Melany Vega is a singer and young single mom from Salta, Uruguay who loves in Buenos Aires. She tells us about her life growing up as a poor Afro-Uruguayan, and later discovering mysticism, feminism and American music and her struggles as a young single mom.
Name: Melany Vega
Profession: Promoter/Singer for La Costa Arrastra
Lives: Congreso, Buenos Aires (originally from Salto, Uruguay)
• You grew up in Uruguay. Where? And what was it like to grow up there?
I grew up in Salto, Uruguay. We were poor.
• Did you have electricity?
We had electricity, but no water and cement floors. I bathed with rain water. My mother was in a wheelchair my whole life because she had Multiple Sclerosis. She was already sick when she got pregnant with me. My dad was an alcoholic and violent with my mother.
When I was 12 or 13 I went and bought him a bus ticket and told him to go back to Buenos Aires, where he’s from.
My mother died when I was 14 and I lived with my (maternal) grandma after that.
• How did you end up moving to Buenos Aires?
When I turned 15, in 2008, I started work picking blackberries and I helped my grandmother to pay the bills. I kept studying English meanwhile because I got a sponsorship from a friend of the family to study it starting in primary school – as long as I passed every year, I could keep studying English. I studied English eight years.
I had many different jobs in Salto, and at 16, I started working selling clothes. My boss was really strict but she taught me how to be a good worker. She gave me a spot to sell my own things and so I sold Teddy Bears I purchased in bulk and they sold well — my Teddy bear business.
I even earned enough to be able to get water service in the house again under my name once I was eighteen, because my grandma had too many debts to put it under her name.
I had to come to Buenos Aires for my cousin’s wedding and that same boss wondered out loud why I didn’t just move to Argentina because I was taking too much vacation.
So I came here for good when I was 19. I called my dad and told him I was coming to Buenos Aires.
• What motivated you to come to Buenos Aires?
I knew that coming here I’d get access to more education. Salto is Uruguay’s second best place for university education, but it is limited. The food and transportation are also more expensive in Uruguay.
I loved my grandmother, she was so nice. She did everything she could for me and was amazing, but she only had third grade education and was old-fashioned.
Now that she is gone I don’t really have anyone aside from extended family in Uruguay.
• Weren’t you scared to join your dad considering how he acted in your childhood?
He was violent toward my mother, but not me. Today my father and I have good relationship because I came to understand that everyone is a victim of their own wounds. Once you are a parent yourself, you realize no parent is perfect.
• You said you grew up very religious?
Yes, my mother and whole family were evangelical Christian and so was I, but I had a cool uncle who was a sailor on the Captain Miranda, a famous Uruguayan Navy training vessel who introduced me to new things.
My uncle bought me the book, The Alchemist and so I started to think about alchemy and magic. I was trying to fill the hole that I had in my life.
Thanks to things my uncle exposed me to I became a part of a group called the Gnostic’s of Salto – they taught me a lot, even Buddhist teachings.
• You’re a singer in the band La Costa Arrastra did music make up a part of your childhood?
When I was kid I was part of the school choir. I always sang because it increased endorphins and makes you happy. I always liked music. Music is always a good way to channel my problems.
• What is your favorite type of music?
I searched for my African roots in music and found hip hop and RnB. Since I understood English, it opened some doors for me linguistically and socially. Now I like rock and roll — Rock National.
• Did you ever face discrimination growing up in Uruguay?
Mom’s family was black, so that was the community I was raised in. The only reason I ever felt discriminated against for being black was because of my hair. The kids used to say they could use my hair to wash pots.
Uruguay is pretty advanced in social issues for Latin America though overall, so it wasn’t bad.
• You identify as a feminist. What does that mean to you?
For me being a feminist was an evolution. Even as a kid I wondered why a girl who slept with a lot of guys was a ‘puta’ (whore) but a guy was a ‘genio’ (genius) for doing the same.
In the last couple of years I got more into the movement and began to read more. There is a great documentary called, ‘Suffragistas, Pioneras de las Luchas Feministas’ (Suffragists, Pioneers of the Feminist Fight).
In one scene they were asking the opinion of men about a very productive female worker. They said, ‘What do you think of the work of this woman?’ And the men said, ‘She’s ugly!’ That was a pretty poignant moment highlighting the struggle of women’s value being determined by her looks – like that is the only thing that matters.
And I got more involved in the movement listening to the abortion debate. I had my own personal experience, and also learned about the wider debate. I realized which side I belong. And I realized that I shouldn’t see myself as a monster (for taking a RU-486 to terminate a pregnancy) and understood that women were not just meant to be mothers, or a wife, or a girlfriend.
For many people the word ‘feminist’ is a bad word and it’s associated with ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ ‘lesbian’ or, ‘fea, gorda, mal garchada’ as they say — it makes me laugh.
It’s pretty recent that I use the word ‘feminist’ to refer to myself, even though I felt these things since I was a girl. I always wondered why certain things are the way they are.
• You dance a bit of tango – what thoughts do you have regarding tango as it relates to feminism?
That’s a good question. I dance a little bit, I went to some tango classes. I think the roots of tango are from lower classes and in the beginning only prostitutes danced it, so that influenced the culture of it.
