What is the first memory you have about living in a country at war? Every time I asked this question to my fellow Colombians, there is long pause. Then, memories started to emerge. The magnitude and scope of decades of conflict have affected each of us in different yet profound ways, shaping how we experience and understand the world. Even more, the conflict has sadly become the primary fabric that threads our stories together as a nation.
My first memoy of war comes from August 1989. It was 7 pm when the only color tv in my grandmother’s house brought the news. Luis Carlos Galán, a progressive presidential candidate was assassinated while deliverying a speech. My mom and my aunts started to cry. My grandma remained in silence, letting the words sink. I was seven years old. But by that time, I had been warned that “men don’t cry” so I didn’t. I swallowed my tears. I displayed this trait of my brand new masculinity as a peacock proudly displays its feathers.
26 years later, as I write these words, I still feel the bitter taste of war. For the past 11 years, living an self-imposed exiled, I had reflected critically about the way in which the protracted Colombian conflict has shaped me as a person, and specially as a man.
On the surface, I was one of those Colombians that navigated the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000s in relative save waters. I was exempt from mandatory military service as an only child. I have never held an arm. My family was not affected by kindnappings, extorsions or landmines. The internal war did not displace me and it did not take the life of any of my relatives or friends. I had the unearned benefit to experience the conflict from the confortable seat of privilege in a country where war was the rule and ruler.
However, those years left an indelible print on me. I became wary, suspicious of others and defensive. The ongoing experiences of violence stole my ability to trust and empathize. It robbed me from the capacity to feel as mine, the weight of broken dreams imposed on others. Day by day, I lost the ability to see my fellow Colombians as fully humans. I became accostumned to the growing number of people asking for money on the traffic lights. I got used to the stories of killings and blood in remote areas of an unknown vast geography. I grew bitter thanks to trivial mass media and empty promises from a self-serving political elite. War slowly dehuminzed me. Only distance and time have allowed me to regain little by little an urgency for empathy, for kindness.
After 60 years of conflict, Colombia is caressing the opportunity to end the war. This means, to eradicate armed violence as a valid mean to do politics, including the use of gender-based violence as a weapon of war. It would be naïve to think that a successful vote in the upcoming referedum would be the end point. The challenge is to build peace in a context where -most of us- have not lived it. It is like being asked to swim in the ocean when one has only seen the sea on TV.
How do we do this? How do we reinvent ourselves to build peace and make it our only option?
Building peace demands to rethink what it means to be Colombian. To create a new sense of what we stand for as a nation, in a context of high inequality, regional differences and rigid social mobility means to accept who we are and what we have done, no matter how painful this process is. We must recognize how violence and masculinity are intrinsically connected and how these relation has defined the way in which we raise boys to become men. Also, how we have constructed harmful notions of manhood and masculinities that favour and foster violence in a machismo culture.
Traditionally, the notion of what it means to be a man in Colombia has been linked to the ability to survive, taking advantage of any opportunities that emerge, even if this means bending the rules. This has created the glorification of quick-witted individuals or avispados. We tend to worship men who take advantage of others when possible in social circles and tv shows. Sometimes as drug dealers, sometimes as businessmen or politicians. We love those who make “justice” their own cause using their fists, their bullets or their words -including the inglorious expression “Do you know who I am?” But we also hate them. We despise them. These men represent the worst of us. Their individuality prevails over the collective and the cost of their actions are imposed on all of us. They take lives, they destroy dreams and they foster more violence.
Our traditional notion of masculinity is also linked to the ability to protect ourselves and others. This trait gains different dimensions when violence is today’s special, as it happens to be the case in Colombia. Every 13 minutes a woman is victim of violence in our country. Physical, verbal and psychological violence manifest in multiple yet telling ways. We raise men that are expected to be tough and in control but not expected to change diapers, clean bathrooms or care for their children. We see as normal that men openly express their feelings only when alcohol is involved. This means, intoxicating your body as an accepted way to detoxify your soul. We tend to be more accepting of violence than “weakness” without realizing that violence is the ultimate expression of weakness.
Class is the core factor that differentiates Colombians. For men, this means a strong social pressure to be financially successful and provide for the family. In a war economy, the means are less important than the objectives. As a result, money flows from drugs, illegal industries, corruption, and kick-backs on state contracts. Those resources merge with legal companies, beauty peagens and soccer teams. In this context of rampant inequality, deepened by the armed conflict, social mobility is a rare thing. Men are left behind with pressures to fulfill a model of masculinity impossible to achieve in a society where anything goes has become a national mantra.
As such, violence has gained a preferential place in the toolbox of Colombian men. Proving your manhood is meant to justify the use and exercise of violence as a valid mean. This goes from killing, torture and extreme violence used by state forces, guerrilla and paramiltary groups, and criminal bands to the normalized day-to-day violence which, exemplified on cat-calling, includes violence against women, harassment and discrimination against LGTBI communities. It also manifests in subtle yet powerful ways: to emasculate boys and men we insult each other comparing them to women or gay men. It usually works.
As result, violence has become a key component in our experiences of becoming men. It happens in fist-fights in the playground or on the soccer pitch. It is part of our experience in the cities where road rage led by men is a constant menance. It is part of what it is expected from us as men, because no one wants to be the guy who lets others take advantage of him. We are not violent but we have normalized violence to the point that we no longer notice its presence as part of our landspace, just as we ignore a huge piece of furniture in the middle of the living room.
As men, we have a key role to play in this wonderful yet complex process of building peace in Colombia. It demands that we have an open, sincere conversation about who we are as men, to rethink what notions and traits of masculinities we need to foster and the kind of traits that we need to eradicate as uprooting weeds out of a new garden.
To start this process, we must reject the use of violence in all forms. We need to make it unacceptable in the classrooms, on the streets, in the public transportation, in the government and in every household. Violence needs to be punishable socially, legally, culturally and morally. We need to push for notions of manhood in which crying, expressing feelings openly and doing house chores are normal things and cat-calling, harassing others and drinking and driving are not.
This is not an easy task. It requires a staunch commitment to reflect constantly on how outdated, harmful gender norms and roles shape the kind of men we are. How our notions of what it means to be a man define our relationships with women, gender minorities and other men. How our culture reinforce messages that justify and foster violence. It is also a beautiful invitation to assess our attitudes, behaviors and practices and how they contribute – or not- to build peace.
In building peace, the end result is as important as the process, as it is the case in becoming a man. Each of us can start this process today by transforming ourseleves and each other, one man at the time.