For the first time in my life, my eyes were opened to the intense and unimaginable world of poverty when I traveled to Mexico two years ago. My mother and I had vacationed in Mexico many times, but my Spanish had considerably improved, and I could finally engage in real conversations with those outside our hotel. That ability alone showed me a glimpse of a life I could never possibly live, and had never before understood. People opened up to me in a real, unrestricted manner, as I asked them questions about their lives and their daily struggles that I could not have asked the year before. In one memorable day at the beach, I became acquainted with the Alvarez family – Jesus, Maria, and their seven year-old daughter, Sofia. At the same time, I also acquainted myself with their culture, and their hardships.
Sofia sat beside me in a small plastic chair. We were both sitting in the back of a white delivering van, waiting for her father to start the car. Jesus tried to make us both comfortable in the sweltering heat of Mexico’s Spring season, but the car did not have air conditioning, and the rubber bottom of the van scorched our palms. He could not afford to put more than two seats in the car; that would have cost his family a month’s amount of food and rent – a sacrifice he could not make. Despite numerous health problems, he in no way intends to see a costly doctor to prescribe more expenses for him to pay. His shop, a small, run-down building that doubles as his house, sells mostly tourist items, from Bob Marley T-shirts to cheap jewelry. However, since America’s recession and the threat of drug cartels keep tourists at bay, his sales have dropped considerably, and rent is harder to pay. He has done worse in his life. At one point, he sold chiclets on the street and lived in his van, but that was before he had a wife and a seven year-old daughter. When I asked him about the future and where his daughter, Sofia, would go to school next year, he almost cried.
Jesus Alvarez is one of the millions of people living below the poverty line, with a story that is, in many ways, a small deviation from a common plot line. Taken as a statistic, many people share little if any remorse for the other thirty percent of the world, the thirty percent that struggles for survival in incredibly stressful day-to-day environments. However, singular stories such as that of Jesus can evoke sympathy from even the most hardhearted.
Jesus would love for his daughter to learn English. He calls her “his everything”. Unfortunately, any school that teaches English in his town is far too expensive. Sofia has suffered; not because of the shortcomings of her parents, but due to those of the entire society. Poverty such as that of the Alvarez family is not the most pressing need, because people can more or less “get by”. On the other hand, Sofia, without learning a decent amount of English or receiving a decent education, suffers the way her parents did, the way her grandparents did. No matter how hard she works in life, it is unlikely that she can ever achieve more than a minimum wage.
When Sofia and I went to wash up for dinner, I couldn’t find their shower in the bathroom. I asked her where she washed her hair, and she pointed to a small, pipe-like spigot directly above the toilet. “You stand on your toilet?” I asked in disbelief. She nodded, shyly, and I blushed when I realized my rudeness.
People rarely receive the opportunity to experience the kind of culture shock that I did. Donating to charities often can assuage my guilt, but after my time in Mexico, I felt a new sense of urgency to help people like Jesus and Sofia directly. I absolutely refuse to see this poverty as separate from my own life. After all, I buy those Jimi Hendrix T-Shirts that Jesus sells so cheaply, the earrings made by the other vendor down the street, and the cheap coffee that people produce in sweatshops on the other side of the town.
I returned to my five-star hotel that night, slipped into the beautifully-tiled infinity pool that looked out over the bay, and watched as the moon rose higher into the sky. My mom sat on the side of the pool, sipping her margarita and gazing off into the distance. For the first time that day, we were at a loss for words. As I watched people descend the stairs of the hotel, dressed in their best clothes for a night on the town, I shook my head and told my mom I was going to go upstairs to bed. I went into our room, curled up into the bed, and began to cry.
By either maturity or experience, I have taken off my rose-colored glasses, and the world shocked me. As Americans, we are privileged, but we never truly absorb the meaning behind the word “privilege”. After seeing Jesus and Sofia, helplessly stuck in a situation I could never adapt to, I realized how often I take my “basic human rights” for granted. In truth, the illusioned world we live in causes us to turn a blind eye to the horrors of the world, until something huge and horrible catapults itself onto the television. I hope to work at a school like Sofia’s in a study-abroad program during my college years. For now, however, I will wait for Sofia’s reply to my letter, and will try to teach her some of the English that her father so desperately wishes to have her learn.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.