A NOTE FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WALL
For centuries civilizations have built walls to keep others out, not recognizing how those walls can also close them in.
The broad smile on the shuttle driver’s face belied the news he had to share. “The traffic is very bad this morning, Señor. Bastante malo. It is Monday morning and people are going back to work.”
“But,” he assured me, “I will get you to the conference center on time.”
A glance at my watch allowed a sigh of relief to escape my lips. I was familiar with traffic congestion in Guatemala’s capital city, given the many times over the years I had visited and worked there. The conference center where I would be meeting during the week was a short distance away, and I had given myself a wide margin of time for the trip.
“OK,” I said to the driver. “Let’s go! Vamanos!”
Our minivan eased out of the hotel drive and merged into a sea of cars. To get to the main road that led to the conference center we first had to navigate through a grid of one-way streets that led us around the city block that the hotel occupied. We inched along slowly along the side and the behind the hotel until we reached an intersection where we had to make a complete stop. The traffic we had to turn into had the right-of-way and no drivers were willing to cede space to the vehicles in our lane. I detected the driver emit a low moan suggesting it could be a while before we moved again.
Trapped, I had two choices. I could review the notes for my conference presentation one more time, or I could look out the car window. I was not yet awake enough for the notes so I chose to take in the outside view. And as I did, I made an unsettling discovery.
The scene I took in was that of a young Mayan Indian woman dressed in her colorful but faded village traje. She sat against a wall with her shawl draped across her chest while she nursed her baby. She rocked her body back and forth in front of a small paper cup with a few coins in it. Her expressionless face reflected the numbing poverty in which she existed. I looked away, glancing up toward the top of the wall about ten feet above her. And when I did, I saw long green fronds of a palm tree arching out over the wall behind her. In that moment I also realized where I was.
The day before, I had lain in a lounge chair under that same palm tree by the hotel swimming pool on the other side of that wall. Next to me was the pool bar with ever-attentive staff standing by to bring me drink or serve me food from the restaurant. And around me was a carefully manicured tropical garden of flowers and shrubs laid out to be a quiet oasis of relaxation for hotel guests. I had spent half my Sunday in that setting while I recovered from the previous week of long hectic days preparing for my Guatemala trip and attempted to restore my energy for the week of meetings that lay ahead.
Now I realized that I had enjoyed the previous day’s idyllic poolside setting in blissful ignorance of what had been taking place a few feet from me. The shuttle driver must also have taken in the scene, and perhaps noticed my discomfort.
“That woman.” he said. “She’s always there when I come this way. That must be her spot.”
He hurried to respond to the perplexed look I gave him. “She depends on the drivers in all these cars to give her kids enough money for food.”
“Yes,” he replied. “Do you see those two small children up ahead in the street working their way towards us between the cars? They’re her muchachos. No school for them. There are street children like them all over the city. Their families depend on them collecting a few centavos to pay for food. That is if those children are lucky enough to have familias. Some are orphans, desamparados. There are few places that will care for them; maybe a church or private group helps out some. The government has few places and little money to help them all.”
“I was on the other side of that wall at the hotel pool yesterday,” I shared with the driver. “I had no idea what was going here on just a few feet away from me. It’s so sad to see such a young woman and her children begging to survive.”
“We don’t think of them as beggars.” The shuttle driver’s face now displayed something that was a cross between a grin and a smirk. “We like to call them unofficial tax collectors.”
“Yes, tax collectors.” The driver proceeded to explain. “If you pass by here later in the day, you will see the police out patrolling. They will tell you that they are there to clear the streets of people like that woman. But the police come to take a share of the money she and her children collect. If she does not pay them, they will remove her. Someone else who will pay the police will take her place. If she pays her multa regularly the policeman might protect her and her spot on the street.
“But I think she will pay the police with part of the money her children collect from the rich people in the cars. The rich people, los ricos, they refuse to pay their taxes to the government. They don’t pay taxes because they are powerful. That means the government has little money, poco pisto, to pay the police a good salary. The police, well, they make up their salaries by charging the woman and her children a multa for permission to collect money from those rich people in the cars. It’s a crazy tax system! Loco, no? That’s how things work in Guatemala.”
We continued the rest of our drive in silence. I did get to the conference center in time, but my thoughts were back at that intersection and on the street-wise lesson I had just received about how the Guatemalan economy actually works. By the end of my week in the country, I would discover that I had learned more from observing the impoverished young Mayan mother and listening to the grinning shuttle driver than from all my university-educated colleagues cloistered away with me in meetings.
As I reflect today on that morning experience in Guatemala, I am becoming increasingly aware of just how much we wall ourselves off from the rest of the world. Think for a moment about walls throughout history. What immediately may come to mind is, say, the great wall of China or perhaps all those walls and ramparts around castles, towns and military forts across much of Europe. Ironic, perhaps, but all those walls are now reduced to rubble or restored in part as tourist attractions.
Past civilizations constructed walls with the intent of protecting those within from those without. “Without” in both meanings of the word: those without the walls who were “unworthy” of living among those elites within; and those without much of anything on which to live, the oppressed and the poor who just might seek revenge or retribution if it were not for those walls.
Throughout recorded history, however, construction of walls has proven futile. A wasted investment. None are serving their intended purposes today. Why did walls unfailingly fail? Historians often point to the march of technological change, particularly in its application to the conduct of war that inevitably produced weapons more powerful than those walls could resist. Historians would be correct, of course, in their assessment of the impact of technology. But that’s only part of the answer. They would also need to highlight the decadence and ineptitude that led to the decline in capacity to govern by those inside those walls; those whose subjects eventually became unwilling to defend their more privileged and protected lives.
But perhaps the one universal cause of those historic walls to fail was that they kept out knowledge about the plight of the poor outside them. Walls shut off critical information that those inside needed to govern well. Rulers inside those walls were lulled into ignoring just how powerful a force for change the desperation of the poor could be. Walls produced a false sense of security and fostered an unrealistic complacency.
Those in America who advocate for constructing a wall along our southern border also argue it is necessary to protect those of us within the country from those without. “They will take our jobs,” they argue. “They will be a burden on our social services. They will commit crimes against our citizens. We need to wall them out! Once we have a wall, problem solved!”
If we allow such xenophobic tendencies to guide our decisions, we risk reducing our capacity, interest and concern to learn about those on the other side of the wall and about how our future well-being and security are bound up with their progress and prosperity. We ignore the problem of corrupt and inept regimes from which immigrants are fleeing in search of political asylum or economic security in the US. To be an effective international leader and to have a say in addressing global issues, America needs to espouse the principles of freedom and democracy globally not erect walls against those denied it at home and who seek it on our shores.
To shake myself out of the complacency I sometimes feel from the barriers we have erected toward the rest of the world, I allow my mind to drift back to that young Mayan Indian mother and her children subsisting on the streets of Guatemala City. There is, of course, nothing in her personal struggle that can adversely affect me as an individual or us as a nation. But I sense that in many subtle ways I pay a price for my indifference towards her suffering and the system that causes her misery.
Despite our differences, there is one thing that I now realize I have in common with that impoverished Guatemalan mother. We both are aware of how the ‘system’ works against her. What is relevant about our differences is that one of us is better equipped to do something about it. That person is me.
What I ultimately will do, I’m not yet sure. First, I must work to discern more clearly how the lives of those in neighboring nations are bound to ours. If I commit to doing that, and then find ways to act, maybe the daily suffering of the young Mayan mother on the street in Guatemala won’t have been for nothing. ###
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