Friday, September 9, 2011

Flower Girl

I saw her across the Zócalo.

She was strikingly beautiful. She wore a simple flower print dress and a rebozo across her shoulders, like most of the indigenous women do in this part of Oaxaca. She was practically barefoot, wearing only a pair of thin plastic sandals. There was a halting tone to her gait. She walked hesitantly, uncertainly. As she walked by, she asked if I wanted to buy one of the flowers she had on her arm.

You get used to people coming up to sell you things when you spend time in places like Oaxaca City and San Cristóbal de las Casas. It happens so often, you eventually learn to ignore them. If you act too cordial, it gets mistaken for interest and it becomes that much harder to convince the street sellers that you’re not looking to buy anything. So eventually you become adept at doing the casual “hand wave”, brushing them away with such nonchalance that it becomes clear you’re not a potential customer. You become good at ignoring people.

But as soon as I had said “not today” and the flower girl walked away, I turned and looked at her again. Without warning and for no particular reason, I started thinking about her. About her life, her friends, her family.

She 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, from US, it’s the profession of street seller. The place that is “work” for her is “fun” for them. They are here to relax, to listen to some music, to have dinner and flirt and joke and cut loose. That is because they can afford to do this. She is constantly reminded that she is on the edges of this world of cafes and restaurants and cappuccinos and artisanal beers. She is here to try and glean some of the residual wealth of this world, but everything in the Zócalo reminds her that this is a world that she does not have access to.

Like Abraham said to Lazarus when Lazarus asked for a drop of water, when his mouth was dry and burning, “there is a vast chasm between us that cannot be crossed”.

She is at their mercy. Our mercy.

I thought of something Evelyn said years ago when I was living with her family. Evelyn’s parents let me spend the summer in their home on the outskirts of Ensenada, Baja California. Evelyn was thirteen at the time. Her family is poor. Their house didn’t have running water when I lived there. When you’re poor, you’re very aware of the fact that you are poor. And you think about it a lot. One afternoon, we were hanging around the house when a young woman Evelyn’s age came by selling homemade donuts. We didn’t buy any. As she 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 walk around. Because I knew that the flower girl had friends and neighbors, and some of them were less poor than she was, and didn’t have to walk around trying to sell flowers to rich tourists. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what must be going through her mind as she does this. Is she embarrassed? When she goes home at the end of the day, do people whisper? “There she is, she’s been out on the street trying to sell some of those pathetic flowers today.” And they were pathetic. They weren’t even the nice roses that were grown in a greenhouse. These were mediocre lilies and other nameless flowers.

And it broke my heart. I mean, I realize that I’m down here to support the Fair Trade coops I’m in touch with, and try to expand Fair Trade and promote an alternative kind of economy where we can support each other and all that. So it’s not like the idea of poverty hasn’t been on my mind. But for some reason, this girl stuck out to me. Something I’d been thinking about as an abstract concept for a long time became suddenly, terrifyingly human. The idea of living in the shadow of the people who go to the Zócalo to have a coffee and relax. She walks these streets as an outsider, a stranger, spending her evening in the cold and the rain around people who always have an umbrella and a warm car nearby.

As I waxed philosophical, I looked up and snapped out of my reverie—the Flower Girl was walking my way. She sat down on a curb next to my bench, taking a break from walking around. She set her flowers on the curb and stared off into space. Her face looked uncannily familiar. I realized she looked almost exactly like a Jewish friend of mine in Russia, Vika. Vika comes from a family with money. She 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, in a poor village in Oaxaca.

The Flower Girl and I both watched a little three year old boy running spastically around a light pole while his parents sipped lattes. He eventually loses his balance and falls on his ass, cracking his head on the light pole. We chuckle. “Looks like that kid is all partied out,” I say to her. She looks back at me, slightly startled that I’ve breached the divide between us.

She smiles. “Sí, a veces eso pasa cuando los niños no se cuidan,” she says. Her Spanish is heavily accented and belabored. I ask if she comes from one of the Zapotec-speaking indigenous communities around Oaxaca City. She nods. We chat. I tell her about a book I hope to publish someday, a book of some of the stories and folklore from a Mixtec town north of here. I tell her I hope the book is used by the Mixtec town’s schools as part of its curriculum. “A lot of people around here never learn to read,” she says.

I remember the first time I visited a garbage dump in Tijuana, when I was a high schooler on a church trip to bring donations to the marginal neighborhoods of Tijuana. I met a kid who was a couple years younger than I was at the time. He spent every day sifting through garbage, looking for recyclables. At the time, I had stared at him, and stared at the garbage heaps around me, and stared at the plastic bags flying up into the air as a gust of wind blew through the dump. I had eventually told the kid in my still-amateur Spanish, “You know…it isn’t always going to be like this. Some day, God is going to set things right. In this life, or in the next. You won’t always be living this life.” He had shrugged his shoulders. I had walked back to the air-conditioned van where the other gringo high schoolers were listening to a cassette tape of “Jars of Clay”.

I wanted to tell the Flower Girl the same thing. 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. “I have to get back to work. Talk to you later,” the Flower Girl said, and shuffled off.

I didn’t catch her name.

1 comment:

  1. Este me ha gustado mucho, esta muy "guapo"! bueno, guapo porque me he identificado con él, la historia no es nada "guapa", por el contrario, me genera emociones mezcladas entre tristeza, coraje y algo más que me resulta no tan placentero. Son las mismas emociones que me invaden al ver a un niño vendiendo periódico en los semáforos o el que vende chicles, o cualquier otro que vende alguna chuchería en el metro. Desearía poder decirles aquello que dijiste al muchacho de Ensenada pero, aunque en el fonde me gusta creerlo, siento que al decirlo podrían pensar que soy una mentirosa... :(