My Friend Cesar Would Respect Me If I Were A Man

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“If you were a man, I would respect you.”

As the meaning of Cesar’s Spanish words slowly registered, I responded with a barrage of English profanities, an activity I usually reserved for my dog. Something deep within me wanted to throw a punch at him on behalf of women everywhere. But because men are stronger than women, I stormed off, an overflowing plate of rice and beans in hand, and finished my lunch in peace at my own house.

Cesar is a Dominican of Haitian descent, who looks at least 10 years older than his biological age of 58. Tall and wiry, he works long days in the sugar cane fields of a Dominican landowner, lives in a windowless one-room apartment, and enjoys Nacional cigarettes and Brugal rum.

Cesar speaks Haitian-accented Spanish and Dominican-accented Creole. He went to school when he was younger but not for long enough to learn to read and write. He likes to dance a merengue or two on a Saturday night, and he thinks that my dog is a genius because he understands Spanish commands. He was also my next-door neighbor for 18 months.

Throughout my nearly two years in the small town of El Peje, in the Dominican Republic, I grew accustomed to male chauvinism. In fact, there were instances when I found my jaw dropping in surprise upon hearing that a man knew how to cook or that he actually washed his own clothing. I grew to assume husbands’ infidelity as a given in most marriages. Once I even caught myself saying that a man was a good husband simply because he did not beat his wife. I began to question why the beautiful young woman down the road was in her late 20s and didn’t seem interested in finding a husband to settle down with. I had joined the Peace Corps to be immersed, and immersed I was.

For months, I’d been graciously providing Cesar with a first-rate education in the women’s liberation movement. In addition to my lengthy discourses on the topic, I also demonstrated the ideals I preached by audaciously living on my own in a foreign country, 26 years old, childless, single, and generally doing as I pleased.

This wasn’t the first argument we’d had. Not too long ago, on a night that had started off innocently enough, a group of us were sitting on our neighbor Gina’s porch, sharing a beer, listening to some merengue típico, and opining on such weighty issues as when the rain would stop and whether it is better to mix the beans in with the rice during the cooking process or to serve them on the side. Somehow the topics of pregnancy and childbirth snuck their way into our otherwise usual conversation.

Cesar asserted, “If I were married and my wife were pregnant, I would certainly have another woman lined up to fulfill my manly needs while she was recovering from childbirth.” I took advantage of this opportune teaching moment and delivered my standard arguments about the sanctity of marriage and the rights of women. I also pointed out the injustice of putting one’s life partner in peril of contracting a potentially fatal STD after she had borne the baby of her insensitive husband. Cesar just smiled and shook his head.

In word and deed, I defied all that Cesar knows and believes about women and our role in society. For our entire tenure as neighbors, he regularly argued that, “A woman could never be president,” and “I am smarter than you because I am a man.” And then of course, my personal favorite: “If you were a man, I would respect you.”

In the ensuing weeks, I tried my best to stay angry at Cesar, but it wasn’t easy. Cesar is stubborn, but if he considers you a friend, he will help you with almost anything. When someone broke into my house, he spent his nights awake until I returned a week later. When I needed advice on how to work within small-town politics, he provided it more honestly than anyone else. When the town gossiped after a man took advantage of me, he defended me and helped me through my confusion.

Over time, I came to understand his point of view, even if I could never fully accept it. His world is one where books and theories and civil rights movements mean very little in the context of daily life. Where men are expected to be one way and women another. Where those who defy the culturally prescribed gender roles are punished and shunned by their neighbors. Where 26-year-old women are not single, childless, nor living on their own.

So although I was regularly frustrated and often personally hurt by his beliefs about gender roles, I grew to love Cesar as a neighbor and as a friend. When Cesar was bored and hungry, I opened my door and made him soup. When others made fun of his poor Spanish, I defended him. When his leg went numb due to years of hard labor in the sugar cane fields, I raked his leaves and kept him company. And on the day I rode off in a rusty Ford truck to catch my flight back to the United States, Cesar went to work early to avoid saying goodbye to the girl next door.



 

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