Tag Archives: poverty

A Poverty Story

Poverty kills.

Not all at once – although the bullets that breed in poverty will do that. Poverty kills slowly. It grinds and grinds and grinds. Until it reduces whatever hope you had to a dusty smudge of resentment, befouls whatever innocence you had with the daily excrement of your reality, erases completely whatever childhood you had and replaces it with a ten-hour-a-day-ten-dollar-a-day job in a Mexican greasy spoon.

Poverty snatches children from their dreams and sells them to the demons of despair and depression.

Poverty forces adults to decide to choose between their children and their own dignity.

Think about all that, then add in Covid. Schools closed. Studying on cheap cell phones. No socializing. Alone at home with your poverty, watching it suffocate your youth. Two years of this. In a country where public school education is already atrocious, and there is nowhere to go but down.

You know what happens. Kids fail. Kids drop out. Kids stop being kids and take their seat on the merry-go-round of poverty. Spin that wheel. Watch the viciousness of the whirling circle.

A number: After two years of closed schools “71 percent of (Latin American) lower secondary education students may not be able to understand a text of moderate length,” says a new World Bank study.

More numbers: A 13-year-old girl enters middle school with second-highest grade in her class: 9.7 out of 10. Three years later, during the pandemic, she scrapes her way into high school with an average of 7.2.

Last number: One. That is how many high-school semesters she will finish before dropping out. One. In a few weeks, the former brightest girl on the block becomes just another Oaxacan teenage dropout wearing an apron and serving up slop for a buck an hour.

Unless there’s a miracle. I’m not a believer, though.

That’s it. That’s the story.

My Oaxaca — The Long Return

I have not told you about Oaxaca, the last visit, now a full month ago, because there is so much to say, even though most of it is the same, and so little of it comes out spare you the details and speak only of feelings, or the facts might spatter into a gory mess on the page.

My strength, if it is such, is not to regard the contents of the glass as half-full or half empty, although the latter is my natural bent, rather to ask where the rest of the water is, who has it, and why isn’t it in the glass. These are the questions of a mind that is not so much focused and inquisitive as of one that is restless and anxious, poor qualities in a human being, but nonetheless useful in the practice of journalism, which I practiced, but never conquered, for a long period.

Applying this mindset to Oaxaca, where I’d gone to find what I was missing and then soon began missing what I found, I routinely returned home to my American comforts after visits with mothers and children and meanderings through city streets more saddened by the experiences than heartened by them. As time passed, the only lives that seemed to improve were those of children who were born in the United States and returned there to live with a family friend or a relative. Everyone else continued their slow-motion collision with cultural and institutional walls that kept them encaged in a world with little work, less education, almost no health care, and the absence of long-term hope.

The pandemic made everything worse.

In my eighteen-month separation from Oaxaca, teenage boys stopped going to high school and began working for five dollars a day; the brightest girl I knew, forced to study via her cellphone, sought refuge in a violent video game, lost interest in school, and allowed her grades to drop – on a scale of 10 – from 9.5 to 7.2; another teenager, a girl, one who never showed interest in studying, ran away from home, and her mother hears reports of her wandering drugged on the streets; one mother left her son at home and took up with a guy hoping for love but found he only wanted her womb so he could sire a son, and then kicked her out when he learned she lacked the necessary female plumbing; a teenage boy I’d met years before in a shelter, headed for the U.S., got a woman his mother’s age pregnant on the why, crossed the Texas border, got arrested, and sat in a state prison the day his child was born.

That’s enough, isn’t it? Multiply these tragedies by thousands, at least. The work lost, the classes missed, the families separated as parents left Oaxaca for other cities in search of jobs. COVID arrived in Oaxaca as a ravenous beast and feasted on the poor.

Truthfully, I didn’t deal with it well. After a conversation with a mother who showed me sheets of medical bills for her son, who has had leukemia for several years and is somehow still alive, and then withdrew from a folder another set of papers having to do with the search for her constant pain, I sat in silence in the car of a mutual friend who had driven me to the mother’s house. The friend, too, didn’t speak. We were, I would say, overwhelmed. By the enormity of it all. By the relentlessness. By the incessant march of calamity.

