Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Beginning of my journey

September 26, 2005

I forgot how much I hated hospitals, how much they remind me of past emergency room visits to see my twin sister who has had no choice but to make the hospital her home away from home. I have always avoided hospitals because I cannot stand seeing roomfuls of sick and vulnerable people at the mercy of someone else’s helping hands. I asked myself on my walk from the hospital today why I had neglected to remember my utter detestation of hospitals before pursuing my project.

I had to hold back tears several times, as I observed worried teenage mothers. I was helpless. There was no way that I could go back into time and change things so that they would not be where they are today—children having babies destined to a life of poverty and disadvantage. One girl could not even answer the questions the nurses asked her about her medical history. Her mother had abandoned her—she was living with neighbors, and the father of her baby is in jail. She pretended that it did not hurt her to explain all of this, but just as she pretended, I did too—I fought to keep tears from running down my face.

Doctor Consuelo, my supervisor, took me on a tour of the hospital that I was not expecting, that I was not prepared for. We walked to the lab where technicians tested the patients’ blood for HIV. The conditions were dismal, the machinery archaic. Then, she took me to a room where the smell of bleach dominated the air. A framed picture of la Virgen Maria on the wall stared at the room’s inhabitants—teenage mothers who had just given birth. The television enclosed in a gated box whispered in the background while the new mothers sat idly on their beds, passing time by staring into space.

After getting closer to the girls’ beds, I realized that their babies were with them. When the mothers were not staring into space, they snuck quick glances at the babies they do not know how to care for yet. “Dena, ven acá, mira,” Doctor Consuelo shouted. I approached to find a girl who had given birth to twins. She was only sixteen. One baby would have been enough.

I returned to the waiting room, the same room that fills up each day with teenage mothers. There was a girl who was crying. Her mother wiped her tears, as she stood over her. Although I did not know why this girl was crying, I felt for her and for her mother anyway. I held back my tears again.

My day was almost over, only to begin another day full of learning and of emotions. As I walked out, ready to begin contemplating about my day, Doctor Consuelo, who had exited the room with me, was called back in. I waited for her outside, trying to take it all in. She returned to tell me that a seventeen year old mother, 37 weeks pregnant, tested positive for HIV. She is only one of many. I proceeded on my way out the hospital into the Dominican heat, thinking that this is going to be an experience.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The progress of my project

Last Friday, I attended a forum at INTEC University (Instituto Tecnológico de Santo Domingo) on youth issues in the Dominican Republic. It was so interested to hear university students from institutions all over Santo Domingo discuss the role of the youth in Santo Domingo. I learned so much just sitting there, listening to students express their concerns and present proposals to improve the lives of the younger generation in this country. I now have a better understanding of the reality of Dominican youth. I also had the pleasure of meeting some students who are willing to share their opinions on teenage pregnancy with me.

In a brief conversation with professors and students, I learned that teenage mothers are forced to attend night classes. Their schools ostracize them and do not allow them to attend classes with their peers. It seems as though the schools do not want the teenage mothers to give any ideas to the other students. The reasoning is the same when it comes to sex education—that is, if sex education programs are put into schools, students will be encouraged to have sex.

This belief is unfounded. President Bush happens to think the same thing and thus supports abstinence only education programs instead of safe sex programs even though the research states that abstinence only programs do not work. Although we probably all wish that teenagers abstained from having sex, that simply is not the reality. And, it does not help that the media constantly bombards us with images of sex. Instead, I argue that schools implement comprehensive sex education programs instead of imposing the president’s morals on them with abstinence only programs.

Not only are the pregnant and parenting teenagers in Santo Domingo forced to attend night classes as punishment, but they are also ostracized by their families. They are mistreated and verbally abused for being a “slut.” Clearly, they need more support from society instead of being stigmatized and neglected.

At the meeting, I also learned that most students do not have much to do after classes. Of course, those families with means could afford to sign their children up for music, sports, and other extra-curricular activities after school hours. As I have been saying for a long time now, after school programs and extra-curricular activities are important and necessary. Education policymakers, both here and in the United States, need to see the merit in such activities. The more extra-curricular activities a student does, the better he or she performs in school, not to mention that such activities empower and engage students, making them feel a part of something.

