Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Impossible Invisibility of the Poor

The poor are many: that is why it is impossible to forget them,” wrote Roberto Sosa, a Honduran poet. Yet somehow, daily, we manage to do the impossible.

I am living in one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere where, according to the World Bank, 1/3rd of the people live in extreme poverty, 1/3rd in relative poverty, and only the final 1/3rd are not poor (a cut off made at only $15 per day).

Despite 2/3rds of Hondurans living in poverty, it is fully possible to spend a week or a month here without interacting with them. The city where I live parts neatly into “two Tegucigalpas” – in which 2/3rds of its residents ride public buses, buy their food in open markets, and buy their clothes used in the less-safe corners of the capital. The upper third, meanwhile, drive SUVs or sedans, buy their food in air conditioned supermarkets, and go shopping for clothes and household goods in enormous, brightly-lit malls.

In the evenings when 2/3rds of the country has returned home, the upper third goes to theaters, museums, and galleries where they only see each other. The poor do not live in their neighborhoods. They do not go to their churches. They do not work in their offices except perhaps as a sanitation worker or a security guard.

This is, of course, not a uniquely Honduran problem. Earlier this year, a resident of San Francisco (dubbed a “tech bro”) wrote an open letter to the mayor in which he wrote that he resented the way the worlds of the rich and the poor too often touched. He “shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day,” he wrote.

Though most are less publicly callous, few in the middle and upper classes in the States commonly share spaces with people who are poor. We live in an age of fast highways, comfortable vehicles, and air conditioned malls where it is entirely possible to screen ourselves from any vision of destitution. In this splitting world, those who can avoid the ugly side of poverty generally like to do so. A world without the marginalized feels more clean and comfortable, less complicated, less guilty.

Poverty is uncomfortable. It is often ugly. It smells bad. It is unglamorous and desperate and challenging. I could list dozens of examples. The bus is crowded and takes twice as long as a car. The open-air markets are chaotic, and they don’t sell peanut butter or oregano or the other familiar tastes. The man without shoes who badgers me on my way to church each Sunday holds his hand out and shouts, “Money!”, which does not endear him to me.

I live in a community in Honduras where the 1/3rd who are “not poor” would rarely find reason to enter. Water runs only twice per month. Sewers drain into the street and most people won’t walk outside after dark. This has allowed me to live alongside people in the middle third, those living in “relative poverty” – those who are getting by, but always on the edge. I live alongside these people, but not truly with them. On weekends, I go to parks or coffee shops, to the same museums and galleries of the rich. I am able to experience relative poverty only to the extent that I want to – after that, I buy the food I want to eat and go on my small vacations.

On the other hand, those living in extreme poverty, the 2.5+ million of them here, are invisible to me. They are the ones whose land is likely unregistered, whose identities even may be unregistered. They live tucked away in the hillsides eking out a living from cornfields and beans. They are sleeping on the streets in the city because there are no services for the homeless or mentally ill. They are children selling peanuts to cars at intersections or juggling wads of cloth lit on fire. Occasionally when I venture downtown I will notice their hands held out, but other times they blend into the background and I don’t see even that.

This is the real impossibility, not that it is impossible to forget the poor, but that it is all too easy to do so. The poor on this earth are many yet they are constantly forgotten, even though we live side by side.

This results in a city that doesn’t consider the needs of the poorest, even when they are “many,” when they outnumber those with means. Though there are always exceptions, most of the 2/3rds don’t vote. They don’t write petitions. They don’t run for office or go on the news. Those in power must go out of their way to incorporate them, which will always be a concession of some power, of some sense of decorum, of some desire for the easy, neat, and tidy.

But the alternative to this is a willful forgetfulness – privileging the comfort of the few over the rights of the many to be seen, to be engaged, to be acknowledged as neighbors. This is what we must call impossible. This is what we must not forget.

The Poor (translated)
by Roberto Sosa

The poor are many: that is why it is impossible to forget them

Without a doubt, in the dawn they glimpse building after building
Where they would like to make a home with their children

Their shoulders can bear the coffin of a star.
They can destroy the air like furious birds,
Covering the sun.