I felt small and impotent. I began blaming myself. I could have done more than I’d done, I thought, which, to be honest with everyone, was not that much. I’d applied a few financial bandages on a sucking chest wound that needs a surgical suite. Even the child I’d most focused on, having pled to some unknown deity, just this one, please, just this one girl, dangled from a gossamer string of hope over an adolescent abyss from which, in Mexico, there is no return. I thought about a woman named Becca Stevens I’d met earlier on the trip who, driven by will and passion, founded an organization named Thistle Farms that throws lifelines to woman who have been abused by men (and by society), and wondered why I couldn’t be more like her. She located the means within herself to focus and to do the work that results in resurrecting hundreds of women. I couldn’t manage somehow get one promising young woman through high school.

Here at home, tucked into the trees on the damp north side of a hill, I realize that what drew me to Oaxaca may no longer be there, and that was the intimacy of the experience, the ability, not my own, but one gifted to me by the families, to witness the scope of their lives – smiles and sadness, joy and tears, hope and despair. The stories of child abuse, rape, and beatings, told to me at kitchen tables, in cafés, or via Whats, were leavened with birthday cakes, new-born babies, grade-school graduations, weddings, baptisms, and long, silent hugs that shrunk the great distance between our lives into a space where we could not tell one from another.

That’s what may be gone. Time claims everything. Another voracious beast, it consumes the terrible and the delightful with equal persistence. All that remains is change.

Old age, or to be more gentle with myself, older age, does not care much for change. It prefers consistency. Clothes it knows well, food it finds agreeable, familiar faces, and well-trodden paths. Change is for the young. In fact, for the young change is obligatory. If they don’t adapt, they get stuck right where they’re born – and for many that isn’t so great.

Once more, I tell myself, do it once more. Molt, shed the skin of current expectations and allow another to grow. Brace for the moment between the old and the new when I am emotionally naked and once again clad only in uncertainty. Preconception shields us from both the world’s harder realities and its more alluring charms. In looking for what we expect, we are blind to the surprising.

The timing is right. The fallen leaves of the red maple litter the patio bricks of the same color. The big buckeye plunks its fist-sized nuts onto the wooden stairs below the street. The mornings are moist, promising chill and, we hope, rain to our parched, fiery north state. Winter and change are close cousins.

This is what I return to, a change of season, a change of reason, a chance to once more begin anew.

Mexico, I Have a few Questions for You – Tengo unas preguntas para ti

México, México, lindo México, ¿por qué me castigas tanto, por qué sigues rompiéndome el corazón?

There is nothing easy in Mexico. There is nothing that once fixed or settled or mended stays that way. The country drifts toward the broken. ¿México, por qué se descompone tanto?

Tell me, mi amigo Mexico, why do you make education so hard? Why do you take the dreams of smart little girls, the one’s with the highest grades in their classes, and toss them like sacks of plastic soda bottles alongside your pot-holed roads? Why do you make teenage boys drop of out of school and work for casi nada selling trinkets on the streets or busting up rocks for their mamas’ ex-lovers? Why is it easier for a teenager to get into the United States than it is into college – or even high school?

I want to know, mi querido Mexico, why do you make poverty so agreeable? I want to know why single mothers who work so much – ten hours a day, six days a week – must tell their children que el dinero no alcanza for their school supplies as they sit in the single room that is their house and make a bowl of oatmeal that is their dinner.

I wonder, mi cielito Mexico, why there are pesos for a Mayan train and a freeway to the beach and a paved road en el medio de la nada, but there no centavos for water that runs clean from the tap, for toilets that flush, for schools whose task is to educate everyone instead of to weed out those who lack the resources to continue.

What can you say to me Mexico – more, what can you do to show the world, Mexico – that you take these questions seriously and do not use the obvious answers para chingar al pueblo every six years?

Do I sound fed up, Mexico, disheartened, saddened, angry? ¿Sueno harto, México, descorazonado, triste, enojado? Then, yes, you hear me correctly. Imagine how the world sees you, Mexico, when I, a friend – y todavia somos amigos – feel this way. What do other people think of your empty promises, your corruption and impunity, and your insane rate of violence?

