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If North Were South
Posted By Molly Beer On May 29, 2012 @ 12:01 am In Latin America,Politics of Place | No Comments
Inez turned to me, brandishing a fork.
“Why did you put this here?” she asked in her shushing, Andean Spanish, gesturing at her lone place setting at the kitchen table.
I looked at her, a teenaged girl in a ridiculous baseball cap. Then I looked at the fork. Was it a riddle or had I not understood her?
“To help?” I tried.
Inez and I both knew I was not much help. I just barged into the kitchen and got in the way with my awkward, ugly Spanish. I asked inane questions, poked at the strange fruits darkening in a basket, or peered over Inez’s shoulder—not that that was hard, she was barely five feet tall—as she fried platanos for the evening merienda. This was the first time I had set the table, but how hard could it be?
I looked harder at the fork. It looked like a fork.
“I don’t know how to use this!” Inez said with emphasis, as if she were spelling out the obvious to a particularly slow child.
But who was the slow child? She didn’t know how to use a fork? How embarrassing, I thought. But Inez didn’t look embarrassed. Why didn’t she try? I thought next. Didn’t she want to know how? Didn’t she want to better herself?
“I’m sorry,” I said, not entirely sure what I was apologizing for—my presumption or her incuriousness—and then I retreated into the dining room with the paper napkins to finish the table where forks were used.
In my childhood home, in rural New York, there was a map of the Americas tacked to the back of the bathroom door. Blue water, yellow and pink for land. It wasn’t topographical, but I can’t remember whether it was political, in the usual sense of maps, although it was blatantly political in all other senses. Maybe just the continents were contrasting colors, or maybe the whole patchwork of countries. None of this really mattered though, because the point of this particular map was that it was inverted: the Strait of Magellan on top, the Northwest Passage on the bottom. The Malvinas where one would expect Greenland. Put simply, the map was upside down.
The upside is the head of the body, the brain, the seat of most of the senses, the vehicle for consumption. The downside, to follow the body metaphor, is all functions, fallible plumbing, waste.
The North is above—higher than—the South. The North has money and culture. The North distributes ideas and weaponry at will. The North makes the decisions, the judgments, the loans; and it doesn’t let the South forget it.
But as a kid I would stare at that map and think: can a ball spinning through black space ever have an upside?
Opposite that puzzling map was another poster: Everything I Need to Know in Life I Learned from a Cow. I was not raised, ostensibly, to hierarchical thinking. Or so I thought while I lived “up” north.
I was reminded of the map on the bathroom door when I first crossed the Equator. I was in Spanish class, being (dis)oriented in preparation for a year as a WorldTeach volunteer in Ecuador. The teacher gave the four of us in his class a handful of paper ribbons, each with a line of words typed on it. Then he gave us a little boom box. We were instructed to listen to a song and then to assemble its lyrics out of the ribbons before us.
We played, paused, replayed, continued. Ricardo Arjona strummed and crooned, strummed and crooned again:
El norte y sus McDonald’s, basketball y rock-n-roll
Sus topless, sus Madonas, y el abdomen de Stallone
Intelectuales del bronceado, eruditos de supermercado
Tienen todo pero nada lo han pagado.
(The North and its McDonald’s, basketball and rock-n-roll
Its topless bars, its Madonnas, and Stallone’s chest
Intellectuals of the suntan, scholars of the supermarket
They have everything but have paid for nothing.)
We got the words in order, but it still didn’t really make sense. If the North were the South, would things be different? Not much, Arjona sang, but Yankees would get wet just to go to Tijuana; Simon Bolivar would confess to chopping down that cherry tree; and Arjona would be a rapper and his song would not exist.
Al diablo la geografía, se acabaron las fronteras.
To hell with geography, enough with borders.
The site assigned to me for my volunteer year in Ecuador was Ambato, a provincial capital two swervy hours south of Quito, in the Andean region known as the Avenida de los Volcanes. I moved in with a host family whose house had an extra room up on the flat roof. From that rooftop, I could see three volcanoes: Chimborazo, Cotapaxi, and the darkly erupting Tungurahua.
The summit of Chimborazo, if one measures from the center of the planet instead of sea level, is the highest place on earth. But Everest—once one becomes familiar with this way of thinking—is in the northern hemisphere and therefore the celebrity.