Moreover, I have finally been officially approved to work at the hospital. After weeks of going back and forth to meet with several individuals at the hospital and after presenting my proposal, I could finally begin working there on Monday. I have prepared a questionnaire to learn more about the relationship between education level, poverty, and teenage pregnancy. Although I am focusing my research on poverty and education level, I am not neglecting the many other causes of teenage pregnancy. For example, I am doing some reading on the sexual trade of girls, on machismo, on early marriage, and more.

Besides working at the hospital, I will also be taking a class, “Ser Mujer Hoy” (Being a Woman Today) to learn more about the reality for Dominican women. I am also in the process of trying to secure work at IDEV to talk to sexual workers about their experiences and their opinions on teenagers and their children joining the trade. If I have time, I am also planning to work at PROFAMILIA. I will also be interviewing several people and will be consulting with Professor Jacqueline Polanco of FLASCO. All in all, I am very excited about my work and am proud in all that I have accomplished in these past three weeks.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Dominican Piropos

September 20, 2005

I am surprised at how many men I have given birth to since I have been here. Well, not really, but one would think that I am the mother of many if he or she counted how many times Dominican tigres called me, “Mamí.” Seriously, I am not your “mamí,” and my not acknowledging you when you yell precious nothings at me should send you that message.

I am also not your muñeca, your princesa, or your niña and I do not answer to “pssssp.” If there is something stuck in your teeth and you need to take it out, dental floss usually works well. And, no, I do not want you to be my “papí.” I lived without my father all my life, and I think I have gotten along just fine. Thank you for your offer.

Dominican piropos are a way of life here. The normal procedure is as follows: a woman walks by, and a man watches her as she approaches him. First, he gazes at her face, then her breasts, then her hips, and then after she walks by, her behind. Just after the woman passes him, he yells something at her: “Eres bella,” “Me refresca cuando me pasa,” and the list goes on. Most women never stop but men yell piropos anyway.

It is like they are conditioned to yell piropos. In fact, just as I was walking to the university this morning, young boys were “psssping” at me. They are Dominican tigres in training. In many ways, men seem to feel the need to hit on every women passer-by as a way to prove their masculinity.

My twin sister is pursuing a project on the effects of colonialism in Jamaica regarding sexuality and race. She is particularly interested in how the oppression and the demasculinization of Jamaican men affected their masculinity and sexuality. She will research to learn whether colonizers sodomized Jamaican men and raped their women. She is looking at the case of AIDS and closeted homosexuality in men and their need to prove the manhood every chance they get. I believe the same could be argued for any colonized country, and definitely, for the Dominican Republic.

Other than that, I will continue walking pass the Dominican tigres, who will continue to call me “mamí,” “preciosa,” and the myriad of other names that they can muster up.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

On passing as una dominicana

September 15, 2005

I am lucky that when I walk down the streets of Santo Domingo, my appearance does not shout, “gringa,” “foreigner,” or “Americana.” . My Russian and Antiguan blood has blessed me with caramel skin and thick hair that tells the history of my African descendents bought to the Caribbean by conquistadores. I resemble the mixed blood of Dominicans and thus do not have to worry about being approached for my American money because I am not rubia (blonde) enough to be americana. “Soy casí dominicana, I am almost Dominican,” I tell those who ask.

I explain that I’m from a barrio muy latino in the Bronx where the melodies and rhythm of merengue and bachata resonated throughout my building’s corridors. Growing up both black and white in the United States made me a part of neither group. So, I was dominicana or latina or whatever I had to be to call a group my own.

However, unlike most Dominicans, I am not ashamed of my blackness. “Somos una mezcla de indios y españoles,” (We are a mix of Indian and Spanish blood), one man proclaimed to me. I wondered why he did not mention the African blood that he and so many other Dominicans try so hard to conceal. Would that make him more like the Haitians that Dominicans loathe seeing in their country?

The answer is complicated and multi-faceted. To me, part of the black-hate stems from colonialism, which was further perpetuated during the era of Trujillo, and also from recent Haitian emigration to the Dominican Republic. In general, the Dominican psyche has been brainwashed into thinking that everything negro (black) is bad. For instance, women relax their hair to straighten their natural kinks, erasing their blackness. Their image of beauty is not brown skin, not wide noses, not African hair.

Even after the black power movement in the United States, black is still not beautiful to many people all over the world. Blackness still does not carry prestige or power. The whiter you are, the better you live, eat, learn, and are almost everywhere in the world. Years of oppression and abuse by European colonizers has robbed the indigenous and darker people of this world of their identity, dignity, and happiness. Unfortunately, racism still exists and we have a long way to go.

