Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Carmen's Story

Last week I got embroiled in a discussion on Fr. Johannes' Orthodoxy Today blog. Fr. Johannes had gone to a migrant worker center in Florida to help paint a school, and reported some things on his blog that the director of the center had told him. The discussion was about illegal immigration: why illegal immigrants come to America, how much money they send back to their countries of origin, and whether (or not) most of them return to retire in luxury. I participated for awhile, then got tired of it and dropped out. Fr. Hans remarked that I seemed to tire easily; I thought to myself that I am apparently not taking the "argumentational Viagra" of which some others seem to be partaking. My last word on the discussion was to ask Fr. Hans if he had taken time to listen to the people whom he had gone to serve, to hear their stories about how and why they came to the United States.

There is a Latina woman who comes to clean once a week at the office where I work; her name is Carmen. Carmen works quietly and doesn't say much; half the time I don't even know she's there until I go upstairs to get something and find her scrubbing the floors. So today, remembering my conversation with Fr. Hans, I decided to ask her about her story. I just happened to have a big lunch, a delicious homemade pizza made by the she-guerilla, with whole-wheat crust and heirloom tomatoes. So I invited her to share my lunch, and we talked.

I asked Carmen about where she was from: El Salvador, the Land of the Savior. Recently, I watched the movie
"Romero," about Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, the great pastor de salvadoreños, who took a strong and radical stand against the government and the military on behalf of the poor of his nation, and was subsequently assassinated while serving the Mass on March 24, 1980. So I asked her if she knew about him. She did. She was eighteen years old when Archbishop Romero was assassinated. She remembered him as a "good man." She also told me "a lot of people in the Church got killed" during the civil war that pitted the Salvadorean aristocracy, backed by the military, against the poor people. She remembered waking up one morning and looking outside: "there were people with hoses, and they were washing the, sangre, how do you call it?" she asked.

"Blood," I told her.

"Si, the blood out of the church. Many people got killed there the night before."

Esta es mi sangre del nuevo testamento, que por muchos es derramada...

She also told me about the day her brother was shot. She told me that during the guerra, you never stayed out after 6 PM. But one night, her brother had to go out, and he was shot in the left shoulder, just above the heart. He came staggering through the door, blood pouring out between his fingers, and collapsed on the floor of their home. He almost died.

That was the day she and her sisters decided they had to leave El Salvador.

Her oldest sister left first for El Norte. She worked here for two years in order to send home enough money so that her two other sisters and brother could come to the US. I asked her if they came illegally. "Si, like everyone else." They were ineligible to apply for asylum as political refugees, because the US backed the Salvadorean government, funded its war against its own people, and denied that any atrocities were being committed. It didn't matter that they shot Monseñor Romero in broad daylight. It didn't matter that her brother almost died as well. It didn't matter that they were washing blood out of churches.

Now Carmen has her legal permanent residency in the US. I asked her if she ever thinks about going back. She went back to visit, one time, but she says she will stay in the US. The guerra is over, but she has moved on; her family is here, and she has only one aunt in El Salvador. She won't be going back and buying a big house and retiring in luxury.

We finished lunch, and she asked me to say gracias to my esposa for the pizza.

Up until now, I barely noticed Carmen, and when I did, I saw only a cleaning woman with a big smile that looked a little tired around the edges. But now, I see so much more: courage, nobility, strength, beauty. I see a woman who survived a war, who nursed her brother back from death's door with her own hands, who fled for refuge to this country, because it is a great country, and because despite the fact that we have a penchant for being on the wrong side of history, for supporting corrupt dictatorships and giving guns to military juntas to use against unarmed peasants, we also have opportunity here, even if that opportunity is often two-tiered and racist.

She deserves better than scrubbing my floors. I should be scrubbing hers.

I told Fr. Hans that I hope he will go back one day and ask those people about their stories. Not because I want to be proved right (although I do), but because you see people in different ways if you listen to their stories than if you just come and serve and leave, and all you ever hear is them humbly saying gracias.

We have so much more to learn from them.

"Si me matan, resucitare en el pueblo salvadoreño"

"If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people."

--Monseñor Oscar Romero


Zanna said...

