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a small reminder - justicia y dignidad para los trabajadores

a simple story of human interaction, and a reminder of a few of the injustices of our modern society.
every once in a while, i will have a seemingly small encounter which turns out to strike me to my core. today, after a long morning of management meetings at multnomah county and a quick yet powerful union action at the county board meeting, i was feeling the low blood sugar hunger of not eating all day. around 2p i jumped on the bus up to burnside to get some lunch. i got off at burnside and grand, and proceeded to walk up to the "back to back cafe". i walked past the clusters of day laborers, waiting for hours in the sun for the small chance to do some sort of usually hard physical labor. i walked briskly both because i was hungry and because it often makes me sad to see these guys, as a reminder of a broken society and of their difficult existence.

i ordered my food and sat down at a table next to a couple of spanish speaking individuals who looked like they might also be day laborers. as is too often the case these days, i was absorbed in my own world, my own petty stresses and long "to do" list, my grumbling stomach, and my desire to get some quick fuel so i could get back to my pressing tasks. the fishbowl was over my head, and the tunnelvision was in effect. my burrito arrived and i dove into it greedily. between mouthfulls, i caught a portion of the conversation of the spanish speaking guys behind me, as they talked about how hard it is to get work, how they would do anything to just have a little bit. they talked with the soft voices of immigrants who know all too well about where they fit in our cold society, their place on the lower rungs of a social heirarchy that values them only for the cheap labor that they can provide and then ignores them or worse the rest of the time. they had nothing on their table. my bites slowed as my attention continued to shift towards their conversation and their world. one man got up to leave, to return to the waiting game down the street. i finished my burrito but had a pile of tortilla chips left on my plate. normally, i would have jumped up and dumped the rest of the chips in the trash and dashed out the door--as i have done most times in the past, as almost all others do. but this man behind me had intersected my reality in a way i could not avoid. i sat their in silence, asking myself if i should offer the rest of my chips to this man, whether he would take it as an insult. i didn't want to pierce the "stranger veil", and had no idea how he would react to me. i stood up slowly and turned around, and in the most humble and respectful way i could, i asked him: "usted desea estas tortillas?" [sir, do you want these chips?]. very surprised, his face lit up and in what was almost a bow of his head he said "thank you" as he reached slowly for the plate.

as tears welled up in my eyes, i almost ran out of the cafe. i kept shaking my head as i rushed up to the bus stop, fighting back tears. that one small moment of human interaction shot a lightning bolt through me. it was a painful reminder of how priviledged i am on this planet, how comfortable, how self absorbed. the entire 15 minute ride back to work, i wiped away tears, my heart aching for the brutal reality of our society--what it does to the people inside this country and the hellfire it dishes out to the rest of the world. i have so much in relative terms, and this man was so appreciative for a handful of chips that i would have thrown away. but i think more than anything, both of us were surprised and appreciative for the small interaction of two human beings that is not very common these days--of basic respect and understanding. i don't think this man had any idea how deeply his expression touched me and what a sincere wakeup call it was for me.

before people go dissing me for my "bleeding heart" or "self congratulatory" post, i want to say that it is not about that at all. i write this simply to document my experience for myself. i am very well aware of my position of relative privilege as an educated white male. you can think and judge as you will. this was a reminder to me to stop and appreciate the things that i have, and to continue to work towards a more just society where everyone has their basic needs met. hundreds of billions of taxdollars are spent in a twisted orgy of blood, oil and empire in iraq, while a man who came to this country seeking a better life--willing to work harder than most of the soft, comfortable sheeple--doesn't have enough to eat. so the story of modern globalization and empire goes...

justicia y dignidad para los trabajadores
Thanks 14.Jul.2005 18:12

Den Mark, Vancouver

Thank you for sharing that encounter. That simple kind of incident can shape us powerfully, if we are receptive, & lead us to do more. Thanks, too, for being able to reach out, & to be able to cry. Our culture is not very "able", to cry, to reach out, or to do most anything else humane. We can all work harder, even if we think we can't, even if we are tired, even if we fail a lot. We must offer what we have. A few words, a few chips, a few bucks, & then more, & then more. And then more. Much more. Including, if need be, revolution.

Thanks for your words and your observations 14.Jul.2005 18:38


This is the kind of writing I crave for in this very cold and distant society. You made me think deeply about how I treat people around me everyday. Thank you for taking the chance to share. I wish I knew how to do more to make things more just, more even, more compassionate. i wish there was more love in the world. I don't know what the answer is, but i look every day for the answer. Thanks again for your words.