Crazy Americans with no Internet

September 14, 2005

Americans (USA) are addicted to the Internet. I am too. We are so used to having it at our fingers tips that we do not know what to do without it. I have been sitting in an air-conditioned computer lab at FLACSO, La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, and have watched every American student come in here, annoyed and impatient about not having Internet access.

I admit that the Internet has delayed my meeting with the director of the hospital today because my laptop does not have any disk drive, CD drive, or other external drives. Thus, I can only save documents on to the computer’s hard drive and if I want to print something, I have to send my documents to myself via email. I will live though.

However, this whole ordeal has made me think about how Americans are used to so many unnecessary luxuries. For example, during my first week in the Dominican Republic, I showered in the dark with a bucket of water. Thankfully, I had spent summers in Antigua while growing up, which humbled me, and made me used to living in such conditions. After taking my bucket baths, I realized how much water I had left. Yet, we take long showers in the USA just because we can. Sadly, we can do many things than many other countries cannot do.

Besides that, I went to a presentation entitled: Answers to Globalization in Small Countries: Dominican Republic in a Regional Context. Dr. Sanchez Ancochea of the University of London gave the presentation and compared Costa Rica to the Dominican Republic. I was particularly interested in the how much less Dominican Republic spends on health and education in comparison to Costa Rica. Dr. Sanchez Ancochea expressed that the Dominican Republic, or any other country, will not progress or develop as well without investing more in the health and education of their citizens. Therefore, my work here seems imperative—a health education initiative preventing unwanted teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Other than that, all is going well here. I am enjoying myself and slowly am getting used to being called a researcher.

First Hospital Visit

September 13, 2005

I followed my host mother’s directions to el hospital Maternidad Señora de la Altagracia. I walked there in the heat that only Dominicans know, pass men who shout pick-up lines, or piropos, to every women passer-by.

I knew that I had arrived at where I was supposed to be when I saw armies of pregnant women outside the building’s entrances. I entered the hospital and was greeted by more armies of pregnant women who stood in the corridor. It was complete chaos, pregnant women packed into all crevices of the hospital, confused about where they were to go, and annoyed about how long they had been waiting.

I asked a guard for directions to the Department of Adolescent Mothers. I felt like a mouse in a maze, trying to find my destination. Finally, I had arrived. Forty or more eyes stared in my direction when I walked into the small waiting room, all the eyes belonging to young mothers-to-be.

Consuelo Matos Ramirez, the psychologist with whom I will be working, suggested that I sit with the nurses who were meeting with the girls to complete their medical histories. The room was small; two nurses shared one desk, and teenage mothers sat at either end, answering questions.

“How old are you?” “Fourteen,” a pregnant child answered, her mother at her side. This girl was one of the only girls whose mother was with her. She responded to the questions shyly. She looked embarrassed, and the expression on her face told me that she was scared, nervous, annoyed, and confused. I wondered if she had been raped, but that was not any of my business.

While the nurse was talking to this fourteen year old patient, she explained to me that the doctors are unable to serve all of the girls that come to the hospital. She continued by telling me that the service they provide to the girls is not great because there are too many girls to see and not enough resources, doctors, or space. I was surprised that she had said this in front of patients, but I gathered that this is an understanding among the Dominicans, who do not have the resources to go to a private hospital. They come to el Hospital Maternidad anyway, not expecting the best service, but thinking that any service is better than no service at all. I saw two more girls after the fourteen year old—one 16, the other 17. One was single; the other unmarried, but with the father of her child.

All three girls that I had seen were put on the list of girls who had to meet with the psychologist because all girls under 17 have to meet with one. In general, I was surprised about how the nurses discussed personal information so openly. Nurses told patients their HIV results, had psychological consultation, and discussed personal information out in the open. There is literally no space for privacy, for anything at the hospital.

