“I met a pretty girl one day out behind the barn. She wanted me to stay and play out behind the barn. She taught me how to kiss and pet And that’s a game I won’t forget, Cause we still play the same game yet out behind the barn.”
You may remember Little Jimmy Dickens’ hit song about country life. It spoke of simple pleasures and pains in the natural world as God created it and people lived it. We are products of our cultures. Everything in our culture originated for a purpose and became maintained by law or by habit. If our parents were Methodists, Republicans, farmers, college educated, etc., more than likely we will follow suit. We may or may not know who in the family tree was the first to adopt Methodism, Republicanism, farming for a living, or the thirst for higher education. We don’t often think of it. We just go along with it unquestioningly.
I am a person who has asked questions since I was able to talk, read, and listen to others. I have even dared to question aspects of my native culture which instinctively or intellectually seemed wrong. (This automatically classifies me as a liberal, anathema to those who accept the status quo no matter how detrimental. They even see it as a positive and will justify it by “reason” of misinterpretation of the U.S. Constitution, the Holy Bible, or the rantings of some radio or TV pundit.)
“She taught me how to kiss and pet”, for those of many fewer years than mine, were lyrics which in the mid-20th century were as lewd and lascivious as one could compose for public consumption. A teen-aged boy tasting his first nervous kisses with an equally anxious and perhaps frightened young girl is an event my contemporaries can relate to. The physiological expression of the experience in the form of a sticky substance on his Fruit of the Looms and an inexplicable but ecstatic tingle in that area of his person are the natural indicators of his ability to “be fruitful and multiply”. He is not aware of that because he has been warned, cautioned, admonished, and threatened in one way or another to not pursue his instincts. He does not know if the girl has experienced something similar. They don’t talk about that aspect of this first physical contact other than to giggle and smile giddily, hug, and kiss some more. She has had her own advice from a loving mother wanting to keep her daughter and the family from shame. A powerful tool.
We know the story doesn’t end with “kiss”. Next comes “pet”. I pet my puppy, Duke. I stroke his fur, scratch his ears, tickle his belly and he responds with licks, little bites, and a bicycle-riding motion of his leg. He likes it. I love the little fellow and we bond. Perhaps this is not the most romantic comparison to our young couple but it is its social equal. The relationship grows.
Our young couple pet. The boy is, as in most of nature, the aggressor. The instigator of new behaviors. The explorer. Kissing extends to areas beyond the cheeks and lips. Hugging the waist or shoulders moves to tentative touches near the breast. She rejects these at first. But soon, whether to keep his interest in her or because she wants to where the excitement building in her body leads, she permits his fondling. I don’t need to be any more graphic about ensuing activity. Eventually, they find themselves wrestling with their clothing trying to undress without undressing and struggling to get Tab A into Slot B “out behind the barn.”
Are you with me so far? Good! Meanwhile, these kids are in a conflict with their culture. Their parents have told them to wait until they are married…some six to ten years hence. They’ve been given social and economic reasons for abstaining. Even religious ones. Perhaps their church forbids condoms. This puts additional psychological strain on these to “in love” kids. But when they’re together intimately, there are no thoughts of “what if”. I won’t deal with the social and economic consequences here. That is not my purpose and we all know how that works in different families, ethnic groups, and communities.
Now let’s consider some American cultural commentary about some other cultures in its midst. “They reproduce like rabbits.” “They’re kids with kids.” “They’re just animals.” “They shouldn’t have children that they can’t afford.” “They sleep with any guy who’ll have them.” “Why are my tax dollars paying for their children’s medical care, education, etc.” Sound familiar? Maybe they are words or thoughts similar to your own…now that you’re an adult and have come a long way from the back seat of his father’s car…or from out behind the barn.
I live in a different culture as I have written many times. El Salvador has laws similar to the laws New Jersey had when I was a teen regarding sexual contact and age. There’s a big sign prominently placed in the Office of Immigration in San Salvador enumerating the ordinances and the penalties. El Salvador, like many countries in the world, struggles between the forces of culture and the eco-political norms of the industrial world its elite yearns to be part of. So far, nature trumps nurture.
God had a purpose for everything He put into humans and all other creations. We are designed for our environment with organs needed for survival and reproduction. When the environment changes, we adapt or die. That’s nature. Humans have the luxury of a long childhood, a period of nurturance, mainly because we have no natural predatory enemies. Human puberty comes about the same time that most cultures have historically celebrated the rite of passage to adulthood. The bodies change and adapt for the next stage of life, the capacity to reproduce. Among those changes is the urge to do so. We are induced to procreate via a mechanism only recently understood that gives men a marvelously physical incentive to sow his sperm. I can’t speak for the female sensation of sex but experience tells me that there is something in it for them too.
