white men that had turned a blind eye to slavery during colonialism and who had exploited and abandoned black communities after gaining independence. He represented a country that was more white and more developed than Choco. He tells of his travels that whenever they had a break from vaccination, they guys would join the locals for a daily futbol game. Despite being a good player, the locals never passed him the ball. They let him in the game, but they didn’t want to play with him.

Racism was not fun. But particularly troubling for the white male medical doctor, was experiencing sexism. In his trip he had unique conversation with a black woman that confronted him with the problem in a very different way. A way that confused him. He says that one day he was vaccinating kids at the house of a local family. During his time there he was chatting with the woman head of family and asking her about her daily chores and the family’s structure. The woman told him her husband would go out during the day to try his luck at finding the day’s sustenance: food, money, anything. That meant sometimes he would go fishing, sometimes he would go search for gold stones in the river, sometimes he would just roam around with his buddies looking for something to fix in exchange of some money. He was hunter. She, well, she was everything else. She would wake before the sun and make whatever food they had to give a bite of breakfast to her husband and kids . She would then take the kids to school and on the way back stop by the store to pick up anything she could afford to make lunch and dinner. She would then go find wood and water. Now she could start fire, cook, clean and prepare drinks and baths for the rest of the family. Then, she would go home, clean the house and make dinner. She would then begin working. She would wash and saw clothes of neighbors. Next, she would pick the kids up from school and help them with homework and send them to play. And then, she would wait. Wait for the husband to return to feed him and bathe him and give him a massage.

After hearing all this, the white man from the interior asked her if maybe that wasn’t too much on her. If maybe it was better for the couple to distribute the chores so that she would have time to go to school or go out with friends and relax. The black woman answered: “and why do I want a tired black man?”

The white man was not prepared for that answered. It took him by surprise: the black  woman enabled sexism in her relationship because she was better off with sexism. But better off how? The black woman valued his husband’s strength and vitality to the point that she was willing to  give up her own strength and vitality. It did not make any sense. In his eagerness to understand, the only interpretation he could give, was that this black woman at least, must have placed a lot of valued on her partner’s sexual drive. Ironically, the white man’s explanation for sexism was racist. Black communities are known for their libido, thus, it must be that sexism works because black women have no sexual use for a tired black man. Wrong.

I never liked this story, and I never liked this explanation. But I never went beyond the story to cure my dissatisfaction. Until recently. Today, I have a different interpretation.

What happens when humans (men, women, black, white, tall, short, old, young) get tired? We get sensitive and irascible. It is easier to become aggressive and violent when we are tired. Now you probably know where I am going. Women are biologically different than men. We tend to be smaller and we tend to have less muscular mass. We are just more physically vulnerable than men. If you happen to be a woman (black, white, old, young) and you happen to be interacting with a man, you really would prefer him to not be violent, because the chances of you out-forcing or out-running him are minimal. Now, if you are a woman, and you interact with a man, and you know that tired men are more likely to get violent, then, it is only sensible for you to prevent that man from being tired. It’s totally logical.

This problem of “not having use for a tired man” is not a problem of black women. White women get beat up too. Maybe they just don’t talk about it. Are they better off not talking about it? I don’t think so. Not in the long-run at least. Sexism is not working for women. They are just scared of stopping it, and rightly so.Before sexism stops, women must be empowered. They must be big enough, loud enough, and there must be enough of them. That’s why we need feminism. We all want to be rested.


The skeleton with no closet

Recently, I learned that referring to “the skeleton in the closet” was an expression used to describe a secret fact about someone that could damage that person’s image, if revealed. This is particularly humorous to me, because I happen to have a colorful little story about a corpse that was hidden in my home when I was growing up.

FYI, no human being is harmed in this story, and nobody’s reputation will be compromised.

The story begins in the late 1970’s, in Bogota, Colombia. A young man had graduated high-school and chosen to enter medical school. As expected, there was a heavy list of books and supplied he needed to gather before classes started. Books, check. Instruments, check. Protective gear for lab, check. Human skeletal system, . A skeleton?

Remember, these were the 1970’s. It wasn’t possible to search “Plastic models of anatomical human skeleton” in Amazon. In fact, finding plastic skeletons was very much impossible. Luckily for the student, attached to the list of required supplied was an official note from the medical school that would allow the student get the skeleton. All he needed to do was take this note to the cemetery and show it to the keeper of the grounds, the sexton would know what to do. The note was essentially a permit to dig out a corpse.