Wow! Sampson, I give you credit for "hanging in there" as long as you did in the discussion started by Fr. Johannes. It was interesting to read, but discouraging and frustrating at times. I particularly liked the comment about teaching a man to fish, but first he must be a "man" -- and whose definition of "man" would that be?

In today's difficult world, I find your blog, your candor, your work, and you refreshing and a balm to my soul. Thank you, brother.

olympiada said...

Hi Sampson, my name is Olympiada, I came in off Kevin's blog. Nice to meet you. I went and read the original post on the Orthodoxy Today Blog and commented there as well. I was attracted to your blog by the name, I like it.
Social justice is a very important issue to me. It was through an act of social justice on behalf of my daughter and I, separation and divorce, that I returned to my own activism. It is heartening to see other Orthodox that care about social issues and are progressive. Keep up the good work!

Sampson said...

Zanna-Whenever anyone brings up the "teach a man to fish" story, a couple of things come to mind. First, almost every culture has the inherent knowledge and tools necessary to grow, hunt, or fish for a living. The problem is, in many cases, that modernity and the so-called "global market" have disrupted local environments and economies in ways that have made it nearly impossible for people to support themselves in their "traditional" ways. If you teach a man to fish, but the rivers and lakes have been fished out by industrial fishing methods or poisoned by runoff from chemical plants, that man will starve. Our solution to the problem we have created is then to send in "humanitarian" aid workers that offer new methods of growing food, but which ultimately create dependancy on things like genetically modified seeds, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, of which we give out free samples to begin with, and then eventually start selling, the same methods used by drug dealers.

In the global economy, the new form of the parable seems to be, "Sell a man a fish, and he will eat for a day, but teach a man to fish, and you can sell him bait and tackle for the rest of his life."

Olympiada-welcome! I'm glad you stumbled across the blog, and wish you happy browsing. Please feel free to offer your own insights from your journey.


Sampson said...

Just to continue my thoughts above on "teach a man to fish." I think you would be hard pressed to find a "traditional" culture that didn't have the knowledge of how to fish. often, fishing is the food source of last resort; fish are what you eat if the crops fail or if you don't find game.

But in modern parlance, "teach a man to fish" doesn't mean enabling a person to grow or hunt food for themselves or their families, which requires that they have enough land and open space for hunting, fishing, gathering, or farming. The people we are trying to teach to "fish" are, in many cases, people who have been driven off their ancestral homelands and into the cities. "Teach a man to fish" has become a kind of metaphor that really means, "Teach a man to compete in the new global economy," the rules of which we control. It means teaching people to be good factory workers, to work for pennies a day in the maquiladoras just south of the border, so hopefully he can buy a fish at the end of the week--if he finishes enough pieces.

My final observation is that this parable has become a racist anthem in the way it is used today. What it implies is that there are all these dumb natives in the bush who have to be taught (by us) to support themselves, when the reality is that we have stolen their livelihood and are now trying to integrate them into the global market for our own profit.

Mimi said...

Sampson, I seem to be following you around going "yeah, what he said"! This post dovetailed in nicely with a conversation I've been having on another board, and I appreciated this perspective.


olympiada said...

S thank you for the welcome, and I will share as I see fit. God bless you.

Miss Eagle said...

Sampson, love your insights on teaching a man to fish. And good on ya for listening to Carmen. Listening to one another's stories is an imperative. I remember in the 1950s when Australia got its first influx of Italian and Greek migrants. They were referred to as dagos and wogs. There was not much listening to their stories back then. Then because of their hard work they became like the rest of us - and some became quite wealthy. Then we began to get to know them, we began to listen. Their children went to universities and wrote and told their stories. And guess what? I seldom, if ever, here the pejorative terms wog and dago anymore. We recognize migrants' contribution to this country - and we love their wog tucker. Oh, I forgot we do hear the word wog - from one of our great comedians, Nick Giannopolis, who does a show called Wog Boys. So it's a turn around and a send up of migrant culture and we all laugh together. Can I just add - story, narrative is so important. It is the glue, it is how we understand and, above all, it is how our Lord and Master taught us. Story is universal - it gives us hope and sets us free.