By María Fernanda Ampuero. Translated by Úrsula Fuentesberain and Carolyn Silveira. María Fernanda Ampuero is an Ecuadorian writer living in Spain. She is the author of two non-fiction books, “Lo que aprendí en la peluquería” (What I Learned at the Beauty Parlor), “Permiso de Residencia” (Resident Permit) and a dozen journalistic pieces and literary essays. She won the short story award Hijos de Mary Shelley (Spain, 2015) and appeared on the list “100 most influential Latinos in Spain”. Her work has been translated into English, Portuguese and Italian; she has two forthcoming books. This essay is reprinted here with the permission of María Fernanda Ampuero.
When María José Coni (22) and Marina Menegazzo (21) — originally from Mendoza, Argentina — were found dead in Montañita, a beach spot in Ecuador, both the authorities and the mass media blamed the young women for their own deaths. “It was meant to happen sooner or later,” said the former Sub secretary of Tourism of Ecuador, Cristina Rivadeneira, referring to the fact that the two women were backpacking through Chile, Perú and Ecuador —she was quickly forced to resign due to the outrage that this declaration provoked. Of the same tenor, renowned Argentinian psychiatrist, Hugo Marietán, referred to María José and Marina as “propitiatory victims”, because they exposed themselves to risks by being outside of their home country. The rest of the media responded in a similar fashion and attributed the murders to the fact that the young women were “traveling alone”.
This display of victim-blaming detonated a public backlash against misogyny and violence towards women. Several Latin American journalists and activists quickly spoke on behalf of María José and Marina and reminded readers that femicides (the killing of women) is an increasingly alarming problem in Latin America—particularly in Guatemala.
Specialized publications and organizations have been calling attention to the rise of gender hate crimes in Guatemala for years now. A 2010 article in America’s Quarterly states that, on average, two women were murdered each day in Guatemala in 2006 and that 94 percent of all the homicides of women committed between 2005 and 2010 remained unsolved. By the same token, a 2015 study ranked Guatemala as one of the top three countries with the highest rate of femicides (alongside El Salvador and Colombia); and during an interview for the foundation InSight Crime, Guatemala's Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, said that “50 percent of the 854 women killed in Guatemala in 2015 were murdered as a direct result of organized crime.”
Ecuadorian authorities hastily pinned the crime on two men that allegedly offered Marina and María José a place to spend the night, but one of the accused men took back his declaration and said that the police forced him to confess to the crime. The victims’ families believe that the murders might be related to human trafficking.
The murder investigation is still ongoing, as are the demonstrations of solidarity with Marina and María José —the Facebook post written by Guadalupe Acosta, a Paraguayan college student, was amongst the most popular signs of support. Likewise, Marina’s sister, Belén Menegazzo, called for two protests in Ecuador: one happening this Friday, March 18th in Montañita, and the second this Saturday, March 19th in Guayaquil.
Argentinian magazine Anfibia also joined the public outcry against femicides and published pieces by seven Latin American writers using the hashtag #ViajoSola (#ITravelAlone). Renowned Ecuadorian author, María Fernanda Ampuero, was among them, she wrote a piercing essay, which we have translated below.
When I was eight, the teenage son of some friends of the family molested me. Sexually. There was no rape or struggle. No nudity or screams muffled by a large hand.
None of that.
But he was a man and I unquestionably a girl, and he asked for kisses on the mouth and to be his girlfriend and knelt down to be at my level and got close to me until I could smell his breath —which I can still smell with the same fear— and he cornered me against a cabinet, and its corner pierced my back causing me more pain, and he demanded kisses. "There’s no age when it comes to love," he repeated. "There’s no age when it comes to love " and then took me to the closet where there was no light and I said, many times, to please let me go. He said to not be afraid, to be good, and he touched my face, my hair, and he asked me why I didn’t want to be his girlfriend. He told me that I was very pretty and that he liked me a lot and why did I not like him; I would make him feel sad if I didn’t give him a kiss.
I imagine my bewildered look. No boy, no girl should live that inexplicable fear, an adult fear that drowns you with confusion: a sexual fear, to get aroused and to arouse. No, dammit, children have to laugh and be frightened by things that frighten children, like ghosts, not erect penises.
Damn them all.
Marina Menegazzo and María José Coni, killed in Ecuador. Marina Menegazzo and María José Coni, killed in Ecuador.
What followed after that is a blur. A noise? Did I duck under his arm? I know that I escaped down the stairs like those animals that have been tortured by cruel children with lighters and that I didn’t stop running until I was tucked under the covers between my mother and my grandmother.
I know that I told them what happened, shaking and crying, and that they, women like me, tried to convince me that it wasn’t important: he’s a playful boy, that's all.
Forget it, María Fernanda, bury it for thirty years.
Is it possible (or am I stupid and don’t understand) that sometimes mothers are more afraid of offending their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, friends, and brothers-in-law by saying: Hey, are you sexually abusing my child?
It must be that I'm the idiot.
No. I was not raped. I have never been raped. But that afternoon, just minutes after I braided the multicolored tail of my Rainbow Bright horse, a man killed my innocence.
It was not in Montañita, I was not in a distant country, I was not being reckless, I wasn’t "traveling alone." I hadn’t even left my house, my mom was nearby, and I was surrounded by everything I considered safe in the world. Pink walls, shelves of stuffed animals and coloring books.
I was eight.
My only "fault" was to be born with a vagina between my legs.