The student took his permit to the cemetery, showed it to the sexton and then followed him across the cemetery to find a grave to excavate. The keeper of the grounds got to it and dug. One by one, he dug the bones of the corpse. Of course, the corpse was rotting but wasn’t fully decomposed, otherwise the bones would have been of no use to the student.

When every bone was out, the student was instructed to take the corpse to a separate station in the cemetery to finish the cleanup of the corpse. At the station, the student found a rudimentary cooking set up: an enormous metallic pot with boiling water, placed over a wood-fueled fire. The bones went in the pot and the flesh was boiled away from the bone. After boiling for hours, the bones were mostly bare but some additional scrapping was necessary. It took the student the whole day to get every bone more or less acceptably clean.

When the process of boiling and scrapping was over, the student put them in a plastic trash bag he had brought with him for this purpose. The student took his package and hopped on the bus to go home where he would somehow need to find a way of getting the corpse in human skeletal system mode for his anatomy class. The student wasn’t exactly unnoticed during the bus ride. For one, the stench steaming out of the bag he was carrying was horrific. But perhaps more noticeable was a bone sticking out of the bag. This piece of bone was an extremity of a femur, which happened to be too long to fit in the plastic bag.

The student arrived home with his skeleton and finished the cleaning and polishing. Human skeletal system, check.

The student grew to be a doctor. When he graduated, he took home his diploma, his books, his surgical supplies, and his human skeletal system. These were the mid 80’s. In Colombia. Drug cartels were killing people left and right and unidentified human corpses were no longer exactly inconspicuous. Having a human skeleton at home could be legally compromising. What to do? Hide it of course. But where?

I’ll tell you right now that I actually do not know where the skeleton is today. What I do know, is that it had been hidden in a plastic bag under my bed when I was a toddler. I don’t know when my dad decided that was not a great hiding place and I don’t know where he put it. The only other piece of information I have, is that in my house there are no closets.

Fidel: el perro fiel

Esta es una historia cortica, bonita, y con un final triste. Se la escuche a un tio lejano hace poco en una de esas tardes de cafe, nostalgia, y anecdotas de tiempos viejos y nuevos. La comparto con el riesgo de deformar el recuerdo del tio con mi tendencia a usar hiperbolas incorrectas pero llamativas, la tendencia a dramatizar la realidad que es tan propia del cuentero.

Tengo un tio lejano, a quien le digo lejano porque en realidad ni siquiera es mi pariente de sangre sino mas bien uno de esos hermanos del alma de mi papa (incluso, es quizas el unico hermano puramente del alma que tiene mi papa). Mi tio, como mi papa, ama a los perros. Como mi papa, mi tio tiene pastores alemanes. Lo ha tenido por muchos anhos, y a veces han sido muy finos. Fidel es el perro mas hermoso que ha tenido. Fidel ea un perrazo, re fino. De buenos genes. Muy costoso, por supuesto. Pero divino. Un perro grande, de pelo largo, de colorers pardos y negros fuertes. Realmente tenia un presencia majestuosa.

Fidel tuvo una vida feliz. Era un perro fuerte, tranquilo, confiado, y muy bello. Nunca faltaba quien quedara perdidmente enamorado de su imagen. Era tan apetecido su material genetico que tuvo muchos hijitos. Fue un perro feliz. Pero al llegar a su vejez, Fidel empezo a perder la cabeza, como muchos que llegan a viejos. A Fidel le empezaba a flaquear el juicio, aunque muy sutilmente.

Un dia como cualquier otro, Fidel estaba en el jardin haciendo caulquiera de esas cosas que los perros hacen en el jardin. Todo er muy normal, hasta que Fidel se enredo con la cerca de cable y quedo medio atorado entre la rendija.  Al no poder liberarse, Fidel empezo a desesperar y forsejearse torpemente y sin suerte. Mi tio, el lejano, se dio cuenta que Fidel estaba atrapado y salio a yudarle a sacar la cabeza de la cerca de cables. Aunque el tio trataba de ayudarle, Fidel seguia jalando y torciendo su cuerpo con brusquedad. En la maniobra, Fidel perdio la cabeza de nuevo y no reconocio ni la instruccion ni la presencia del tio. Embriagado en frustracion, Fidel le mordio la pierna al tio. La mordio duro. Y no se percato que era el tio aun despues de morderlo. Siguio apretando la mordida hasta que el tio, ya muy ofuscado, logro hacer que Fidel recuperara el juicio. A penas Fidel cayo en cuenta de su error, solto la pierna y cayo in movil. Estaba exhausto y confundido. Se sabia culpable y se creia perverso. Ese dia, Fidel cayo en una depreseion profunda, despues de haber mordido a su amo, quedo completamente derrotado ante la vida.