I agree completely 14.Jul.2005 20:03


I understand exactly how you feel. It is so skewed. I sit in my cushy chair in a high rise, air conditioned, free-coffee-and-donuts office, mindlessly surfing the net half the day and getting paid upwards of $35K. All the while, I am acutely aware of the day laborers outside picking peppers for endless hours on their hands and knees in the burning sun, earning a fraction of my privileged salary, with which they must support a large family. The whole arrangement makes me sick. I feel terribly guilty, but what can I do - I can't reverse the situation I was born into. So I do what I can.. I donate money to human rights groups and I volunteer for causes I care about. But I think the whole status quo just stinks. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Feeling Guilty of Having a Full Stomac 14.Jul.2005 20:08


This story, has evoked personal memories from the late 70's. My mother who was an art teacher and painter of fine art in a small Central-European country, loved to travel abroad in her summer school breaks. After she has travelled all over Europe she became a 'bit more adventurous. First she visited the ancient cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent then a year later India. Even though she has prepared herself as much as she could, by reading about India, the experience on the ground has neverless shaked her to the core. I am of course talking about the -for her previously- unimaginable level of poverty, including child poverty, which has surrealistically co-existed with both the comfortable middle class, as well as the opulent 'high class' style of living. She told me that in her hotel, there had been paid subscribers for the hotel guests left-over food. Considering the general conditions, those people might have even felt lucky, since they were a few levels above the bottom. Imagine that. I had witnessed her, crying about her memories in India at numerous occasions, for quite a long time, after she had arrived back.

what you can do 14.Jul.2005 20:49


donating a little money and voluntering occasionally is great, but there is so much more that you can do

if other people can live off of $10,000 or less per year, could you imagine the changes you could make as one individual if you limited your expenses to ten thousand and donated the other $25,000 to grassroots organizations? What if you convinced ten friends to do the same? That would be almost a third of KBOO's annual budget alone!
Or what if you saved up money and then quit work or worked part-time so you could dedicate yourself to volunteering full-time with a grassroots organizations? There is so much work out there that isn't being done b/c there are too many people who just want to volunteer a few hours a month and not enough of us who put the rest of our lives aside in order to put in 20-60 hours a week into spearheading projects and being the core organizers for organizations.

There is so much you can do with your privelege. So many people simply donate a couple hundred dollars a year our volunteer a few hours a month just to pacify their guilt. It is this small amount of help, along with the incredible amount of work that a few dedicated individuals put in, that has enabled many organizations to scrape by for years. But people are dying out there! We are at war- against Iraq, South America, New York City, Portland, poor people, people of color, queer people disabled people, women, trans people, youth, men. We cannot resist this war with a few organizations that are scraping by. We need intense amounts of financial resources and lots more people dsedicating a lot more time. So use your privelege and donate every part of your salary/wage that isn't necessary, or give up your job and use your education in the resistance.

That's what you can do...

they are us 14.Jul.2005 21:09


One of my relatives came to the US from China as a 9 year-old boy, as a "paper son" (fake relative). One set of greatgreat grandparents fled the famines and poverty of 1820's Holland; family history has it that they actually GAINED weight on the voyage so you can imagine how bad off they were. Some of my older friends were born in the concentration camps the US put the Japanese-American citizens in during WWII. These are my stories, the same as yours and the same as the day laborers'. This country should own up to that part of its real history, that of hard-working immigrants who are simultainously exploited and discriminated against.

besides giving up jobs... 14.Jul.2005 22:33


I think it also helps just to make a difference in raising consciousness WHERE YOU ARE CURRENTLY. in other words, not giving up what you have worked hard for but taking the time to talk to people in that environment and at that level of living. I know there aren't enough people working full-time to stop these problems, but those who are not ready to do that can still make a huge difference by communicating with other highly paid workers. remember 5% control how much of the world's resources!! and the more people become aware the more trickle-down effect there will be. no, it is not sufficient, and I think if one is in a position to spend time in service to the community it is very worthwhile, but there will need to be a generally greater awareness of societal problems across all levels of income for there to be a solution.