I enjoy it a lot, but at some point, I began to see how the dance promotes machismo (chauvinism). There are many old lyrics (such as the tune, Flor de Monserrat ) that speak of things such as the ‘virgin girl of the barrio.’ They don’t say vulgar things but they talk about the ‘desirable virgincita.’ This is machismo. Also the whole thing that the man leads the woman and the woman follows. Men do have a certain power there.
The film Un Tango Más (in English: The Last Tango)– the woman, Maria Nieves (who stills shows up at the World Tango Competition in Buenos Aires) talks about the treatment of the men and the power the man has over the woman – he dresses her, tells her how to do her hair, how she was cheated on.
But now there exists groups where the woman leads the tango. There is another group I heard about that stop dancing if the song is chauvinist.
• Growing up religious, you said you were against abortion until the last couple of years and now you are in favor of it, can you share your personal story of why?
It all changed when I did some self-reflection. After I spent two years sacrificing for my son working and paying for childcare.
When I took the abortion pill last year I already had my son and I was sacrificing a lot. I knew that keeping the pregnancy would demand more sacrifice. Sacrifice is overrated.
I had my (two-year-old) son, because since I was religious, I thought I would go to hell otherwise. It’s sad.
I felt like it was my fault that I got pregnant, that I was stupid and because of this I never went to court to ask for child support.
We weren’t in a serious relationship. I wasn’t really in love with him. He left me when I was five months pregnant and got a new girlfriend and didn’t get in touch at all during the pregnancy.
The first months, my child’s father only gave me 300 pesos and bought some diapers.
I love my son, but that came after he was born and a part of my life, not when he was a fetus.
The majority of kids are accidents. The sexual education is lacking and once you’re pregnant it’s difficult to access abortion.
Then there’s the myth of the ‘Mamá luchona’ – who says, ‘I never had an abortion! I brought them all up myself!’ But three are in jail and two are in violent relationships. Raising a human being is something to be proud of, but that is not success in my book. And what about the woman’s feelings? It may seem like I am judging, but sacrifice is overrated. Life shouldn’t only be surviving. We need to dream more, live and enjoy life.
• You said you are also a part of a Feminist group?
The drummer of my band is part of a political party, Las Rojas, which is a feminist group. When I started with the band, I was invited to their meetings and that is when I first got involved in the discussion about abortion and met people my age who are concerned about this issue. I started speaking with women there and I realized we had so much in common.
That’s when the deconstruction of the guilt I had about my son began. I realized that I owe nothing to his father, just to my son. I put all the time and effort into allowing my ex (the baby’s father) to continue to study and work while I took care of all the childcare.
I feel I was always feminist but I didn’t know the word. It’s only recently that I learned what it is.
• Why do you think Argentina’s abortion bill didn’t pass?
The church has a huge role. The church is against sexual education. They teach abstinence.
It totally has to do with the church and is a method of control. But the church has this problem with pedophilia, which is completely sick and they protected thousands of priests. Look at the sex abuse scandal in Chile – the pope defended the bishop even though he abused minors. I find it completely hypocritical.
If you look up evangelists’ populations – there are ton in Brazil, and that is how proto-fascist (Jair) Bolsanaro got elected there — thanks to church brainwashing, because they are very against abortion. And this sentiment is particularly popular in poor neighbors — it’s another way for religion to get intertwined into politics.
I won’t even go into all the bible stuff, it’s full of stuff about the women in the house doing nothing and Mary Magdalen being a prostitute. It’s 2000 years old, and they keep reading and believing this stuff.
The old testament is full of violence against women. Bible quotes are out of context today but they always find a way to justify something that sounds ridiculous.
The church needs more children. Because if they help the poor they get more money.
I grew up in the church, so I am familiar with all this.
• So you aren’t religious at all anymore?
Human life is very precious. It’s a gift. I understand that religion is perfect for workers and slaves – work all your life and then you’ll go to heaven. Isn’t it convenient?
• Now your two-year-old son is with his father in Chile. How did that come about?
Yes, after the pregnancy and after two years and a month, I initially agreed to allow the father to take him to Chile.
When he got separated from his girlfriend he said he could give me 4000 pesos a month (about US$100 at the time’s exchange rate) or take the child with him to Chile, where he’s from, for a couple of months.
I was tired and I said okay because he had a good relationship with our child. After three months he decided he was going to stay there with my son. But my child hasn’t been to the doctor for a checkup since he’s been in Chile because he’s Argentine and doesn’t have papers there.
I thought about making a complaint for kidnapping (as permitted under the Hague Convention on international child abduction). But I see that my son is in good condition otherwise because my ex’s mother helps him and he lives in a big house and has everything he needs.
• You are saving up money to go visit him though?
Yes, even to go visit him I have to come up the money for the trip and the hotel. I’ve never been outside Argentina or Uruguay. I’m going to Chile in two weeks. I set up an appointment to meet with a judge to work out the custody agreement.
I want to come back with my son but I really don’t have enough money to take good care of him. I was thinking when he starts kindergarten I could have him back again because I can work while he’s in school.
• Can’t you ask for some child support payment from the father?
Yes, but I don’t feel I can depend on (receiving) it.
• You’ve been through some difficult things. After all this what is one thing that you are happy about?
I’m just happy my grandma met my son two months before she died.