Oye, Mexico, you cannot break my heart further, because the pieces are already too small. You cannot sadden me more because my soul is full of tears. You can not disappoint me again, because I no long expect anything of you.

Pero no soy de allí, Mexico, I am not from there. I am gringo, extranjero, gabacho. I am not what matters. What matters are the children and their mothers. They are your future, Mexico. Why, Mexico, do you care so little about your future?

Circumstances & Consequences

In a world of uncertainty, some circumstances still guarantee certain outcomes. A hot stove burns and blisters the misplaced hand. An untended garden goes to seed. Water boiled long enough vaporizes. And a child born into poverty withers before maturity if, like the garden, not well cultivated.

The last is not science – like the heat of a stove or the physical characteristics of water – but is the nature of human beings.

Generalization often leads to misconception, yet history helps us recognize patterns of predictable consequences. All things being equal, hard-working people succeed more than lazy ones; more education leads to better incomes; bad habits – such as over-eating, over-drinking or smoking – shorten lives; and abused boys often grow up to become abusive boyfriends and husbands.

Each family, each culture, each moment of time generates its own cycles of behavior, action and consequence.

In Mexico, for example, where I spend a couple of months a year doing documentary photography, the culture and the social infrastructure create their own web of reliable relationships between circumstance and consequence. People born poor and shut out from education stay poor; corrupt government corrupts society as a whole, which, in turn, fertilizes further government corruption; the rising economic tide lifts only the boats of the already wealthy; hard work and higher education are not indicators of eventual economic success.

And teenage girls who get pregnant become middle-aged single mothers. The fathers move on – to the beds of other women, to where there is work in the U.S. or in other parts of Mexico, or to the bottle. The children of these teenage mothers, with few exceptions, are doomed from birth to lives of never-ending work, physical and economic insecurity, and, when the last roseate glow of childhood fades from their hearts, the deflating acceptance of servitude to a classist society that while dependent on their labor considers them easily replaceable.

There are many ways Mexico breaks my heart, but none rends more than seeing the children of the families I photograph arrive at adolescence, drop out of school and lose their way in the toxic labyrinth of poverty that entraps them at their most vulnerable age. For a country that attracts millions of tourists with the “warmth” of its culture, Mexico is shamefully short of compassion for its own children.

The persistent poverty, the insipid public education, and the absence of decent healthcare (especially for women) produce a relentless societal cycle that forgives no youthful mistake. A teenage girl, enamored, offers her body to an insistent boy. She becomes pregnant, he leaves town, and she is enslaved by 60-hour workweeks and an income that buys nothing more than a room or two, often without water or a bathroom. She puts her children in shelters, leaves them home alone while she works, or takes them out to the street with her to beg, raising them with the hope they don’t follow in her footsteps. But she lacks both the education and the time to teach the tools they need to break the cycle.

For boys, it is just as daunting.  A teenage boy quits school, hangs out for a couple of years with others who found the classroom too confining or the home life too abusive and then, after hustling day to day to make money and stay out of jail, decides he wants to return to school. But he can’t. Once a child is out of the public-school system in Mexico, he or she is out for good. An eighth-grader in a state boarding school steals another boy’s mobile phone. He has to transfer to another school, so he moves back in with his mother, sleeping on a cot next to the bed she shares with her daughter. He misses the high school application deadlines because his mother works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and has no time to speak with anyone at the school. He starts classes late, lacks the money for books so goes an entire semester without them and starts his second semester so far behind he fails just about everything and drops out.

Every child below the middle class in Oaxaca is at risk. There is no safety net. It’s every family for itself. Impunity by the political class and indifference by the upper classes create a Hunger Games environment that rewards those who have the money and connections to bend the system to their benefit and ignores those who begin their lives with nothing and too often end up that way as well.

Throughout central Oaxaca, and in all of Mexico’s big cities, utility poles and the walls of buildings sport flyers that say “Ayúdanos a localizarla” (“Help us to find her”). Each poster displays the photograph and name of a missing person, most often an underaged girl. In sterile, institutional language, the poster describes the missing person, suggests what she might be wearing, and names the whereabouts of where she lived. There are flyers for men, too, but most of the posters in Oaxaca of missing people are of women.

