29 de Mayo: Una variedad de ironías

This week, a smattering of news pieces on women and mothers in Bolivia, and a heartening noticia about Bolivia’s neighbor.

Last Thursday was Mother’s Day in Bolivia, and in La Paz, this manifested itself in schoolyards full of children dancing in expensive costumes (that mothers doubtless had to pay for), sales of stuffed bears and other kitschy items, family dinners, and even an evening display of fireworks. Although I was hopeful that the local press would highlight some of the more sinister aspects of motherhood in Bolivia–such as the fact that Bolivia continues to be the most dangerous place in Latin America to undertake the journey of motherhood, with the highest maternal mortality rates in the region–I was, as I often am with the local press, disappointed.

Instead, the La Paz daily La Razón brought us two light-hearted stories for mother’s day, one highlighting a concert for local mothers, and the other discounts to take advantage of when buying gifts for mom.  For anyone unfamiliar with Latin American cultural paradigms, it bears noting that the mother-son relationship is laden with all kinds of real and imagined meanings in Latin America.  Local men often liken their own mothers to the Virgin Mary, and unfavorably compare their girlfriends and wives to this unrealizable model.  Although this pattern can clearly prove disastrous for Latin American women and heterosexual relationships, it can also be kind of funny. All I’m gonna say is, even if you don’t read Spanish, check out the picture of the singers at the mother’s day concert and imagine the mother-son dynamic playing out in the audience last Thursday night.

In addition to the “official” mother’s day articles, La Razón brought us two other stories related to motherhood this week.  The first is the terrible account of a woman whose infant was stolen from a hospital in the city of Santa Cruz just hours after birth.  Although child trafficking is a serious problem in Bolivia, this kidnapping seems to just be a horrible fluke, unrelated to that broader phenomenon.  The article notes that a woman dressed in white took the baby from its mother’s room saying that she was going to have it vaccinated, and then disappeared.  Oddly–considering that Romani are not known to live in Bolivia–police believe that the kidnapper is a “foreign woman, a gypsy.”

This infant’s kidnapper could indeed have been a foreigner to Bolivia. Regardless, however, the belief that a kidnapper of Bolivian children is foreign speaks to another cultural paradigm in Bolivia, one with deep historical roots–that of the pishtaco. In Andean lore, pishtacos are typically white, man-like creatures that harvest indigenous bodies for profit.  When the railroad first barreled through the Bolivian countryside at the turn of the twentieth century, indigenous campesinos believed that pishtacos would suck fat out from their bellies and use this to grease the rails.  (If your interest is piqued, I would highly recommend Mary Weismantel’s Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes.)  Cultural paradigms aside, let’s hope police are able to reunite this woman with her child.

This image of La Paz from El Alto’s 16 de Julio market was provided by a guest photographer.

La Razón’s second unofficial mother’s day piece informs us that, from now on, all pregnant women in Bolivia will be required to undergo mandatory HIV and Syphilis testing.  Apparently, “there are 150 children in Bolivia living with HIV/AIDS, and 12 of every 1,000 newborns are infected with congenital syphilis.”  Although reducing STI rates in mothers and infants alike is a goal any right-thinking individual would support, I am, as I have mentioned before, wary of programs that force or coerce women to seek health care.  These programs are often intrusive, and do not generate enough patient trust in health care facilities to bring them through the door.  The current article does not share any details on how mandatory testing will be implemented, but so far, I am skeptical.  Stay tuned for more details.

Finally, the kick-ass women at Women on Waves bring us some good news about Peru: on May 27, Lima’s Collective for Free Information for Women (CLIM) announced the introduction of a new telephone hotline for women seeking information about medical abortion, or the “abortion pill.”  Free hotlines such as this one are key in countries where abortion is illegal, since many desperate women take medications to terminate pregnancy without the necessary medical information to make these procedures safe.  Since 350,000 women in Peru are estimated to abort illegally every year, this hotline could play a crucial role in reducing maternal deaths due to abortion.  Congrats, CLIM!

And to women everywhere: happy Mother’s Day.  Here’s to all the work that you do, and to supporting your right to decide when, and if, to do it.

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