Editor’s Note: This blog is the eighth part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in the summer of 2012. The goal of this series is to educate and inform readers about the reasons why immigrants come to our country so that we can better understand and relate to them. Read his previous entries here.
“Ay, de mí, Llorona, Llorona, llévame al río Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona Porque me muero de frío”
[“Woe is me, Llorona. Llorona, take me down to the river. Cover me with your shawl, Llorona; I am freezing to death.”]
I saw her across the Zócalo. She was strikingly beautiful.
I was sitting on one of the wrought iron benches in the Zócalo—the central square of town—on my last night in Oaxaca City. I could feel my bus ticket for Chiapas folded inside my shirt pocket. The following day, I’d be heading further south—down to Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, then to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua. But here I was, enjoying the still night air of Oaxaca City one last time, watching the crowds of Mexican and foreign tourists milling about.
And that’s when I saw her.
* * * *
She was walking among the tables of a café across the Zócalo.
She wore a simple flower print dress and a rebozo shawl across her shoulders, like most of the indigenous women do in this part of Oaxaca. There was something halting in her gait. Her feet, practically bare in the thin plastic sandals, moved hesitantly, uncertainly. Under her left arm, a bunch of white flowers. They weren’t even the bright red roses that grow in a nice greenhouse somewhere. These were mediocre lilies, daisies, other nameless flowers. They all hung a little limp from the Flower Girl’s arm as she walked around, asking the tourists if they’d like to buy one.
When you spend time in a city like Oaxaca’s state capital, you get used to people coming up to sell you something. So many tourists pass through here, there’s an enormous economy of people selling things to them on the street—gum, trinkets, flowers, souvenirs, balloons, shoe shines, bracelets, fake tattoos.
You get used to ignoring the street sellers. You get used to saying no, brushing them aside, going on with your life.
It’s a survival technique. If you act too cordial, they mistake it for interest; then it becomes that much harder to convince the street sellers that you’re not looking to buy anything. So you get good at doing the nonchalant hand wave, making it clear that you’re not a potential customer. It’s just something you do—you ignore people.
But something about the Flower Girl was impossible to ignore.
* * * *
Without warning, without any particular reason, my mind fixated on the Flower Girl walking along the opposite end of the Zócalo. I started to wonder about her friends, her family, her hometown. I wondered about her life. How did she feel about the fact that she spent every evening selling flowers to the tourists here in downtown Oaxaca City?
The Flower Girl didn’t look like she wanted to be here. I mean, who would want to be spending their evening doing this? If there’s anything that will constantly remind her of all the walls and gulfs and gaps that separate her from them, it’s selling flowers on the street.
A place like downtown Oaxaca City means “fun” for them; it means “work” for her. They come here from Mexico City, Monterrey, Hermosillo, Guanajuato, because they are on vacation. They come from Canada, Japan, France, Brazil, Germany, Argentina, the United States, New Zealand, to relax and unwind. They’re in the Zócalo to listen to some music, to have dinner and flirt and joke and cut loose. They can afford to be here.
Every time she stretches out an arm holding a flower, she is reminded that she stands at the edge of their world. This is the world of cafes and restaurants and cappuccinos and artisanal beers. She is here to try and glean some of the residual wealth from that world—but everything in the Zócalo reminds her that this is a world that is not hers. She won’t be an insider of it.
It’s like Abraham said to the rich man, when the man’s mouth was dry and burning and he asked Abraham for a drop of water to quench his thirst. “There is a vast chasm between us that cannot be crossed”.
She is at their mercy. She is at our mercy.
* * * *
I thought of something Evelyn said years ago when I was living with her family.
I spent the summer of 2001 living with Evelyn’s parents in their home on the outskirts of Ensenada, Baja California. Evelyn was thirteen at the time. Her house didn’t have running water. Evelyn’s family was poor.
When you’re poor, you’re very aware of the fact that you are poor. You think about it a lot. One afternoon, we were hanging around the house when a young woman Evelyn’s age came knocking at the gate, selling homemade donuts. We didn’t buy any of them. As the donut seller left, Evelyn commented: “qué pena, tener que andar de casa en casa vendiendo donas.” How embarrassing. To have to walk around all day selling donuts. At least Evelyn wasn’t that poor.