Un par de semanas despues, Fidel murio. Desde el incidente quedo enfermo, no comia, esaba debil. Estaba muy triste. Fidel murio de culpa. Un perro fiel que murio por haber perdido la cabeza un instatnte.






Becoming a N***

Two weeks ago I became an American citizen 🙂

And so, now I am FREE TO SAY WHATEVER I WANT! Freedom of speech and of expression are my constitutional rights. They told me that during the oath ceremony and I am going to take that very seriously.

They also told me I needed to go to the social security office to update records but they told me to wait at least 10 days for that.

So I went today on my way back from school. I naively thought I make a quick stop by the SS administration and then hit the grocery store before I had to take a job call at 4 pm. A “quick” stop by the SSA….Oh how so naive. I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest.

Anyway, this post is about my experience today. It is the first time I go to the SSA in NC. I found it surprising it wasn’t a separate government building like the DMV. It is in the second floor of a building with other offices. It is close to the public library, I guess that made sense.

I walked in and despite there being a fancy ATM-looking machine that helps you reserve a slot for your inquiry, a gentleman at the door told me to take a numbered ticket from a ticket dispenser and he told me to disregard the screens because the system was down. Ok. I guess that made sense, too. After all, it is a public office.

So I took my numbered ticket and I entered a room that was fairly packed. Yet, I managed to find a seat. There was a sign at the door saying no cell-phones allowed and I immediately felt bored. To my surprise, boredom didn’t last long. In fact, very quickly the whole thing became very interesting. People were actually having conversations with strangers about their social issue they had come to address at the SSA. And these social issues were pretty ridiculous. Some of these personal stories really put things in perspective for me.

Yes, I am an immigrant. But I am also a PhD student, and I already have a job as an economist designing policies that presumably are going help people in poor countries live better lives. I am very privileged.

The lady behind me was telling stories about how she no longer could apply for food stamps because she had gotten a job and how the cash she had been receiving for her 11 year old son was taken away because her mother receiving disability assistance had changed the lady’s qualification to the childhood support program. The gentleman next to her was telling his problem was that he had lost his job therefore his medical insurance and his wife was disabled so they needed to be considered in the affordable care act but because his wife was receiving some benefits that impeded their application and in fact a social worker had told them they’d be better off getting a divorce–although, as the lady next to me (who was playing solitary in her phone, in spite of the no phone rule) said, in NC you need to be separated for a year before you can file a divorce. She knows because she got a divorce in 69, during the summer of love.

Another man had his identity hacked and the SSA had sent him a new pin to his records to the email on file, which had been hacked… as he had reported, so he had come to figure that out… again.

I could hear people telling stories about getting custody for their kids because the drunk husband dont work no more, or about calling social services on their neighbors, or about fighting evictions. I could also see a lot of people, quite literally incapable of talking. Some very stoned individuals. Two or three. Not more than that. But they were there. I also saw some immigrants applying to get a SSN to work, some girls I could swear where teen moms, and some clearly physically disabled people. Overall, it was a pretty interesting ecosystem of social problems.

I was obviously interested and following peoples’ story. And then, the unemployed guy who was trying to get health insurance ask me what had brought me here. And there I was, clean cut, dressed up for the economics presentation I gave to other clean cut economists, wondering if I was going to have enough time to hit the grocery store before my phone call at 4…

“I recently became a US citizen and I am here to get in the system.”

The lady who could not get food stamps anymore and whose child support had been cut because her mother was now receiving disability assistance asked me:

“Are you sure you want to be part of this country?”

I remembered the other black lady who 2 weeks ago had welcomed me to be a US citizen at the oath ceremony. I remembered her words of pride and her tone of celebration.

“I do. I really like it here. This is a good place.”

“Well, yeah, but it is just that where are so many programs and none of them seems to be working well. And I just hate how they treat the kids of the immigrants, you know? What they were doing in those concentration camps, separating babies from their families? Are you sure this is the country you want to belong to?”

I just smiled and said: “The grass is always greener on the other side.”

A big, black gentleman in the back acknowledged by comment and said: “yes it is.”

