By Astrea Somarriba, Admin Assistant & Communications Coordinator
“When you go to the brothel do not take anything with you. Your notes are fine, but those earrings…take them off. No phone. Keep any money in your bra. Wear comfortable shoes and clothing. If anyone touches you, leave.” I am sitting in Ixchen, a women’s health clinic in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, preparing for my tour with Sandra, a sex worker who will show me one of the clubs outside of the city. This is not the first time I have confronted the sex industry as a traveler and observer. I recall watching young Peruvian girls get into cars with anonymous clients in Lima; walking down crowded roads in Bangkok, Thailand, hearing men advertise “ping-pong shows”; listening as young Cuban jineteras pick up and seduce older foreign men in the heart of Havana.
As I listen to Sandra I think to myself if someone were to have told my middle-school-self that I would be conducting my own qualitative research in Nicaragua, I would never have believed them. Throughout elementary and middle school, I was made to feel inferior by teachers who had little confidence in my abilities and would not accommodate my learning style. I was kept in the lowest math and reading classes–set up for mediocrity. I felt dumb. Yet here I am. As a Psychology and International Studies double major, this research is the culmination of my academic career thus far–the intersection of my interests. I have spent years in the classroom curating my knowledge of trauma, conflict, and women’s rights, but there is so much that you cannot learn from the confines of a classroom.
Sandra shows me the scar on her back where her vertebrae were kicked out of place by a client. Yet, the deepest scars seem to be the psychological ones that cannot be seen. Wounds which I quickly begin to understand are not just from her personal experience but are also connected to the social, political, and economic climate of the society she lives in. Wounds that Sandra and many other Nicaraguans bare as a result of the country’s unstable present and traumatic past. Martha Cabrera, a Nicaraguan psychologist, wrote an article titled “Living and Surviving in A Multiply Wounded Country” in which she outlines Nicaragua’s problem of not addressing the many layers of trauma it’s people have endured, from natural disasters to dictatorships and war. To sum up her argument Cabrera says:
“When people are hit by a car on the street, they don’t just get up, brush off the gravel, go on to work and forget about it. The very least they will do is tell others about what happened, get it off their chest, tend their wounds. Well, Nicaragua hasn’t just been hit by a car; it has been run over by a long train!”
This concept of collective and multi-layered trauma is not exclusive to Nicaragua or sex workers–it affects people from all walks of life on a global scale. Whether you have witnessed violence or your parents divorce the best way to address the scars in your life is to find a healthy means of expression. Sharing your story in a verbal or written form is one way to do it but not all of us have developed the words to contextualize and convey our emotions. Not all of us are ready to publicize our doubts to an unknown audience. The beautiful thing about storytelling is that it can take on many forms in order to engage the individual in ways that are unique to them.
It has been two years since I spent time with Sandra in Nicaragua, but the lessons I learned from her have helped me understand and address my own scars. I grew up feeling I could not speak up for my emotions and instead assumed an image of stability. I learned to listen to myself because nobody would listen to me. It was from feeling voiceless that I searched for the voice of the silenced. As I have grown into a woman, a professional, and as a friend, I think back to the little girl who sat silently belittled in the back of the class. It was that little girl that kept me motivated through four years of college. That little girl pushes me to listen, without judgement, to those who have been judged. And it is with that little girl in mind that I join the YMAP team and become an advocate for all who have felt suffocated by isolation, imposed labels, and inferiority; for when we share our stories, we begin to demolish socially constructed barriers and put a face to faceless social issues.
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