Sometimes I forget why I’m here. I’m so tired, so skeptical (but I’ve only been here two months). I don’t think about poverty that much, except as an abstraction, an issue to be discussed, a paper to write. It’s my job.
Why did I come? Why—originally?
Because there are very poor people in the world and we must help them. Because they are sick, many of them, and very often dying—and all because of a stupid accident: the accident of where you happen to be born. It’s not fair. Nothing can explain it. It must be made right.
When I was a little girl growing up in San Diego, at the southern tip of California, I would go sometimes with my dad across the Mexican border into Tijuana, where he helped build homes with a local NGO. We’d drive south down the I-5 in his blue pickup truck, an old clunker that was perpetually breaking down. Past downtown San Diego with its yacht-lined bay and glittering high rises, through the banal stretches around Chula Vista—strip malls, billboards, fast food restaurants—towards San Ysidro and the discount stores, used car lots, and signs advertising cheap Mexican car insurance.
Once we crossed the border, we’d turn east, towards the dusty, crackling foothills, blown by brush, slithering with rattle snakes and scorpions. Kids chewing on fried tortillas ran around dirt roads dotted with cardboard dwellings, and Mexican men in cowboy boots talked quietly with my dad about where to build the houses, and how many, and how soon.
The fence was only a few miles north. Thick concrete slabs that towered over the men, women and children who—desperate, adventurous, brave—lined up each afternoon to steal across into the no man’s land beyond the border.
Back in the 1970s, under pressure to “do something” about a spate of gruesome muggings and murders in those mesas and canyons, the San Diego Police Department established the Border Crime Task Force, a squad of rough and tumble police officers who disguised themselves as immigrants, and then in the black of night confronted the bandits who preyed on them. In his book about that (failed) experiment, Joseph Wambaugh describes the incongruity of the “twin” cities: “In one city, inhabitants still suffer from diseases considered exotic in the other: cholera, polio, typhus, tuberculosis, rickets. In the other city, separated by the former mostly by an imaginary line, lies some of the richest real estate in the richest half of the richest state in the richest country on the face of the earth.”
I remember looking out the window of my dad’s truck as we drove. Whip of telephone poles, gray seven-lane highway, cars snaking into narrow lanes to filter through the border. Federales in aviators would wave us through, and then, the assault: the yellow glare of sun, little kids darting in and out traffic to sell chiclets and glittery paintings of the last supper, the smell of sewage, and trash like a waterfall covering the hillsides.
You know how it is. You never understand what you’re seeing until later. All I was aware of then was a dim sense of bewilderment: but we are so close to home?
We were poor too, all things considered. Most of my parents’ friends were professors and academics, but my mom worked in a grocery store, and my dad, a perpetually out-of-work writer, floundered from job to job. He drove limousines for a hotel, sold art for a while, and did carpentry. Things got bad when they divorced. My mom’s income, though meager, had been stable; my dad had the bad luck of losing her and his job at the same time. We were renting a modest home in an upper middle class neighborhood in Point Loma. We tried to keep our struggle to get by hidden, but people from church bought us groceries a few times.
I remember not having toilet paper one night, and my dad yelling in despair: what do you want me to do? (So I went and bought some with money I had.) I remember coming home and furniture would be gone, sold. And I remember the insecurity I felt, that the ground beneath my feet was unstable. That there was no safety anywhere, and that if I didn’t take care of us we would be lost.
But there was a fire inside, too—an electrical current. One evening, eating a microwavable dinner and watching the evening news, images of children starving in Ethiopia flashed across the television screen. They were little kids, bony and bloated. It consumed me. I felt, with a kind of panic almost, that we must do something. With a mix of self-righteousness and fever, I would lecture my parents about responsibility and justice. My poor parents! They put up with me, even encouraged me. But then, maybe they were encouraged—by my fierce belief that things can be better, that our lives can change.
I’m not sure where the fervor went—that swelling of the heart, adrenaline rush, invincibility. It’s like I was walking along with a close friend, only to turn around one day and discover she wasn’t there anymore. Where did she go? When did I lose her?
It’s not that I don’t believe anymore—I do. But injustice and equity are less straightforward now than they were then. Once you start trying to get a hold of these big, complicated words, once you try to lasso them in and force them into something real, something tangible, it’s almost as if you stop feeling it as acutely. Maybe those feelings were possible because there was so much I didn’t know?