Those were the days

(an autobiographical essay)
Rosina Conde
Translated by Jeffrey N. Lamb

© Gerardo Hellión

(versión en español)

a Magdalena Flores Peñafiel,
Roberto Hernández Fuentes,
Rafael Catana e Ignacio Pineda,
quienes provocaron este texto

The seventies had just taken off. I had just gotten out of high school and began making plans to study at the university. Because at that time the University of Baja California only had five degree programs, I had to move to Mexico City. However, my parents didn’t allow it because of the student riots and the political repression during October 1968 and June 1971. The “Jueves de Corpus,” when the government soldiers violently repressed a student up rise, was really fresh in the Mexican psyche. In Mexico, as a woman, it was still difficult to be on your own, it wasn’t even that common for women to pursue a degree at the university, much less leave home to do it. In my family, the problem wasn’t leaving home, but rather studying for a degree, because my father didn’t believe in university diplomas. Because he was a businessman, he believed that, in order to make money, you had to dedicate yourself to business, and to do that he had already taught all of us everything we needed to know. I even remember that, from a very young age, he didn’t want me to study cooking or sewing, because his daughters “wouldn’t end up as housewives,” he used to say.

Influenced, in part, by my father, by feminism, by the hippy movement, by the Blues, by Soul and Rock, and by the student movements in France and Mexico, I packed my bags and those of my six month old son, I loaded up on a few “provisions”, and I said goodbye to my parents and headed off the Mecca of Knowledge: the UNAM (the largest university in all of Latin America located in Mexico City). So, in November of 1971, with a few pieces of jewelry destined for the local pawn shop and about one hundred pesos in my pocket, I entrusted myself to the god of optimism and rode along with some of my friends from high school on a Tres Estrellas de Oro bus. Over the next 48 hours and two thousand miles we sang along with Janis Joplin all the way to the capitol:

(STARTS SINGING A CAPELLA, WITH DRUMS: Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin, M. McClure y B. Neuwirth)

© Fotógrafo anónimo de las calles de Tijuana (1971)

That’s how we arrived at Mexico City to sponge off a few friends, to look for a place to hang our hats, a job that would allow us to survive long enough to achieve our objectives. However, the city wasn’t what we had hoped: it was literally besieged. The “granaderos”, or army soldiers, were hanging out at every corner of the university and the “porros”, or undercover student infiltrators, were all over the more politicized schools. You didn’t know which to be more afraid of: the police, the thieves, the porros or army. They were times when being young and a student were two capital sins. And, when above and beyond being young and a student, you were a woman, the crime was multiplied three fold. Any “porro”, soldier or fool thought he had the right to verbally abuse us in the street, fondle us or accuse us of being “on the other side”.

(ENTERS GUITAR, AS BACKGROUND FOR READING: Hasta siempre, comandante, by Carlos Puebla)

We started to go to clubs, funky hangouts, literary cafés where we knew there would be people with similar ideas to ours; we saturated ourselves in the political life of the times and began to gain class and gender consciousness. We decorated our spaces with posters of our idols; those from rock and Latin American politics. In the student dorms, we would see broadsides of the Rolling Stones, Janis or Hendrix and even Che Guevara… We learned how to appreciate everything indigenous, Latin American and anything from outside that might reaffirm our political and cultural identity. So, together with other thinkers, Che Guevara became one of our symbols of liberty: We learned to love you/ from the heights of history/ where the sun of your audacity/ closed off death…

(STARTS SINGING: Hasta siempre, comandante, from first bridge)

Even though many of those who just arrived didn’t know each other, the social environment made us accomplices, and my new companions and I began to look for alternatives to represent the world and, in this way, transform it. We wanted to do theater, make movies, write literature; publish magazines, books, pamphlets, and some of my colleagues in the department and I began to meet to plan a magazine. But before writing, we wanted to sing, dance, act, and the meetings turned into literary workshops first and artistic seminars later, and any reason was good enough to read our poems to each other, sing our songs, listen to new music and recuperate what we could from generations gone by.

We would sing anything and everything: country, blues, rock, Latin American favorites, boleros… Any song that had literary or musical merit was accepted into the repertoire, regardless of genre or cultural border. Around that time in Mexico an album by Patsi Andion hit the scene. It went like this:

En Madrid, y agonizando el presente mes
me siento al fin enfrente de un papel
para escribirte justo hasta la piel
aunque no entiendas lo que te diré..

© Fotógrafo anónimo

No one cared if we understood what we were saying! What did it matter if it was in French, English, Portuguese or Spanish! Or, if they were good or bad words. As students we had been worn out by screaming and shouting our heads off without anyone who paid attention: language had lost its impact and it had to be regained. What was important was having the power of the word: to be able to say “No!” to our parents, to our friends, to a boyfriend or girlfriend, and to society in general, whenever we wanted to disagree with something or someone, whenever we didn’t want to do something. We wanted to decide for ourselves our life’s path. For the men, perhaps, this wasn’t as meaningful because they had always been able to make that decision; but for us women it was.

