Columbian Runaway: A Latina Pushes Back on the Role of Women

 by Jasmin Cardenas

Story Summary:
Jasmin takes you into the rabbit hole of panic that she faces when she gets engaged to be married. Questions about her identity and her role as a woman surface as she tries to weed through old world Latino expectations while being an educated American woman today.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Columbian-Runaway-A-Latina-Pushes-Back-on-the-Role-of-Women

Discussion Questions:

  1. Give examples from the lives of women in Jasmin’s story that show societal expectations or limitation on girls and women.
  2. What stereotype does Jasmin believe to be true, at the beginning of the story, about being a married woman?
  3. How does her Colombian aunt expose the layered complications women face? When do/can women have power? What holds women back?
  4. What could it mean that Jasmin keeps her maiden name?
  5. What is your cultural identity? Think of a time when you struggled with your identity, how did society support or challenge you?
  6. In your life, do you see women treated unequally to their male counterparts? Where? (give examples)

 Resources:

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Film Documentary: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide http://www.halftheskymovement.org/pages/film
Website: Remezcla is a grassroots project among writers and creatives to cover Latino culture, that grew into an influential media brand for Latino millennial’s with national & international contributors and reach. www.Remezcla.com

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Latino Americans/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Jasmin Carenas. I have been in Chicagoan all my life. But in 2006, I took off to Columbia, South America, panicked because I’d gotten engaged a month and a half before, and the bombardment of questions about my dress, the rings, the wedding, the location, it was just all too much. I didn’t know the answers. And it felt like the more I got asked, the more I lost myself in the answering. The questions came from everywhere.

One of the Senoras from church asked, “Jasmin, are you going to have niños right away?”

“No, I want to figure out how my new life partner and I work first. But I…”

“Si, quierro niños, just not right away.”

One of my party girlfriends asks, “So, are you sure you’re ready to settle down, Jazz?”

“Yes. It’s what I’ve always envisioned.”

Then one of my colleagues from work asks, “So, you gonna take his name?”

“Nuñez…and trade in my own? No!”

“Who’s Jasmin Nuñez? She doesn’t have a history, a story, an actor’s union card. Jasmin Cardenas does. Am I too selfish to think that way?”

It’s just that all my life, I’ve been groomed by my mother, my aunts, and Latino society in general, to be una mujer buena, a good woman. A good Latina woman takes care of her husband, serves him, cooks for him…Oh, I’m so in trouble. Cooking? Baking I can do. But cooking…I can’t cook to save my life.

I mean, my mom and my aunts, especially my Tia Gloria, they are the model image of mujer buena. You can’t turn on Spanish network TV without seeing your stereotypical Latinas. Mujeres, women, who take care of their husbands. My mom, I’ve watched all my life, wake up and make my dad’s breakfast and coffee, down to the sugar in his café.

You, I mean, maybe estoy loca. Was this really what I wanted? Was I signing up for this? I knew that I loved Jesus but I’d broken my one cardinal rule. You don’t even talk engagement unless you’ve been dating for at least a year. And here I was engaged in less than 10 months. When he asked me to marry him, I did not question it. I practically jumped into his lap.

Okay, so what you need to know is that Jesus took me to Mexico under the guise of meeting his familia. And then he took me on a secluded, romantic trip to a rain forest. A lush rain forest, fragrant with life. Butterflies darting around the canopy of trees and vines. And we walked along these pebbles stones, past one rushing waterfall after another. And we had the place all to ourselves. When we got to the base of the most majestic waterfall, El Capitán, I looked at Jesus and he looked a little nervous. But I was just so overwhelmed by the beauty. And then he got down on one knee. And I thought, “Oh my, it’s happening. It’s happening. Memorize this moment, Jasmin. Memorize this moment.”

And then his lips parted. “Will you marry me?”

“Yes! Yes!” I jumped into his arms and threw my arms around him as the waterfall cascaded down and we kissed. Our own movie moment.