So it is that here in El Salvador it is not uncommon for couples to mate from the age of 15 or so. It is not uncommon to have different partners. It is not uncommon to bear more than the 1.5 children average we’re used to. But more importantly, there is no stigma incumbent upon the muchacha who gets pregnant early, often, and has more than one partner. In a poor nation, it is often for economic reasons. No one questions the motivation. This does not mean that everyone is bed-hopping from the time they can until the time they can’t. Promiscuity is not rampant. Trust me, girls and women don’t just jump into bed with any guy they’re attracted to. Not even a “rich” American. It’s different here. It’s natural. Sex comes without neurosis. Babies may have a higher mortality rate but it’s not for lack of alimentation. They nurse to the age of 2 1/2 and more if need be.
We do have a law that provides for child support, such as it is, if the father does not live with the mother and the child he sired. It is enforced with severe penalties under the new constitution. Yes, there are dead-beat dads here as up there. No, it’s not a perfect system legally or socially. But women aren’t called tramps or worse. Fathers aren’t shunned by the parents of other eligible maidens unless they earn the reputation of mujereros, womanizers. And if a boy or man (by American usage) maintains his legal financial obligations, he doesn’t have to worry about doing hard time, registering for life as a sex offender or being limited to where he can live because his girlfriend was 13 when they first had sex. Neither will be a social outcast and their kids won’t be labeled or feel different from their peers who have the same parents and last names.
So when you read the vitriol on line or in your “Letters to the Editor” column, or a news item about a family whose name ends in “z” with six or seven kids, or when your child enters school and his classmate’s mother looks like she should be in 8th grade, don’t judge. Don’t condemn. Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.
Latin America is not a bachelor’s paradise. We have no more or less “loose” women here than in Kansas or Alaska. Our communities are comprised of people with common values and a shared experience that makes them true communities. We know our neighbors and are probably somehow related to them. Our struggles are common struggles. We share more or less equally to survive, maintain, and improve. Our children are not “sheltered” from witnessing natural acts. Mothers don’t hide their breasts while nursing. Parents don’t make out in the living room while the kids are watching “El Chavo”, but they don’t make a big deal of it if a child crawls up on the bed while they’re engaged. The parents aren’t bothered and the kids don’t see it as something to gawk at. Everyone is as used to it as they are to toilet functions. It’s not dirty. It’s not so private and secretive. Kids are less likely to ask “Where did I come from?” because they already know. They’re probably less likely to need instruction prior to their own first episodes having witnessed it. You don’t hear the “off color” jokes or see XXX magazines here. Most people aren’t tittilated by nudity or attracted to pornography because they have been stifled since childhood in matters sexual. Even I, Mr. American, have gotten to the point where I can be talking to a young mother who lifts her shirt to expose her breast to nurse her child and I don’t feel a blush or a need to avert my glance out of embarrassment.
I expect this essay will arouse both strong negative feelings in some and positive ones in others. It’s not a perverse society. It is in harmony with nature. We have our share of rapes and child abuse. But those are individual deviances not cultural ones. We are thankful that our country is doing more to protect the innocents while restraining itself from prosecuting against nature. It’s different here, yes. But not all of it is primitive or negative. I thank God for my understanding or Margarita wouldn’t be my wife. I would be missing the joys our children bring to me all day long.
Now I’ll bring it closer to home. Our daughter María is a very pretty sixteen-year old. She’s sexy and she knows it. She’s got a boy friend named Edgar. My natural tendency is to keep an eye on him. I know where my mind would be if I were in his sneakers. He’s a nice boy. Tall, light-eyed, and very good looking. I’m sure other girls in their class would like to trade places with María. But he’s still a human male. María knows all she needs to know. She knows we love her and have hopes for her future beyond making babies and tortillas. Still, it’s not a question of pleasing or disappointing us or her natural father, who is reasonably close to her. She is her own person and we respect that. In turn, she respects our desire for a modest change in the culture for her betterment and the children she will eventually (I suggested at age 30) have. I can’t say I won’t worry or stop thinking about the possibility of her getting pregnant when she’s 17 and still in school. I’m a long way from being acculturated.
I remember my reaction, more like over-reaction when Terri told me our daughter Jackie was pregnant by some marine in the neighborhood. I was hurt, disappointed, devastated. It became more about me and my values than about this child who was the light of my life…despite her recent rebellious behavior that caused me no end of grief. This was my culture. “Good” girls don’t give it up to transient marines. “Smart” girls don’t get talked out of their underwear. “Gifted” (and she was) girls don’t throw away educational and career opportunities so some kid can get his jollies with her. My response cost me my daughter and I’ve regretted it for the past 25 years. So how would I react if Margarita came to me with her loving smile to announce María’s pregnancy? Would I rejoice with her the impending birth of our grandchild? Would I be able to hug María as I do now with the love I have for her? Or would my face signal some kind of betrayal of my dreams for her?
I’ve seen the world with so many different eyes in my 75 years. Hopefully, there’s been some wisdom added along with the arthritis in my ankle. María is precious to me and Margarita. If she will be happy, I will be happy. I have said over and over again how blessed I am for the second chances in my life. I’m sorry I can’t go back and do some things differently and have the love and respect of my natural children as I’ve earned from my adopted children, my students and Margarita’s kids. If this piece of writing has gotten a little longer than I intended, my apologies. El Salvador and its culture were what I needed to help me square away some notions and tie up some loose ends for my mental peace.