At that time, what impressed us a lot was a song from a movie that came to Mexico at the beginning of the seventies: the one the Mary Madelyn sang in Jesus Christ Super Star. What we liked best was that the object of desire was inverted. In the literary tradition, the man had always sung to the women, and she had always been ethereal, fragile, unknown and mysterious, difficult to comprehend and to understand. It was the man who addressed himself to us. What mattered here was that it was she who sang to the man and who showed that she had always had control of her emotions. The object of desire, in this case, the ethereal, incomprehensible, the impenetrable… is him.

© Ma. Eugenia Camacho

(STARTS SINGING: I don’t know how to love him)

Now women spoke of love to men. We didn’t have to hide our tastes or feelings. We no longer had to wait for them to take the initiative. Now we were the ones who anguished over them; but, take note, for them…, not for any one of them. And we could proclaim that we were sexual entities just like any other human being. We no longer had to hide ourselves in anominity, nor marginalize ourselves, nor hang on the coattails of those who had always pushed us to the wayside: Not nuns… not whores…not asexual mothers…. Now women could study like any nun, make love like any whore, and have children like any “good little Mexican mother”. I can still remember how I was celebrated in the Department when I recited a poem in Hernán Lavín Cerda’s workshop that went like this:

© Gerardo Hellión

Soy frígida y ninfómana,
ama de casa y prostituta.
Y soy sátira: soy Electra.

Mirada estéril y lasciva,
aparta la avaricia que arrojas sobre mí

Imagen que retienes
mi sombra tu pupila
¿cuándo entregarás mi identidad?

Soy esa señora

From then on, we were average run-of-the-mill human beings, with desires, biological, intellectual and love interest needs, and we began to demand our right of eroticism and our right to decide who we would sleep with or live with for the rest of our lives, without having to worry about what our parents had driven into us for century upon century: the male infrastructure. And, by taking by assault the right of language, we also took the right to decide and to speak about our bodies, which gave reason for us to be rejected in many social arenas; however, the women of my generation decided to speak to each other and to show our role through a different language than the one that had traditionally been used when referring to us. I can still remember how some editorial houses took the liberty of mutilating and censuring some of our writings.

Me seducías,
no con sólo poner tus labios
sobre mi clítoris.
Me seducías.
Con tu mirada, tus gestos, palabras.
Movimientos sencillos, cotidianos.

Me sedujiste
con la serenidad de tu mirada
y la nobleza de tu tacto.
Me vine con tu olor y tu deseo
mientras hundíamos la risa en nuestros labios.
Después, el silencio acortó nuestras palabras
y caminamos por opuestos laberintos.
Creo que me has olvidado
pero sé que nunca olvidarás mi lozanía.

Para seducirme
no necesitas de las sesenta y cuatro artes
ni del perfume afrodisíaco
ni de los cuentos eróticos.
Sólo basta un lecho bañado de rocío.

Te seduciré
con una pera y un racimo de uvas.
Con las uvas bañaré tu cuerpo
para beber sus gotas una a una.
La pera la comeré en cuclillas sobre tu rostro.

Because we were morally and economically self sufficient, we could fall in love with a man ten years older than us, of our same age, or, even, younger. The man’s pedigree or ancestry or social class or profession or social status were no longer of any concern. He could as easily be an actor as a businessman, a rock star or an orchestra leader, a painter or an architect, a student or unemployed. Self-sufficiency gave us the ability to freely fall in love, without having to use a man as a provider. So, we could choose without restrictions. And now it was the men who were asking themselves if we would still love them after getting laid:

© Ma. Eugenia Camacho

(STARTS SINGING: Will you love me tomorrow?, by Carol King)

In the same way that we wanted to be true to ourselves, we also wanted to be natural. We demanded our right to walk the streets without masks or “falsity”; to be accepted with our perfections and imperfections. We freed ourselves from nylons and makeup, from girdles and bras, those things that had imprisoned our bodies and impeded breathing. We freed ourselves from curlers, bobby pins and hairdryers. Those icky sprays! Down comes the hair! We demanded to be accepted with glasses, pimples and black heads, with straight or curly hair, squeaky or low voices, fat or thin. Down with mascara, down with makeup, good by to social graces, to modesty, to frivolity! And, among other things, we took charge of laughter, that which had been prohibited in public for centuries. We began to laugh out loud, at the top of our lungs, at whatever came our way. Say hello to the frank laugh, white teeth shining, stomachs aching. It no longer mattered that our bodies doubled over, that we’d get wrinkles, that our “love handles” would bulge out of our clothes and jiggle about with the joy of our physical and emotional freedom. And anyone who made us feel good, just for who we were, was welcomed.