Here is an example (translated from the Spanish):

Name: (I am leaving out the name)

Age: 16 years.

Was seen for the last time: March 13, 2020, in El Rosario, San Sebastián Tutla, Oaxaca, Oaxaca.

Clothes she normally wears: Blue jeans, short-sleeved blouse and sandals.

Physical description: Strong build; 5 feet 2 inches in height; clear dark skin; round face; large forehead; thick eyebrows; medium-sized brown eyes; medium-sized nose with a wide base; large mouth; thick lips; oval chin; curly, chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair.

I know this girl. She once lived in a notorious children’s shelter in Oaxaca that the government  closed after reports of abuse. I met the girl several years ago at the shelter, when she was 10 years old.  In the photographs of her displayed on the missing-person poster, she appears a decade older than when I saw her a couple of months ago. She is heavily made up, the tips of her dark hair are tinted yellow and she is puckering her lips in the come-hither pose that is so common these days in selfies taken by teenage girls.

The missing girl’s mother messaged me to tell me her daughter was missing and that she feared the girl was involved in something dangerous, perhaps a prostitution ring. She showed  a Facebook post by another woman who was looking for “chicas calientes y sexys” for “trabajo con disfrute e ingresos” (“hot, sexy girls for enjoyable, well-paid work”). The post tagged her daughter’s name.

The news did not surprise me. It was the consequence of all the circumstances I mentioned about Oaxaca – no money, no education, no prospects, no one giving a damn about what happened to this girl other than her mother, who, because of her own lack of education, cannot provide the guidance her daughter needs.

I never made a good photo of this girl. She was always self-conscious and striking a pose for the camera, the Instagram curse. When I last saw her, she was sassy, surly and rebellious, not terribly different than so many adolescents. But Mexico is unforgiving. This girl had left school before finishing the seventh grade, she didn’t work, and she spent hours lying in the bed she shared with her mother and talking on a phone she’d somehow procured. She and her mother fought all the time about money, about her friends, about her not working. The girl began to stay out late at night, coming home at 2 a.m. or sometimes not at all.

Then she was gone. One day while her mother was working, she broke a window to get into the apartment and grabbed the few clothes she had. Her mother told me she had run off. But the daughter has another story. In a Facebook post she wrote after the mother filed a missing-person report, she said: “Hi friends. If you see my photo that says I am disappeared it is not true. In December, my mother threw me out. I had problems and I went to my aunt’s house. I didn’t want to live with her. Thank god, I am OK. Don’t pay attention (to the missing-person poster) and don’t share it either.”

Did the girl really run away? Did her mother throw her out? Does it matter why she’s gone? The result is the same: Another teenage girl on the run, uneducated, without money, angry, loose on the streets in Mexico. These are the circumstances. The consequences will not be good.

Home from Oaxaca

I came home from Oaxaca ahead of schedule, something I’ve never done before. After 15 days, I was exhausted. Each day the heat and the humidity sapped me. At night, I’d recover, but not 100 percent, so I started each subsequent day with less than a full recharge. I walked five to eight miles a day. I had a thirst I could not slake, even with a several bottles of water at a time. I lost nearly five pounds. My rented room held the heat and sleep never really arrived for long. The day before I decided to leave, I played basketball with a group of kids for 90 minutes. Afterward, my body barked in loud protest. I answered by changing my flight.

Part of me feels like I gave in, like I allowed a bit of discomfort to drive my decision. That’s my 30-year-old ego talking. Another part of me is soothed by the cool ocean air and the opportunity to stand in the scalding stream of the shower for as long as I want. That is the sound of seven biological decades exhaling in relief.

I returned with a few strong photographs and with memories whose images are even more powerful. Together, they illustrate the great challenge of photography, the effort to preserve with the camera what is seen by the mind’s eye and felt by the soul. I am proud of my photographs, but I am also frustrated by my inability to gather into a frame the vividness, in all its glory and in all its pain, of life in Oaxaca.

When I stand on a Oaxacan street corner and see and hear and smell the chaos around me, I want the camera to vacuum it all in – the noise of the buses, the smell of the sewage and the food vendors, the hunched shoulders of the working men, the wide-bodied grandmothers making passage on the sidewalks with their hips, the sweat and the sun and the steam of the humidity. I want all that in a photograph. That is the picture I have yet to make.