But not knowing these gifts, they enter and exit through mirrors of blood.
They walk slowly and are slow to die.
That is why it is impossible to forget them. 

Spending Money on Shoes

Almost daily, I feel the guilt of having resources in a place where so many do not. By some standards, I am living very simply, but I have enough money left over at the end of my necessities to buy myself name brand shampoo, coffee and treats, and trips to the beach.

When I make these purchases, my conscience tugs at me. The other day, I bought a pair of shoes for about $15, and immediately felt a wave of guilt. I had just read that 2/3rds of Hondurans live in poverty –  making less than $15 per day. I had one day’s wages in my hand and I chose to spend it, not on improving the lives of the poor, but on shoes, which I didn’t really need.

In the mall, I asked myself, Would this $15 I spent on a luxury have been better spent on the hungry? while also being very aware that I did not know where the hungry were or how best to feed them, when I knew very well where the mall was and how to buy shoes.

The uncomfortable reality is that for most of us, the poor and the marginalized are abstract concepts. We give to them through the filters of organizations, if at all. We talk about “the poor” without knowing who we are talking about, without knowing their names or their needs or their unique gifts. It feels impersonal to give to them, if vaguely altruistic. Faced with that or new shoes, it is much more satisfying to go with the shoes.

We may have grown up hearing the goading of, “Clean your plate, there are starving children in Africa,” while suspecting that whether we finished our peas or not had no causal connection to the empty stomachs of hungry children. Instead, statements like this planted in us a sort of useless guilt, I had better enjoy what I have, we tell ourselves, because other people aren’t so lucky. It is guilt without impulse, gratitude without responsibility. People return from missions trips overseas with these trite statements: “They had so little but were so happy – they made me realize how lucky I really am.”

The causality between our own actions and the lives of others is distorted and confused. I spend $1 on coffee, and I drink it immediately. I put $1 in the offering basket at church, and its influence is diluted throught the gifts of others, its evidence not immediately clear.

As much as I’ve spent my life in nonprofits, I’m still clumsy and uncertain about donating. It often feels abstract, my $20 only a drop in the pool. I may be passionate about the work done by organizations with million dollar budgets, but I can’t see the results of my donation in the same way I see shoes on my feet, an ice cream cone, or a plane flight home.

My guilt battles something more basic – a desire for psychological satisfaction. I want that thrill or warmth of buying a gift for a loved one who will appreciate it, for people grateful to me, for visible change. I want that rush of emotions that tell me, this good thing was caused by me. This selfishness or self-absorption battles with my better instincts, my memory of someone who once commanded “Sell all you have and give to the poor.” Not to the grateful. Not to the worthy. The impoverished – the poor. 

But I have student loans, Jesus. And my old work shoes were scuffed. I need this meal out with my friends for my own emotional well-being. And don’t direct hand-outs really just foster dependency? 

I want to give, is what I’m saying, Jesus. I just think maybe you’re asking too much. I already work for a nonprofit. I moved across the world. I buy dinner for my host family. I teach kids for free. Isn’t that enough, Jesus? Isn’t that enough?

I want to say we must make giving easier, more transparent, we must be able to see directly the results our money earns. Let’s make a website for it, let’s make an app. But perhaps that’s only falling to an impulse that wants to make helping others about our own satisfaction with ourselves.

Maybe instead the answer comes closer to knowing who the poor are, and understanding their needs. Joining with organizations that you trust, and giving in the faith that your outcome may take years. 

If I am in communities of need as often as I am in malls, I trust that the opportunities will present themselves. I hope that when they do, my wallet will open as impulsively, as readily, as it did for that pair of shoes.

Life as a Privileged Immigrant

I used to work with immigrants. Now I am one. The difference between our experience illustrates how much my privilege matters.

I am one of millions of people who crossed a border this year, only I had a choice. While life in this small Central American country has certainly not always been easy – I’ve been forced to adapt to a different language and culture, adapted to a different environment, and stood out as a visible minority – I count myself among the most privileged immigrants in the world.