But standing here, in my aunt’s kitchen, in Columbia, so many days away from that moment of clarity, I couldn’t help but wonder. Watching her, in her tile kitchen, in her high heels, at 6 o’clock in the morning, with her jeans suction-cupped to her tush. Is serving a man the rest of my life really what I wanted? Is my college degree going to become a paper doily?

Now, what’s crazy is that Jesus had never given me a reason to think that I was going to end up barefoot and pregnant during our, all of our marriage. He’s a first generation American, just like me. A well-educated Mexican guy. He’s not machista. A machista is a guy who likes to put a woman in her place, who likes to be taken care of by women. Jesus is not like that.

But what if it’s in his DNA? And we haven’t been together long enough, for me to see signs of it creeping out, and then he expects me to be his mama! No. Jesus is really quite awesome. I won’t want to marry him if he wasn’t. So why was I so nervous and freaking out about this new role as his wife? I mean, it’s not like when my mom was a kid. You know, my mom never got to learn how to ride a bike when she was a little girl, because little girls weren’t allowed to ride bikes. And when I was young, I learned the same message.

I was walking down, uh, town, in one of those small little Latin American towns, with my prima, my cousin and we saw an arcade room. It was just ooo… you know. Concrete floors and a few pinball machines but they had Pac-Man, so, I went right in. And all the boys inside stopped and stared at me. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. And then, I realized my prima, she had stayed outside. I was the only girl in the arcade room and the boys said that I couldn’t be there. That it wasn’t proper for a girl to be an arcade room. Man, where’s the manual to be your own Columbiana Americana?

That morning, in Columbia, my aunt prepared my uncle’s breakfast, down to the sugar in his café. He left through that toll… tall, wrought iron gate. There was a dog barking and a fruit vendor. “Mamay! Platanos! Y Yuuucccaa!”

And my aunt turns around, after having locked the padlock door, and she looks at me. And I must look like a scared little girl because she’s like, “Jasmin, que le pasa mija?”

“Nothing. Nothing is wrong, Tia.”

“Jasmin.”

“Tia, yo no puedo cocinar, I don’t know how to cook. I don’t like to clean. And the idea of serving a guy until the end of my days like a good mujer Latina should, makes me want to jump off a cliff.”

(Laughter) “Ay boba!” My aunt looked at me and she said, “Ay, muchacha. Usted no se tiene que preocupar por eso, you don’t have to worry about that. You prepared yourself for more than that. Ay, Jasmin.”

“Pero Tia, I thought I was supposed to take care of my husband the way you and Mami do. Taking care of him, cooking and cleaning.”

“Jasmin, you prepared yourself for more than that. Your mom, she didn’t have the choices you have. You studied. Your mama was a worker, una tradajadora. And she had to work, to support la familia. And she sacrificed leaving Columbia to go to the United States so that you would have all those choices. Just to hire someone to do all the cooking and cleaning for you.”

“Really?” My jaw hit the ground. “Pero Tia, I thought I was supposed to make Jesus feel like a man like you and Mami make el Tio and Papi feel like a man.”

“Jasmin, we make your father and your Tio feel like men in these little ways, but they know who the boss is. They go to work but we get a paycheck.”

Wow. I guess I just needed somebody else to tell me what my mom has always told me. Estudie y sace su carrera para que nunca tenga que depender de un hombre. Study and pursue your career so you never have to depend on a man. That conversation with my Tia Gloria, was all the talk I needed. There’s lots of different ways to be una mujer buena, a good woman.

I got home, back to Chicago, and Jesus asked, “Babe, is everything OK?” And I assured him that was.

And nine months later, we stood in our own outdoor, jungle wedding, surrounded by our friends and familia in Mexico. And Jesus standing there, in his white linen suit, and I, in my Princess Diana dress and veil, just like my mother always envisioned. And the pastor said, “I now present to you, Jesus Nuñez and Jasmin Cardenas.”