World Income 15.Jul.2005 02:18

@nonymous Anarchist

"if other people can live off of $10,000 or less per year, could you imagine the changes you could make as one individual if you limited your expenses to ten thousand and donated the other $25,000 to grassroots organizations"

Whoa! Thats a major assumption. I live off of $10,000 a year with no dependents. Therefore I stand comfortable in the "world middle class" in the top 40% of annual wealth . On top of that I have a fair amount of leisure. I have subsidized health care in the form of my family - if I got seriously sick, I know I have some one I can count on. I am lucky to have a middle class family.

I make twice as much as the world's annual income which stands at very roughly $5000 per person ($4,962 in 1992). I make about 8-9x as much as the poorest 60% (at $1,116 in 1992). The richest 20% made $17,814 in 1992. A little less than twice what I make.

Those who gross $25,000 a year are in the the upper 1% of the world's annual income, I could only imagine what mass of plastic crap people accumulate when they have no dependents and spend $35,000 a year in Oregon!

Do most people viewing this board make about $35,000 a year! I would have assumed $15-25,0000. Still in the upper 20%! A bracket I am likely to achieve.

The richest 1% of the world's people earned as much income as the bottom 57% (2.7 billion people). The top 5% of the world's people earn more income than the bottom 80%. The top 10% of the world's people earn as much income as the bottom 90%. The richest 16% of the world's population receives 84% of the world's annual income.

The wealth of the world's 7.1 million millionaires ($27 trillion) equals the total combined annual income of the entire planet. The combined wealth of the world's richest 300 individuals is equal to the total annual income of 45% of the world's population. The world's 3 wealthiest families have a combined wealth equal to the annual income of 600 million of the world's people. The wealthiest one-fifth of the world's population receive an average income that is 75 times greater than the poorest one-fifth.

Poor countries (which contain 4/5th's of the world's people) pay the rich countries an estimated nine times more in debt repayments than they receive in aid. Africa alone spends four times more on repaying its debts than it spends on health care. In 1997 the foreign debts of poor countries were more than $2 trillion and growing. The result is a debt of $400 for every person in the developing world - where average annual income in the very poorest countries is less than a dollar a day.

@nonymous Anarchist - cause I don't like to brag about how rich I am.

Great story 15.Jul.2005 09:02

Jody Paulson

Thanks for sharing it. It got me thinking about the "stranger veil" and how we all need the courage to cut through it to make a better world. This is why I love Portland IMC so much.

Living on $1 a Day 16.Jul.2005 15:54


Living on $1 a Day

By Xanthe Scharff, Christian Science Monitor. Posted July 16, 2005

Selina, her husband, and four children are among the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day -- what the United Nations calls 'extreme poverty.'

At 8 a.m., after seeing her husband off to work and her children off to school, Selina Bonefesi puts on her entrepreneur's hat. Mrs. Bonefesi has a small business making fritters -- fried cakes made of wheat, salt, sugar, and yeast.

She'll spend the morning mixing, waiting for the dough to rise, and frying, cranking out as many as 300 of the tasty treats and selling them from her home to passersby. By the end of the week, between her household chores and running her business, she'll have logged more hours than a Fortune 500 CEO.

But she'll only earn about $1 a day.

Selina, her husband, and four children are among the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less than a dollar a day -- what the United Nations calls "extreme poverty." Many of them are in Africa. Some live in rural villages, others in urban shantytowns; some can be found in the deserts of Chad, others in the jungles of the Congo. Yet Selina's family in Malawi is typical: they have limited education, little access to jobs or capital, and are ruled by an indebted government that lacks a coherent plan for helping its poorest citizens.

The Monitor visited with Selina to learn how a family of six lives on so little -- and to hear from them what would be most helpful from the richest nations in the world. Selina's message is quite simple. "Monetary help is needed," she says. "We want iron sheets on our houses. We want capital for our businesses."

In a typical week, Selina will make 1,125 Malawian kwatcha, or $9.09, in fritter sales. With the $5.17 that's left over after she buys supplies for her next batch, she'll purchase food and amenities for her family and tuck away $1.25 into savings. Her annual earnings, combined with her husband's earnings as a farmer, will give the family of six, after business expenses, about $453 to live on this year.

Selina married her husband, Bonefesi Malema, when she was 16 and took his first name as her last. Selina's fritter business is meant to be a buffer against hard times, warding off the insecurity that comes with each growing season. Selina says her contribution is only to "take some of the financial strain off my husband and to help his farming business." But this year, Selina is the main breadwinner.

