Two women asked me to help them cross one of the more difficult streets to navigate in Caracas. They looked a little scared, and their appearance was that of people who live outside the capital city. I smiled at them and told them to just relax; we would find some gap among all the cars.
I was a little surprised that they requested help from me. Lately I’ve noted that many people look at me as if I were a “malandra.” In Venezuela, malandros are said to be those who we in Cuba in generally call criminals: any type of mugger, pickpocket or petty thug – in short, a low class person.
This perception began about a month ago. I imagine that it is because of my way of dressing, because I’ve still not come to accept the “sophistication” of feminine fashion in this country. I go around with a couple of owls hanging from my neck, along with two necklaces made from red seeds, and an olive color cap because I don’t like the sun in my face.
My clothes are more or less the same ones that I wore in Cuba: pants and T-shirts that both men and women can wear for sports. In Cuba I could pass completely unnoticed. Here, nothing of the like occurs.
One afternoon I was walking down a rather empty street and I began to notice a certain degree of mistrust among some women whose paths I crossed along the way. Later I went into a mall and one of the store security people began following me around with an insistence that was outside the norm.
Maybe it was just one of my bad days, I thought, everybody has them.
However, two days later, I went inside a bakery with a friend (the bakeries here aren’t like those in my country; here, they usually serve all types of sweets, sodas, canned drinks and coffees. They even have tables in areas where you can eat there in the store). My friend —not me— noticed that as soon as I entered, the clerk looked at me with a kind of fear. Later on the tray collector also looked at me with a strange apprehensive expression.
Shortly after, we took refuge from the rain in a store run by Chinese (there are lots of Chinese businesses in Caracas, and they’re famous for selling all types of imitation jewelry pretty cheap).
My friend stayed by the door, but I began wandering through the aisles so as not to get bored. Five minutes later he called me, “Please, stay here with me. You’re going to give them a heart attack. That poor Chinese guy can’t stop watching you. And that nervous one over there hasn’t stopped following around.”
So, I stood at the door along with him, but I preferred not to wait until it quit raining. I felt bad for the owners of that small business.
In this country —I don’t know how it is in others, I only landed here by chance— there are well established social classes. For working class people, if you dress very fashionably you’re a “sifrina” (an aspiring yuppie); while for those of other classes, if you don’t dress like them or you don’t get around in cars or taxis, then you’re a “malandra.”
Undoubtedly this is a generalization, but it’s what I’ve experienced in the streets and in conversations I’ve heard or those I have had with Venezuelan friends.
One of them has been driving around in a dirty car for months because he doesn’t have money to go to a car wash. “So why don’t you wash it yourself?” I asked. For the simple reason that “it’s looked upon very poorly,” was his reply. Though he’s not even in the upper middle class, since he has to sweat to make a living, it’s well established in his mind that you “look good or bad depending on your social status.”
Perhaps that’s why they look at me as if I were a malandra. They only look at my clothes; they don’t look at me in the eyes. But that’s amusing to me, and I can even take advantage of it.
A few days ago a Cuban friend who I like a lot came to Caracas for a week. On one occasion when we were in the metro, a man whose face I couldn’t see began to insult her. Among his “reasons” was the fact that my friend is black and, according to him, she was Colombian.
Perhaps being a Colombian and a malandra is the same thing for them; I don’t know. There’s an area I like to visit called El Cementerio (The Cemetery), because the people live so close together. There, the hillside communities are so close that you can almost smell each other’s coffee being brewed (with lots of water and only a little coffee, as opposed to how it’s made in Cuba).
Middle class people don’t venture into El Cemeterio, much less upper class people. There, no one looks at me with fear. The men recognize that I’m Cuban, and they enjoy giving me piropos (flirtatious compliments). The women don’t walk around covered with make-up and Nordic-European clothes, and they look much prettier that way. They see me, perhaps recognizing that I’m a foreigner; I can feel the curiosity in their looks, but never the mistrust of those who think I’m might steal their money.
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