Pepita: “What do you do when you no longer can care for yourself?”

Pepita, was born in Spain and grew up when the the dictatorship (Franco) was accompanied by the Catholic Church. At that time everyone was required to be Catholic, and gender roles were defined by society. She learned that “to be a woman was to be a sweet person, to care for others, to prepare for marriage. In (our) social context, there was no (space) to question the system.”

Her family consisted of seven siblings, two of whom were nuns and one a priest. She was one of the nuns, for twenty years. Her religious affiliation gave her freedom that she may not otherwise have had; she moved to Colombia as a religious missionary.

The issue of class was more dominant for her than gender. She acknowledges that when she was a young missionary in Colombia she was prejudiced against feminists because she believed that social justice was a more important issue. She lived in very poor regions, and thought, “how can I complain (about gender) when there are people who suffer so much (because of poverty).”

When I lived in popular neighborhoods with very poor people, I thought ‘man, with this blatant need, how can I concern myself with things that seem less important.” Only after some experiences (when she was almost forty years old) did I realize that my contribution, my role, my condition were important, but weren’t valued. And that’s when I … (awakened to issues related gender).” After leaving the church, she got her doctorate and began her involvement with causes related to gender.

She is currently a professor. It’s her mission to encourage an intellectual transition from common sense to critical analysis. Teaching is a historically feminine profession and very undervalued. Pepita works with students to raise awareness that being a teacher is not “woman’s thing.” She focuses on history as a means of understanding how society developed this prejudice. “When you are aware of why things are as they are, you begin to see the world in a different way.”

I am aware of the importance of a teacher for society and the contribution we can make. I work a lot with my students to not to have this prejudice that exists about being a teacher is something for women. It’s not women’s work; it’s for any human being who has an interest in transforming society.”

Pepita is sixty-eight and has lived in Brazil for thirty-one years. The fact that she is a foreigner who speaks with an accent has impacted her ability to position herself politically at work. People are quick to minimize her opinion with phrases like: ‘You’re not from here, you do not know here.” She believes that this attitude is not just about her nationality. “I’ve lived here longer than I did in Spain. When your opinion doesn’t matter, they disqualify for any reason.” She learned the importance of assessing a person’s or groups tone before speaking. Even though she is careful about when and how she positions herself, it’s the political that motivates her.

What motivates me is (the desire) to contribute to this kind critical consciousness and political awareness. To me, it’s fundamental. I know human suffering and of course there is suffering that isn’t political, that’s not about social class, but most (of suffering) is the lack of opportunities. Inequality mobilizes me. I think politics encompasses lifestyle, opportunities, gender, race—injustice.”

She is very grateful to have had the opportunity to leave Spain, to live in Colombia and to create a life in Brazil. At the same time, she recognizes the loss that comes with choosing a life that doesn’t follow the norms of society. She never married and has no children. “It is a form of suffering. It’s a matter of not being from here nor there. The loneliness is great.

Pepita has lived through various historical and political moments—democratic, religious, feminist— and she is again learning how to live with a new reality: the complex reality of aging. “I feel good, physically I’m fine; I’m healthy but I know that life has its process.” She understands this reflection as a responsibility and preparation. “How do I prepare for this moment (the consequences of aging)? I have no solution. Sometimes (I feel) more peaceful, sometimes (the concerns) trouble me more.”

Her family asks frequently about retirement and her return to Spain. “I’m doing what I love, teaching. I would like to continue, while still capable, to do this. But these questions come to me, and when my head does not work? What will I do? How will I cope? I think it would be an interesting topic to discuss within feminism. In different family models, where you don’t marry to have a child to take care of you, when you’re more independent, what do you do when you no longer can care for yourself?” She knows few people who discuss how women who are feminists, independent, and single can confront the limitations of aging. But for Pepita, the unknown is never an impediment to living with curiosity adventure.