The other day when I was thinking of strolling down to the zocalo I said to myself, Uh uh, let’s not go there! It was not a conversation that I feared, but running into Sosanna. Somehow, in my thoughtless gringa carelessness, I have done something wrong, or had some wrong ideas about behavior, which I don’t know how to remedy. Would it have helped if I responded to Sosanna’s request for new shoes?
Sosanna is seven years old. Her face could be forty-seven with its worries; her forehead and mouth reflect, like water touched by wind, every passing disturbance. She usually appears in the company of her buddies, Arturo who is eight and Juan who might be nine. They come to the zocalo clad in ratty shirts and pants, and gaping shoelace-free shoes or ripped sole-flopping sneakers. Sosanna wears a soiled navy blue dress with a torn collar. They come to work. They sell Chiclets.
Chiclets brigades are a common sight in the Oaxaca zocalo. The Chiclets children range in age from five to twelve. Most of them look bewildered, as if they can’t process exactly what life is doing to them or what it expects of them. They wander among the tourists with their boxes of cellophane-wrapped four-to-a-pack colored squares of gum. The very young kids like to handle the little packages, “This is cinnamon, this is vanilla, this is blue, this is green”, they recite, handling each in turn and replacing it in the cardboard box. It’s their simple rehearsal of what they have learned. Each saleschild’s box holds two layers of gum packs, twenty-four to a layer. Forty-eight transactions. According to Sosanna’s sister, it takes five to six hours to sell all her Chiclets at a peso per packet. And how much of this forty-eight pesos does she keep? I asked. Five. And what will you do with the money? Buy something to eat.
Then one day I saw the three smaller kids sitting on a step outside a tourist restaurant. The walls are glass, and inside the diners were drinking their cappuccinos and watching costumed “folk dancers” bob around the floor. Sosanna, perched on an outside step with her back to the holiday cheer, looked like she’d been crying. Arturo was sitting beside her, quiet. Juan is already at the age when his reaction to adults is rage, and aggression is only waiting for him to get more size and muscle. He snarls at me.
Juan has begun his second job, which is begging. I ask to take their photo, and Juan insists on being paid. Well, that’s fair. I offer them in equal shares five pesos each and keep the gum. But I was short two pesos in change, and it was Sosanna who got only three – how did that happen? Juan grabbed and I didn’t react quickly enough. Sosanna’s face showed she’d been cheated again. I approached a tourist couple (Americans) and begged, Can you let me have two pesos, I ran out of change? The man snarled, What for? I attempted to explain I live here, I promised two pesos, I ran short…blah blah. When the man realized I was planning to give the two pesos to a child, he pulled out some candy and snarled, “Never give them money! They’ll just ask for more!”
I said the same thing myself, maybe last year or the year before.
The man strode off, and his wife paused, looked at me, and handed me two pesos. Which I in turn handed to Sosanna, but she and the boys were already facing into a different crowd, and the two pesos were neither appreciated (and why should anybody appreciate a gift of seventeen cents) nor hardly registered, in her sad face.
Once again I have done something wrong. What? I know it was wrong, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on identifying the deed. I had tried to participate (in what?) and somehow failed – there was no way I could equalize our respective power. Recipients are not participants.
So now I know something more about participation, and by extension, politics. Which is, if you don’t know enough, if you don’t know how to do it right, if you are left behind feeling guilty and stupid or, like the American tourist, angry and righteous, everything you wish to do turns to shit. Consequently, you back off and do nothing. No empowerment occurs.
When politicians use the phrase “inclusive”, as men like Oaxaca’s new governor Ulises Ruiz, or John Kerry, or Jesse Jackson are prone to do, it’s in the sense of a campaign promise – they claim to include or be inclusive of everybody, worker or boss, black-white-old-young-gay-straight-bent-broken, you name it, in a future as yet without form. Probably forever without form, which is why none of us believe campaign promises. That rhetoric is meaningless. What is meant is merely, We include you in our list of potential voters or donors. As one of the “included”, I gave my dollars, I mailed my absentee ballot. But I yearn for participation. Inclusion and participation are two different actions; politicians wave the first like a banner; the second is where it’s at.
Participation requires receiving a warmer invitation to inclusion, the kind where friends embrace you and say, Sit next to me, or What’s your idea?. Participation is not only belonging to the family, the society, the culture, but actually doing something that contributes. Participation helps shape as well as acknowledge the outcomes. Since I carried out the trash for the neighbors, brought flowers and a vase of my own, and then participated in the memorial for the dead, when one of the sisters meets me on the street she embraces me. I’m in.
I would like Sosanna to embrace me, but I fucked up. I think it happened in the gap while I was out cadging two pesos. I had left her, detached from me, passive and waiting. The money didn’t matter. She was helpless no matter what I did, and she knew it.
I imagine that many like me also fail at political conversions, and end up saying to people whom we thought we knew, Let’s not go there. Our listeners stay firmly committed to the Right, where helplessness is understood and welcomed. God decided, and the Bible explains. Or the President decided, and Colin Powell explains. That’s not political participation. If some of us live in a Kansas world, so what. Emotions always beat intellect, every time. Parents promise the candy – later, after you eat your spinach. I let go of Sosanna’s hand.
Our Daddy Democrats have not invited us to participate in any meaningful way, only to be rhetorically included – i.e. cast a secret ballot, in the privacy of the voting booth. I suspect the day the internet horde failed to show up to choose Howard Dean in the Iowa primary was symptomatic of how un-sticky inclusionary politics can be. Everyone was electronically invited and in the end, few came.
Participatory Democracy must empower, on the ground right here, face to face, hand to hand. Outsiders cannot succeed, we must all be insiders, physically and concretely, part of a mutual decision-making process.
Power is a sum leverage, gained from the work and determination of many people, which occurs with and after many conversations, and during which we finally understand who’s sad and angry and damned tired of selling Chiclets.
All comments and criticisms are welcome. <email@example.com>
If you want me to remove your name from my e-mail
* * *
Return to the opening page of the Discussion sub-folder
distribution list, please let me know.
Return to the opening page of the Strategy for Revolution folder
Return to the opening page of the Website
Last update of this page: January 3, 2004