When A Transsexual Runs For Mayor In Small-Town Colombia

Meet Alondra Metaute, a 38-year-old woman who wants to shake up a sleepy Colombian town.

Alondra Metaute in front of the Sopetran town hall
Alondra Metaute in front of the Sopetran town hall
Róbinson Úsuga Henao

SOPETRÁN â€" Alondra Metaute, a 38-year-old Colombian woman, wants to be mayor of this small town in northcentral Colombia. But she will face a hard fight to win the election next October â€" not just because she's a woman, but because she was born a boy.

When Fredy Armando Metaute Escudero was eight years old, he wore lipstick to his school's annual party, and dressed as the late Mexican singer Rocío Durcal. He did not go unnoticed. In this town, few people dared at any age to reveal a non-comforming sexual orientation, never mind a desire to change genders.

When he was 19, Metaute let his hair grow. Two years later he donned high heels and left the house dressed as a girl, and began asking people to call him by a new name, Alondra, which is Spanish for lark. "One teacher told me I sang like an Alondra," recalled Metaute. "So that's what I decided to call myself."

The men of Sopetrán were not ready to welcome a transgender in town. "They would catcall and wanted to touch me in public," says Metaute. "But right from the start I made sure I'd be respected. I had to slap one or two men in the face, and once got into a real fight with someone who tried to to pee on me."
Mataute was lucky to have a supportive family, even if they had their own preconceptions. "My dad would tell me, "It's fine if you want to be like this, but swear to me you won't be having sex with people on the street," she recalls.
Metaute inherited a taste for politics from her dad, and that's where the dream of governing Sopetrán was born. If she wins the vote, she would be the first transgender mayor in Colombia.
A candidate of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole, she tries to communicate to voters what's wrong with Colombia"s traditional parties and has proposed a new hospital, along with policies to encourage tolerance for the local LGBT community.
A global trend
"Society has consigned us transgender people to being hairdressers or prostitutes. But politics is my calling," Metaute says. She is the first transgender woman to have received political training from Politics for Women, an equal-opportunity initiative started by the regional government.

Sopetrán, which is 60 kilometers from Medellín, has an economy driven by fruit, coffee and corn cultivation, as well as tourism, being part of a popular route called the Golden Triangle. Still, Metaute describes her hometown as "dormant" and "politically backward."
Last week in the U.S., Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner made waves when he reintroduced himself to the world as a woman named Caitlyn.
Alondra Metaute is part of the less visible trend of trangender people fighting their way into politics around the world. In 1995, Georgina Beyer of Carterton, New Zealand became the world's first transgender mayor and then first parliamentarian. In 2014, Carlos Ramos Chumpitaz â€" a.k.a. La Doctora â€" ran for the mayor's office in San Luis, Peru. In January 2015, Madhu Bai Kinnar became the first transsexual mayor of Raigarh, in the Indian state of Shattisgarh.
"We have to turn the page of segregation," Metaute says, "especially when this is a growing population in our town."
Metaute looks and dresses like a woman, but she hasn't had sexual reassignment surgery and doesn't plan to. "I think I would lose my charm," she says. "Having a vagina wouldn't make me more of a woman."
Who will support her bid for mayor? At least some of the town's motorcycle taxi drivers. One of them Vianey Pérez says he believes in her because "she represents political change."
"A lot of people are jobless and hungry here," said another driver, Alfonso Osorio. "This is why we need a leader like her."
Metaute has held a number of different jobs, including dance teacher and youth coordinator in local government, but insists she has experienced the worst discrimination since beginning her political campaign.
"The traditional politicians are telling people, how can you vote for a faggot," she says. "I am telling them this faggot has more balls than they do. At least I have respect for the taxpayers' money."
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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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