margarita "this is spiritual"
I asked one of my closest friends, Margarita to answer a couple questions for me. I wanted to know about her childhood, reflections on big decisions she’s made, her passions and all the classic third-date questions. She told me that her response to the first question was already three pages long and that the best idea for her own time management and my eyesight might be to have an interview over Skype. She’s an academic now - answering things casually and colloquially is no longer a thing. She is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Society and Culture at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur studying systemic violence in the lives of Central American female migrants who work in the sex trade in Mexico’s southern border region. She has a lot to say as she has spent 10 years not only critically thinking about our society’s organization and what becomes viewed as normal and acceptable, but also the ways these notions influence her own choices.
Currently, she lives in Tulum, but we grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba together - as daughters of immigrants we were constantly bonding over our annoying familial duties and expectations. “Ugh so annoying I can’t go to that party to drunkenly make out with that semi-hot-but-likely-an-asshole-guy cause my f**** family is visiting from El Salvador/Portugal.” (Definitely not a real quote).
She’s always been the apple of my eye. Literally good at everything, and hilarious, and beautiful, and kind. I remember jealously debating her grade of 100% on a ballet exam - declaring that it was impossible to do so well- nah, she did that well, all while getting her 2nd degree black belt in TaeKwonDo. No big deal. This girl could literally do anything. She really could. I always secretly feared that she would become an actress and book all the roles I auditioned for (Margarita, please don't get any ideas).
Growing up, Margarita, moved between social spaces and among groups where certain markers, around her race and ethnicity, were recognized as being out of place. She comes from a family who arrived in Canada as refugees from El Salvador. Her parents and big brother, Julio, came to Canada in the late 80s due to persecution during the Salvadoran civil war. It’s a bit of a family legacy to feel at odds within their spaces. As a child, she says that she encountered some of this othering without having the words to make sense of it, in particular with her name. She recalls how much she hated the practice of row call, describing how it became predictable (coupled with an anxious build up) to her when her name appeared on a list as the reader would look confused marking this moment, the simple utterance of a name, to garner unwanted attention: “Margareeeeta? Said annoyingly slowly, and almost unsurely. Pin? Tin? said confusedly with a frown.” Those earlier experiences then felt peripheral and almost smoothed over as she grew up, although that wasn’t completely true. She was afforded access to ‘elite’ spaces, as the daughter of ‘good immigrants’ that moved socio-economically upward as re-trained medical doctors in Canada, enabling them to send her to a privileged private all-girls school. She mentions how as the daughter of refugees she received bits and pieces of their story of persecution and the civil war of El Salvador, and this introduced her broadly to subjects of social injustice. She confirms that part of her navigation and mobility in these differing spaces earlier on in her childhood, with parents working tirelessly and studying constantly to become doctors again, and then towards places of so much privilege when they were further established, felt contradictory, and sparked her blooming social inquiries, “There were things that I was questioning around our material world and its organization and how things come to be the way they are…I didn’t have the language then, but I was starting to question the organization of our world. Although earlier on I wasn’t able to decode it or find the language then, Ifelt uncomfortable with parts of the established order. with its pervasive relations of asymmetrical power, inequality and injustices and how so often it can be perceived as acceptable, even natural, and defended under narratives that conceal the powers relations that organize this social reality.”
Working as a community city worker at 18 years old she was assigned to supervise a public pool for the summer (yeah, she’s a good swimmer too) in the inner city of Winnipeg, known for its crime and concentration of marginalized groups. This was a huge turning point in her life. “The short drive from my mom’s house in an affluent part of Winnipeg, through Wellington Crescent, (my favourite street to drive on by the way) with its mansions and people jogging with their beautiful golden retrievers- past the bridge and into a neighbourhood with rooming houses, known for high levels of crime and poverty was such a stark contrast, and well, that short distance really embodied how absurd that such a different reality could be acceptable. All of that segregation and that separation of worlds in such a short distance… these vastly different social and material realities.”
She explains how dominant understanding around these differences were too often framed around individualistic understandings; where people’s individual merit is viewed to fairly assign people privileges, material wealth etc. and thus, the underside relating to poverty, is reduced to some individual deficit or pathology, and how that didn’t make sense to her.
“It made me question so many things about what I believe and in particular when you work with children in those spaces you see how they are not afforded the same opportunities…I wasn’t convinced with the narratives that circulate…they’re not poor cause they choose to be poor, their parents don't suffer addiction because some sort of individual deficit, there’s much more to it. I saw that material reality and the dominant narrative around it –but I saw more clearly the need to consider the social context, the systemic barriers, and that experience had a lot to do with what pushed me towards my studies in social work and social justice tendencies.”
Margarita received her Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Manitoba and then went on to receive her Masters of Social Work from the University of Toronto. After her studies, she went on a six-month trip mainly around Central and South America. I met her on the last part of her trip in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico where we celebrated her 25th Birthday. It was American spring break and we knew we needed to get the F out of there, so we headed down to Tulum. We fell in love, with a couple of boys and with the jungle. While riding our bikes under a canopy of palm trees I started crying - “you’re gonna live here one day,” through tears she responded, “I know.”
Six months later she moved to Tulum, literally without too much of a clue of what she would do other than a six-month contract as a research assistant at a local university, but also with an unwavering feeling and knowing that this space was home for her.