Thank you.

My Brother’s Keeper: A Teenager Works to Free Manuel Salazar from Death Row

 

Story Summary:

 Can a teenager make an impact in a world full of injustice? Jasmin looks back at the roots of her involvement in social justice issues when she joined the cause to free the young Mexican-American artist, Manuel Salazar, who sat on death row falsely accused of killing a police officer.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  My-Brothers-Keeper-A-Teenager-Works-to-Free-Manuel-Salazar-from-Death-Row

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What forces in Jasmin’s life caused her to care about the young prisoner on Death Row named Manuel Salazar? Who played an important role in helping her to volunteer in the ways she did? Why did she choose Art and Theater as her vehicle for action?
  2. The play Jasmin and her group created encouraged people to sign a petition to support Manuel’s Freedom. What technical advancements exist today that were not available in the 1990’s that could help in creating civic action and discourse?
  3. This legal case had two clearly different narratives depending on whose perspective was being considered. Can you compare and contrast these different perspectives? How do we decide what’s “true”?

Themes:

  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Latino Americans/Latinos
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hello, my name is Jasmin Cardenas.

“He shot a cop!”

“No, he didn’t. It says the gun was in the officer’s hands when it went off. Some forensics test shows that.”

“Then why did he run, Jazz?”

This was my friend Mari and me going back and forth about this young Mexican-American guy. His name was Manuel Salazar and it was 1993. He was on death row and we were sophomores in high school. We were trying to decide if we should tell his story at this young Latino leadership event. Mari wanted to do a merengue dance.

“Come on, Jazz! I think we have enough guys to do a bomb-diggety-sexy merengue!”

“I know, but this guy’s innocent and he’s on death row! We should tell his story. Besides, this would be totally different from anything everybody else is gonna do.”

Our friend and fellow club member, Ali, had met Manuel’s lawyer. She told Ali, that he had international support for his freedom. That there was people from all the world behind him. And that, and that he had been represented by a shady lawyer. This guy who had totally rigged his first trial.

“C’mon, you guys, we should do this. We could, we could tell his story and, and people would be amazed.  He was just driving in a car with other Latino and black kids, minding his own business. The cops stopped him for no reason. And then they beat him.  And, and now he’s on death row! I mean, we should interview the lawyer. Tell his story.”

“That’s such a downer, Jazz. Why don’t we tell the story of the Taino Indians and we could dance and get costumes! That’s awesome!”

“You guys, this could have been any one of us in the car with our friends.”

Just that summer before, my brother, Favian, and I had been driving down the street and I saw a friend of mine walking down the road. And I laid on the horn to get her attention. When we got through intersection, this car in front of us, a white Caddy, stopped, all crazy about it. And his older white guy, in slacks and a white shirt, came out and was yelling at us, raging mad. He was F this, and F that. You stupid Mexicans, (we’re actually Colombian), Favian started opening the window to explain. And the guy was having none of it. He punched my brother in the nose. Broke his nose. I couldn’t believe it. We, we, we put out a police report. And my parents took him to the Chicago Children’s Hospital and they did nothing. He got away with it.

“This could have been ANY one of US!” I told my girlfriends.

I got them to agree that at least, at least we’d go talk to the lawyer and learn a little more. So, we went to her office.

It was in the Pilsen neighborhood, in Chicago, 18th Street and, uh, Blue Island. There was a big sign, this banner that said, “For the defense of Manuel Salazar,” hanging outside. We got inside and the room was full of people working the phones, doing paperwork. The lawyer, Marlene Kamish, told us all about the case. She told us about how the official police report had stated that the car was suspicious because there were Negroes and Hispanics in the car together. How the, the, the, Manuel had a, a, a gun in his gym bag and, and he was nervous because it was unregistered but he had been target practicing that day. So, he ran from the car with the gym bag. And how the officer chased him. And when he realized he had nowhere to go, he threw the gym bag, with a gun still inside, over the fence so that the cop wouldn’t get the wrong idea. And turned around and surrendered. But then the cops started to beat him. Even as Manuel was saying, “I give, I give!”

