And when she writes about the poor — and she does so for most of the book — her characterizations are often more insulting than sympathetic to those for whom her liberal heart bleeds. Paternostro descends into the favelas of Rio, into the barrios of Colombia, looking for evidence of patriarchy’s evils, and of course she finds plenty. She speaks to women who’ve induced abortions, with tree branches and barbed wire, only because the embryo was conceived outside of wedlock and because birth control is something that macho men just can’t bring themselves to practice. Throughout, Paternostro has to restrain her impulse to tell these women and these machos what they need to know to free themselves. The result is a writer ego that looms over the entire narrative, an ego that would solve all the characters’ problems. This ego ultimately undermines whatever compassion the author has for the people whose lives she explores. It judges rather than tries to understand, lectures rather than questions. A typical passage, in this case at the opening of the chapter on hymen reconstruction: "I remained curious and angry — and I slipped into the sadness and confusion that frequently beset me when I confront aspects of my culture that are so backward, so unjust, and yet so familiar."
But what I found most lacking in this brave and uneven offering is any recognition of another sexual universe, one that is beginning to dismantle the old sexual order in Latin America. I’ve seen it in the sex clubs of Mexico City, in the households of Latin immigrants in the American heartland, in some of the same barrios that Paternostro writes about. I’ve seen sex workers unite in the most hopeless barrios to require each and every client to wear a condom. I’ve seen maquiladora women — unmarried or single moms — create their own sexual space by crashing the formerly all-male border cantinas. I’ve seen the old gender roles slowly but surely giving way on both sides of the border.
Why didn’t she see the same things that I did? Or why didn’t I see the same things that she did? Because she’s a woman and I’m a man? Because she’s a pessimist and I’m an optimist — or, worse yet, a macho romantic? I think it’s because Paternostro needs the poor to be powerless, precisely so she can come down and tell them what time it is, thus cruelly and ironically replicating the very kind of power dynamic she decries in patriarchy, but, in the end, the only power available to her in a viciously sexist andclassist society: the privilege of her class.
I do agree emphatically with Paternostro on one point, however. She writes that the AIDS crisis, which is now aboveground across the continent (and which places heterosexual women at practically the top of the high-risk pyramid due to the extracurricular unprotected sex of their male partners), is creating an unprecedented social dialogue about sex in Latin America. To this I would add that the recent economic crises in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America have had far-reaching effects on the sexual fabric of life. In the new economy, the body is bought and sold as never before. And so the body is at the center of our politics today, whether it is through the discussion of the minimum wage, or legal and health guidelines for sex workers, or the repeal of colonial-era laws repressing homosexuality. And this, in a land where the body has always been shrouded in medieval and hypocritical mystery, can only be a good thing.Rubén Martínez is an associate editor at Pacific News Service.