Mexicans have a phrase: Dónde hay vida hay lucha y dónde hay lucha hay vida (Where there is life there is struggle; where there is struggle there is life.) For many, begging is a part of life and a part of its struggle. In Mexico, beggars are a part of every city’s social fabric and live in a world alien to the one I inhabit.
Beggars come in many guises and, after living in Oaxaca for several winters, I recognize the small family that claims a spot along a shady wall near Santo Domingo. The man plays the accordion (poorly) and his wife or a child hold up a bowl for coins. Among the open-air café tables, the same woman cruises about seeking hand-outs from tourists year after year. Are their lives so difficult and opportunities so few they must beg? Or do they choose to depend on the kindness of strangers? How should I regard them—if at all?
My Yankee rearing stressed a personal responsibility to support myself and not burden others. It’s a good precept and I try to avoid judging beggars. But the act of begging makes me squeamish because I feel like an unwilling participant in an act of public humiliation. In the moment, my heart and mind pull in contrary directions. I clench up inside when I see listless, old woman, her skin like corn-husks, slumped on the steps of a church. At my approach, she looks down and lifts a cupped hand in silent supplication. This isn’t right, conscience compels me to do something but it seems futile. What good are a few pesos today? What about tomorrow?
I’ve seen affluent tourists and Mexicans walk past the beggars as if they didn’t exist, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid them or hastily drop a peso in their hand as impersonally as plugging a parking meter. I’ve done those things too but never felt good afterward. Why do I dislike begging? It isn’t the money. Giving money is easy if I think it will do some good. Nothing I do or can ever do will materially change a beggar’s life beyond an hour’s time or the meal 10 or 20 pesos will buy. So why do anything?
Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe I see it with the American expectation of a visible return on investment, expecting a beggar to lift herself by the bootstraps as a validation of charity. Why should I do anything if there’s no visible return? It’s not my place to reform a beggar’s life or be his savior. How can I change the equation? The answer came one weekend when I went to the mountain town of Huajuapan: I could be fully present to the beggar as one human to another. Well, that looked simple—except it wasn’t.
In Huajuapan, went to the weekly tianguis or regional market for common household goods and groceries. I arrived early, the sun had barely cleared the ridges and the air was still cool. While the vendors erected their stalls and laid out their wares, I ate breakfast at a comedor or informal diner in the company of a couple working men. We chatted over our orders of chicken with mole coloradito, tortillas and café de olla or boiled coffee. Few Americans visit Huajuapan and the men asked why I had come. To see the nearby Zapotec ruins of Cerro de Minas.
I had nearly finished eating when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny woman approaching. The frail anciana shuffled toward me with slow, crab-like steps. Deep furrows seamed her parchment face and her white hair was knotted behind her head. She inched with her cane along the other side of the table. A few steps more and I knew she would slide a hand from beneath the robe and make a begging gesture. Already, I felt my stomach clench at the thought. I didn’t want her to do that. What will happen if I’m truly present to her?
“¿Quiere usted algo de comer?” Do you want something to eat? I asked before she could beg.
She stopped, surprised by my question. Then she blinked and nodded.
“Joven!” I called to the waiter. “Darle lo que ella quiere. Voy a pagar.” Give her whatever she wants, I’ll pay for it,” I said.
The man who owned the comedor stared at me and then smiled as did the waiter. The woman sat sideways on a chair across the table but didn’t look at me so I saw only the side of her face. In a barely audible voice, she ordered a single tamale with chicken and then lapsed into silence while she waited. I sensed she wanted privacy, especially with a foreigner. The tamale arrived and she ate ravenously and wiped the plate with the last morsel. Setting the plate aside, she buried her face in the robe, sniffled and wiped her eyes. Then she whispered “gracias” and shuffled away.
What had I done? I thought a long time about what had happened. Handing her some pesos was the easiest course—a transaction without an interaction. But I invited her to join me, instead. When she accepted it, it was as if we reached across an invisible social barrier. I saw her as a person, not as a beggar. Though I saw tears and heard a sniffle, I don’t know how she felt or what she thought. However, I know it changed how I see and respond to the poor. God knows the woman needed money but I believe she also needed the affirmation of her humanity as much as she needed a meal. Sometimes the smallest things are the most valuable. And being present in the moment is something money can’t buy. It’s priceless.