And how Manuel had acted in self-defense. The autopsy report shows that there was gunpowder in the officer’s hands, proving that the gun was in his hands when it went off. It was starting to feel like a movie. My friends and I were sitting on the edge of our seats, listening silently. Then, Manuel ran after the gun went off. He ended up at his friend’s house. He was unrecognizable from the beating. They said he looked like Frankenstein. Then the police department, put a “shoot to kill” order out on his life. Manuel was just 18 years old and scared. He ran to Mexico. And in Mexico, he was sleeping one night, when these masked men came and kidnapped him. They dragged him back to Illinois and couldn’t, put him on trial. This violated an extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico. But still, he was put on trial. Meanwhile, he had no idea that his lawyer had been working for the same police department of the officer who had died.

That lawyer failed to represent him and bring in witnesses and even, he didn’t even show that critical evidence of the toxicologist report that showed that the officer had a high blood alcohol level, proving that he was drunk. Manuel was convicted and sentenced to death. And while on death row, he found out that that shady lawyer had been disbarred. No longer allowed to practice. Marlene said that the British parliament, Amnesty International, even the Pope, was behind the support to free Manuel Salazar.

She showed us paintings. He had started painting while in prison. He had been doing all of this self-taught. And he painted this beautiful piece called, “My Brother’s Keeper.” My friends and I all were teary eyed. We were convinced we would tell his story.

We decided to use the facts of his case and we created a play. That and his paintings and his poetry. And we used our bodies as, as characters like the police officers and, and, and the narrator, and, like, the prison bars. And we created a dream sequence where we would show how he ended up on death row. The final line in the play, the last line, was from his poetry his paintings. “Let us stop blinding ourselves to the suffering from others and take the time to care.  For I ask you, to ask yourself; Acabo no soy yo el guardian de mi hermano?..Am I or am I not the keeper of my brother?”

The Latino youth leadership organization loved it. We got a standing ovation. Better yet, Marlene Kamish, the lawyer, loved it. She organized new performances for us and we went everywhere with his paintings. We toured public events, private events, Latino events, youth events. We even marched in the Mexican Independence Day Parade with Manuel’s mom.

I got more involved. I started volunteering for his case, making phone calls, stuffing fliers. I became pen pals with Manuel. And over the course of a year and a half, we toured his, his production, “Reflections: the story of Manuel Salazar,” everywhere his paintings went. And I even got to know him. I visited him in the Pontiac Correctional Center with Marlene. But as things go, senior year hit, and with school, homework, after school clubs, practice for basketball and soccer, and then college applications, I just kind of lost track with Marleen and with Manuel’s case.

But then, my junior year in college, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a high school predominantly Mexican-American, on the southwest side of the city, in Pilsen, contacted my university. They were looking to add an afterschool drama program. And my professor said that I should take it on as a project. The kids were fantastic. We had so much fun together and when we were nearing the end of the afterschool program, they wanted to perform. So, I suggested “Reflections” and they loved what it was about. It got me thinking, what had happened to Manuel?

My mom helped me locate Marlene, the lawyer. She was so surprised to hear from me. She said that Manuel had gotten his second trial and he had won and he was, in fact, free. She gave me his phone number. I called him right away. His voice was so soft spoken. He was so calm. He was so happy to hear from me. He told me that he was still living with his mom in Joliet but that the police department was harassing him and his family. They were angry that he’d been released. They, uh, they were harassing so much, that he was thinking of moving out of state. He also told me that his paintings were, were being looked at by people from the Art Institute. I told him about the play. I invited him to come see the show he had never gotten to see. He didn’t hesitate. My insides were exploding!