The fruits of her labor are 150 small fritters and 150 large fritters, which will sell for about $.02 and $.04, respectively. Her customers are her neighbors, schoolchildren hungering for a midmorning snack, and people headed to the market three miles past her town. They all know Selina's house and yell out to her from the yard for service with a smile.

With the exception of the trip to the market to buy supplies, Selina's entire business -- preparation and selling -- is done within the confines of her house, allowing her to continue her primary role as the caretaker of her family. "Some women have had problems with their husbands when they engage in economic activities," she explains. "Those are the women who neglect their family duties."

Some weeks, Selina may be able to make two batches of fritters, doubling her take. But with nearly 15 percent of Malawians HIV-positive and life expectancy at 37.5 years, funerals often occur twice per month, and require donations and communal labor, dipping into her work time.

Selina has been in business for three years. In 2001, the Malawi country office of Care International, a private volunteer organization based in Atlanta, Ga., targeted the 10 most destitute women in Selina's village of 333, just outside the capital, Lilongwe, for a road-maintenance program. The women received economic and personal-empowerment training in exchange for their labor. Selina qualified for the program, learning how to save money with the group and start her own business. The women have now saved $125 for things like fertilizer to boost their husbands' harvests.

Three miles to market on foot

On a new day, Selina walks the three miles to the market. With the money that's left over from buying $3.92 worth of fritter supplies, she'll purchase fish ($.24), tomatoes ($.08), and practical items -- soap, lotion, and salt, for a total of $.51. Trousers and two blouses for her youngest children tally $.50 after bargaining down the price. Next week she'll give her son $1.25 to select his clothes but will spend up to $1.60 on her daughter, knowing the importance of an attractive wrap. She motions to the brightly colored cloth that covers her legs. "If a woman has more than one of these, then she is a real woman," she says.

When Selina returns at dusk on tired legs, her children run to meet her. They tug at the parcel she has balanced on her head and unveil four doughnuts. While the treats cost a total of $.16 -- about half the cost of dinner -- any mother could understand why she splurged. "I bought them so that when the kids are coming to meet me and calling, 'Ma! Ma!' I can have the pleasure of giving them something to make them even happier," she says.

With the fish and tomatoes, Selina will make a special porridge supper. Usually they will eat porridge garnished only with dried pumpkin and bean leaves, picked from the surrounding area in season and dried for use throughout the year. Greens from their garden also provide some variety to their meals. But because the diet is generally bland, Selina says, "I do struggle to get a little tomato for flavor." If they ever find themselves with extra funds, Selina and her husband will treat themselves to luxury items: a liter of milk for $.38, a loaf of bread for $.50, or half a pound of beef for $2.50.

The family has precious few belongings, all bought from the local market -- a pail for water, a handmade lamp, and some plastic chairs that they hospitably lay out for visitors not accustomed to sitting on the hard-packed dirt. Several years ago, after a particularly fruitful harvest, Bonefesi bought his most powerful possession: a bicycle worth $50, which is used to transport tobacco from the field. He also enjoys a radio he bought for more than $4.

Living on One Dollar a Day

Bonefesi farms both tobacco and maize on his three-acre holding. He laid out a whopping $67.87 for fertilizer this year and will struggle to see returns on his investment. Bonefesi will pay an entrepreneurial neighbor with an ox cart about $2 to bring his harvested maize to the house. He treats the crop in his storage shack with a chemical solution to keep away termites, which runs him another $1.62. Bonefesi hopes to receive $21.25 for each of three 110-lb. bags of maize that he harvested this year -- $63.75 total.

While tobacco requires more input than maize, it's an export crop so the reward is greater. Bonefesi will shell out $2.42 for tobacco seeds, $.81 to use a tobacco press, and $4.04 to transport the goods to the auction house. He will be content if he receives around $100 for his one bale of tobacco.

The income from Bonefesi's farming activities will total $197.07 and will yield $118.29 in profits this year. With this, Bonefesi can pay for the $75.14 in annual family expenses that Selina's earnings do not cover, including school uniforms and fees. This does not leave much margin for investment in business, or for emergencies like funerals, illness, or a low return on crops.

Fortunately, the sale of 15 of the family's chickens will add $36.36 to the kitty, as well as protein to Selina's dishes. They don't eat the eggs -- they would rather let them mature into full-grown birds. This year they could save about $175, some of which they will put aside for harder times.

Children help out

While all the children pitch in to help in the fields or by selling fritters, Anne, the oldest daughter, bears the brunt of the household chores. While her 19-year-old brother, Sifiledi, attends 11th grade, she stays home to help her mother. Anne completed 8th grade, the last free year of public school, but her parents cannot afford the cost for 9th grade.