I thought of Evelyn’s comment as I watched the Flower Girl. I knew that the Flower Girl had friends and neighbors. Some of those neighbors must be like Evelyn—they may be poor, but they’re not Flower Girl poor. They don’t have to spend their evenings selling flowers to tourists.
I couldn’t help but wonder what goes through the Flower Girl’s mind every night here in the Zócalo. Is she embarrassed? When she goes home at the end of the day, do people gossip about her, whisper comments back and forth?
“There she is. She’s been out on the street trying to sell some of those pathetic flowers today.”
And it broke my heart.
I mean, it’s not like the idea of poverty hadn’t been on my mind. I was faced with it on a daily basis while in the mountain town of San Juan Coatzóspam, with my coffee-farming friends. I think the idea of economic inequality a lot, join thousands of other people in trying to fight against it, work to promote Fair Trade, to push for an alternative way for us to interact with each other as we buy and sell.
But suddenly, the abstract concept of “economic inequality” was standing right in front of me, in downtown Oaxaca City.
* * * *
I mean that literally—the Flower Girl was suddenly standing right in front of me.
She asked if she could share the bench; I agreed. She put her bundle of flowers down on the bench between us and sat down to take a break. We were both silent. The Flower Girl stared off into space.
There was something uncannily familiar about her face. I took another glance at her and realized—she looked exactly like a Jewish friend from Russia.
Vika comes from a well-off family, some of Russia’s nouveaux riches. Vika takes professional-grade glamour photos of herself and uploads them to Facebook. She puts on Milan’s latest fashions and hangs out with her friends in the hottest clubs in Saint Petersburg and Paris and Tel Aviv, and posts photos of her clubbing adventures online.
Vika and the Flower Girl have the same eyes; the same nose. The Flower Girl could just as easily have been born to a rich family in Russia. She could just as easily been born as Vika—but she wasn’t. She had the bad luck to be born on the wrong side of the line.
The Flower Girl and I sat watching as a little three year old boy ran spastically around a light pole. As the kid’s parents sat sipping lattes, the kid eventually lost his balance and fell on his backside, cracking his head on the light pole. We chuckled.
“Looks like that kid is all partied out,” I said to the Flower Girl.
She looked back at me. She smiled.
“Sí, a veces eso pasa cuando los niños no se cuidan,” she said.
Her Spanish was heavily accented and belabored. I asked if she came from one of the Zapotec-speaking indigenous communities around Oaxaca City. She nodded. We kept talking. I told her about a book I hoped to publish someday, a book of some of the Mixtec stories and folklore from San Juan Coatzóspam. I told her the teachers in Coatzóspam were working to make the native folklore part of the school curriculum.
“That’s great,” she said. “Me, I had to quit school early. Same with my siblings. We went to work when we were all really young.”
I didn’t ask her why.
* * * *
My mind drifted further back in time, back to before I had even met Evelyn and her family in Ensenada.
I was fifteen years old in 1997. It was my first time visiting Mexico. It was also my first time seeing biting poverty face to face.
I spent the week building houses on the outskirts of Tijuana with my church youth group. One particular day, we all drove out to a local garbage dump to bring donations to the people who worked there. We walked out of the white minivan and into a vast sea of garbage. As the people who worked in the trash walked up to us, I started talking to a boy a couple years younger than I was.
He spent every day sifting through garbage, looking for recyclables. I was at a loss for words. I watched a gust of wind blow a flurry of white plastic bags high into the air. I looked back at the kid.
“You know…” I finally said in my still amateur Spanish. “You know, it isn’t always going to be like this. Someday, God is going to set things right. In this life, or in the next. Life won’t always be this way.”
The kid shrugged his shoulders and walked back into the trash.
* * * *
I wanted to tell the Flower Girl the same thing.
I wanted to tell her that I believed that somewhere, somehow, there was a different world where things were set right. That God didn’t want her to be poor, that God was pained to watch her staring at these rich people through a glass ceiling.
But I didn’t get a chance to tell her that. Before I knew it, she was standing up and gathering her flowers. “I have to get back to work,” she said. “Talk to you later.” The Flower Girl shuffled off into the dark night.
I never learned her name.
This article is part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in Summer 2012.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected] .
Image from WikiCommons
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