Here in Mexico and elsewhere around the world, people are suffering just a little bit, every day. Some people are suffering a lot. For many, life is crumbling stone walls and peeling paint and trash strewn everywhere. It’s mothers and small kids walking along dusty roads and people driving bicycles attached to carts, selling snacks and juices for a few pesos.
But doesn’t everything have an inverse? A yin for every yang? Life here is also the ubiquitous shrines to the Virgin Mother and crosses everywhere. It’s fresh fruit and vegetables at affordable prices and Mayan women proudly holding onto their beautiful heritage of white dresses adorned with colorful lace. It’s easy smiles and simple faith. And it’s people like the family we met yesterday, who have next to nothing but have the most important thing—each other.
The Spirit is Alive
Suffering like this is not seen in more “advanced” places these days. But arguably the hardship cements values some of us have lost in places where things have gotten easier (at least easier on the surface). Yes, life here is peeling paint. But bound to this is the willingness to help each other, ingenuity, gratitude for the good times, ruggedness, a focus on what’s really important, thriftiness, a deep appreciation for life, humility, personal responsibility, self-reliance, a sense of community over individual, personal connection to nature, a belief in magic and the mystery of religion, and a faith that things will be better in the future.
Despite the hardships, the spirit is alive in this struggling area. People have not lost faith. They retain the great human ability to remain silent and still and patient and wait for… really, everything. For whatever comes next.
In my culture, we have been told we can make it on our own, if we only pull ourselves up by those much-talked-about bootstraps and make the effort. God rewards us with wealth and comfort because we’ve worked hard.
What about the family of five we met yesterday, who live in a cement block, government-donated house in a shadeless, desolate neighborhood of South Merida? Have they not worked hard? Hard enough to deserve the comfort of any first-world citizen? Does God not love them as much if He is not rewarding them with wealth and comfort?
We met the family through a program called Amigos, through the Mission of Friendship, a partnership between the Catholic Diocese in Merida and our hometown. It’s a cultural exchange where we can swap letters and photos, and offer a little help here and there to give them a leg up. (Honestly, if yesterday was any indication, I think they will give more to us than we will ever be able to give to them.)
Their house was three rooms. First, a living area with a couch losing its stuffing and covered with a scratchy wool blanket, four wooden chairs, a refrigerator, and a small TV. The very rustic, nearly empty kitchen was in the back. Next to that was a single bedroom. On a wall between the rooms hung two of the house’s only adornments: a large-beaded rosary and a colorful picture of the Virgin Mary.
When we arrived, the whole family—mom, dad, teenage son, and two little girls—greeted us in the front. Huge smiles plastered their faces. We entered through a wooden gate into what seemed like a maze of cement block hallways. It turned out that the front area we walked through on the way to the house was to be a future addition that the family was slowly saving for.
After entering the gate, the group of us stood a bit awkwardly, smiling at each other and shaking hands, until the 30-something father said kindly in Spanish, “Let us go inside. The sun is hot!”
We went inside and I was struck by the simplicity and the cleanliness. The floor was cement but it was freshly mopped. The room was not crowded with objects, and yet what was there was well-cared for. The parents motioned us to the couch and chairs, saying something, and our program coordinator (and translator), Patricia, translated, “They said—please sit down. There aren’t enough chairs but it’s all we have.”
The parents stood as we all started to chat. A bit self-consciously, I apologized for my Spanish and said it gets worse when I’m nerviosa. Everyone laughed.
Sometimes our family used our scant Spanish and, when the topic warranted a bit more depth, Patricia translated. The translating was a rare luxury for us and helped us get to know each other in a more profound way.
After some polite chit-chat (how old are each of our children? what grades are they in? what are their favorite subjects and sports?), the family showed us their garden in the back, accessed through an open door and around a corrugated metal wall. The garden was a fairly good size, accessed down a slope littered with crumbled cement and rocks. The woman proudly showed me her flowers—roses and other flowers which I couldn’t translate. She asked me a question. I thought it was, “Do you like this?” I nodded–sí, sí. But she’d asked me if I wanted it, and started to pinch the bud from its stem. No, no, I corrected. Somehow the thought of taking some of the beauty from her garden was appalling to me. She rambled on about the growth she’d brought about with her own hands. And though I could not understand many of her words, I nodded my head vigorously at the raw hope I heard in her voice.
