In Colombia, there’s a word we use, and none of us know what it means. This is a personal chronology as an attempt at an etymology.
It’s 2011. I am thirteen.
I walk into my first day of purgatory. The green blazer fits weird because they didn’t have a smaller one at the store, and my tie is on too tight. Still, I smile and go into my new school in Bogota, Colombia. My first day goes relatively well. I have lunch on the grass with a group of girls in my class who get into a feverish argument about whether or not one of them, whose name I understand to be Pacha, looks good in a picture. After they conclude that the picture is good and that the girl should post it online, her friend interjects: “but, you do look a bit pacha in it.” All the others gasp, and cover their mouths to giggle and nod. The girl doesn’t post the picture.
Six months pass. By now I know that pacha is not a person. I’ve learned that it is an adjective, or on second thought, is it a noun? I know enough about what it means to not want to be called one, or to call myself one, at least not in a serious way. I don’t realize that I have internalized the once-foreign term until I go get a haircut and the hairstylist tries to give me a new hairstyle. I shriek, “Please, no! I look like a pacha!” He asks me what a pacha is, and as I attempt to explain through sticking my tongue out, making peace signs with my hands and pointing at the dramatic side part he subjected my hair to, I realize both that I know more than I think I do and that, with his unruly bleached blond hair and flower-power T-shirt that mortifies the eyes, he could sort of be a Pacho himself. Years later, he would still remember my explanation, willfully dismissing it as teenage nonsense.
Pacha. That was the word. Though I didn’t fully understand what the dictionary definition of the word pacha was (and not for a lack of trying), I would soon come to the realization that the term in itself was used by girls in reference to their past selves. As soon as they hit the teen mark, it became normal for middle school girls to mock who they once were. They would target themselves, making punchlines out of the once-vivid colors of their braces, the extreme side parts in the hair, and the flower-power T-shirts they once loved so much. A pacha was a girl who possessed all the qualities nobody wanted to have in themselves. It was one thing to mockingly call a friend a pacha, but it was a whole other negative and complicated thing to truly perceive her as one.
I remember being confused at this strange new school, wondering who made the rules about what was cool and what wasn’t, when a group of girls started bullying one of their own for having a side part, wearing crazy colors, and doing anything that they deemed as characteristic of a pacha (the girl resisted for a while, but within the week, her hair was split down the middle like everybody else’s, an act of conformity that shocked me). I still don’t know what it was about the hair . . . but the general consensus was that if your mop of hair flipped overwhelmingly toward one side of your head, you were worthy of mocking. Boys, for their part, would accuse girls of being pachas just for the sake of humiliation. Refuting the image conveyed by the loud, colorful, and embarrassing pacha, many of the girls at my school opted to be as homogeneously inconspicuous with their looks as possible. Straight hair parted down the middle. Uggs. Jeans. A white T-shirt.
I suppose the age was an important factor. At thirteen, our interest in boys took off. Suddenly, in the first stages of puberty, how you saw yourself didn’t matter as much as how boys saw you. It was all about looking cool and collected, walking the right way, dressing the cool way. If you called attention to yourself, you risked calling the wrong kind of attention, and in the midst of hormones and insecurities, the prospect of doing so was terrifying. There was no room for little girls who liked colors and flowers anymore. In my new school, teens said goodbye to their girlhood by naming her a pacha, and shaming her into silence.
It’s 2013, and I am fifteen.
It’s boys who use the word pacha now. They use it for girls I don’t know because they don’t go to my school, or to any elite private school for that matter. Boys seem to like them because they’re easier to talk to, and are easier to kiss. From what I hear the boys saying at school, they use them and dispose of them mercilessly. When I overhear talk about the pachas from behind my desk in class, I am glad I am not one of them.
I only ever think of pachas as an overused joke or a hypothetical taboo until I start encountering them at parties. They’re usually easy to spot because they’re the only girls that nobody knows at the party, and that every guy wants to know. Some girls snicker when they see them, responding to the threat of the unknown. I see a really pretty one in a tight sparkly dress at a quinceañera, talking to the boy I like. Soon enough, he is infatuated and she becomes his mission. I get jealous, sad, and annoyed, but my friends remind me that she is a pacha, and that she is probably just a phase. It makes me feel a little bit better, but not much. She doesn’t show much interest in him, so he forgets about her within the week, and moves on to another one.