Politics aside, on my rooftop, I was damned sure I was on top of the world.
My host family’s house was in the Spanish barrio of Ambato, a few blocks up from the bullring on a street called Calle Garcia Lorca. It was, with its array of Jesus figurines and televisions, its Ford in the covered drive and its parquet floors, a wholly post-colonial home, a place for middle-class mestizaje in the era of globalization.
A week after I arrived, Inez came. The family could afford her because of the money I would pay to live with them, and they needed her to help take care of me. So Inez and I were a pair, albeit a pair of polar opposites: my magnetic charge north-seeking, hers south. While I got the rooftop, Inez got the closet at the very middle of the house. I had a bed, a desk and bookshelves, a color television, and windows on two sides—natural light, wide horizons, and tools for thought. Inez had no windows other than the skylight, a cot, and an ironing board—the stuff of work. I was assigned a seat at the dining room table, where I joined in, or was the butt of, the general hilarity of my good-natured hosts’ meals. In contrast, Inez was relegated to a seat at the kitchen table, where she ate her meals alone and forkless.
But Inez didn’t complain. The room had floors that weren’t dirt. And on that table there was abundant food. Before long, Inez would brag that she was getting fat from eating meat on days other than Sunday.
The myth that grade schools ascribe to the age of Christopher Columbus’s fateful sail is one way to think about the magnitude of paradigmatic thinking: imagine thinking that the world was flat; that one might sail right off the edge—!
Maybe four centuries from now people will think it is equally laughable that, in our time, we thought of Earth as a jigsaw puzzle, that we disintegrated our planet into states and nations, us’s and them’s. Crazier still, we fought to defend those hypothetical dividing lines. Within these lines, we dismissed what was “outside” as other, as different and apart from us.
Imagine if we did the same to our bodies, if a finger was deemed to be illegally scratching that itch on a shin, if a left breast cut off diplomatic relations with the right ear, if one foot refused to ratify the treaty on which direction to take, or the organs allied and imposed sanctions on skin, or the do-gooder heart decided to intervene in the internal affairs of the stomach.
Her first day on the job, Inez beat each of the living room throw rugs against the walls, leaving great gray rectangles of volcano soot on the white paint. My host mother gasped when she saw, but regained her calm and gave Inez another round of instructions.
“It takes a lot of work to teach a girl from the campo,” she sighed as we sat down together on the bus to the university where we both worked. “They don’t know how to do the most basic things.”
I nodded. Teaching was hard, I thought, although I was thinking of the fifty-one students in my Basic English class at the university, and how I would manage with only twenty-five chairs and zero books.
In comparison, I thought Inez looked like an easy charge. I was already concocting plans of my own for how I might help Inez better herself. I could teach her how to cook American food! I could teach her some English! One-on-one, for a whole year—when it was over, they’d make a movie about us, the American volunteer whose good example and tireless effort hoisted one girl from the Ecuadorian hinterlands into someone who—as American kids like to say—could be anything she wanted to be when she grew up.
Inez had come from the campo outside of Ambato; she was short, brown-eyed, and brown-skinned, her Quechua blood apparent; she was fifteen; she was the hired help. I had come from el Norte, the U.S.; I was tall, blue-eyed, and pale-skinned, my European blood apparent; I was twenty-six; I was the paying guest. Inez had only gone to school through eighth grade. I had my first graduate degree all but in the bag. On the north-centric scales, we were almost beyond comparison, but south of the hemispheric border, the toilets flushed the other way around and the scales tipped out of my favor. Of anyone I met in Ecuador, Inez was the least impressed by me.
I thought her flat-brimmed black baseball cap with a big kangaroo on it looked funny. But funny was one thing: Inez thought my “cat eyes”—blue-eyed girls are called gatas in Ecuador—were creepy. And an evil eye—el mal ojo—was no joking matter to her.
I could speak English and in theory I could teach, but these were nebulous skills. Inez could peel papayas. Inez could flip an omelet. Inez could iron, stir the soup, scour the pot, and scrub clothing in icy water on the “rock” behind the house.
