Monday, March 18, 2013

A Matter of Pride

I received an email in response to the recent post, The Caserio Casa de Madera. In the email the writer commented that, in contrast to the poor conditions I’ve described, the school and people in the photos “don’t look poor”. I’ve occasionally heard similar comments about other posts I’ve written. What I’d like to do with this post is to try to deal with the philosophical question, “What does poor look like?” But in doing that let me explain that this post is not a rebuttal to the email I received, and I’ve already hopefully made that clear to the sender. I appreciate constructive comments, questions and criticism.  

Some years ago there was a slogan on the wall of Chiclayo’s post office that read, “Poor does not mean dirty.” I was never sure if the intent was a defense of poor people or if it was to exhort people to focus on cleanliness, but either way it’s at the heart of what I’m about to write.

Peruvians are a proud people, and especially in the small villages where a sense of community is still found. They may not know where their next meal is coming from, but they will do everything humanly possible to insure that their church and school are clean and provided for.

Does this classroom look poor? The furniture was donated five years ago (and has been kept in remarkably good condition). The paint on the walls and ceiling was donated last year. When a floor tile breaks, the schools director, Maribel Andaviza Vilchez, who with the other teacher mops floors and washes walls, will get a donated replacement tile and one of the men from the village will install it. The food the kids eat for lunch is donated by the Peruvian government. The kids don’t wear the required school uniform because the families can’t afford them. The teachers are paying transportation costs for at least three students to and from the school out of their own pockets because the parents don’t have the money. We have a formal request in our files from Maribel asking us to donate a chalkboard because the village has no money to buy a new one. The classroom in the photo is bright, clean and well maintained. It is kept that way not because of any wealth in the community, but through the diligent effort of the parents and school staff and donations. So…is this classroom poor or not?

Do the kids in this photo look poor? Peruvian pride carries through to personal appearance. These three kids of the Fuentes family are well dressed in what appears to be new clothing, sandals and shoes. The kids are clean, well groomed and their hair is freshly washed. We see this every time we visit a family if they know we are coming. Every person in the house will wear the best clothing they have. If they don’t have suitable clothing they will disappear until we have gone. The clothing these kids are wearing is used clothing and was donated by a family in Lima. It arrived a few days before our visit with their older sister who works as a maid for the people who donated the clothing. What will happen after we leave is the clothing will be taken off and put away, to be replaced by raggedy shorts. Young girls with developing breasts will wear a tattered t-shirt. Kids under the age of five or six may go naked. Nobody will wear shoes. All seven members of the Fuentes family live in one room behind the kids. They washed themselves and their clothing in the red tub in the room on the left. Occasionally there isn’t enough food in the house. Their teachers pay for their transportation to and from school, and that’s after the kids have forded a dangerous river to get to the highway. So…are these kids poor or not?

What does poor look like?

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