Letter from Honduras: Poverty is the emergency
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2013 - The poster child for the Las Vegas run of “Les Miserables” has to be Manuel from Terrero Blanco. Son of the inveterate drunk Renan, this poor child of God lost his mother Maria Enemecia to cancer in February.
He comes down the mountain every day now, to my house, mourning his mother. Mentally retarded and epileptic, he can barely express, or contain, himself. “Miguel, look at me. My mother died. I miss her.” Even the Phenobarbital I keep him supplied with can’t stop the seizures anymore. I’m pretty much at a loss myself. Every day he needs something, a flashlight, new boots, a machete, always money for food.
Dorothy Day, who loved the poor to the point of sainthood, warned us do-gooders that the poor can wear you out. One day, I got so annoyed with Manuel that I pushed him out the door. Like Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” he instinctively raised the broken blade of his machete; and he might have killed me, but I grabbed him and hugged him, till we both calmed down. I wept like Simon Peter when he denied Jesus and swore to myself I’d never “deny” Manuel again.
If I sold my house, I’d break even. That’s what I tell kids who pester me every day for “provision” and every night for a soda. “I need my money for emergencies!” But when poverty itself is an emergency, it’s hard to graph the triage.
I guess I’m like James Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” crying “poor house” all the time till he poisons every relationship in his family. After all, I asked for this, and after the way help has poured in I just sound ungrateful.
But I have been thinking about a fund raiser. The artist-formerly-known-as-Chepito, who now goes by “Jose,” still churns out the drawings. What are they worth? I might follow the example of Maude Frickert, a character created by the late, great Jonathan Winters, selling greeting cards. “They cost $10,000; that way I only have to sell ONE.” Just kidding!
I’ve been getting lessons in fundraising in my role as president of the Junta Directiva, the officers of the parents association at the school. In fact, raising money is our only job description, I’d say. I had thought some ideas might be discussed or issues, but the problems are much more concrete, in fact, the problems ARE concrete, for the two new classrooms under construction. So we meet to promote “activities” to raise money. At these, I cede direction to Profe Flor, who is not shy at all about taking the initiative.
Our first fundraiser was rather modest. During the recent annual fair, we sold “orchata,” a popular flavored drink, in little plastic bags. It was slow going, three long days as we sat at the edge of the soccer field with music blasting out of huge speakers and another nearby tent hawking “COLD BEER.” (Guess who had more customers!) I wouldn’t have had to spend so much time, since Minga, Maria, and Doris, and Juana and Gloria were all taking turns, and no one even expects a man to “do” food, but I was there as support. Our biggest sale was the 30 bags that I bought myself and gave out at a dawn service up at the church.
Flor immediately “suggested” we invest the proceeds in another, bigger project, nacatamales. This would really rake in the cash, because every kid in school would have to buy one, or two if they were in high school. How would this work?
Flor, in the name of the Junta, obliged the teachers to oblige their students to oblige their parents to cough up 8 Lempiras per tamale. It works, don’t you know, because each teacher is responsible for its class; if the kids don’t pay, the teacher has to make up the deficit. So let me tell you, no coin was left behind! And if I, as the “face” of this Ponzi scheme, weren’t such a nice guy, the parents would have probably lynched me!
This was a big deal, 600 tamales. But, again, no one even suggested I attempt any cooking, so I did all I could to fill in the gaps, shuttling between three different “equipos,” or teams, a go-fer for firewood, palm leaves, corn grinding, vegetables, and chicken and whatever else. In fact, I “cheated” and donated extra chicken so the tamales, usually a Christmas treat, would be even richer. I also played parent to quite a few of the poorer kids whose mommy or daddy could not afford 8 Lempiras. It was the least I could do, since the women did all the hard work. But Minga, bless her heart, led the chorus of thanks at the end of day. “Miguel, you were the only one [meaning the only man] who helped us.” Flor, more hard nosed, wasn’t thanking anybody till the money was counted. “The ‘billetes’ [bills, as in dollar bills] will tell the story.” Our goal of 4000 Lempiras ($200) had been met. Next up, baleadas!
The rewards of the “poor house” are so abundant that I cannot even think about leaving. For example, the birthdays, when we get a chance to celebrate them, including don Ramiro, turning 100 and still with it, his devoted gaze at his sister Olimpia worth the price of admission. There’s a lot of other blessings -- Chemo ALMOST passing a test -- but I hope you can see even in the things that break your heart, a Spirit is at work, promising our common humanity.
After a few false starts, “invierno” (“winter”) finally burst from the heavens at 3in the afternoon with a wild storm of deluging rain and whipping winds on May 31, the same day, I believe, that folks in St. Louis were diving for cover from tornadoes. We found ourselves stranded at the highest point in town, huddled in the little church, where we were closing out the month of “las flores,” the daily devotion of children bringing flowers to Mary’s shrine. Almost tore the roof off the place! But after 40 minutes or so, the calm returned and we finished up with coffee and rolls.
Now the plowing, planting, and scare-crowing will begin in earnest, as the seed corn falls into the ground and dies and soon puts up a sheen of green shoots on the black earth. Mud everywhere for the next five months, buses slipping up and down unpaved roads, clothes never quite drying on the line, I’ve already lost one umbrella. But plenty of water at last in the pipes and faucets. I don’t have to bathe out of bucket anymore. And La Pena, the mountain that defines our landscape, no longer shrouded in a haze of heat, wears a shawl of fluffy fog in the morning.
I suggested to Chepito -- I mean, Jose -- that he try to draw the full moon that shone like a spotlight in the clear night. “Nature” is not his forte, so when he came a couple nights later with the drawing, I offered some constructive criticism. “The moon should be more white; this is so yellow, how can you tell it’s the Moon?” He put me in my place. “It’s full of stars.” Blue stars. The kid’s a genius!
But Chemo is my hero. When first-quarter grades came out and Chemo was at the bottom, I wasn’t even going to show them to him. Til he insisted. And he immediately started talking about “next year,” when he’d do better. He gets up and goes to school every day, it has to be a literal drag, but his teachers love him like their own child, he causes no problems, plays with everybody, no one has more friends.