When I condescended to speak to her in the kitchen over the cumbia on the radio and the buzz of flies, Inez stared at me and shook her head. It was incomprehensible to her that an adult could speak as poorly as I did. Or know so little. I had no idea, for example, that a woman should never eat lemons when she has her period. Inez was underwhelmed.
Eduardo Galeano is the go-to mind on hemispheric injustice. In his book Open Veins: Five Centuries of Pillage of a Continent, Uruguay’s writer of memory defines the people of the Global South as those
Who are not, but could be.
Who don’t speak languages, but dialects.
Who don’t have religions, but superstitions.
Who don’t create art, but handicrafts.
Who don’t have culture, but folklore.
Who are not human beings, but human resources.
Who do not have faces, but arms.
“How are you?” I’d ask Inez when I arrived home from “work” for the almuerzo she’d been preparing all morning.
“I am here,” she’d reply, scooping an imprecise clump of wet salt into the soup.
I’d smile and shuffle through her kitchen to the dining room where my host father would be fiddling with the dial on the black and white television so he could see the news before we ate. I would sit down with him and together we’d joke about the ineptitudes of politicians until my host mother, who’d arrived home from work on the university bus with me, came in with our soup.
“INEZ!” Marco would shout after his first mouthful of yucca. “This soup is too salty!” or “This soup doesn’t have enough salt!” or “The soup is too hot!”
Inez would make a noncommittal sound from the kitchen so he’d know she’d heard him.
When we stood up from the table after the meal, my host siblings—all twenty-somethings like me—would say to no one in particular: “Dios le pague.” God will pay you.
One would hope they meant Inez, and that God would one day pay her, because she wasn’t ever paid outright. Instead, after an appropriate interval, the family gave Inez a little television for her bedroom, where she watched the Colombian telenovelas in the afternoon once the dishes were washed.
A few months later, Inez took two whole days off to bring her family their first refrigerator, handed down from my host parents as payment for her services. Inez told me afterward that her family celebrated by freezing oranges and getting loaded on caña.
One day, I asked Inez point blank if she could read. She said she could (Ecuador’s literacy rate was actually a whopping 93%), and I lent her the book I’d just finished. It was Como Agua para Chocolate, Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel.
With an urgency that escalated over the weeks while she read, one slow page at a time, Inez spoke to me about the book, about Tita, the girl trapped in a family tradition of the youngest daughter caring for her mother unto death, without marrying. (Tita, like Inez, is fifteen when the book begins.) She whispered about the food Tita cooked, about the tears she cried into her pot, and the magical effect those tears had on those who ate the food they salted, as if it were a rumor she’d heard, as if it were real.
One evening, while I sat across from her at the little kitchen table, shelling one fava bean to every three or four of hers, Inez’s voice dropped to a whisper as she relayed what was going on with Tita’s cooking pot. Suddenly I began to worry that I had made a grave mistake. My eyes darted over to the pot simmering on the stove. Inez noted this glance and nodded her head like a woman far older than fifteen.
When she finished the book, she returned it to me quite solemnly.
“This is the first book I have ever read,” Inez told me.
For days I burned with self-satisfaction. But I ate out more than usual.
The shadow on a sundial moves clockwise in the North. It follows that, if North were South, time would run backwards.
Inez often told me about her family—but a lot of what she said was lost in translation. She had a sister, I knew. And that sister was married and was having a baby. But then there were other details. Like, maybe her sister’s husband had chased after Inez and her mother with a stick. Or maybe it was a pipe.
Inez had a boyfriend too. But after my host mother pierced Inez’s ears and gave her gold studs, the boyfriend became angry. He thought Inez was getting uppity off in the big city.
Inez had an aunt who lived on the Galápagos Islands. It was Inez’s great dream to move there—not for the animals but for work in the hotels and restaurants where the wages were rumored to be pretty good—even though it would probably mean that she’d never get to return home again, and even though it would most certainly mean she’d have to emigrate there illegally.
“How is cleaning in a hotel any better than this?” I’d asked. It didn’t seem like a dream of self-advancement to me, but one of more work and even fewer rights.
Inez looked at me with her usual incredulity.
When I was a kid, and lived in a house with an upside-down map in the bathroom, the other side of the world was China. If you dug a hole, and all of that. The Earth split East and West, or was labeled numerically—first, second, third worlds, like circus rings—as if we lived on three planets, or maybe a planet shaped like a Venn Diagram. Then those walls and iron curtains went away and the third world became the developing world. But “developing” does not allow for negative direction, and everybody knows things can always get worse.
