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. 


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  3. Simple, direct, profound.
    Thank you! Please don't stop writing.

  4. Simple, direct, profound.
    Thank you! Please don't stop writing.

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