“J44 window 9”

That’s my number.

“Hello, I recently became a US citizen and I am here to update my records.”

“Alright, I need to see your passport or your official naturalization certificate.”

“Oh, I actually don’t have the naturalization certificate because I had to send it to get a passport. But I have my A-number here.”

“No, I need your passport, which you don’t have because you are applying for one, or your naturalization certificate, which you don’t have because you sent it as part of the application.”

“Ok. So I wait for both things to come back in the mail and then I bring them here.”

“That’s right.”

Great. I am another American without enough paperwork to even get in line to get help. There’s a word for that: “someone whose lifestyle is define by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others”… like most people in America.

Doña Maria y la doña la dolorosa

Doña Maria Trinidad Ramirez Hernandez is my Nona. That’s how I call my my maternal grandma. My Nona is a miserable lady. Sometimes she finds legitimate joy in things, specially playing the piano, but she is almost never happy.

Nona has dementia now, so it is ok for me to say the truth. She doesn’t remember who I am and she won’t remember what I said. I’m not going to write about her to mock her or abuse the elderly and the ill in their inability to defend themselves online. I am going to write about her because recently, in her lack of sense of pride she let slid a little lesson about people.

My Nona is not exactly a romantic person, but she likes to talk about the past. No time like the past for a soul that loves to mourn or a soul that is uncomfortable and disillusioned with the present. A few years ago, when her dementia hadn’t yet kicked in and she was just an old lady with sporadic bursts of spontaneity, she was fun to give wine to: just a little bit of wine and she would tell wonderful stories bout her childhood, her teens, and her youth. She would tell me how her merchant father, papa Felix, ran away with mama Conchita (whose musician father was a good for nothing) after having met only once during a trip papa Felix made as a mule attendee (the animal kind of mule that carries heavy things in the back, not the animal kind of mule that carries heavy drugs in the intestines) to Santander to sell some fabric for clothes. She told me how they traveled across the Andes during the civil war to escape violence with mama Conchita pregnant riding the back of a mule, as if she was Virgin Mary and papa Felix was Saint Joseph. She would tell stories of her playing with squirrels and little animals, about her going to the musical school to study to become a great singer and piano player. She told mischievous stories about getting in a car accident with the milk truck after sneaking out in her dad’s car, and about flirting with the guys in the soccer team. She even told darker stories, like the time she did not pass her university exams and cheated her brother telling him he also didn’t pass (although he did) to convince her father to send them both to Spain to study medicine (papa Felix wouldn’t have sent niña Marujita alone to Franco’s Spain).

Nona had crazy stories. And actually she was good at telling them. They were full of details. She remembered smells, colors, accents. Or at least she said she remembered, maybe she dreamed.

She never told me a happy story about her married life. Or about her life as a mother or as a grandmother. Nona hates men. All of them, specially husbands. To see how much she hates men, keep in mind that she is extremely sexist! The only men I know she doesn’t hate (who are almost as many as the women I also know she doesn’t hate) are her two sons (her oh-so-good-at-everything-sons). Nona holds a deep, deep grudge against her defunct husband, my Nono Miguel. Also, I’ve seen her cry many times over the pain of giving birth and the burden of going from pregnancy to pregnancy. She seems to hold some sort of grudge against her destiny. Not her kids. She actually loves her kids, even though she certainly seems to feel she was forced to carry them in her womb.

The sad, sad truth is that doña Maruja’s grudge didn’t just appear and doesn’t just stand in a vacuum. Nobody likes to be frank in my family, but I can do that because this story is about a dead person and a crazy person. None of them care. My Nono was an abusive alcoholic husband. He was also a charming man and the best goalie (for what I hear). Everyone that met him says he was the most charismatic person they knew. And I believe that. Because it would take such a character to make my Nona fall in love–unless my Nona was actually a fun woman, once upon a time, and it was being married to such a character what made her a bitter old witch. Anyway, who am I to know or judge?

My Nona grew up spoiled. She was the youngest of 13 and the favorite of mama Conchita. The stories of her childhood, at least how she tells them, give clear signals that my Nona was a spoil brat, she was manipulative with her mom, and she got away from trouble without having to face consequences because she was too beautiful and too musically talented. She was a jewel, a little princess. And she met my Nono Miguel in Spain when they were both studying medicine. A charming man with a lot of potential.