The Global South, then, lest things kept “going south.” And wealth kept bleeding upwards.
So much for it being an “equator.”
I arrived home from the university one afternoon and found Inez outside the gates of the house where I lived and she worked. Inez was terrified of robbers and generally stayed locked inside, so seeing her on the outside was strange. Also, there was another girl with her, a girl who exists, impossibly, in my memory with a cream-colored cloth draped over her head, Madonna-like. She was holding a baby.
Inez and I said hello and I nodded to the girl but was not introduced. Then I let myself into the house.
Later, Inez told me that the girl was her sister, and the baby her new nephew.
“I would like to ask a favor,” Inez announced with surprising formality.
“Of me?” I asked, suddenly taken aback and a little defensive too. Inez had never had any use for me before. “What is it?”
“Would you be a godmother for my nephew?”
“Me?!” I asked again, blinking with surprise.
She nodded and stood there waiting for an answer.
I wasn’t clear on what a godparent was in my own culture, let alone in Inez’s. Was she asking for money? Was she asking me to take the baby to the U.S.?
“I don’t know,” I dodged. “Let me think about it.”
For days Inez and I talked about this. She told me it would honor her family and make them look good in their community. I absorbed this tidbit, and then I interrogated her about what would be expected of me. She told me that nothing would be expected—if something happened to her sister and brother-in-law, the family would take care of the baby. No one expect me to do anything.
On my own, I toyed with the idea. I could send Christmas and birthday presents. The family had celebrated a refrigerator as if it were a holy day; I could only imagine what a thrill it would be for them to get a package from the U.S. once a year. Maybe someday my godchild could visit me in the U.S. and I could boost him “up” in the world.
But whenever I got very far with this fantasy, I flip-flopped. I didn’t want to be the magically rich godmother who rained down gifts. I didn’t want to be the person the family asked for favors, or, worse, for money. The South is full of families who depend on remissions from a relative in the North, but within a family was one thing. In my case, even with the nominal title, it would be charity. I was a volunteer teacher in Ecuador, but I saw volunteering as horizontal, reciprocal, and dialogic. Volunteering is a handshake. Volunteering is not charity. Charity runs from top to bottom. Charity is dropped from a closed hand into open palms.
Besides all of this, I realized, I was terrified of Inez’s family. I didn’t want to attend the baptism of a child whose father had chased Inez with a stick—or pipe. I didn’t want to meet the boyfriend who thought earrings were uppity. I didn’t want to drink caña and sleep on a dirt floor. Most of all, I didn’t want to be honored.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Inez insisted, trying to sway me.
But it meant something to me: it meant I would likely be sad in the long run if I said yes. Accepting a godson was too far beyond the scope of my travel guides; I reasoned, in a wholly northern way, that I ought to maintain boundaries.
And anyway, unjust or not, I liked things just how they were: me in my room with my notebooks and Inez in hers with her iron and starch and the kitchen the place where we came together.
“No, Inez,” I said again. “It’s not going to happen.”
In his recent book, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World, Eduardo Galeano writes: “To turn infamies into feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe that wealth is innocent of poverty.”
Inez and I were antipodes of one another, polar opposites. But we were a dependent if stratified pair. My privilege and security, my intellectual life and artistic aspirations, even my freedom of motion was dependent upon her being there to feed me and clean up afterwards. Her poverty made her dependent upon me, made her feel privileged to serve me.
Inez and I found one another and our respective ineptitudes and blind spots baffling and hilarious. In fact, Inez is still the source of a joke in the house I now live in, a home where I do my own cooking and cleaning but am still wholly dependent upon the people who labor in the proverbial South (to pick my avocados, to sew my clothing, to fuel my foreign-made car). When the soup is too hot or lacks salt, when the floors are dirty or the dishes unwashed or the laundry piled up on the floor, I holler at the empty kitchen: “INEZ!”
Because I don’t forget her, or her nephew, my not-godson. Because I cannot exist without them—not as the person I am with the life that I have. Because I don’t know how to change, how to begin to make this round world, this stratified, top-down, divvied-up, divided world, a level plane.
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