I always thought of her story when I imagined someone who followed their intuition. We used to talk about her unique and powerful calling all the time. Interestingly enough, Margarita no longer sees it that way. When we try to trace the impetus of her monumental move to Mexico, at a time when she was working as a social worker in a clinical setting in Toronto, she describes that she felt so powerless within the limits of social work practice. Her minimal work as a research assistant at the time was her inspirational lifeline. She explains that she came to pose deeper questions around the actual role of social work in too often reproducing or expanding unequal systems, by moderately institutionalizing the status quo through population control and bureaucratic practices that saw social workers as ‘service providers’ and the people they were providing support to as ‘clients’. This pushed her to want to disengage with that role. She decided to quit her job. She says about quitting her job:“It was rebellious and it really has to do with not being convinced with the frameworks I was thinking within and limited to, feeling that again I’m hitting a wall.”
Although she did not know what came next, she was following the pull she felt months before to Tulum. Tulum had to come to represent a source of healing light and the right environment to nurture some of her ideals that had been dimmed by the contradictions she faced as a social worker. She felt uplifted in Tulum, and felt that she could translate her ideas there into something transformative, a new project. She had envisioned a center that works with social workers, a place to recharge and reflect as a means to provide a site that could enable ways of thinking around social justice and resistance, so social workers do not feel that same defeatism and powerlessness. Looking back to her departure to Tulum, at that time she says, “I really do feel that (the move) was politically charged...”
Once in Tulum, the charm of the town and the indulgence in a space that appeared seemingly different and removed from some of the constraining social systems and values, was freeing:
“So many of us foreigners living in this town are in our own ways articulating this impulse to reject some of that organization of the modern normative world. It doesn't mean we are exempt from it in Tulum, we’re all complicit, still participating in capitalism, there’s not really a way to be exempt, but it does give a chance to entertain the idea that we’re free from it…I could design my own world, I needed that space and I got that freedom.”
But, that feeling of freedom was short lived as the bliss of moving there faded and she began to see the bawdy underside of Tulum – an increasingly gentrifying town with abject forms of poverty among the local population paralleled with an alternate reality of ex-pats and tourists in pursuit of happiness. So, after some time indulging, reflecting and satisfying this sense of freedom– a privilege she is grateful for -- she came back full circle to her sociological mind and decided to pursue her PhD in Mexico. Now in her final year of her PhD, Margarita talks about her research which focuses on female Central American migration and discourses around sex work regulation in two southern border region states: Chiapas and Quintana Roo. She completed her fieldwork in “Tolerance Zones” where sex work is ‘tolerated’ by local governments under certain conditions, including mandatory public health inspections. She explores how sex work regulation, under the guise of tolerance, becomes a system of gendered control and exclusion not only over the female sex workers body, but the overrepresented female Central American irregular migrant involved in the sex trade in this region.
“My early interests were around how these zones become normalized, the interaction of these zones in the urban margins in acting out a certain broad moral compass, but also representing the structures of powers that assign and discipline certain bodies under the rule of tolerance. This lead to questions around the naturalized assumptions that tolerance zones rest upon. Some of these naturalized assumptions around tolerance zones, or what is offered in support for tolerance zones, gives insight to the gendered logics that targets or regulates through hypervigilance, the bodies of female sex workers. It is not the predominantly male client, which has been identified as part of the ‘public health concern’ but rather the female body that is framed as a risk -- and that was the first thing that made me tick. In my research, I documented the types of intervention that exist in tolerance zones, mainly public health. I also focus a lot of my work on concepts, I look at this seemingly progressive idea of “tolerance” in tolerance zones and what it means and conceals. In particular, I follow work from political theorist, Wendy Brown, who argues that if you create tolerance for a subject or an object, then you are also establishing a difference, and we often don't challenge the powers that are able to construct that difference in the first place. We are assuming that this biological need framed around male heterosexuality (assumptions that support the need to regulate sex work in this context) is a birth right and it feeds into this masculine agenda reflected in the practices of public health in the tolerance zone – the claims are that this is a sexual service that is inevitable, it is naturalized, and so, removed from any historical or structural reading on sex work in this region. Significantly, in this region, it is predominantly Central American migrant women who have come to be naturalized with sex work in the tolerance zones, so, I am focusing on what then this rule of tolerance also embodies, as in what other powers and systems and agendas it expands, when we consider the irregular female migrant."
I am so proud and profoundly moved by my friend after this conversation. The excavation Margarita and others do around questioning and re-examining our world is paramount. Margarita expresses that she feels how much she has changed with her work and insights, and she has resonated with critical theorists in feminist thought, such as Sarah Ahmed, who call themselves “feminist kill joys.” “This has created so many shifts for me, I’m changing and sometimes with the change it impacts the relationships with friends and family. She suggests how it’s not easy when you sometimes have an obsession and incessant critical way of thinking and outlook that appears as a seemingly negative running commentary on everyday life. It’s a process of calling things out, questioning, and that is not always welcome, but also necessary, hence this idea of a killjoy.
When I ask her about how this has impacted her spirituality she blew my mind,
“I look at everything with a social lens. Even the idea of spirituality…this work is spiritual to me. This is sacred for me. This has to do with what is most sacred to me which is human life. I’m hoping to be a part of a conversation which I think is absolutely spiritual and it’s about humanity. I’m talking about how our world and our system is able to recognize life. Which lives are deemed worthy and which ones are granted the rights and resources to make life livable. Not just ways of life that are legible to categories and markings that are already in place…. however you want to label it (this work) - this is spiritual.”