Monday, November 19, 2007

stressed out

back when i was living in the united states, let's say back in fall of 2004, i was working for a law firm full-time, going to school full-time and volunteering at the museum of natural history. i'd get to work around 8:00 (always a struggle for me, i'd say it was always something like 8:22 or 8:17 that i'd actually clock in) and work until lunchtime. then, three days a week, instead of actually going to lunch, i'd trek on over to cleveland state university and i'd go to class for an hour. then i'd come on back and resume working until 4:30. then i'd trek on back to cleveland state for a two hour class that began at 5:00 or 6:00 or whenever it actually started. i'd get home at around 8:30 or so, fix dinner, try to do some studying and somewhere around 11:00 i'd make it to bed. that was if i didn't have any problems whatsoever with my car or if i didn't have to go to the grocery store or if i had no other errands to run. then on saturdays i'd go to the museum of natural history and work for a couple hours, working in the discovery center - a job that i really enjoyed.

this was pretty much how my schedule was from 2001 to 2004 (four plus years!!!), until i quit my job at the the law firm at the beginning of the year in 2005 and finished my last semester in relative tranquility. the only job i saddled myself with was tutoring kids for 6 hours a week for the america reads program at some libraries in the cleveland area. this left me with hardly any money, but i managed and was able to graduate in spring of 2005 and prepare myself for my peace corps journey.

so here i's november of 2007, and i have no job "schedule" at all. i set my own pace, i set my own hours, i read for fun (not because i have to), i don't have required meetings to go to, papers to write or a car that i have to maintain and fill with gas every other day. i get to work with kids (the easiest type of people to work with, in my opinion) and i get to paint, plant gardens, read and do cool activities with them. i am able to hike up to beautiful forested mountaintops, gaze at volcanoes in the distance, hang out on the beach drinking ice-cold pilseners and see cool archaeological sites all in the blink of an eye.

so why in the world would i have any reason to feel stressed out? stress was what i experienced back when i was working and going to school and breaking up with boyfriends all at the same time. my life as i know it right now should not be filled with stress, right? i ask myself this question almost every day and thinking about it makes me even more stressed out, so i try and ignore it. the fact of the matter is, it IS stressful to be here. while most of the time i am operating on "island time" - because that's how everybody here operates - i've come to realize that stress as i've come to know it in the states takes on a completely different form down here.

right now, i'm filled with sadness and anger. i went to niña domy's the other day for lunch after our school's graduation and was surprised to see gustavo, her grandson there. he lives with niña domy during the school year, mostly because niña domy is all alone because her husband goes to san salvador and works during the week. so niña domy's daughter - who lives in santa ana (another department) - lets gustavo live with his grandma so she won't be all alone. after the school year he goes and lives with his parents in santa ana for the month of vacation, and when school starts up again, he comes back to san jorge to live with niña domy. he goes to school in ataco and loves it, he likes hanging out with his friends and even more importantly, he likes to learn. he always shows me his notebooks on whatever subjects and what grades he's gotten, and he loves math. he just completed 4th grade this year, and so when i came to the house, he was proudly showing me his grade card that said he passed 4th grade and can move on to 5th grade. i congratulated him, but he didn't look to happy about it. he looked tired and sad and i asked him if he was tired from his trip from santa ana to ataco for the graduation ceremony and he kind of nodded like "yeah, i suppose." i told him - as i'd told him before - that i'd get him his school supplies for next year when i go to the states (because they're way cheaper in the states than they are down here in el sal) and he kind of nodded again. he was just acting so weird.

some other guy was at niña domy's house - i didn't recognize him - but that's nothing new because there's always random people stopping by that i don't know (like niña concha). he sat in a chair by the doorway and was reading a newspaper while gustavo fiddled around with some stuff and niña domy made tortillas. then niña domy starts talking really angrily to gustavo - about how his parents need to come to her house and talk with her about the situation - and gustavo just mumbles "sí" and finally gets his stuff together and leaves the house. the guy who was sitting in the chair gets up and starts saying "sorry" to niña domy and niña domy says "it's not your fault." so he says sorry again and then leaves with gustavo.

