A lot of children wander around San Cristobal selling trinkets their parents have made–or just outright begging. If you frequent a tourist area and if you have the right touristy look, you will be approached by children asking for money.
This can be uncomfortable, because it sticks the unfair disparity between you and these children right in your face. You are the rich tourist, and they are…not. But also sticking in your face is the impossibility of responding in any meaningful way that makes anything more than a fleeting difference in any of their lives. You will be gone tomorrow, and they will…not.
I could buy the trinket, and I did, from a boy who was selling simple clay figures his mom had made. I thought at the time it would be useless. However, I became really fond of the little critter until I broke it a few weeks ago. But, as the disciples asked Jesus before he multiplied the bread, “What is five loaves (or one trinket) among so many?”
Yet, in some inconsistent part of my brain, I also appreciated that no one shooed the children away. They wandered freely into restaurants and shops, bugging anyone who looked like an easy target. I’d rather have the inequity rubbed in my face than be artificially shielded from it. I’d rather be made uncomfortable than travel in my cushy tourist bubble, looking benevolently and distantly on the adorable children.
This particular morning, however, I was eating breakfast in one of the restaurants on the zocalo—Ground Zero for tourists. There were plenty of outdoor tables, but I opted to eat inside, for a moment hoping to be artificially shielded in my tourist bubble.
It was not to be. A young girl wandered in and asked for money.
I have a firm rule against giving kids money. I’ve seen mothers sit in the back of church urging their toddlers to circulate through the pews asking worshippers for money. Once I heard a mother say “Go ask for a gift,” when I smiled at her child.
So, I am eating breakfast when the girl asks me for money.
I shake my head firmly.”No.”
“Tengo hambre.” (I’m hungry.)
I shake my head again, and she leaves.
So I am left with my miserable self. What have I done? I have just refused food to a hungry child. I am ashamed. I tell myself that if I get another chance, I will do better.
Unsurprisingly, I do get another chance in the form of 10-year-old Marta. She wants money.
“No, but are you hungry?”
I offer her what’s left of my orange juice and my breakfast. She literally wolfs it down, licking the plate.
“Are you still hungry?”
I order a breakfast to go. It takes a long time. Meanwhile, her 6-year-old cousin, Juan, joins us, and we have a chat.
“Do you go to school?”
“Do you want to go to school?”
“Can I take your picture?”
A calculating look crosses her face. “For a peso.”
A bigger boy comes in and tramples on Marta’s turf. They speak intensely for a minute in their indigenous language. The boy asks for money.
“You share your food with him,” I tell Marta.
She shakes her head firmly, NO.
The food finally comes. Marta takes the bag with all its nicely packaged bits and bolts from the restaurant. I, too, leave and sit on a bench in the zocalo.
On the steps, I see a circle of kids huddled around the food spread out among them. I don’t feel particularly noble. This was a pretty small drop in a large bucket.