In that sense, I return this time as I always do also with a sense of inadequacy, of lacking either the technology or the skill or both to fill a frame with all that I see and all that I feel. In this image I want the mothers and the children and the dark rooms of dead air in which they live; I want the four Hondurans sleeping on the floor waiting for a chance to sneak into the United States; I want the boy with leukemia being pushed in a wheelchair by his mother between buses on the street because the sidewalks are too narrow to navigate; I want the food – the chicken cooked over a wood fire with tomatoes and chilies, the lentil soup a mother made me before she went to work, the huge plastic glasses of jamaica, the tortas of breaded pork sold on the corner for a $1.50, the smoky, silky mescal that burns and then drains the pain from the body; I want the eyes, dark all of them, bright with laughter, reddened with tears, empty of expectations; I want the nascent beauty of the children and the fading dignity of the grandfathers; I want the conversations – with the taxi driver deported from L.A. who practices his English with me, with the obese sweaty cop and his elegant Belgian shepherd, with the mom who is happy to be pregnant at 35 even though she is without work or husband.

I feel as if I need to make this one picture. I need it to remind me of everything I have done and I do in Oaxaca. I need it to show to people when they ask me why I go there because to explain it with words takes too long.

It is a fanciful desire, to be sure, but still one that nags me.

***

Some other thoughts from the trip:

* Poverty is relative. For a while, I visited a mother and her two kids who lived high on a dry hill in a tin shack. There was no water. The toilet was a hole in the ground. Electricity was boot-legged off a shared power pole. The road was nothing more than rutted trail that ran thick with mud when it rained. Still, I never felt as deep in the Third World at this mother’s house as I did in Oaxaca’s public hospital, where I went one afternoon with one of my favorite children, who had fallen and was visiting a neurologist to see if she had epilepsy.

Outside the hospital, dozens of people camped on the concrete patio, family members visiting hospitalized relatives, or sick people waiting days for appointments. Many slept on cardboard boxes, others used the cheap, synthetic blanks that are so common here to create seating areas that converted to beds at night, and still others had commandeered a row of chairs, stuffed cardboard into the gaps between them and slept on the hard plastic. Buckets of food, scraps of garbage, empty liter bottles of soda and backpacks were everywhere. The faces of the people on the patio bore the weight of lifetime of acceptance of these conditions. This hospital is in one of Oaxaca’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Four blocks from this desperation, moneyed Oaxacans buy Frappuccino’s from Starbucks and shop for clothes in fancy European stores.

* A lot of money for someone who has nothing changes nothing in the long term. My generous friends contributed enough money to help the mother of a boy with leukemia live for months without working, which she needs to do after the live-saving transplant she hopes will come. When I gave her the thick wad of Mexican pesos, her face lifted momentarily in gratitude only to return quickly to its resting visage of resignation, a recognition that no matter how much hardship she endures it cannot guarantee her son’s survival in a society where one’s chances of a long life or an early death are determined at birth. Hers is not a poverty that be bought off with a few thousand pesos.

* Two types of Americans live in Oaxaca. There are those, like the ex-community organizer from California and his wife, an attorney, who use their retirement hours and their professional skills to involve themselves in the community and improve the lives of those who have less than they do. They are in the minority. The majority, most of whom seem to be women, live amongst themselves in an ex-pat bubble, don’t speak Spanish and mix with the locals only when it is time for a festival or an art opening, where they show up dressed in indigenous blouses and skirts and are the first to attack the free food and drinks.

* Intimacy and distance don’t play well together. The closer I get to the families in Oaxaca, the further away I feel when I leave. This is not a new sensation, but on this trip, it grew stronger than ever. I return to a life of comfort, and to a personal calendar that holds fewer and fewer pages, and I leave behind young people with a long future in front of them. For some, the years to come will be good ones of education and family and achievement. For others, there will be decades of labor and sorrow. I wonder how much more of them I will see. I wonder if the goodness I wish for them will ever come to be. I wonder what they will be like at my age, when I am a memory to them, if that.