She explained the one tree was a mango, that she’d thought about having a lime tree, but limes cost only 4 pesos each, whereas mangos are more food and are more expensive so she decided to grow mangos.
We sat down in the same order, as if we had assigned seats. The family’s little girls, who are 9 and 5, snuck shy looks at our girls under their lashes. They smiled; our girls smiled back. Eventually, the four girls, as if by silent agreement, got up and went to play in the bedroom together. We could hear chatter in Spanish and English and giggling in the universal language of young children.
Now that we were more comfortable with each other, we started talking about the things that really mattered: the mom’s abusive father and her mother’s subsequent leaving and solely supporting her seven kids; the dad’s life as a young man, when he “did bad things” in a gang. He told Patricia that he was very embarrassed about his tattoos, that he’d worried about what we would think of him. He’d thought of wearing long sleeves but then was nervous we’d think he was weird for wearing so much clothing on a hot day. (Nobody really ever worries what we think of them, so this was novel.) I reassured him that many people in our culture have tattoos, that it’s no big deal, that, anyway, we don’t judge people by their outside appearance. He seemed a bit less nervous about it after that.
As they told their story and described their tough childhoods, Patricia translated. These days, the father works as a night watchman and the mom works as a housecleaner. The mother told us, “We work hard, we stay organized, and we will help our children have a better life.” They are very overprotective: they don’t let their children go farther than school and, after school, they don’t permit their kids to play any farther than the street in front of their house, “where I can watch them,” explained the dad. They seemed to live in fear of the bad people who will force their kids into a life that is not good for them. It had happened to him, he told us. They believed strongly in educating their kids and setting them on a path to a life better than the one they themselves had discovered.
Woven into their story was the unspoken plea for some help. They needed a hand in leveling up: to finish the addition so the five of them will not sleep in one room; to take a day trip to the beach, which is a 40-minute bus ride away; to buy a gas stove; to help pay the tuition for their kids’ schools.
All We Need Is Love
Month to month, we won’t even notice a pinch. Maybe it will be one less time dining out, or a new shirt that we don’t buy. But they will notice it. It will mean easier cooking or a new hammock or bus money. Small but huge things.
These people don’t have a lot. But they have their flower garden. They have their plans for improvement and their faith that things will improve. They have each other. And they have their dreams that their children will have a better, richer life than they did.
These people suffer a little every day. They are not starving, but they work long hours to make sure of that. They are not without clothing or the basics in life, but they have little time to pursue hobbies or passions besides the raising of their children.
Why do they suffer? Do they not work as hard as more economically-rich people? Does God not like them as much as He likes some?
I don’t see this issue of poverty as having anything to do with God. I don’t believe the “health and wealth gospel” that teaches God rewards greater faith with greater amounts of wealth. It’s a myth. These people are certainly not lacking in faith, and yet they still live a meager existence. A million factors caused this family’s situation and it will take a million solutions to raise them up. In the meantime, all we can do is give to each other. Give each other hope, support, faith, love, care, concern, and yes, financial contributions.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. And I don’t think I’m better than any other human being on this planet. I was born luckier than some, not as lucky as others. Where I started the day I was born is not the question. What I do with my bucket of privilege is.
I’m cautious about mission work. I don’t believe my way is best and I certainly am not trying to bring anyone to my way of thinking on the topics of religion, morality, or politics. There is no reason in the world for me to impose my belief structure on someone else as a way of “helping” them. The solution to fixing the problems in our world comes not from casting blame or evangelizing others to our way of thinking and doing. It’s not about closing borders or sticking to our own kind. And it is definitely not about judgment. After all, who among us is perfectly whole, money or no money? Often, the rich are merely suffering from a different kind of poverty. Whether we are rich or poor, black or white, Mexican or American, Christian or Muslim, we are all the same. We’re all pieces of the same God, bits of the same stardust.
For me, the key is simple. It has four letters but is not a four-letter world, although some people in angry, disenchanted circles steer as far clear from it as they can. L-O-V-E. The kind of love that is open and color-blind and profound and divine. Some would call me naive, but with the powerful, beautiful, divinely-inspired, magical elixir of love, what else do we need?
I’m grateful for the gift we received yesterday. For this family’s presence in our lives and the reflections they’ve given me. The experience fed us yesterday and the memory will continue to feed us well into the future.