Emeric Toth’s Recurring Nightmare (Repost)

Chamula Girl with Plastic Bucket

This is a repost from my Blog.Com site on January 26, 2009:

It was a recurring dream that I would have at least once a week. In November 1980, I spent a week at San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, Mexico. The town was known as a market town for the Highland Mayan peoples from San Juan Chamula, Zinacantán, Tenejapa, and other villages. In the city market, tourists are besieged by little Chamula girls selling crude handmade dolls. They come up to you, caress the doll, and coo to it softly. It was hard for anyone to resist. My Chamula doll is still propped up in my library in the Latin American literature section.

My revised edition of Michael Shawcross’s San Cristóbal de Las Casas City and Area Guide (San Cristóbal: Guadalupe de la Peña, June 1979) made reference to a local restaurant called Normita’s. In it, Shawcross wrote: “1E and 1S on Av. Benito Juárez. Pleasant, candle-lit atmosphere. Friendly owner (fine classical guitar-player). Try the Jalisco-style Pozole. The Huevos Motuleños are particularly fine. Beer/wine. Open afternoons and evenings only.” The 1E and 1S placed the restaurant one block southeast of the Zócalo.

Except, it wasn’t there. I had crawled all around the southeastern part of the city until I finally stumbled upon it. I spent all my small bills on the Jalisco-style Pozole, which was quite good and very filling. (If you’ve never had pozole, I suggest you try it on a cold day—and make sure it has a lot of hot chiles in it.)

When I emerged from a restaurant, I was accosted by a little Indian girl in tears carrying an empty plastic bucket. I could not give her anything because the smallest bill I had at the time was a 100-peso note, at the time worth about $12.00. Even if I were so warm-hearted as to have given it to her, her parents would probably have thought she stole it or did something nasty with one of the tourists, and then beaten her for her pains. I shook my head sadly and walked down the street, followed by the little girl, crying as if her world had tumbled down about her head. Had she lost something? Had she lost the money her parents had given her? I never knew.

That is my dream, being followed down a dark Mexican street by a poor little Indian girl with an empty plastic bucket, beseeching me for a few pesos which I didn’t have while drenched in tears.

Villa 31

View of Apartments in the Villa 31 Shantytown in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on April 25, 2017

I had a long conversation with my friend Suzanne about the homeless earlier this evening. The increasing poverty displayed by the rising numbers of tent-dwelling homeless bothered both of us, especially as we did not find any easy solution to the situation.

During my travels, I have seen some grinding urban poverty, mostly in Buenos Aires. That was only because the train and bus stations in Retiro border on one of the worst slums in South America, namely Villa 31, one of the Villas Miserias in the Argentine capital. In BA, the ugliest slums tend to be prefaced by the word Villa in their names.

The following YouTube video will give you an idea of the place:

YouTube Video About Villa 31

In 2015, I was at the edge of Villa 31 while walking between the train station and the bus terminal. At the time, I was carrying over $2,000 in Argentinean pesos I had just obtained. A couple in their thirties came up behind me and sprayed me with a combination of steak sauce and mustard. Suddenly, they started wiping the mess with tissues that appeared miraculously in their hands. They tried to get me to go to a restroom where they would help me clean up and strip me of anything of value. But as they were urging me to my left, I suddenly cut right toward a waiting taxi and made my escape. The taxi driver was not happy with a passenger that smelled of steak sauce, but I tipped him well to clean up the upholstery after I left.

I did not visit any of the other famous favelas or shantytowns of South America, but I did get a good look at Villa 31 as my bus sped me toward Puerto Iguazú near the border with Brazil and Paraguay.

The Crowding has Made Villa 31 a Covid-19 Hot Spot

If you have any sort of conscience, you can only feel uncomfortable dealing with so much raw poverty. In the gospels (specifically Matthew 26:11), we are told “The poor you will always have with you.” But we are not told how we can eradicate poverty. Maybe we can’t, but I think it is only right that we be disturbed about it.

Cartoneros and the Tren Blanco

The Recyclers Come Out at Night ...

The Recyclers Come Out at Night …

There are always two sides to the coin. The other day, I wrote a post about Buenos Aires that perhaps gilded the lily overmuch. I have to keep reminding myself that one can easily love someone, something, or someplace that is far from perfect. Take Los Angeles, for example, from which my cousin Peggy from Cleveland fled because, as she said, she couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. (I don’t think she tried very hard.)  Many of my friends from other parts of the country do not hold Southern California in high regard, especially if they haven’t given the place a chance to work its way into their bones, the way it has with me.

So back to Buenos Aires. As with many huge cities, there is a lot of poverty lurking behind the picturesque façades. In Argentina, these usually take the form of what are sardonically called villas miserias (“misery villas”) due to the habit of calling the areas surrounding the urban core with names beginning with Villa, such as Villa Lugano, Villa Lynch, Villa Crespo, and the spectacularly awful Villa 31 (see below) adjoining the posh neighborhood of Retiro. This used to be the docks area for the Port of Buenos Aires, before they moved east.

Villa 31 with the Microcentro in the Background

Villa 31 with the Microcentro in the Background

After dark, the streets of Buenos Aires fill up with cartoneros, whole families with large carts who go through the garbage for cardboard and other recyclable items for which they can earn a few pesos. After the economic crisis of 2001, the government wisely has begun to recognize them and even facilitated their scavenging by creating the tren blanco, or “white train,” to bring them from the villas miserias, where they live, to the center of the city. These trains consist of old rolling stock with the seats removed (to allow for carts to loaded) and sometimes even without lighting.

Aboard the Tren Blanco

Aboard the Tren Blanco

I have seen the cartoneros at work the few times I wondered the streets of the city at night. For the most part, they are diligent and friendly as they go about their work; but there were stories at the Posada del Sol youth hostel about backpacks and wallets that were stolen. Fortunately, I escaped being mugged.

Again, there are parts of Los Angeles about which I would say the same thing. Except here, there is a higher chance of violence and rape accompanying the mugging.

Text: “A Human Being by Definition Only”

Walker Evans Photo

Walker Evans Photo

A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage; is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance. And a human being whose life is nurtured in an advantage which has accrued from the disadvantage of other human beings, and who prefers that this should remain as it is, is a human being by definition only, having much more in common with the bedbug, the tapeworm, the cancer, and the scavengers of the deep sea.—James Agee, Cotton Tenants: Three Families