My grandma is always pestering me about my dislike for public transportation. For some reason, she thinks that it has something to do with my equal dislike for spending money and my intolerance for unsanitary places. She always says, “¡Abigail, no puedes ser tan maceta!” and “Estás exagerando pa’ no coger la guagua.”
The truth is, my dislike comes from a place of fear. I mean, yes, I’m a college student with a low income who tries to save what little money she has. Yes, I absolutely detest the unsanitary conditions of some of our public transportation. However, those two factors don’t stop me from taking el tren urbano or la AMA to college. It’s a privilege and a right to have economic transportation that gives me access to my education without the need of a car.
That being said, the reality for the women and men who rely on public transportation is different. Men don’t go through the same uncomfortable, upsetting experiences that women endure on a daily basis. This is not to say that men don’t experience sexual harassment from other men or women in public transportation. They do, and their experiences are equally valid. However, women are more frequently exposed to sexual harassment from some of the men on board and are endangered by their actions.
From Monday to Friday, I prepare myself mentally to take el tren urbano. There’s this little voice in my head that always whispers, “Por favor, por favor, que nadie me haga daño.” It’s a mantra, at this point. Most days are calm, but I never let my guard down. I arm myself with courage and wariness. It’s a full-body process: my shoulders tense, my body turns rigid, and my senses are on constant alert. Every time I board the train, I inspect its surroundings before choosing a seat in the middle, almost always sitting near the one closest to the window. With my body on alert and my earphones on, I try to tune out from my surroundings and the men that might do me harm.
Most days are calm, that much is true, but there are days where I either feel harassed or uncomfortable. I’ve had men invading my personal space and looking directly at my body in order to get my attention or force a reaction out of me. Some men sit in places where they can look directly at me for the entire train ride, their eyes lingering even when I finally arrive at my destination and get off the train. Others stay in vigilance in front of Bayamón’s station, searching for vulnerable girls like myself to harass with their eyes and diminish with their “compliments.”
I’ve noticed that I’m not the only one who goes through these types of situations while taking public transportation. Most of the women I know, and even the ones that I don’t, have had an uncomfortable experience with some of the men on board with them. All of these different stories of harassment have been told to me, from close friends to college strangers that decide to speak up about it so that other girls don’t go through the same thing.
A male friend once told me that a girl came up to him, frightened, during their train ride to college. She asked, “Can I sit next to you, please?” Her voice trembled, while she fought through tears. He was immediately concerned but didn’t say anything about her emotional state, only nodded his head to her question that seemed more like a plea. After some minutes, she confided in him that a man was masturbating in front of her while looking directly at her. She told him that she felt safer with him (my friend). This happened in el tren urbano.
My aunt recently told me that, when she was 19 years old, a man rubbed his penis against her arm while she took the bus. The bus was full of people, but she was so shocked that she didn’t know how to react. “It was repulsive,” she told me. After that upsetting experience, she learned that this man had a habit of doing this to other women. Nobody did anything about it.
My mom, after I opened up about one of my own experiences, once told me that a man masturbated in front of her while she took the bus. Although she didn’t say anything because she was too shocked and repulsed, she moved to another seat. That’s what she tells me to do: to move to another seat with the slight variation of telling someone else about what is going on. It’s sad that, in her young adult years, she felt as though there was nothing she could do about men’s actions, as if it were normal for a stranger to masturbate in front of people.
A girl from my college reported a man who appeared nice at first, but then made inappropriate comments about her body and proceeded to follow her around campus. After she noticed that he was following her around, she decided to report him to a security guard at the train station. According to the message I received, this male security guard said, “No puedo controlar quién entra o sale del tren. Deberías vestirte con una ropa más conservadora” (This is paraphrased, but the message is the same).
As if the way we dress has anything to do with it, and implying that it’s the victim’s fault, when the one who should be punished is the sexual harasser. Since she had no support from the train station, she wrote a message with the harasser’s picture and distributed it throughout WhatsApp in an attempt to warn every girl on campus. The picture of this man and the disturbing information behind it helped me when he approached me on the train one day. Needless to say, I was prepared.
I have a proposition for the women who read me: if the system is opposed to making a real change, let’s do it ourselves. Scream if you have to, don’t be afraid of physically hurting the perpetrator, intimidate the harasser by filming whatever he's doing and show it to the proper authorities. Tell others about what’s going on. Get angry and use that fury to say, “No more!” These types of men are cowards and will not answer if others become aware about what they’re doing. To the men who read me, I have this proposition: if you witness harassment or assault, take action! Don’t stay silent.
The truth of the matter is, this is a life or death situation. If we don’t die physically, we die emotionally. This should be a social concern but instead, it's treated as though it’s a normal occurrence that we just have to turn a blind eye to. Well, I say no more. Together, we’re better. Together, we can make a real change.