After spending some time with the nurses, I had to go talk to the director to ask for permission to do my research at his hospital. He said that he agreed with my work but that I must provide him with a proposal. I understood, as any and every one should not be able to do whatever research they want in the hospital. I am currently working on the proposal and am planning to go there on Wednesday to present it to him. I will let you know what the board at the hospital decides.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

US Embassy Visit

I spent all day in the Embassy yesterday on the phone with the bank. No one was able to help me because no one knew exactly what my problem was. After about an hour and after being transfered from Bank of America to Visa to Bank of America again, someone finally realized that past Fleet customers are having problems withdrawing money from ATMs abroad. So, basically, I will not be able to withdraw money during my stay in the Dominican Republic. In order to receive money, I have to call the bank from the embassy (because that is the only place where one could call a 1-800 number) and then pick up ¨emergency cash¨ from Western Union. I asked the women if she understood how unsafe that was. She did not understand. Basically, everytime I go there to pick up money, the teller knows exactly how much money I will receive. If the teller is malicious, he could give a friend some signal and have them rob me on my way out. Let´s hope that this is the worse case scenerio, but I have to be vigilant.

Other than my financial woes, I had a great time at the embassy nonetheless. The program manager at the office is a Middlebury Alumni. What a small world! Middlebury alums are seriously everywhere. And, my Fulbright program manager in the states in also an alumni of Middlebury! Other than my Middlebury bragging, the people at the Embassy told me what they tell all Embassy employees and Fulbrighters which is that I am representing the United States and that I have to behave in that way. Do they know that Bush is also representing the Unites States and is not doing a great job at it? They do not have to worry about me--seriously. Please do not get me started on the US´s response to Katrina.

In terms of project, I am in the process of writing a questionnaire to give to the teenage mothers at the hospital where I will be working. I have also been reading some newspapers and I have seen some interesting reports so far. On Monday, there was an article on the infant mortality rates and how the number is increasing here. There was also an article on the illiteracy rate in the Dominican Republic. The article also stated that the government hopes to start a program for adults modeled after the program that Cuba uses called ¨Yo si puedo.¨ To me, I think one of the reasons for this could be in the increase in the number of teenage pregnancies. For example, "the children of teenage mothers have lower birth weights, are more likely to perform poorly in school, and are at greater-risk of abuse and neglect" (www.teenpregnancy.org). We need to something here and in our country about comprehensive sexual education and health literacy. I´ll be sure to see what I could learn about this during my time in Santo Domingo.

I should get going but I will be sure to keep you posted on my discoveries, challenges, and adventures.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Poor American in Foreign Land

I felt as though I was in Santo Domingo before I left New York City. I felt the Dominican "heat" and sabor dominicana as I stood on line to check my bags onto Delta flight number 207. Everyone spoke in Spanish around me, as they waited with huge bags, probably full of "American" goodies.

When I arrived to Santo Domingo, we all rushed to pick up bags from belt 3. A man next to me played salsa from his mini boom box. I felt my body moving to the rhythm on its own. My body wanted to break out in dance, but I had to control myself. I was a foreigner in a strange land.

So far, everything has been great. I am living with a host mother and her two daughters thanks to Maria Filomena of the CIEE program who found me a host family. She has also allowed me to use FLASCO resources like the Internet and computers!

The biggest problem that I am having is that I cannot withdraw money from any of the ATMs here, so, yes, I am poor. My host mother had to lend me money. I am hoping that problem will resolve soon, but for now, I am a poor American.

Other than that, I will be working at a public hospital with teenage mothers who have HIV. I am really excited about my work. I am also hoping to volunteer at Batey Relief Alliance.Well, I have so much more to say but I have to limit my blog entries since I do not have too much access to FLASCO computers. I send much love.

Friday, September 02, 2005

A day before I leave

My twin sister is sitting next to me, writing a thank-you note for someone who has invested time into improving her health. Dana is feeling well today, not perfect but better than usual. She is not trapped by her own body, not curled up in a bed wanting to be relieved of her pain, to be "normal" again. She is free today at least.

"If I had been in New Orleans, I would have died," Dana said this morning, after watching images of people begging to leave the drowned city they once called home. We laughed nervously because we know it's true and because we know every time she gets sick, we do not know if she will make it. But, she always survives. She's a fighter, so are we.

It is too late for Dana and me to be up, but she scribbles black ink onto white paper and I tap letters into a computer screen, trying to share my life with you. I have never even been one to keep diaries or to jot my thoughts down, scared that someone would read what I had written. Quite frankly, I don't know what has gotten into me to allow me to let you in.

I have one more day until I leave to the Dominican Republic where I will spend ten months researching with a Fulbright grant. I am nervous, and I have no idea what I am getting myself into. I have yet to finish packing but somehow, I will surprise myself and get it all done. I want to go on writing; however, if I continue, I will be more likely to forget something that I should bring with me. So, I will stop here, at an unfinished thought, until I meet you again in Santo Domingo.