One journalist's musings about the beautiful, bizarre world in which we live
“Being ordinary is already so taxing, and being ordinary takes all you have out of you, and though the words ‘I must get away’ do not actually pass across your lips, you make a leap from being that nice blob just sitting like a boob in your amniotic sac of the modern experience to being a person visiting heaps of death and ruin and feeling alive and inspired at the sight of it … “
– Jamaica Kincaid, A Small Place
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s poorest states.
Although the poverty is mostly in the rural areas, the city of Oaxaca is certainly not immune.
There’s the mother who sits at the corner of Alcalá and Allende every night, lying her babies down on flattened boxes, waiting for the drunks to stroll past and give her a few pesos.
There’s the dirty child who wanders around the Zócalo in old Crocs™. I have never seen his parents. He looks for strange faces, asking for money from those who look rich.
There are countless old women and men who meander from restaurant to restaurant, asking patrons for a bit of cash; people in restaurants, no doubt, have more cash than these seniors.
Many restaurant-goers are white foreigners and tourists, praised here for the cash they bring in. Tourists can afford the luxury of travel. Tourists are rich.
In Oaxaca, people know I’m not from around here. My height, skin colour and odd clothing give me the name “guera” or “guerita.”
There are many captial-W White people in Oaxaca. They – I – use foreign money to live like royalty off of cheap food, low rent and sunny weather.
Who wouldn’t want that life? We who were born into it are very lucky. No wonder people think, I can make money in those cold countries, too – I can live that better life. Many Mexicans go abroad. They hope to send money back to their families. They want a better future for themselves and their children.
We don’t mind when a Mexican works for minimum wage, handing us our coffees at the local Tim Horton’s. We eat fruit they pick at our local farms. We sleep soundly in the beds they have made in our hotel rooms.
Still, how many “lazy Mexican” jokes have I heard? Have I made? How often do you complain about the immigrant population taking “good” Canadian or American jobs, when they step up from minimum wage?
My Spanish teacher lived in the United States for a few years. She said she faced a lot of stigma, as a single Mexican mother with two boys. She said her family’s fluffy white dog once went missing after being tied up in the front yard. A few days later, someone returned it. Or should I say, they returned its mutilated body.
She said she didn’t have the heart to tell her children. She just buried it.
Racism isn’t the only thing people face. It seems the carefully constructed Canadian social safety net is one we’d rather not share, eh? How often have I heard people complain of immigrants who come to Canada, only to take advantage of Canadian benefits?
Last year, I wrote an article about Old Age Security pensions for immigrants in Canada. A bill in the House would have given immigrant seniors minimal old-age payments after three years of living in Canada. During an interview, a Canadian politician against the bill told me something that sticks with me to this day:
“I don’t believe that we should be saying to the world, ‘Give us your — your poor, your weak, your old and let us pay for them.’ I, you know, don’t believe that. And I don’t believe that’s what the people in our area want either.”
No, we don’t want the poor/weak/old. Let’s keep them elsewhere, some place where we can’t see them unless we go out of our way to see them.
My Spanish teacher spoke with tears in her eyes last week, about young boys who were shot in a northern border town. Bang. Bang. Bang. Each boy was killed by men with covered faces.
“Como perros,” she said. Like dogs.
But out of sight, out of mind. And when we do feel like visiting, it’s a way to expand ourselves and learn – by watching other people’s misery.
I mean, isn’t that what I’m doing here?