The ‘Malandra’


The 'Malandra'

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.

Bus stop.

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.”

Caracas street.

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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4 thoughts on “The ‘Malandra’

  • Grady, I agree with you.

  • Thanks, Yordanka, for this walk through Caracas.

    We all understand the terms “racism” and “sexism.” These are commonly used. But there is an elephant in the room that is always there, but that no one talks about. It is “classism.”

    Classism is a social disease. The obsession with fashion and social status dress and symbols is an expression of it.

    I believe that racism and sexism are sub-categories of classism. If this is true, then the way to end them is to end classism. To end classism however it will be necessary to end classes. How might this be accomplished?

    The answer seems not to abolish private productive property and the trading market, but to ensure that this property is owned directly by the people, by those who actually do the work of society. In this way, by democratizing private property, the produce of the people’s labor will stay with them. Classes then–at least theoretically–would diminish and finally disappear.

    Perhaps there will come a time when classes and classism, together with the diseases of racism, sexism and fashion obsession, will exist only in the history books.

  • I myself dress in similar fashion 🙂
    My favorite way to dress is jeans or shorts with white t shirt without any pictures or logos and sandals.
    I do like plane t shirts because I do not like to advertise for others. I would probably also be considered a Malandro in Venezuela! 😉 here in the US I just blend perfectly since people do not care how you dress.

  • Good for you, Yorkanka! You are your own person, comfortable with yourself and not a slave to the fashions of others. In fact, you create your own fashion (although I am sure there are Ur-fashions within the bohemian perameters). My oldest daughter, now about to go out into the world on her own, is like you. She buys most of her clothes in second-hand stores (but always creating a certain flare expressive of her own her style). Alas! My youngest daughter, now about to enter high school, has become a slave to the latest adolescent fashions. In a way, I pitty those who judge someone on the basis of the clothes they wear: how expensive or inexpensive they are, whether they are the “in”–or out of fashion–labels, etc. For the most part, however, such folks are superficial and vapid, and it is not worth knowing such people anyway!

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