“Preparados, listos, va!” mi amiga Delia said just as a spoonful of manzana baby food hit me smack in the hollow above my clavicle, before being dragged slowly up my neck, around my chin, and – finally – into my mouth. Inches from my face stood an 8 year-old Guatemalan niña who was attempting to feed me while she was blindfolded and I was sitting on my hands. We did not win the game, to say the least. I ended up with manzana mash all over my face, neck, and even my lap. Yet, to see the unfamiliar gringa act like such a good sport was a good laugh for the room and made everyone more comfortable. In addition, my trial by manzana seemed to earn the respect of the elderly abuelita, sitting next to me in traditional garb at the baby shower of her granddaughter; the tiny woman continued to offer me warm smiles throughout the night, as she indicated the manzana stains on my pants, that would have been embarrassing under any other circumstances.
That evening on one of my first nights in Guatemala, in a small village near Antigua, we were celebrating something very important. A child was to be born.
Probably the most important thing that I have learned about the Guatemalan culture is that they love their children. Although I need a stronger word than love… adore? cherish? celebrate? Every morning here in San Pedro, I watch parents and siblings and abuelos heaping hugs and kisses upon the thing they prize most in life – their children. Back in Antigua, everywhere I looked children were on the shoulders of fathers, in the blanket cradles slung off the shoulders of their mothers. It seemed that laps were for sitting upon, hands were for holding, and shoulders were for riding.
I am under no idealistic assumptions that there is any culture that can ensure that every child is safe from neglect, and abuse, and hunger. However, the fact that children are so cherished in the countries I have spent time in, and especially so here in Guatemala, is important.
It is important because, as an American, I detected a note of unexpected visceral surprise several years ago when I left Los Estados Unidas for the first time and began to encounter this adoration of children in my journeys out of the States. We are taught, tragically, in America that the poor children of the world are our responsibility and we objectify their starving bodies on our televisions and posters in order to elicit the dollars that guilt induces. Without realizing it, years of seeing those commercials pass by my television screen had left a subconscious impact that all of my education and training in justice work had not eliminated. When I detected that visceral surprise for the first time years ago, I realized that there was a prejudice that had been implanted in my subconscious that I was not even aware was there.
We ought to feel guilt and conviction when we know that there are children around the world starving, as Lazarus starved at the gates of the wealthy man. However, our sense of conviction has been twisted. We tell our children that they need to eat all that is on their plate – because there are starving children in Africa – and we begin to implant from an early age the idea that the guilt we feel is because we have more, not because we have anything to do with the fact that they have less.
When we focus our attempts at assistance upon the imagery of children it is incredibly effective in prompting us to open our wallets; because just like adults in Guatemala, we respond strongly and reflexively to the needs of children. We have been biologically wired to do so. However, the other side of it is that when we focus on the imagery of children, without the visuals of the adults in their community that care about them, we treat them almost as if they are disembodied from the community that makes up their corpus. We also imply, subtly, that there is something insufficient about the adults in their life, and that we in our American beneficence, must supplement what is lacking in the other adults of the world. We implant the subconscious idea that the parents of the world – the mothers and fathers – are not capable, willing or loving enough and so we in our superiority have to take over. What is troubling is not that we want to help the situation – we ought to – what has been troubling me is that we are prompted to help the children rather than the parents.
Walking the streets of Antigua, during a time of processionals and alfombras, I saw many loving parents and children of every class and economic situation. Just as in America, I saw everything from wealthy Guatemalan business owners with their children in little suits, to women sitting on the sidewalk while their many children tried to help them sell Chiclas gum to passersby.
One image stayed with me more than any other, however. It was a woman who walked ahead of me through the Santa Catalina Arch near Iglesia de Merced. On her head she carried a tray of churros; with one hand she held it in place, and with the other, she gently but firmly grasped the hand of her son. At one point the tiny boy strayed too close to an alfombra and a woman harshly shooed him away. Their clothes were worn and tattered, and he was the perfect poster child for World Vision or Feed the Children. Someone indicated that they wanted to purchase what the mother was selling and the niño promptly positioned the stool that he was carrying so that his mother could put down the tray. She shifted the tray down from her head and the customer made their purchase. Then looking at him lovingly to ensure ‘todos bien,’ she hoisted the tray back to her head and they continued their journey, hand in hand.
I wondered how that mother would feel to see her son in a Feed the Children commercial. I wondered how any mother would feel, how any father would feel. I felt shame at the thought of them watching us watch their children on our televisions. It was an uncomfortable thought indeed.
I understand that, from a practical viewpoint, objectifying the poverty of children is the most effective way of eliciting the assistance that can make a difference in their lives. I want them to have that assistance. I want them to have their school fees paid, their books purchased, their food supplied. I want them to have a chance to build up the prosperity and peace of their family and community. I just wish there was another way.
What if appeals to partner in relationships of equality with the parents and communities were just as effective as appeals to support their children? What if we saw families that were struggling as a unit of loving and devoted people, rather than isolated needs? What would it do to us psychologically to recognize that the parents throughout the world are just as hard-working, well-intentioned, and loving as parents in Los Estados Unidas?
Perhaps what would be most effective would be to understand that many times the money that we send to children in other parts of the world has been earned in part through profiting from the resources and people of their nation in a way that is neither just nor Christian. America is a nation that often builds our products with the resources and labor force of other nations. Or, at other times, a nation that acquires an immense amount of possessions at a comparably low cost because corrupt systems in other nations have used their own people and resources to produce those products at an unrealistic cost compared to the labor that has gone into them, when viewed in the context of what would be a living wage by American standards.
Tracy Chapman calls this, “The rape of the world.”
Perhaps we are not giving “charity”, perhaps we are just giving back a portion of what we have taken away.
Here in the market today, vendors are selling and families are buying, those same products. However, unlike their state when we acquire them, these clothes and products have often first been used by Americans and come to the street markets in other parts of the world second-hand. And so we see people all over the globe wearing t-shirts just like ours; and we don’t pause often enough to consider what it means that those t-shirts are just like ours because they were ours first. Because we take first dibs on everything we see.
We need to imagine new ways of looking at the inequalities and needs of the world. We need to imagine and take action on methods that will empower rather than humiliate the parents of the world’s most needy children.
Because Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world – and he loves their parents too.