But who knows, I’m sure there’s someone who thinks: These women, always teasing men, even as little girls, such a problem. She must have done something to make the boy, a well educated young man, say all those silly but innocent things. What’s the harm? He was only playing. How could anyone think he had bad intentions? Please! It was that girl with her dirty mind, making up stories to get attention.
She’s a "drama queen." That was the word that they used to refer to me from then on: "drama queen."
They used to laugh at the "drama queen".
No one ever said anything. My parents and his parents remained close friends, which meant that I had to keep seeing him, although at every party I hid in a corner, like a bunny in a room full of wolves. I became a sadder girl. Then a rebellious teenager. Then a disenchanted woman. What happened, happened twice: first, in that dark closet; second, with my family, who did nothing. Scratch that. Who sided with the bad guys.
Violence on top of violence: if people do not defend you it’s because you must have done something.
The atrocity of the world, the one that breaks little girls’ hearts, I am no stranger to that. Too many years ago I lost my naiveté and my perpetual optimism. I do not trust all. I do not think we are all brothers. I’m not affectionate or feminine when I speak. I'm not Ned Flanders.
I can be a piece of shit, and I am if I want to be.
I am Ecuadorian, Guayaquileña to be exact: I know you must have two hundred eyes when you walk down the street. One hundred of them on your wallet, another hundred on your ass. Because I’m a traveler, a tourist, a woman, a foreigner, a Latin American, my father’s daughter, an immigrant. Because I have common sense, because I’ve had many fucked up experiences in my life, I know how to stay alert.
That said, I believe with the faith of a saint that there are more good people than bad. And I also believe that this world belongs to me, not only to men, not just to women traveling with men.
It belongs to me, a woman traveling alone.
I prefer living to not living. And for me, and for all the people I love, to live means to go out, travel, speak, hear, taste, discover, watch, learn, marvel, experience. To do what some call taking risks.
Yes, this is a disgusting world in which some girls go on the trip of a lifetime and never come home, but it's even more disgusting that we’re afraid to undertake such a trip in the first place.
I will not stop going to any Montañita I feel like just because they say I'm looking for death. It's the opposite—I'm looking for life. Death is given to me by those criminals that you, Mr. Chief of Police, Deputy of Justice, Mr. President, or whoever is in charge of apprehending them, have failed to apprehend.
I'll say it more clearly in case anyone’s neurons aren’t firing: it is the murderer who kills me, not travelling alone.
I'm not stupid enough —I might be a woman, but I’m not an imbecile— to seek death, gentlemen, and especially in a paradise like Ecuador. In my Ecuador we seek life: there’s so much! The problem is that, if rapists and murderers are just walking around freely, even if I’m looking for life I will find death.
I will not stop going to Montañita, or wherever the hell my ovaries and I want, alone, even if people say that that was Marina and María José’s "crime." Traveling "alone," although they were two. And although I am not good with numbers, I am fairly certain that one and one make two.
Did they need, then, a chaperone in order to not be killed? Why then do the police not offer chaperone services for tourists traveling alone? That’s how we get rid of the problem, right? Instead of chasing criminals, we’ll make sure that the crazy women traveling alone don’t misbehave and cause trouble, with their bikinis and their wild appetites. Hey, great idea! And one more: let’s change the slogan from "Ecuador loves life" to "Ecuador loves life, but accompanied."
It is more genuine.
One of the most beastly things I've read about rape is in the book “King Kong Theory,” by French writer Virginie Despentes. When they were younger, Virginie and her friend were raped when hitchhiking their way back home from a concert. The physical and sexual assault was so violent that both adolescents became traumatized and never talked about what happened, not even between themselves. One day, Virginie read in a magazine this quote about rape by feminist writer Camille Paglia: "It’s an unavoidable risk, it’s a risk that women should be aware of and a risk that they should take if they want to leave their homes and move freely. If this happens, get up, dust yourself off, and move on. And if that scares you too much, then stay at your mother’s home and give yourself a manicure."
Virginie Despentes says more:
"Camille Paglia is undoubtedly the most controversial of all American feminists. She proposes thinking about rape as an unavoidable risk inherent to our gender. She takes an incredible liberty in de-dramatizating rape. Yes, we had gone out into a space that was not ours. Yes, we had survived instead of having died. Yes, we were in miniskirts alone without an uncle to accompany us, at night, yes, we had been stupid, and weak, as girls learn to be when they’re assaulted. Yes, that had happened to us, but for the first time we understood what we did: we left home, because at Mom and Dad’s home there was nothing interesting going on. We had taken the risk and paid the price (...) Paglia allowed us to see ourselves as guerrilla fighters, not so much personally responsible for something we had sought, but ordinary victims of something to expect when you're a woman and want to risk going out into the world."
At first, I was really shocked to read these Paglia and Despentes quotes, but after several readings and much thought, I realized that savage and unspeakable things happen in this world; to think otherwise is stupid, but we are not stupid. Nevertheless, the problem is not this world, but the beasts that inhabit it —in Montañita and in London and in Buenos Aires— but we will not stay locked up at home because of them.
No. No. No. A thousand times no.
Marina Menegazzo and María José Coni. Marina Menegazzo and María José Coni.
You know what we’ll do? We will demand the world be a safer place for us, rather than getting blamed for wanting to know a world which, they say, is not safe for us.
It is not our fault that you don’t do your job.
It is not our fault, the ineptitude of whoever-is-governing.
Crime is not our fault.
Machismo is not our fault.
Getting murdered is not our fault.
Getting murdered is not our fault.
Getting murdered is not our fault.
My name is María Fernanda and I travel alone.
For Marina and María José.
For all of us: #Viajosola (#ITravelAlone)