[This piece won Third Prize in The Diversity Story Cultural Writing Competition - High School]
BY KATE WEXELL
I was twelve when I saw poverty for the first time. Not the kind of poverty where young men tie technicolored cloth to their foreheads and scream at one another with attitudes hardened by life. I had never been sheltered by that, from hearing the stories about the children in St. Louis with bullets flying through their windows. About how little girls walked into school with their legs turned black with bruises, whispering, “Daddy came home.” Poverty as a result of the decisions people make… No, I saw innocent poverty. Poverty where they had no choice at all. Half the world has been shielded from that. But here it was, with the only barrier between myself and this mysterious world being a pane of glass on a tour bus.
It was almost a paradox for my mind to accept. My family had flown to Mexico for a wedding between empty people filled with money. At first I only caught glimpses of it— from the van taking us to our resort, I could see neon signs flashing like hopeless shooting stars to sell the dreams of women to every passersby. Unlike the gray city streets of America, all of the streets were filled with color— the green of the palm trees, the ravishing purples and pinks of the flowers, the creations of men sprawled on the sidewalk, spraying a rainbow across the cement with cans of paint in hopes that people would drop a few pesos into his hat.
But then we were consumed by our crevice of the world. Every room in our resort was filled with ice sculptures and towels folded into the shapes of animals. Golden music from mariachi bands filled the air until midnight, and you could hear the sounds of people stomping their feet on the ground as they danced. Men would craft you a smoothie in ten different flavors or one of fifty different cocktails in a matter of minutes, and chefs clad in white would emerge with pastries from every nationality with the background of the cerulean ocean washing around them. That was the week I learned that heaven comes in the form of coconut pancakes and pina coladas.
It wasn’t until the end of our vacation that our family decided to travel to Chichén Itzá to see the ancient Mayan relics surrounding the village of Pisté. What I encountered was a two hour drive from the resort to the site where most of the world I saw was jungle. A soft, lush land without amenities. And every once in a while it would be scattered with villages.
These villages were no more than a mile in radius, with a Catholic cathedral focused in the center and huts scattered around them. Huts made of sticks and thatch, sometimes fastened with sheet metal as a roof as their rusting bicycles leaned against the gaping sides. And when it rained that day, I could imagine the droplets sinking through the tops and drizzling a syrup upon the sleeping children’s heads. Sometimes we passed houses that weren’t made of sticks, but rather of concrete. It was no different than the sidewalk that the artists would spray paint, except for the concrete built walls and floors, and left just enough room to string a wire across stacks of stones to serve as a clothesline.
And that was when I realized what poverty was. True, abject poverty. When I watched children race door to door trying to sell tropical fruits and gain nothing from their time, I learned the unfortunate part about the human spirit— it prevails as long as it has hope. These people had hope, but no opportunity. They tried to make a life for themselves. They stood beating the dust out of their clothing and picking fruit and working hard for a world that wouldn’t help them in return. That is what real poverty is— being stuck in your place with no ability to escape it.
It wasn’t like the streets of St. Louis with a hundred welfare centers and shelters and thousands of people willing to help. No, these people were all alone in the jungle beside the Mayan sinkholes, falling farther and farther into the waters. The waters that my ancestors were lucky enough to cross before they travelled to Illinois to settle a town. A town that is golden like the corn fields around it, with the same red and white houses they hosted in Sweden and blonde girls wearing wreaths of candles in their hair like the stars that they wished on. Stars that guided the men home to their wives and their children sleeping
contently in bed, knowing that they had sailed all the way to America to worship their God and live in harmony.
And it is a town shrouded in the hopes of farmers, knowing that their future depends on only themselves and Mother Nature— their sun-wrinkled skin is proof of a ripe harvest, because they worked to achieve this. This is theirs. Themselves and their family, creating a life together. This is special. This is their field of opportunity.