The day of the performance, I sat in the audience – super anxious, feeling like a teenager again. But afterwards, Manuel’s eyes were so warm and inviting. He was telling me about how much it meant to him, all that we had done. I couldn’t believe it. He was sitting there in the seats of my university with a buttoned-up collar shirt and a big sweater, hiding his muscular body from working out in prison all those years. And yet, his presence was so quiet. “Gracias, Jasmin. I can’t believe you did all this. This is something else. Something else.”

I might not be the British Parliament and I might not be the Pope but I know that what we did mattered. And to Manuel, while he was standing behind prison bars, what we all did to support him made all the difference. So, yeah, I am my brother’s keeper.

To Live or Not to Live in La Villita, Chicago: A Latina Struggles with Civic Responsibility

 

Story Summary:

 Jasmin struggles with the decision of where to live: a culturally vibrant Mexican-American community that struggles with safety or a picturesque middle class neighborhood where her son might be the only brown boy on the block. How does this educated Latina seek out community? And how, as we grow older, do we stay true to our values of making a difference in the world?

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  To-Live-or-Not-to-Live-in-La-Villita-Chicago-A-Latina-Struggles-with-Civic-Responsibility

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What are the pros and cons to Jasmin moving back to the La Villita neighborhood?
  2. Do you believe we have a responsibility to offer role models to others?
  3. How and why are Jasmin’s and her husband’s perception of the Mexican American neighborhood different? How do couple’s negotiate their cultural and other differences in respectful ways?

Resource:

  • Famous People of Hispanic Heritage: Contemporary Role Models for Minority Youth
  • by Barbara J. Marvis

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Housing
  • Latino American/Latinos
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Jasmin Cardenas. And this life struggle is part of a larger story.

I am Latina, first generation Columbiana-Americana, and my husband is a first-generation Mexicano-Americano. He was born and raised in La Villita, a vibrant Mexican community on the southwest side of Chicago. He’d still live there if it wasn’t for me. His family is there and all his friends are there. I, on the other hand, was born on the north side of the city in a very mixed community of Asians, Latinos, whites. And I wasn’t allowed to go to La Villita. When we were younger and we drive into La Villita to visit a mon… one of my mom’s friends, she would reach over to us, over our bodies, to manually lock the car doors of our station wagon, when we drove into that community. So, when Jesus insisted that we live there for our first year of marriage, I was very resistant. We lived there for six years and for most of that time, I didn’t want to live there. I wanted to move. But then, the charm of the community started to grow on me. And then I started to relax into it. But then I got pregnant. And so, we moved two months before Mateo was born.

But still, as an artist, an educator, and an activist, I still do meaningful work there in La Villita. So, the discussion has come up several times. Should we move back? I don’t know. I’m not sure what to do. So, I make two columns. Plus: We move back. Minus: No way, we stay put.

Minus: My familia doesn’t want me to move there. “Eso esta muy peligroso por alla!” My mom and dad thinks it’s too dangerous.

Plus: Years ago, I used to work with these teen girls and they’d say to me, “Hmm, must be nice to drive in your SUV and then go home while we got to deal with your ideas of peaceful conflict resolution on the streets. What a joke!” They were right. It was totally unfair to the girls. Commitment means being in it for the long haul.

Another plus: My neighbors. My first summer there, I met David. Baggy pants, big white T-shirt, gold chain, beer can in one hand. “You plantin’ plants?”

I was on all fours, weeding my front garden. “Yeah. Do you go to school?”

“Nah. Not since I got shot. School’s stupid.” Major minus, right? But then, Snowmagedon happened. And what happened, I was out there shoveling, and David showed up with his gangbanger, tattooed brother, or no, cousin. They pulled out shovels and shoveled right alongside me. I had assumed the worst, but when I got to know my neighbors, who they really were, I realized, they were amazing. They were a great reason to stay in the neighborhood.

But minus: Pow, pow, pow. Gunshots. A car speeds by, shouts, silence, the air conditioners buzzing. “Jesus, did you hear that?”