To start with, I crossed my border effortlessly. I simply bought a plane ticket and filled out a tourist visa on the plane. In-country, before the visa expired, I applied for residency. It took a lawyer’s help, a few trips to immigration, and a little bit of money, but within four months I was a card-carrying legal resident. I had no interview, no review of my assets, no language or culture test. I simply signed a few forms, showed proof of sponsorship, and paid the accompanying fees. I have never lost sleep over my visa. I know they’ll renew my residency if I file the right paperwork. Though I’m visibly not from here, no one has ever questioned my legal status.

With my US passport, my freedom to travel is almost unbounded. In contrast, Hondurans who want to travel to the United States – even to visit family for a few days – must go through an onerous application and interview process where if they don’t have a job, own properties, or have a significant bank account, they’re likely to be denied. They lose the expensive application fee even if they’re denied. My friend said the line is tragic, full of people weeping, crushed by their refusal. I go into the embassy through a different door. People speak my language there, shake my hand firmly.


I am also privileged in how I am perceived. The foreignness of my accent is perceived not as a failure to speak good Spanish as much as proof that I speak English, and the suggestion that I am educated, well-connected, and wealthy. People automatically consider that I am here to teach or do some sort of humanitarian work – that my presence here is voluntary. It’s even in the language we use – I’m “visiting” Honduras, or “working” here, I didn’t immigrate. I am an “ex-pat”, not an immigrant.

When people see me, many greet me warmly. They are familiar with my country and curious about it. Some want to practice English with me. Some tell me my blonde hair and blue eyes are beautiful. Others tell me that I should be careful. People want to protect me.


My language also gives me enormous privilege. Despite Spanish being the first language of the majority of Hondurans, I can step into most rooms and expect that someone speaks my language. English has become the language of the educated, the international, the elite. Despite rampant unemployment, I would not lack for a job, even if my only skill were knowing nothing more than the language I was born with.

I speak only passable Spanish, and people are impressed with just that. Aside from a few rude people when I stumbled over the phone, most people are complementary and encouraging about my Spanish, thrilled that I speak any at all. No one has ever told me, “You’re in Honduras, speak Spanish.”

In my Spanish-speaking office, the office printer is nonetheless in my language. My laptop settings are in my language. Hollywood movies play in English, with subtitles. My shampoo bottle and spaghetti sauce can have English labels. If translations are added, they’re an afterthought.


I am privileged by the outsize influence of the country where I come from. The people in advertisements look like me. Even if I have to look a little harder for it, I can find familiar food in any major city, in any supermarket. I can open any newspaper and read detailed news about my country –  I can name cities, artists, or politicians and people will know what I am talking about (“Feeling the Bern?” a Honduran colleague asked me).

My embassy is enormously powerful here. One newspaper named the US ambassador one of the top 10 “people of the year”. He’s a household name, at least in political circles. Meanwhile I cannot name a single ambassador to the United States.


I will repeat that it is not easy for me to be here. It is hard to adjust to the rhythms of a new place. It is so hard to communicate in your second language. It is impossibly hard to be away from your family and loved ones.

And yet my experience is nothing like immigrants from other countries around the world. I think of undocumented immigrants who crossed borders out of desperation because they never would have been allowed across legally. I think of refugees who are chased across borders with little choice.

I think of the people whose accents earn them mockery, derision, and even violence. Of the classmate who was told her mother tongue, a tribal language, “didn’t count” as a real language because it didn’t show up on Google Translate. I think of people trapped in places where they are not understood, who are expected to communicate perfectly the moment they arrive.

I think of the way other immigrants are perceived – as interlopers, as criminals, as strangers, as outsiders. I think of the enormous courage it takes to bring your family to safety in a place where you are not necessarily even welcome.

The most valuable and powerful thing I own is this tiny blue booklet called a US passport, something I did not earn, but was given through the accident of birth. I don’t “deserve” to be perceived well and welcomed here, just as much as immigrants to the states do not deserve the anger and out-lash they too often confront.

I am speaking, even here, from a place of privilege. I see it as my responsibility to use this privilege to ensure that others have the same opportunities that I do.