“That kid over there said he used to be in Proniño.” Sure enough, there was Alfredo*. I chatted with the boys I had come to see (who all happily live in a home outside Progreso), then crossed the street. Alfredo. Pleased to see me, but with a bit of embarrassment seeping out of his smile. The last time I saw him, he was selling oranges downtown and living with a friend. Not ideal. Not terrible. But today… Two scabs on his forehead, a scratch on his cheek. Dirt on his neck. Clothes that are three sizes too big and no longer their original color. This child is clearly living on the street. We hug and I ask about the wounds. He says that he got robbed and beat up two days before. Quickly following it up with “but I was so high I didn’t feel anything”. He says it as though he’s trying to comfort me. Sure, I’m glad you didn’t feel pain….but….
As we chat, I notice that the boys I just left are watching. One by one, they cross the street and join us, unabashedly looking Alredo up and down as he becomes increasingly uncomfortable. They pepper him with questions about why he left Proniño, where he sleeps (“Over there” pointing to a piece of cardboard behind a bush), and if he does drugs. Alfredo is clearly this evening’s entertainment. I feel so torn. I want to scooch myself closer to him. Put my arm around him. Physically reassure him that even though these boys are looking at him with such disdain, I want to be near him, that I don’t find him repulsive. But the reality is that me just being me brings attention. So, do I move closer, thus bringing all attention within eye shift distance or do I take a few steps away and start entertaining the boys with my gringaness, thus turning heads away from him….but leaving him so very isolated and alone? Choosing neither, I remove us from the prying eyes with the excuse of going to get food.
Alfredo….we have never been close. But on this night, he becomes more transparent than ever before. He looks so dejected and tired. We talk about him not having a clue who his family is. About having absolutely no one to turn to for help. (The child has burned his fair share of bridges.) When I ask him if he wants to leave the street he sighs deeply.
“It gets harder every time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Every time I end up back here… It’s harder to deal with every time.”
A few months ago I started reading a book called “The Locust Effect” by Gary Haugen. It’s….rough. He is very raw and real in describing the injustices that people have faced. And these injustices are so infuriating that I had to take a bit of a reading break. (And by a bit, I mean I haven’t picked it up in months…) In the first few pages he says:
“I have sat with many very poor mothers and fathers as they have shared their stories of surviving genocide, slavery, murder, torture, humiliating rapes, and abuse. The pain they describe is unfathomable – and the mental temptation is to imagine that the people who endure it are somehow fundamentally different from me. Maybe, somehow, they just don’t feel things like I do. Maybe they expect less, care less, hope for less, want less, or need less. But painfully, over time, I have seen that they are exactly like me and [what they endured] was in no way easier for them because they are poor.”
This quote comes to life on this night with Alfredo. Sometimes, I find an attitude creeping in that the kids can somehow handle this life more than me. That they no longer notice the way people look at them. That whereas I want to take a shower before snuggling into my comfy bed, they don’t notice the dirt caked in every crevasse as they lay on a piece of cardboard. This is simply not true. Alfredo felt every eye taking in his dirt and drug induced dizziness. It would not have been hard to fill in the blanks of what his scrutinizers were thinking. He feels and hurts just as deeply as you or I would.
I do a lot of thinking about these blogs before I start writing. I try to create an interesting beginning, middle and then end that wraps everything up and leaves everyone with some hope or direction. But this one? I just can’t wrap it up. Alfredo is still a child on the street feeling the disgust of all the clean and upstanding citizens bustling by. And you, as a reader of this blog, cannot do anything about that today. And I feel guilty that I’m laying this on your heart and putting this in your mind without giving you a next step, a ‘never fear! This is what’s going to happen!’ There’s an element of fear that if you feel too depressed by what I write, you’ll stop reading.
But then I go back to what Haugen says. Our natural inclination is to want to put a bow on it. (Not to be confused with Portlandia’s ‘put a bird on it.’) To come up with some sort of assumption that makes reality hurt a little less. And this is just not fair. Because these assumptions we make affect how we interact with people in need, and they dampen the urgency we feel to do something about painful realities. Watching Alfredo squirm as his peers stared hurt. I hurt for him and he hurt much more. I don’t know what I want you to do. I don’t know what we should do. But I know we should not alter reality in order to feel better. I know I don’t want you to feel guilty about your reality being different from Alfredo’s. Guilt is so paralyzing. I just want you and I and everyone to know that we’re all so very human. And even though we are so wonderfully unique, there are things that are the same for us all. Suffering is suffering. The easiest thing to do is give in to that mental temptation to forget that we are fundamentally the same. Don’t forget. Don’t form comforting assumptions. Accept. And let’s see where that takes us.
*Alfredo is not his real name.