When is poverty seen and what does it look like? If you wish, you can very easily spend your whole life avoiding the fact that 3 billion people earn less than $2.50 a day and 1.4 billion live under the unimaginable condition of living on less than $1.25 a day. You can spend your days living a comfortable life in the suburbs never once thinking about these people or the lives they might be living. Or more likely, what many of us do, you can simply ignore the poverty that exists right in front of you.
Here in Santiago, and I imagine many other places, there are two types of poverty, the poor that are hidden and the poor that are ignored. The latter are those on the streets that are passed by everyday. On every corner there is someone selling sopaipillas or empanadas for a dollar apiece, or someone with socks, gloves and hats lying out on the ground in front of them or someone at a stand selling candy and chips. Only rarely, when your grumbling tummy or your freezing fingers need salvation do you stop and recognize the street venders, every other situation you walk by without a second glance.
The hidden are those that aren’t often talked about and are often never seen, these are even easier to forget about. Sure we might hear something in the news or on a commercial every once in awhile about communities living in shacks on the outskirts of the city but how often is it that we really think about who these people are.
This trip for me has been about making the hidden seen. After these past two weeks of visiting different campamentos around Santiago I realized what I saw wasn’t really what I was expecting to see. Sure it was a bit of a surprise to see these houses that people lived in and wonder where exactly they go to the bathroom and where exactly they get their water living in camps that have no plumbing, but what was even more surprising was that the people I met looked normal. I don’t know what I was expecting, I guess maybe I was expecting the people I was going to meet to be wearing rags or to be especially dirty or something that would distinguish them from everyone else but what I wasn’t expecting was for them to look just like me. Everyone I met wore normal clothes and with the exceptions of a few who might be missing some teeth everyone looked for the most part clean. Everyone was friendly and nice and just like everyone else I was meeting here in Chile. I think I was anticipating that these trips were going to be very difficult, expecting it to be very evident that the people I met were less fortunate and I was worried that I would treat them as such. What I wasn’t expecting was that our interactions would run so smoothly. I didn’t expect to be welcomed into their homes and offered tea and cookies. I started to wonder what was it really, that made us so different. Sure maybe our family incomes were different but that didn’t seem relevant when I was sitting in their living rooms having a normal conversation. We both seemed to like watching tv and drinking tea and we both had pets and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. We were both living our daily lives, executing our daily routines. We were both just people. Now you might be thinking, well duh, but for me that felt unsettling. I was expecting to feel something other than just normal. I thought it was strange that I wasn’t having that shocking experience I spent so many weeks preparing for.
When I got home today I started to think about what a difference between us could be, a difference that really mattered and distinguished us. We interact with people who are different from us everyday, people with different incomes, different families, different lifestyles and different values. For some reason I was expecting the difference between the families living in poverty and me to be more clear cut and immediately evident. After the past two weeks of interactions I now realize that there is no amount of money that someone can have that would make a person on this planet different enough from me to make an interaction uncomfortable because we are all just human and we are all just people.
However, upon further pondering I was determined to find out what it was that made everyone put people living in poverty in a category that was separate from my own. I came up with two key differences between the individuals I had met and myself. One is about being hidden and one is about being ignored.
For me, it is very easy to ignore people living in poverty. I can simply go about my day passing homeless or street venders without a second thought. Every time I eat a fresh, home cooked meal or take a hot shower or sleep in my warm bed it is very easy for me to ignore the fact that many aren’t as fortunate to have these things to use at their leisure. However, every time a meal is skipped or someone can’t sleep because it is too cold they think of me, or someone like me who has what they want so badly. They spend more time thinking of me than I will probably ever spend thinking of them.
In terms of being hidden, yes the poor might be hidden living on the outskirts of the city but I have made the choice to visit and see what is too often hidden away. Over the past two weeks I have driven sometimes as far as an hour away to see how the poor live. To me, these communities are no longer hidden. I have the privilege of making the hidden seen. On the other hand, many if not all of the families that I meet will probably never have the opportunity to make my life seen to them. I can fly to Chile and drive an hour from the city to see the houses that they live in whenever I please but they will never get the opportunity to see the life that I live back in the United States. My life will always remain hidden to them. I realized that a big difference between me and them was that while they so kindly open up their homes to me and offer me treats when I came knocking on their doors, if they were to do to the same I might not be so kind.
I never quite understood why, in a lot of situations, people living in poverty don’t trust when individuals come from an NGO or a non-profit to help them. I always thought that I would be so grateful to have someone who was able, to be willing to help if I was in need. Now I understand why volunteers aren’t always greeted with open arms and praise. Coming to the realization that I might not be so open to having random people help me even if I was living in poverty, I am ever more grateful for all the lovely individuals who I have met the past two weeks here in Chile. The smiling faces that greet me with warmth and hospitality and who are excited to share their country with me. I now see that they were giving me a lot more warmth than I deserve and I was giving them a lot less credit than they deserve.
We are all just human beings. Living our lives with the resources we are born with and the tools we are given. We must remember to stay conscious and present in every moment, to be grateful and always willing to let others into our hearts.