(STARTS SINGING: Like a natural woman, by Carol King)

Men, too, began to change. Unlike our parent’s generation and those before them, our university colleagues wanted to be free to express their emotions without hypocrisy, and they refused to live the double standard of a false society. The important thing was to be transparent and to be faithful, not what the Church or the State ordered, but with conviction. Who doesn’t remember Juan Manuel Serrat’s lines?:

(STARTS SINGING: La mujer que yo quiero)

Precisely because we were no longer obliged, by divine order, to live for all eternity with the same person, as I said before, one was faithful by conviction; we were there because we wanted to be there. And, women made love to men, we took pleasure in them and enjoyed them just as they took pleasure in and enjoyed us without worrying about what people would say or about marriage or about the future or about security or anything… Who gave a shit if the guy got married to us or not! Long live free love, life, eroticism, intellect, and personal satisfaction. And we all turned ourselves over completely and asked ourselves, if maybe, we had made them feel like our one and only man:

(STARTS SINGING: Peace of my heart, by J. Ragovoy y B. Berns)

I a D: Raúl Sánchez Vázquez, Elihú Quintero,
Rosina Conde y Gustavo Rivera. © Gerardo Hellión

Because women began to share territory with men, they also wanted to share theirs with us. They began to change diapers, to cook, to share with us time feeding the children, or to take them to daycare so that we could study and work. Then we built, really built, an equal relationship. Men rejected the imposed roles of patriarchal society, and wanted to liberate themselves from machismo and of the obligation of maintaining more than one household (like all “good macho men” with his official wife and then a mistress to boot!) So, they decided on monogamy, even if only serial monogamy: no more mistresses or clandestine offspring. Forget about “bastard children”! All of them were legitimate, and those who didn’t have fathers were everybody’s child precisely because they were born under the code of free love. Men and woman began to be “companions” and to despise possessive adjectives: nobody belongs to anybody. Feelings of solidarity and “unity” allowed us to see each other as equals. Being a couple no longer meant being in a dependent relationship nor under anyone’s thumb, and we all had a name of our own. They no longer said, “let me introduce you to my wife”, but rather, “this is Margarita, Juana, Valentina…” Men accepted that their partners had a personal life; the traditional notion “you exist only from the moment that you met me” disappeared. The recognized that we didn’t have to be a “one woman man”, and they asked us to behave and express ourselves differently. I still sing that song by Joe Josea and B.B. King that goes: “rock me, baby!” And you know what that means.

(STARTS SINGING: Rock me, baby, by Joe Josea y B. B. King)

In the same way that women recuperated space, our children were treated as free and thinking spirits from the moment of conception. How many of us put headphones on our bellies so that our children could hear Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Paganini, or Gershwin! When they came into the world, we made them into clear-cut individuals, thinking people, with responsibilities and rights. I remember that the halls of the Philosophy and Letters department were filled with children who ran and laughed, while we entered class. These kids, just like us, would also be free to choose their destiny for themselves: some day, as Gershwin would say, “They’re gonna spread their wings” to fly in search of different paths and will have the security that they could rely on all of our support.

(STARTS SINGING: Summertime, by Gershwin)

Upon leaving the university, we all took different paths, and kept learning at work, in personal and love relationships, as life flowed by… Some went to work for the radio, others in movies, on television, in the publishing business. Others stayed in academia. Some left letters and dedicated themselves to music, painting, or journalism. Many of us got hitched and unhitched, others just stuck together and almost all of us had children—some before others, like me–. Some of us followed the traveling pack of wolves, learning and combining experiences with arts and other disciplines, however; it was our time at the university that set the stage for our paths.

© N’young

Now, with the new anti-feminism, the propagation of AIDS, globalization, the economic crisis and the privatization of education, some of our children recriminate us for not having conventional mothers and fathers, because society demands that we are different, because we opened the chasm that is for them, perhaps, too difficult to cross. But I believe that it is precisely this lack of interest that men and women showed by deciding who would be our partners, our friends, was what united us in the struggle, and what allowed us to survive in a society that denies accepting us as free individuals; clear-cut, creative and independent. This is what has allowed us to go beyond the failures and obstacles to constantly begin again, even in spite of ourselves.

(ENTERS GUITAR AS BACKGROUND FOR: Je ne regrette rien, by Edith Piaf)

“I don’t take anything back”, Edith Piaf said, even back in the sixties, “not the good that has been done for me, nor the bad, all of this doesn’t matter to me. Everything is paid for, erased, forgotten… They are my memories that have lit the fire. I no longer need my sadness nor my pleasures. I have erased the love and the problems. I begin from zero.”

(STARTS SINGING: Je ne regrette rien)