the minute they leave, niña domy resumes making tortillas and then starts crying and tells me that gustavo's parents have decided that gustavo can't go to school next year. they want him to stay home next year at their house because they have a new baby and the mom needs help at home taking care of it. so they told gustavo that he can't go to 5th grade because he has to work at home. his parents sent his uncle (the mysterious guy reading the newspaper) with him to graduation and then instructed him to go to niña domy's house and get all of gustavo's stuff - his clothes and school stuff - and bring him back to santa ana. i was like "are you kidding?" niña domy was just so upset and it was like i didn't know what to say to her. what do you say to that? to me, someone from the united states, it's unthinkable to make a kid miss out on his education because he is needed at home to take care of a baby his mom can't take care of. it's not like she's sick or disabled and she can't physically take care of the baby. it's not that at all. it's that she has to wash and iron the clothes, cook the food, clean the house - all that "womanly" stuff that machista men require "their women" to do (and that the women happily do for "their men".....while their men are out screwing other women)....and taking care of a newborn baby on top of that is too hard - for her at least.

so who loses in this whole debacle? gustavo. poor gustavo, who can't make any decisions for himself because his parents are supposed to be making the responsible decisions for him, but who are, instead, only thinking of themselves. gustavo - who WANTS to go to school and LIKES to go to school. sure, niña domy is going to be all alone again, and that's sad too, but not half as sad as gustavo not being able to go to school. even niña domy agrees with me on that. she's always been really demanding of gustavo to study and do his homework, and even with her own kids when they were growing up, she tried to instill the value of education in her kids (even though she is uneducated herself). apparently gustavo´s mother didn´t inherit the same values.

i've been thinking about this situation constantly for the past couple of days and it just makes me so mad. moreso than ever because i'm close to gustavo and niña domy and for this to be happening is just the worst possible thing. but this is how the culture is down here. this happens in probably 1 out of every 10 families or something (well, i'm not a statistician, so i'm not sure about that), but at least where i live, this is completely normal. towards the end of the school year, we had a mom come in and ask for "permiso" for her daughter (who was in 3rd grade) to miss school for the day because the mom had to go to the hospital in ahuachapán and didn't have anybody to stay at home with her younger daughter (in kindergarten). so she wanted her 3rd grade-aged daughter to stay home with her kindergarten-aged daughter. alone. elba at least had the sense to suggest that the third grader should just bring her sister along with her to school and the younger girl could play at the school, rather than have the older one miss class, and worse yet, having them be home alone. there was another little girl who was in second grade last year. her parents left her at home alone with her little brother and wouldn't you know it but three mañosos (robbers) came in with guns and stole everything of value from their house. can you imagine?

then there's the "working in the coffee fields" syndrome. i have a couple friends back in the states who have 3 year old and 4 year old kids. know what? they're old enough to cut coffee in el salvador. from what i've gathered from talking to people who go out and cut coffee (which is nearly everyone, at least in san jorge) during coffee season (december-march) they get roughly $.75 – $1.00 for every arroba of coffee they pick. an ¨arroba¨ is equal to 25 pounds of coffee beans. they go out from early in the morning until the afternoon and just pick coffee all day. and most people end up earning between $3 and $5 a day doing that. if you´re a strapping young lad or a super strong woman who can pick coffee with agility and ease, there is potential to pick up to $10-$15 worth…but that is only if you are the most superb of coffee pickers. most people bring their kids out to help because more coffee picked is more money, right? not only do the kids not get paid directly, but they are also missing school to go out and pick coffee.

so what the fuck? who is to blame in this situation? should the parents be blamed - because on one hand, they are trying to make more money for their family...the old phrase "to put food on the table," but on the other hand, they are being completely irresponsible in 1) having their kids out there working, and 2) having their kids miss school in order to work. should the owners of the coffee fincas be blamed for paying their workers next to nothing to do this work? should people in the united states be blamed because we suck down mocha lattes and pay the $5 that the rich coffee companies charge, even when $5 for that cup of coffee is more than an average coffee picker makes in a whole day? most of the coffee fincas that exist now in my area were developed by the salvadoran elite (the ¨14 families¨) on land they stole from displaced indians back in the 1800´s. this trend continued throughout the years, and even antonio´s grandmother had land stolen from her in the mid-1900´s. the descendants of these first land thieves make a grotesque amount of money in comparison to what they pay their workers. fair trade? i think not. they pay their workers the "going rate" here, and for some reason this is called "fair trade." work is work. whether you are living in the united states and are picking almonds or oranges from trees, or down here picking coffee - it's the same amount of work. it sucks. it's back-breaking, it's boring, it's hot....and regardless of what country you're in - an honest day's work is an honest day's work. but they justify paying their workers $5 a day because it's el salvador. and it´s not even $5 a day…it´s ¨the more coffee you cut, the more money you make.¨ so what that does is increase the rate of child labor. how is that fair trade? as i've mentioned above, coffee season is only about 4 months out of the year. it's the only steady job to be encountered for most poor people here, but it only lasts 4 months. $5 a day for 4 months doesn't match the requirements needed for a 12-month year even in el salvador. but it's the going rate, and therefore, it's fair trade. fair bullshit is what it is.