Years later, I would ask my college boyfriend about a girl that he had kissed and never called back. He would dismiss it and say that she was just a pacha. Then, he’d continue to joke about how only respectable girls, like me, have valuable feelings. He’d only be kidding, but that wouldn’t make the weight of his words any less heavy. Because what he would mean by a pacha would be the same thing the boys at school meant by it in 2013—a girl who would be interested in them by default of being less than them. I mean this in a socioeconomic sense of class. Because as gender relations took center stage at high school, notions of class never failed to hang over social interactions, whether we were conscious of it or not.
We didn’t hang out much with kids from other schools, and if we did, the pool of schools to choose from was narrow. The two most expensive schools in the city, the British school (that I attended) and the American school, tended to stick together, if at all. They were the only two schools from which kids were expected to come out speaking perfect English, albeit the British school was less successful in the task than the American one. If you weren’t a foreigner, admission into these schools depended greatly on who your family was and who they knew. A pacha could be any girl who didn’t belong to one of our schools, and who often times by default didn’t speak English very well. More often than not, pachas went to private institutions nonetheless. In a country rampant with poverty, they had money. They were the rising middle class in a society where only fifty years ago, there was no such thing. To deem and understand a girl as a pacha was to manifest the ingrained classism of Colombian society.
But more so, to call a girl a pacha was to link distorted notions of class with those of gender and misogyny. The pacha could not exist without gender relations. After all, she is a product of our earliest internalizations of male ideals. Even when we were in middle school and the word pacha was used by girls to degrade themselves, the term in itself, with everything that it implied, from the side part to the colors and the lack of a coolness factor, came down to everything that a thirteen-year-old girl should not be if she was to attract a thirteen-year-old boy.
The fundamental shift, when the identity of the pacha was solidified, came sometime between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, when notions of class and sexuality not only arose, but collided. By High School, a pacha no longer meant a childish or embarrassing girl. Instead, she was now more often than not a girl from a lower class, who was hanging around us because she was easy to kiss. And boys wanted her. Eventually, she would become a girl who was easy to sleep with. Still, what remained was that the term pacha was used to designate a woman as being less. Before, it meant less than herself. It was less than what boys wanted. Now, it just meant less than the girls in the upper class. Precisely what boys wanted.
It’s 2015, and I am seventeen.
Some pachas kiss boys then disappear from all of our lives. Others try desperately to stay. A few of them become socialites, befriending everyone at school. They apply to transfer into our school because they say it’s where they belong, but they get denied admission, leading us to believe that they don’t.
I vaguely befriend a pacha, who goes to a school that I have never heard of on the perimeter of the city. It feels like everybody knows her, because she has made sure of it. I feel like she only calls me when she wants to get invited to a party she knows I’m attending. The superficial friendship never deepens. I mention it to one of my guy friends, and he tells me to never trust a pacha’s intentions.
The pachas gravitate towards this one blond, blue-eyed boy that I know. He himself says that its because he looks foreign, whether American or European or simply exotic in a “boy next door” kind of way. The girls sleep with him and with others like him. To me, it feels like they take any chance that they can to tell people about it. They boast about their track records and wear boys like notches on their belt, proud to have been worthy of attention. Is it sexual liberation or social climbing? Am I scandalized or jealous? I don’t know what I think.
I hear a crazy first-hand story about a pacha and a fake pregnancy. Apparently she told a boy that she was pregnant so that he would keep seeing her. The boy calls her a crazy pacha.
Colombia is a religious country, and as a result, if you are a woman and you happen to be a part of the one percent, you are subjected to the unspoken rule by which sexuality is a taboo. The pachas are not a part of this rule, because they are for the most part not in that specific sector of society. To teenage boys, pachas are generally not much more than sexual outlets. Being from a lower class, a pacha is not only supposed to be an easy conquest, but a shameless one by default of being exempt from the rules of snobby society. Men justify their use of them under the reasoning that Pachas don’t respect themselves as much as girls with a higher social standing do, therefore they don’t deserve and couldn’t possibly expect the same respect. This is erroneous logic, but it is nonetheless accepted as normal for boys to sleep with pachas and never call them again. Pachas were to be used and forgotten.