It was a story from a princess book. She married her prince. And then… she got pregnant. And then…. she got pregnant again, and again, and again… and again. While she was busy bringing kids to life and dealing with a change in lifestyle (from glamorous princess to overworked mom), Nono got more used to drinking, and he was still as charming. My Nona also hates housekeepers. God knows why.

My aunt says she hates my Nona (her mom). She says she hates that she cannot think of her mom a strong woman. That all she remembers is my Nona crying all the time and being miserable. And in my aunt’s defense, my Nona does cry a lot, even before she had lost her sanity she cried a lot. And she seemed to be more prone to misfortune than  everyone else: she was a talented, young, beautiful woman, who could have been a professional musician or a doctor, but whose career ended early because she became a mom and a wife, but then her life as a wife ended early because she widowed young (because one day that my grandpa had been drinking with this mistress he fell on his head and died… and that was so shameful for Nona that she had to leave the country).

Any misfortune you think of, my grandma has her name on it. No wonder she is a bitter old witch… or is it the other way around? Is it because she is a bitter old witch that everything that can go wrong goes wrong? Or maybe it is neither. Maybe she is actually doing very well, but because she is a bitter old witch she likes to complain. Yeah. That’s more like it.

My grandma loves to complain. And that’s the only way she knows people give her attention and love. She is a manipulative bitter old witch.

But let’s give her a break. This is supposed to be a story about a lesson she taught me about people. No more gossip.

Because my Nona has dementia, she gets attacks of anxiety. She becomes very scared and feels deeply abandoned and lost. She lives through episodes where she is truly living in agony. This is troubling for anyone who has a little bit of empathy and can feel even just a little bit of compassion (… even for someone like me).

I was on Skype with my mom, my aunt, and my Nona one afternoon. And my aunt and my mom were discussing what to do about my Nona’s anxiety attacks. So my aunt said, “I have a friend, she has  plant, I’ll ask him to give me a stem, we can make infusions, I hear the cannabidol is good for anxiety.”

“Good idea,” says my mom.

“What do you want to do to me?” asks Nona.

“We are gonna hook you up on drugs.” Said my mom. Keep in mind that my mom is an anesthesiologist. She really doesn’t mind talking about better living though chemistry, in a medical context, of course.

“But I don’t want drugs. I don’t want that … Marijuana of yours.” My Nona lived her adult life thinking Marijuana was a bad thing she needed to keep her kids away from — classic Nancy Reagan style.

“Mom, but don’t worry. It is legal now and everyone is using it. Melba Villegas has been using it for years for the pain in her legs.”

“Oh yeah? But I don’t have pain. And who is Melba?”

“Mom. It is going to help you. You know how you get very sad sometimes? This will help you feel happy.”

To what my Nona replied in an enlightening way:  “AND WHO TOLD YOU I WANT TO BE HAPPY? I am not like that. I am not a happy person.”

So there it is. That was the lesson. I spent 28 years mostly not caring about my grandma. But whenever I did, I mostly wondered why she was so… horrible.

Some people, having the option, prefer to be unhappy. It serves their purpose. And if I feel shitty because I feel guilt for their misery, I am being (1) stupid, and (2) condoning.

No need for me to lose sleep over how to turn an unhappy soul into a jolly one. It is better to lose sleep over how to not let a jolly soul turn into a lonely crazy manipulative bitter old witch. Even better for me is to not lose sleep at all and just not become a sour economist.

I’d be dammed

I got some interesting facts.

On May 30 of this year (2018), Colombia signed the agreement of accession to the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). The only Latinamerican countries in the OECD are Chile and Mexico, but after ratifying the accession, Colombia will become full member of the organization as well.

I’ve seen the OECD described as the club of wealthy countries. Well, not for much longer. I say this not because I think Colombia lacks wealth. I say this because I think, in fact, I know, most Colombians lack wealth.

Not long ago, the rankings of inequality were suggesting that Colombia was among the most unequal countries in the world. In 2011, the country was only behind Haiti and Angola. This is dismal. But our leaders say they are doing great progress lifting people out of poverty: more recent rankings say we are not the third but rather the eight most unequal country in the world. What a relief. C’mmon. Give me a break.

According to the United States Development Agency, just 0.4% of the population owns 62% of the country’s best land. The Oxfam says that 80% of land in Colombia is in the hands of just 14% of owners and that this concentration has actually increased over the last 50+ years. Despite relatively fast economic growth in the last years, approximately 45% of Colombians live under the poverty line. Most of them are rural dwellers. No wonder leftist guerilla movements popped up like mushrooms just about everywhere and haven’t gone away in the last 50 years.

