Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of August 30, 1999
Seminarian learns love for the poor
Poor Mexicans reflect on modern slavery as a new Exodus
By RENATO GANDIA
Special to the WCR
Having been away from the Philippines for almost two years, I was no longer familiar with the sight of an overcrowded city - traffic jams, multitudes of pedestrians, street peddlers, beggars, tourists.
My senses were no longer attuned to every form of pollution - water, air, sound, and land. And I was surprised by the impact of my two-week visit and immersion in Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was like coming home to Manila.
I travelled to Mexico after writing my final exams at St. Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton and attending the workshop for my pastoral internship.
I thought Mexico would be a refreshing respite from the classrooms, although I came there for an encounter and cultural dialogue with the poor of Latin America facilitated by Cuernavaca Centre for Intercultural Dialogue on Development (CCIDD).
Indeed, it was a refreshing experience, refreshing in the sense that I was able to re-visit forms of social concerns that I used to see back home.
The program gave us the chance to explore Cuernavaca on our own. We were divided into groups and were supposed to visit different spots of the city, including the public market.
Every corner of the market was used by the merchants and no space was wasted, which also meant space for breathing is a luxury.
With an overcrowded public market, pollution is to be expected especially if the city has no sewer system. And building such a system seems to be another luxury the government cannot afford.
Peddlers - ranging from five-year-old boys and girls to 70-year-old men and women - were everywhere, offering anything that can be a source of income.
I had a short conversation with Lucila, a nine-year-old girl, who almost begged me to buy the flowers she was selling. I asked her if she has the time to play before or after plying the streets to earn money.
"I play at work, I am happy selling flowers because I am able to help my parents," she answered with a sense of pride.
"Don't you go to school?" I inquired.
"Yes, I am in Grade 3, but I don't know if I will make it to Grade 4," she sadly replied.
I found out that going to Grade 4 would be expensive as they would now have to buy their own textbooks, because the government can no longer provide for them. Education is another luxury that the Mexican government cannot provide for young people.
In our unguided tour of Cuernavaca, each group was given 60 pesos which is Cdn$10. With that money we're instructed to purchase basic food for a family of five.
Sixty pesos can buy very basic food (tortilla, rice, beans, green tomatoes and carrots) for two meals for that size of family. The minimum wage in Mexico is 30 pesos a day - Cdn$6. That means for a family of five to be able to eat twice a day, the breadwinner has to earn two days wages. Otherwise, they have to get used to eating just once a day.
That's why everyone in the family able to work tries to find a job, which is not only elusive but also most of the time unavailable.
The irony is that food is a basic need for survival and yet it's hard to buy in a country which is one of the major exporters of the world.
Once again, it is confirmed that for the poor, "Give us today our daily bread," is a plea for survival.
Why are Mexicans in this kind of plight? Thie answer to this question is complicated. And I dare not answer because virtually I'm an outsider.
On the other hand, a voice inside me cried incessantly: "How do I keep the meaning of being a Christian vis-…-vis the poverty and marginalization incarnated right before my face?"
Another slice of life that struck me most was the faith of the Mexicans. We were invited to participate in a prayer meeting of a base Christian community. It was plain and simple but sure of its direction: To celebrate faith, to celebrate life.
We broke open the Word of God, and shared our own experiences that speak of God's message of love.
I did not hear a single word of complaint about their plight in life from those who attended. For them it was a moment of celebration of the grace of God.
It was an opportunity to thank God for the grace of being poor and being able to recognize and accept their situation, and in recognizing and accepting, read the signs of times and listen to the voice of God calling them to do ministry in the world.
I might be guilty of romanticizing their plight and situation. But from what I've heard from the Mexicans, only God can liberate them from this modern form of slavery.
The Exodus experience of the Israelites is always alive for them. That's why their experience of salvation is meaningful and continually unfolding.
Where do we want to stand on this? On the side of the Israelites or on the side of the Egyptians? You can take your pick.
Now, I'm back in Canada. Although my lifestyle in Canada is not affluent by Canadian standards, it is if it is compared to that of ordinary Mexicans.
(Renato Gandia is a seminarian of the Kamloops Diocese who is studying at St. Joseph's Seminary in Edmonton. He is currently doing his pastoral internship at St. James Parish in Vernon, B.C. For more information on CCIDD please write to Ray Plankey, CCIDD, apartado 580, Cuernavaca, Morelos 62000, Mexico.)