April 22, 2002Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friendBy Jennifer Medina
Staff Writer, The Daily Trojan
As we used rubber cement to glue together shoes made of cotton and straw, I looked at my own white Adidas, perfect except for some dirt and nail polish.
As we ate lunch at a soup kitchen, I choked down the same food the kitchen's patrons were stowing in their bags to eat for later.
And as we talked to Argentines about their crippled economy, I remembered my piles of shopping bags I carried through the mall earlier that day.
The ironies of poverty in Uruguay and Argentina were apparent everyday as I traveled with 19 other USC students to work and talk with impoverished communities in Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
We had all our own reasons for trading in the chance to party in Mexico or sleep at home to working six days of our spring break. We wanted to see poverty first hand. If we forked out $500 from our own pockets, we would be able to travel across the globe. Maybe we even wanted to change the world.
While USC has sponsored Alternative Spring Break for more than a decade, our trip marked the first time students went international. Hillel Jewish Center and the Volunteer Center designed a trip that ignited a spark of justice for each one of the trip's participants.
We had no assumptions about the inaugural trip, partly because we did not know the details about what our service projects entailed. All I wanted to do was learn.
Seeing poverty in South America meant a time for me to see an altered reality. I was going to see what life was really like. How could a country such as Uruguay, which boasts one of Latin America's highest education rates and most stable economies, have a real lower class? And more importantly, why?
From the plane, I could see the ornate architecture that marks Montevideo. As we left the airport, I saw the mansions that could be in Beverly Hills or the monuments that would look at home in Paris.
After traveling 30 minutes by bus we looked at El Cerro, a small community just outside of Montevideo, people live in houses with walls made of cinderblocks, floors of dirt and doors of brightly colored plastic string. Many of the children play without shoes or shirts. There, we spent two days painting, cementing and insulating a metal container that had once been on a boat and would now be used as a medical clinic.
We came with packed lunches, fresh fruit and Coca-Cola. Most of us didn't bother to drink it; figuring water would help us more in the hot sun. Mike was the first to pour a cup for the young children of El Cerro, who we spent the day painting and playing with. I watched as the child's eyes light up as he gulped the sugary liquid.
The poverty in Montevideo didn't fit my norms.
My parents are teachers who emigrated from Central America to attend college in the United States. I've always thought that poverty is directly tied to education. The leaders of our country want us to believe that with an education, poverty is impossible.
Yet in El Cerro, I met women who received a solid education until they were 18 years old. Milta knew what set every Latin American country apart from its neighbor. Maria understood many of the precise reasons for conflict in the Mideast.
Maria, who pulled back her light brown hair to emphasize her smile, wanted to attend Universidad de la Repblica, Uruguay's public college. Since tuition is free, she could attend classes to reach her aspirations of becoming a lawyer.
But her father could not afford to pay for the books or formal clothes necessary to succeed in the university setting. For now, Maria hopes things will be different for her own family.
Two of the girls in El Cerro won my heart after the first day. While other team members finished painting, I taught Cecilia and Sylvia how to do headstands and backbends. Cecilia, 8, dreams of being a writer - she wants to write about families and friends and how people help each other. Sylvia, 9, hopes to be a chemist and has a tremendous passion for discovery.
I wanted to believe in their dreams as much as they did.
But as I played with their long black hair as they talked, I couldn't help but wonder if they were anything more than dreams.
Two months away from graduation, I spent much of the trip thinking about my own dreams: speaking Spanish fluently, writing about Latin America and raising a family. Some of these dreams will come true, others won't. Still, it's hard to imagine dreams shattered.
Shattered dreams are the only words I could use to describe the despair I saw in Sergio eyes. The 20-something Argentine is one of many young middle-class members who is watching as his friends flee the country, headed for Poland, Israel or anywhere but there. As I greeted him in Spanish, he asked where I had learned the language. I told him about my parents and classes in college. I apologized for terrible grammar.
"Why would you want to learn Spanish, it is the language of the poor," he responded. The answer was just as haunting as his eyes.
We didn't know what to expect.
What we saw was a region filled with warmth and passion but consumed by injustices and uncertainties. As our group grew, learned and experienced together, we saw the same barefoot children, the same hungry families, the same broken hearts, the same hugs and the same smiles.
But what we understood was different.
There was Tammy, who privately remembered her family's own experience as Vietnamese immigrants, poverty-stricken and in need of assistance. In the houses we saw in El Cerro, she saw her parents and grandparents.
Some of us wondered if we should dramatically alter our lives and eliminate trips to the trendy stores or posh restaurants. We all recognized our charmed lives.
Jesse said we only need to be thankful for the freedom. He remembered all those who came before him when he had the opportunities for the material pleasures. As the first generation to attend college, he said he would graduate from USC for his parents as well as himself.
Aaron wondered about the definition of poverty in the United States, which often refers to those who cannot afford brand names or televisions, but live in comfortable homes with plenty of food.
We spoke of hope. We spoke of helplessness. Matthew, our group leader, told us we would not move mountains in a week. We knew. But regardless of our work, there were no certainties that we would truly alter the lives of those we served.
The trip wasn't made to make us happy. This was spring break, but this was not a vacation. Perhaps our paint job will chip, or the clothes we folded will get messy. But we made people smile. And we tried.
In our last hours, we talked about how difficult it would be to explain our story. It is impossible to fully understand what we learned.
Each day, we studied Jewish texts to better understand our work of tzedakah, Hebrew for justice.
And the words from the ancient Rabbis still remain:
"You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdraw from it."
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