That’s on the side of inequality. The story gets even grimmer when we consider social mobility. Today, I ran into a chart from the OECD of income mobility across generations. I’ll include it to the end of this post for you to see, but basically, the chart ranks countries based on how many generations it takes for children from low-income families to reach the average income in their country. Not surprisingly, the most mobile societies are in the Nordic countries: in Denmark it takes two generations for poor families to reach average income levels, in Norway, Finland, and Sweden, it takes 3. Most other countries in the list follow with 4, 5, and 6 generations. The OECD average is 4.5.

Towards the bottom of the list, are Hungary, China, and India, with 7 generations. Then, Brazil and South Africa, which are notorious in the international platform for their social injustices (remember the apartheid?), with 9 generations. And at the very bottom of the list, with 11 generations is: my beloved Motherland, Colombia.

So, it takes 11 generations, more or less 220 years, for a poor Colombian family to reach “average income levels in their country.” In other words it takes 220 years for families to go from very poor to less poor.

That’s sad, but is not surprising. What is truly surprising about this statistic, is that it took so long for OECD researchers to come up with the estimate. In my family we have known this fact for centuries. I’ll tell you how.

Don Jose Antonio Villegas Londoño was born in 1750 in Rionegro, Antioquia. His father was captain Felipe Villegas y Cordoba and his mother was doña Maria Manuela Londoño Piedrahita. Don Jose Antonio became an explorer and for his service to the Crown in colonizing new lands, he was awarded large portions of land in the Southeast of the Antioquia region. He was truly a wealthy man and founder of many towns in the region, including the town of Abejorral, the town where he settled and, eventually, died.

Don Jose Antonio had a big heart, big enough to hold his 2 wives and 17 children, and this was controversial. After all, he was a big public figure and played an important role in the life of the common man. Don Jose Antonio’s personal life must have been worthy of a telenovela, to the point that it threatened the good Catholic ways. If today, in a Colombia where by constitution State and church are separated, religion weights heavily in social, political, and economic matters, imagine how it was in the 1800’s. Don Jose Antonio’s liberal ways sparked the fury of local religious institutions, and the priest of Abejorral organized a public hearing. In front of everyone in town and, most importantly, in the eyes of God, the priest cursed Don Jose Antonio. The priest cursed him to a life in poverty. Moreover, the curse would fall upon his descendants, 10 generations of Villegas would be cursed to live in poverty.

I don’t know how many years were researchers at the OECD collecting data to find that it would take 11 generations for a poor Colombian family to become less poor. They should have asked me. I could have told them what the pattern was: it has been in my family’s genealogical books for centuries. But even if they didn’t ask me, they could have asked a priest. Apparently, in Colombia, poverty is not established by pervasive social, political, or economic institutions, it’s what God wants to keep his subjects in the moral path of servitude and submission. By keeping people hungry, leaders make sure the majority doesn’t get used to better times. In addition, the hungrier the people, the less energy they have to fight, and anyway they won’t fight if they are told God wants them hungry, polite, and quiet. And this strategy works!

It works: we are society of submissive citizens. This Sunday we are coming back to the ballots for the presidential elections, and I wouldn’t be surprised if once again, we vote for the “good old” status quo.

PS: In case you are wondering, I did some maths. If 1 generation is 20 years, 10 generations is 200. So, if Don Jose Antonio was cursed in 1800, I am generation 10. My children will be able to escape the curse. For that I work…. I mean, I pray.

What to lift for?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m into lifting weights. Heavy weights. As heavy as possible. I lift 5 times a week, and because I want to lift for many years to come, I gotta be careful about how I approach each training session. I follow a program to make sure I accumulate a lot of work while having enough time to recover between the intense days. Regardless of how careful and methodical and cerebral I am about my training, sometimes, EVERYTHING, even the “easy” weights, feels heavy. Yet, even those days when little things feel like big things, I choose to invoke maximum effort and lift that thing that weights me down: that heavy thing that I myself put on my back or grabbed on to with the intention of pulling/pushing/pressing.

That’s the only way to get stronger: to lift heavy weights. Whether they are heavy because they ARE heavy or because they feel heavy.

Why do I tell you this?

I tell you this because for a few years now, I’ve been on a personal battle against Catholicism: the religion of my family and my culture. But despite my fierce criticism of religion as an institution, I admit that sometimes, I find truly valuable lessons in Catholic stories. Here is one I want to reflect upon. One about lifting heavy weights.

