Battle of the Carolina

This is the story of a war…of one woman’s war against sexism and machismo culture.  The woman is me; the battlefield: Carolina Park, Quito Ecuador.

I cross the street from my apartment and make the 10 minute trek to the North East corner of “La Carolina”, Quito’s Central Park, almost every day.  My mission: play soccer. I am happy to play soccer with anyone, anytime, anywhere, and there is no better place to get in on a casual game of pick up soccer than one of the dozens of fields in La Carolina.  Correction: there is no better place to get in on a casual game of pick up soccer than one of the dozens of fields in La Carolina….if you are a man.  

Now, I have been playing soccer since I could walk, and can reasonably claim to have been good at the sport when I was in my prime.  Granted, my prime was about 15 years ago; however, I am still able to hold my own on the field and am by no means the “weakest link” on any team.  Thank you to Title IX and having awesome, supportive, and active parents.  

Ecuador, like all of latin America and most of the developing world, does not have Title IX.  Instead we have a long history of “machismo” culture where it is reinforced throughout society that men are strong and women are pretty.  That is, of course, a generalization, and there are exceptions–but this is a noticeable cultural difference between the United States, where we still have a LONG way to go, but at least make an effort to promote gender equality, and here in Ecuador.  Thus, my personal war.  

This is how it goes.  Every day around 4pm I start mentally preparing myself up to do battle.  I turn on some pump up music–usually including some Beyonce (“Who run the world?  GIRLS!”), fill up my water bottle, lace up my shoes, grab my ball and head to the battlefield.  I arrive at the soccer portion of the park to find 20 fields (not full size) full of men playing the world’s greatest game.   I walk by each field and count how many players they have. If they have an odd number–perfect, that’s my in, as they should obviously welcome the arrival of a single player to even out their teams….right?  

Wrong.  I can’t tell you how many times I have been waiting to jump into a game when the players have called out to the spectators “we need one more player!  Anyone want to join?”, and when I immediately jump up to volunteer flat out and to my face say “no, not you.”, and then continue calling out for players.  Rage. I feel rage–there is no other word for it. Just writing this I have steam starting to billow from my ears.  

I can’t force them to play with me and I’m not about to pick a fight with a dozen grown men, so I move on–their loss.  There are, of course, some kind and reasonable men in this country who will allow me to join their teams. When they do, I am proud to report, they are unanimously surprised by my ability to play and glad that they let me on their team.  That is when I win–usually the game I’m playing in, but also a battle. When I go to play, get on a field, and prove myself and my sex worthy. On nights that this happens I always end up exchanging contact information and have invitations to play again.  #winning.  

On nights that no one lets me on a team, I look for an open field, which are not easy to come by, and I juggle my soccer ball (with my feet–duh).  I juggle and shoot and work on my footwork. Sometimes this results in some guys taking notice and we end up with enough people to start a game. Another win.  Sometimes, I spend 3 hours in the park and no one wants to play with me. Sometimes I am rejected by 30 teams in one night. Rejection sucks, and I go home feeling defeated and very very angry.  

My partner, A, hears a lot about my nightly warfare.  He usually listens to my angry tirades with a slight rolling of his eyes and not much commentary.  One night, I convinced A to go to the fields with me to play. He hates soccer, but agreed for my sake.  Most of the fields were full, but there was one group trying to get enough players to start a game. I approached the field and asked if they needed players, tall, muscular A at my side.  They said yes, so A and I walked onto the field. That’s when they said, “no, not you, just him”. My inner Mount Doom of Fury started erupting immediately, but A stepped in smoothly and said, “no, both of us.  She’s the soccer player, I’m just along for company.”. The guys insisted that they only wanted A, and I was not welcome. A persisted and eventually I was allowed to play. 

I scored 2 goals that night–not anything to write home about, but the immense satisfaction I get when I hear the men that refused to play with a girl shout at each other “Hey, mark the girl, she knows how to play!” is what keeps me coming back night after night, despite the rejection, fury, and frustration.  And each night I go to the park, there’s one more guy that recognizes me, one more that will vouch for me, and one more opportunity to prove that girls are not just here to be delicate and pretty, that we are strong and capable and equal as teammates and as human beings.

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