“What?” my husband yells from the living room.

“The gunshots. Did you hear that?”

“No, Babe. Those are just fireworks.”

“No, I know what I heard.” I can’t go back to that.

But then another minus: I’m on all hands and knees, all fours, and this big, hairy rat darts across my fingers. Rats the size of cats! And they’re everywhere. You can’t go outside and hang out in a relaxed summer night without seeing them. I knew that city services weren’t the same but was this is an example, they just don’t bait the same in La Villita as other parts of the city? I don’t know. I wanna fight for equality in city services but I could, could I move back to living with rats? Funny thing is, I left the rats on the south side but on the north side we have snakes. Another plus: My neighbor, my neighbor kids, they couldn’t believe that I was 28 years old and still didn’t have kids. It hits me. I can be an example that you don’t have to be 18 with kids. I mean, when I was growing up, didn’t I have examples of, of people that helped me make it? When I was in high school, I had a 4.0 GPA. But when I went to my African-American counselor to tell her that I wanted to apply to colleges, she suggested that I apply to one city college.

“Set realistic expectations,” she told me.

This Latina, from a youth leadership organization, she told me to apply to as many colleges as I could. And she even gave me vouchers to, to, so that I didn’t have to deal with the application fees. My neighbor kids, they’re just like me. I should live there. I should stand up for them.

But the minus: I have this friend who lives a block over from our old house in La Villita. Her brother was sitting on the front porch. He’s, he was college bound, college, a college student and now he was in rehab. He got shot while sitting on his front porch. It scares me to think that I could be walking down the block with Mateo in a stroller and bullets might fly. I mean, that’s not safe for him but it’s also not safe for my neighbor kids. But what’s safe?

Growing up in a nice, safe, middle-class neighborhood, my friend Socarri got shot. He was college bound and he lit up the hallways of Lane Tech with his smile. And now he’s gone, mistaken for a gangbanger. So, what’s safe? Is there just safer? What if Old Irving Park, where I live now, is safer but it’s not safe enough?

But Plus: I want Mateo to speak Spanish. I want him to be surrounded by our culturo, Español, in the smells and sounds of Latino life. La Villita, you can buy tamales on the street for a buck. Kids grow up with their cousins, surrounded by familia. I want him to be just one of the brown kids on the block. Not the only brown kid on the block.

Minus: No, no. Plus: I don’t know. You decide. One of my neighbors in La Villita, a friend of ours, Rob. He almost had his house firebombed. These gangbangers threw a firebomb on his front porch and instinctively, he went outside to confront them. He told them that this was his house and his block and he wasn’t going anywhere and they couldn’t scare him. And him and his wife, they didn’t run away. Instead they started a mentorship sports program that reclaimed city parks and gave it, and returned it back to the neighborhood. I should do that. I should be like him.

The thing is, I tried. One summer, while I was living in La Villita. I ran a summer theatre arts camp. But the minus is that nobody showed up. Well, not nobody. None of the kids that I ran the camp for, my neighbor kids, not a single family showed up. But the plus is that all the kids who did show up loved it and they loved learning about being green and performing. With the minuses is that I ran the camp two blocks over from my house. And I didn’t know that when you pass Central Park, you pass gang territory. But the plus is that now I lived there, so I know that. If I hadn’t lived there, I wouldn’t have that. And now I could plan around that. So, I don’t know.

I tried dividing my decision into two columns. But it’s, it’s, it’s mind boggling. And my mind, it’s spinning. Both neighborhoods have pluses and minuses and maybe I should move back to the old neighborhood. We have great friends, doing hard work towards change. But I’ve gotten to know some of my new neighbors and they’re really nice. And it’s so peaceful here. But…I should be a person that works towards the betterment of our community. How do I make choices so that I’m doing what is best for my family and keeping us safe but also living up to my expectations for life, my values? How do I change the world without being a sellout? Ultimately, I’m left with questions. Bigger and better questions.