Once, sometime in the last 5 years, I had one of the many break downs that have characterized my experience as a PhD student. And that time, as all the other times, I called my parents. That time, like all other times, I was out of control and could not contemplate any reason to defend the academic institution. Usually, my mom handles these situations. She just listens and tells me to pray and tells me to remember that God loves me and that this is happening for a reason. This never helps. It just tires me. So eventually, I just stop complaining, but I am never really “‘cured” from my anger/frustration/regret.

Anyway. The story is interesting because this one time, I actually felt better, in fact I even felt good after talking on the phone. This one time, unlike all other times, it was my dad who handled the crisis, by himself. My dad is an extremely smart and analytical man who is also deeply religious, but I forgive him that because I have a very high regard for his intelligence.

On the phone with my dad, I “expressed” (i.e. I cried and cursed and hit things very hard) my complete disgust for the academic institution and the unfairness of the whole process and the similarities between a PhD program and crimes against humanity. (After all, grad students are humans too, and deserve to have their human rights respected.) Then, my dad used his spiritual medicine and relieved me of my anguish. Surprisingly, to cure me, he also talked about God. This is how he did it.

He said to me: “I know you think all my jokes are bad.”

Which by the way is not true, I think all the jokes he has told so far are bad, it doesn’t mean all his jokes are bad.

“But please be patient and bear with me.

Once upon a time, there was a good man. A Christian who was deeply dissatisfied with his life. And the man would pray to God everyday, and everyday, he’d tell Him:

‘God, why did you give me this Cross to carry? It is too heavy for me. I cannot carry on with this weight. Why did you punish me?'”

Context parenthesis: In Christianity, the cross represents a man’s (or a woman’s) ability, and in fact freedom, to choose how to go about life, given the cards they were dealt. In ancient times, those who had been condemned to die crucified, whether they were guilty or not, had to carry their own cross to the place of crucifixion. It was part of the punishment. Christianity transformed the concept from punishment to redemption because, presumably, Jesus decided to die crucified. It was His choice to carry the cross and die in it (for whatever reason, hopefully a good one, you would think).

So, when us Catholics (yes mom, US CATHOLICS, me too!) speak of carrying our own cross, we mean there are things, heavy things, we must deal with that are inherent to our nature or our situation, and that we cannot let go of if we want to be disciples of God. However, although we cannot do anything about those crosses, we can choose what we do with them and how we carry them. These things are things we must carry with us even if we don’t want to, things like family, health conditions, paying the mortgage, cleaning the house, etc… things whose weight we dislike, but things we can carry with grace and purpose… I guess transforming the concept from punishment to redemption is a way of giving us back some of the good old free will: it is us who decide what to do next, given our starting point.

Now that I’ve explained that, let me continue telling my dad’s “joke”:

“One day, God sent an angel to bring the good Christian man to Heaven and have a talk. God said to the man:

‘son, I’ve heard your prayers. I understand you want a change. Come with me, I want you to choose your own cross.’

And God took the man to the warehouse where God keeps all the crosses in the Universe. The choices were almost infinite. The man was overwhelmed and excited at the same time.

‘God, are you sure I can choose any cross that I want?’

‘Any cross, son. Take your time.’

The man spent days in the warehouse sorting through the crosses, trying them on, walking around with them on his back, putting them back down, and trying them again, until eventually, he came to God and said:

‘God, I’ve found it. It is the perfect size and the perfect weight. This cross, this is the cross I want to carry. I can carry this cross the rest of my life.’

‘Very well my son. Take this cross and go back to your life and have full conviction that it is the right cross for you.’

‘Thank you, God. Thank you so much. But before I go, can I ask you a question?’

‘Ask my son.’

‘God, you know everything. Why didn’t you give me this cross before? Did you not know it was the right one?’

And God said:

‘My son. This is the cross you brought with you to Heaven. It is the same cross you’ve had all your life.'”

And the joke ended.

Of course it is a bad joke. But it is a good story. Even for an infidel like me, this story makes sense. I know about carrying weight. I know about putting a lot of weight on my back. I know what it is to fail to lift some weight and yet choose the same weight for the next set. I understand about crosses. I guess.

My cross is a choice, a choice to be responsible and do what’s right instead of what’s easy. I choose to put weight on the bar to get stronger. That’s the only way. That’s what we lift for.