Some proved harder to shake than others. Many of the pachas who applied to transfer into our school were good for it—they could pay the tuition. Still, they never got in. It was probably something to do with grades, and test scores. But naturally, the underlying assumption was that these girls weren’t “the right kind of people” to go to our schools.
In Colombia, tradition matters. Who your parents are, who their friends are, who your parent’s parents are, who they know, who they don’t know: It all matters. Either because old money doesn’t easily forgo tradition to let newcomers in, or because the faltering public school system makes it so that quality education can only be accessed at a restrictive cost, social mobility isn’t common where I am from. pachas were often the daughters of self-made men. This made them new money, an instant anomaly.
Colombia is also a conservative country. Obviously not as much as some Arab countries, or as neighboring countries like Mexico, but still, we are religious as a whole. A girl at school was once caught having sex with a boy in a bathroom, and the scandal that ensued made it so that her friends were forbidden from speaking to her, and those that weren’t were embarrassed to keep doing so. Even teachers knew her story, and until graduation, many years later, a cloud of rebellious promiscuity hung over her head like a neon sign. The pachas, on the other hand, were known to sleep with whomever they saw fit. Because of this, boys remotely thought enough of them to date them, and girls, in their unforgiving mix of revulsion and envy, seldom wanted to know them.
The blond, blue-eyed boy that the pachas were once infatuated with is now my college boyfriend. I can’t walk around with him in Bogota without getting a few stares. He is attractive, but by no means outrageously so—it is his coloring, the mark of the colonizer, that makes him special on the streets. In Colombia, the upper class is mostly of European descent, but the rest of the population is not. I believe that those pachas who were proud to be used by him—yes, he would sleep with them and never speak to them again, like every hotshot in my school would — would feel so because his physical attributes were a stamp of class.
Pachas are social climbers. But unlike social climbers in countries like the United States, the social climbers of Colombia live in a society whose strata have no footholds. They are anomalies, and they are despised for it. But, after a year and a half of living in New York again, I ask myself, what makes a pacha different from your average girl in America, if not the society that surrounds her? Pachas are for the most part normal girls, trying to exist and experiment in a society that vilifies them for refusing to lock themselves into the class that they were born into. In contrast to the girls at my school who let themselves be pitted against pachas for male attention, who are comfortable with a hierarchy of gender, who are too afraid to explore their sexualities, the pachas are not afraid to reach for what they want, even if they don’t exactly get it. In aspiring to climb above their class brackets, the pachas possess an agency and ambition unbeknownst to a large portion of upper class Colombian women. They are doing the unprecedented, and for that we think less of them. Meanwhile, could they be the rising feminists of our society?
It’s 2018 and I am twenty.
In Colombia, there’s was a word we used, and nobody bothers to ask what it means. I have. I believe that I have figured it out. A pacha is a girl, often in the middle class, who embodies many things. She is sexual liberation, social climbing, classism, social mobility. She is phenomena present in societies all over the world.
But I am told she doesn’t exist anymore. Though I did not, most of my friends stayed in Colombia for college, and we are now in our second year of university, where social bubbles have been popped. Some people have new friends from different backgrounds. Other don’t. I begin to see that some of my friends are making friend with girls we once deemed pachas.
Over the phone from New York, I ask my best friend why nobody uses the word pacha anymore. I hope that he will say that people have grown up, matured. Instead, he goes on to tell me that there’s a new word that has replaced, if not debunked, the pacha. She is a “grilla.” I ask him to define one, and he calls her easy, tacky. From what I understand and how he defines them, from the disgust invoked in his description, from the repulsion with which he recalls kissing one while drunk, a grilla is much worse than a pacha.
I later ask someone else what a grilla means, and he says, a poor person, but a girl.
In Colombia, there’s a word people use, and none of them know what it means.
And yet they do.