Sunday, May 6, 2012

At the bottom of the sea.....of humanity

I'm an upbeat and reasonably positive person but I realize that no aspect of life or country is all good. On this blog I've talked once in a while about the inequities of the indigenous people in Mexico, how they've gotten the pointed end of the stick fairly often since the Spaniards showed up, and truly, many groups got the shaft from powerful Mayan city-states and the ferocious Aztec empire, to which they had to give up their children for blood sacrifice.

Here in Chiapas there was a movement about a hundred years ago during which the Mayan people tried to get this whole area of Mexico returned to Guatemala, after all, the Mayans in Guatemala are cousins. For whatever reason, the Mexican Government never forgave them for that, and when the Zapatistas started their rebellion in 1994, it was squashed within a few months with a heavy hand that has yet to lift. The military is everywhere, and brand new beautiful army bases have sprung up throughout the Lacondon jungle and highland forests. The military supports (financially and with weapons) paramilitary groups throughout Mayan country, who infiltrate indigenous groups and murder Zapatista and other rebel leaders. The bleeding from the stick continues.

A drop in the sea of humanity.

Although Mexico claims to be a democratic socialist government, providing medical care for everyone, free of charge, and even offering it to foreign immigrants for a nominal fee, it does not have much of a social net that encompasses the seriously infirm, the blind, the mutilated or orphans. Those people beg for a living, and it's not much of a living. More than once I have almost stepped on a beggar in the market or when just walking down a city street. There is a man with no arms or legs who is placed each day, by his family I presume, at various spots in front of the cathedral. He has a knitted hat into which a few people drop a few pesos. It would be nothing for someone to dash by, grab up the hat and run off with it. Several blind men and women sing for a living, accompanied by children who collect money. One blind man walks with his elderly mother slowly down the middle of streets. Cars stop to keep from running over them, then the driver is asked for money. A man in a wheel chair begs on the Andador, rolling around using his two good arms, with the urine bag attached on the front of the wheelchair. Several extremely old women, who seem barely able to move and who speak in whispers, sit in front of the OXXO and the electronics stores on the wide veranda across from the central Zocalo. A young man, missing one leg and on crutches often begs by peering into stores and asking for money from tourists who are shopping inside.

Children beg too. One boy, about seven years old, without shoes and always wearing the same raggedy clothes, wanders around begging with a beseeching look on his face. Others are opportunistic and beg if they can't sell enough of their tiny packets of gum. One time John wanted a French pastry from the nicest bakery in town. While I waited for him, a little Chamulan girl pointed to a chocolate pastry and said in perfect English, "I want that one."  I told her, in Spanish, "no it's bad for your teeth". Not missing a beat, she pointed at a strawberry tart and in Spanish said, "Then that one, it's not sugar, it's fruit." I laughed and ignored her. As John wandered off noshing his own chocolate pastry, I glanced back into the shop to see that little girl tugging on the white sweater of a tall thin blond lady.

When Derek was here we ate outside at the Argentinian steak house. It was almost impossible to carry on a conversation between being asked to buy rebozos, belts, clothing, jewelry, gum, or a shoe shine. We were also asked directly for money by old and young. With all meals, a basket of corn tortillas is provided wrapped in a cloth napkin. So we unwrapped the tortillas and offered them to anyone who wandered by looking hungry. That little shoeless boy took just one. A tiny girl asked if she could have two, one for her sister. Derek was impressed that not one child took all the tortillas even though we offered it without restrictions. I have on numerous occasions taken a stack of tortillas, wrapped them in a paper napkin and given them to children who were peering in through the windows of a restaurant. You feel like such a pig when hungry children watch you eat.

I met a woman here, named Laurie. She volunteers at a place called Casa de Flores. It's a respite for the children who work the streets. So many of the indigenous, especially after the age of 10 or 11, work the streets selling clothing, shawls, belts, and other hand made goods. Casa de Flores provides a good breakfast, a place to take a shower, and some classroom learning for these kids. Some kids come every day for a few hours, some only come once in a while. There is a girls orphanage, run by the state, here in San Cristobal, but nothing for orphaned boys. Orphans are especially vulnerable to the sex slave trade, where they are quickly whisked away from anything they know, and sold to the highest bidder.

I haven't checked out all the facts, but this is what I've been told. Many children never see the inside of a school. Their parents live out in the hinterlands and school is too far away and expensive. The parents must provide uniforms and supplies, and get the children to and from school daily. For very poor families, barely able to feed themselves, the children need to help on the farm, and there is no money or time for school. There are some organizations that provide help, but many of those use their money to lure people in to listen to their brand of Christianity, and provide help only if the families convert. For families that do convert, they are often kicked out of their native villages and isolated from the extended family. The rationale for this is that the people in the villages want to maintain their old valuable religion and language. They've seen far too much destroyed over the centuries by missionaries and dominant outside cultures.

Years ago, when my son was in grade school, he asked me about pessimists and optimists. I told him the glass story: half full, or half empty, optimist or pessimist. He made the insightful comment that I was neither, the water is always enough. It brought tears to my eyes, because truthfully, we Americans always have enough, even if it's very little. The poorest people still have the government's safety net, even street people can find enough food. I remember reading a book written by a formerly homeless man who was rather overweight. He commented that people throw away slices of pizza, still in the box, but they don't throw away perfectly good oranges or tomatoes, so high calorie unhealthy food was all he could get unless he had some money to buy fresh produce. In Mexico, if a person were looking through garbage for food, they would be competing with the dogs who had already been there. In Mexico, those living at the bottom of the sea of humanity have glasses that are not half full or half empty. The glasses have almost no water at all, and it's not enough.