Two Pairs of New Shoes
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico 1997
It was freezing cold at night in the highlands. I wrapped my arms around myself to stay warm, wearing a hand-woven wool jacket as I stood in front of the San Cristóbal Cathedral in the Parque Central. The muted yellow Cathedral serves as a backdrop to my memories there. I held a cup of hot chocolate, made Mexican style with real cocoa powder broken up from hard round bricks, plus vanilla and a touch of chili powder. A cinnamon stick to stir. A woman was selling embroidered bags, the gorgeous magenta flowers bursting forth from dark black velvet.
The mountains slept in a circle around the city, just out of eyesight, heaving with mist. My roommate, Evita, purchased a bag from the woman kneeling on a navy blue cloth spread out on the cobblestone. She placed the bag around her body and smoothed out the velvet as it fell to rest at her hip. During our semester together in Mexico, Evita became a friend and sister for life. When I think of her, even after more than twenty years of the rolling journey life took us on, I think of her in this plaza surrounded by misted mountains with a holy yellow Cathedral wall behind her, delighted with her new bag.
Standing on the corner were two young boys. One was holding a basket filled with chicle. The other boy had a wooden box of goodies for sale. The box was strapped to his shoulders so he could use both hands for negotiations and sales. I noticed that they were both wearing slip-on plastic sandals with no socks. I had on hiking boots with wool socks and also some hand-woven wool gloves. When my group was ready to move on that night, I left the plaza full of conflict, watching my boots climb the damp stone stairs up the side of the hill.
The next day I saw the two boys again. This time at the market up near the Santo Domingo de Guzmán convent. One of the sellers in the open-air market there had a pile of shoes for sale. I approached the boys, purchased some chicle from their basket and box, and then asked them if I could buy them each a pair of shoes. The boys didn’t know what to do or say. So I just kept talking and telling them about how I was studying in Mexico for the semester and how I was learning all about their beautiful home nestled at the edge of the Selva Lacandona. I led the boys over to the shoe seller and asked him to find shoes that fit. The seller was gracious. I paid the seller as the boys put on their new warm shoes. I took a picture of them, the Mexican pink of the calle’s corner behind them calling out to me, even now, as I look at it.
I went to the Kodak store to develop the film that same day, hoping to be able to find the boys again and give them a copy. When I showed the photo to the leader of my student group, Dr. George Ann Huck, she was quick to criticize me. This is when I first learned about White Savior Syndrome and got a fast but ferocious lesson in the economics of poverty and the corrupt systems and pimps that keep children selling in the street when they should be in school. I learned the Spanish word, “sinverguenzas” those without shame, shameless. Financially supporting these cruel businesses, objectifying the boys to sooth the discomfort I felt with my own privilege, thinking I could swoop in and save them with one small act of kindness then leave them never to return…all unacceptable and ethically wrong. But the fact that I took a picture of them, happy and glowing with their new shoes, was the most disgusting thing of all.
“Trash that horrible picture immediately,” she told me, her bright pink lipstick accentuating each word.
I couldn’t help but agree with Dr. Huck. She was right about every single point. She spoke passionately and with the conviction of someone who has devoted her life to educating students from the United States. Her students were mostly wealthy and middle-class White evangelicals from a private liberal arts college in Iowa, on their first trip abroad to the streets of Mexico. I wasn’t wealthy or middle-class. I was on a full-ride academic scholarship to Central College, my dream school. And I wasn’t White. Well, I’m half-White and half-Mexican. But in my small rural Midwest American town during the years I grew up there, my mother was the only Mexican person anyone ever saw, so I was also considered to be Mexican. I felt I had to prove my Whiteness there.
Of course, in Mexico it was the opposite. I was White. And I felt I had to prove my Mexican-ness. At the time I took this picture, I was nineteen years old and on the cusp of what would become a twenty year journey around the world in search of my identity.
Where do I belong?
I was an outlier to Dr. Huck’s usual cohort of students and, perhaps for this reason, she took it upon herself over the course of the rest of our time in Chiapas to personally and relentlessly educate me on the intricacies of socially conscious travel. It was during this intense journey that I decided I would come back for another semester in Mexico. And I kept going back. I chose a career in international education, rooted in this first semester. Over the years to come, Dr. Huck became my mentor, my ethical guide, in study and in life. Looking back, this picture was the beginning of what would become a lifetime of mentorship that would grow into a deeply respectful love.
But I confess, I kept the picture. I treasure it. The two boys are relaxed and pleased. They had a good day out selling and got new shoes to boot. I was friendly and kind. I asked if they wanted shoes and they said yes. I treated them with courtesy and respect. I purchased the shoes from a local seller. It felt like I learned more as a result of taking this picture than I had learned in my entire education up to that point. And I used that knowledge to better myself and to help others in the future. No harm was done. Kindness was shown.
I was raised by a Catholic mother who instilled a deep sense of service into her children. The Parable of the Good Samaritan was paramount in her religious life. We were poor, but Mom always found ways to give to those who had less, to those who were overlooked. She taught me to look for opportunities to give, then to give whatever I could with joy and without hesitation. I believe in the Starfish Theory - that even if we can’t help everyone, we can still help in immediate and personal ways. And this will make a small but worthy ripple in the ocean of inequality that surrounds us.
Now that I know Dr. Huck much better, I can say that I think she would not disagree with me on any of these points. I had the chance, on future journeys together, to see that she, too, is generous in countless spontaneous and joyful ways. The image of Dr. Huck handing out small plastic bags of water to a group of children on the street in Managua comes to mind.
How should a traveler react to poverty on her path? What responsibility do we have to the people we meet on our journey?
The answers are complex and I don’t pretend to offer them here. But what I do know is that travel helps us move closer to one another, to at least see each other, to notice two young boys on the corner. And that’s a good place to start.
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