is the government to blame because there are no other job alternatives here? no competition for jobs so that the coffee finca owners have to pay more? i read an article last year how dell, the computer company, was opening a IT center here. The title of the article makes me so mad (¨u.s. workers need work? go to el salvador.¨). the biggest complaint of salvadorans in el salvador are that there are no jobs here. so what does dell do? instead of offering jobs to salvadorans living in el salvador, and then training them, they were selecting salvadorans that are living in the united states because they can speak english. they were offering them short-term jobs, like a year long or so, to come down to san salvador and work in their IT center there. ?????? why´d they move the IT center to a non-english speaking county if they´d just end up having to bring in english speakers? i don't even understand that at all. do you? so basically dell moved their center to a country that they didn´t plan on helping out economically by offering jobs to locals. what is the salvadoran government´s problem? why did they allow this to happen? so maybe the government and dell are both to blame.....ok, that's a bit of a stretch, but you know what i mean.

but we arrive back at the parents.....they are the ones that decide to have children...children that they may or may not be able to feed and clothe and send to school. but they continue to have them. i saw a t-shirt in a souvenir shop here that basically re-iterated this as part of the cultural identity here. it said something to the effect of "the life of a salvadoran.....we're born, we have kids, we have more kids, and more kids, and more kids.....yay for el salvador." so i guess apparently overpopulation is all a big joke? well it's a joke i don't get.

so basically, the victims in this whole cycle are the kids....they do what their parents say because that's how it works. parents are supposed to be responsible, at least that's what i've learned throughout my life, and a lot of them here just aren't. it's not just here though - it's everywhere, including the united states. it's sad and it's stressful when you see it up close though. living in and amongst this cultural norm is just soooo difficult.

and these ARE cultural norms here. leaving your kids home alone, making your kids work - whether it's making them pick coffee or wash all the clothes or iron or entertain the baby while the mom does these things, not sending your kids to school, having 10 kids. how do i make sense of it? i can't. it doesn't make one bit of sense to me. these are the things that stress me out....these aren't little inconveniences like roosters crowing in the morning or having everyone show up an hour after a meeting is supposed to start. these are matters of survival, in a sense.

before coming here, i'd never really experienced what it's like to only live for the next day. our cultural norm is to save for the for our kids' college days, save for that awesome vacation in hawaii, emergency funds, retirement. here, i've come to realize, most people are working (wherever it may be...the united states, san salvador, apaneca) so they and their families don't go hungry, or worse yet, die. they make just enough money to ensure that they don't die and that's how they live their entire lives. day in and day out, they have just enough money to feed themselves for that week, or the next day. and they continue this pattern for years and years and years. i want them to realize that sending their kids to school will give them more of a chance to get out of this rut....hopefully their kids can go to high school, then possibly some sort of college. with that education they can make more money and not worry so much about every single day. but when you have to eat, you have to eat, you know? hunger doesn't wait for 12 years of education, does it? there are a couple of kids in san jorge that some days, all their grandmother feeds them are tortillas. that's it. tortillas have absolutely no nutritional value, and do nothing except for fill your stomach. these people don't have anything.

not everyone here lives like this. there are the family members that go to the united states and send back money to their families who go and spend that money on stereos and televisions and stuff like that. there are some people who've managed to get better paying jobs in san salvador, or even in this area, so they are able to send their kids to school and feed everyone with relative ease. but there are so many people at the other end of the spectrum that have literally nothing except their faith in god and their wooden shacks. and it's not that, so much, that stresses me out, but this whole entire cycle. there is poverty everywhere, including the united states, with the same type of cyclical problems. but living in and amongst it can become very difficult and very stressful. knowing that i have no ability at all to solve these problems is probably the worst part of all.