They do, however, consistently pay Sifiledi's yearly tuition bill of $29.09 and a per annum of $6.46 for school supplies and smart pink-and-blue uniforms for the three school-going children.

Bonefesi proudly tells of Sifiledi's ambition. "He would like to work in the government in the rank of official," he says. They hope that if he continues to study he will achieve his dream. Anne has ambition, too. She would like to be a nurse. While the children will hope to earn more than their parents, the majority of teens will remain in the village as farmers and housewives.

Selina and Bonefesi's economic situation is like many families in Malawi, where 65 percent of the population of more than 11 million live on under a $1 per day. The couple talks about the realities of their village, which sits close to the international airport. It has a murky well filled with gray water, distant hospitals, and scarce and expensive fertilizer. "We do struggle to live a good life like others but we fall short each and every day," Selina says.

While Selina and Bonefesi will continue to work diligently at their businesses, Bonefesi wants Western readers to know: "It is good to live in Malawi, but poverty is the real struggle. If there are other countries that are willing to help, let them help us fight poverty. Poverty is the biggest enemy we know."

Xanthe Scharff is a contributor to the

hey, me 16.Jul.2005 20:24


posting that article certainly cut off discussion, didn't it.

was that your purpose?

SICKENED 17.Jul.2005 15:47


Disrespecting "day laborers" and "immigrants" through your "educated" and classist pity goggles makes me want to throw up. You may believe that you exchanged some serious feelings through your generous offer of handing over some left-over tortilla chips, and you certainly seem to feel good about being your "educated white self" at the same time, but through your manner of writing and expressing yourself you have no idea how you denigrate the level of intelligence of other folks in this world..

Instead of attempting to be "humble" and lower yourself to the level of "day-laborers" and "immigrants," perhaps you should just be yourself and speak normally, as though you are speaking to other human beings. You think they'd trade working outside for your day-job under flourescent lights around tables discussing "planning" with other "privileged" american white folks wearing ugly cackies??? Give me a Break!!!!!! Get off of your american egohorse and stop pitying others!!

When I speak with the african immgrants here where I live along with my caribbean immigrant in-laws and brown-skinned husband, most of whom are multi-lingual due to experience rather than formal american corporate education, (and of course I don't live in the US- paying taxes to support war is not something I believe in, as you obviously do) I drink and laugh and eat with them, we crack jokes, they tell me about their and my believes, superstitions, and we all compare and laugh together about our cultural differences. We are real together-- there is not a separation between us..we are from different cultures and rejoice in our differences. I do not consider myself to be more "educated" than anyone else just because my english vocabulary is bigger and from the US and I happened to receive an american corporate education. Most of my friends happen to be "day-laborers" and I am proud of them- and they are proud of themselves.. I would NEVER cry for them, and cause them to feel uncomfortable in doing so---- To them pity denigrates their existence. I would never do that to them- I respect them too much. We love one another without needing to recognize where we come from, where we got our educations, nor the color of our skin..we don't even put a language barrier wall between us..

Thank you for reminding me why rest of the world including many activists and anarchists outside of the US cannot stand the typical american leftist attitude- that of privilege and false self-recognition of such privilege, along with your arrogant manners of disrespecting others around you through your pity..it makes us absolutely and completely sick---- then again, you are folks who never attempted to question your egoism and selfishness through your leftism---- Guess you're a typical product of your American system.... have you ever thought about TRULY questioning it???? Perhaps your tears were really just pity for yourself and what you represent. If you're willing to recognize that, and grow a bit, wow, that would be wonderful-- Please, prove me wrong, make the world a better place, really, I dare you..

So, Yeah, pdx appears to be a relatively nice city, but thanks for reminding me why I plan never to live in the US again-- and to why I will continue to laugh and drink home-made alcohols and eat non-appropriated ethnic foods with the "lower-income" (oh booohooooo maybe you could pass some chips over, please???) communities surrounding me as we laugh about the stupidity of the "Educated White Man" in the USA and his nice little computer forum that allows him to feel connected and part of a community.

Sickened at Sickened 18.Jul.2005 21:57


Rosymischief Man WHO were you trying to point at as acting superior? Guess what? The rest of your fingers were pointing at you. Too bad you don't live in the US, I don't think you'd have a hard time thinking you were the center of the universe.