Joy Within Poverty
Joy is defined as a state of well-being evoked by attaining what one’s soul desires. Joy, unlike happiness, occurs less frequently within a person. No one, materialistic possession can bring about a particular state of joy. Even those with nothing are capable of experiencing joy in their lives. It cannot be attained through a single action alone. Rather, it comes with the living of a lifestyle with a strong moral foundation. Often times, selflessness to a point of sacrifice can carry one to the feeling of joy. Those with joy in their hearts are content, and, in their souls, they feel peace. Their joy survives throughout waves of sadness and sorrow unlike happiness which can be washed away in an instant. “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”
The wind blows a long piece of cloth back and forth. The cloth, worn from its use as the door of the shack it is connected to, pushes back easily to allow entry. Inside, dirt covers the floor because dirt is the only floor. The cold brown earth greets the feet of one who enters. Four more steps and one has reached the other end of the shack.
The walls here are not walls. Walls are sturdy. Walls protect. These walls have flimsy metal sheets. Light intrudes through the dangling tarps that make up these walls. The chill of the morning air slips smoothly past the vast and frequent gaps that exist in these walls. The walls here, these walls are not walls.
Cabinets press against the boundaries. Mismatched and unorganized, their shelves and drawers spill with a family’s goods. Socks, soaps, and a crucifix find space in the shack where there seems to be none. Pushed against the cabinets, two beds consume the majority of the area here. Two beds for four people. One bed beats the other in size and creates a sense of unbalance. Upon this bigger bare mattress rests a single green blanket with a complex white stitched pattern. This blanket, beautiful itself, screams out what is missing: Where are the sheets? Where are the pillows? On the smaller bed, a child’s blanket is strewn over the empty canvas that is the mattress.
Objects that have not found their homes on the shelves rest scattered atop the two beds. Yet, more objects pile up in mountains on the two tables lining one edge of the space. A box TV set seems out of place on the corner of one table, and plastic plates and clothes fill the rest of the tablespace. The shack is full, but there is not much here. With only four steps, one passes through the waving cloth, out of the room, and into the world.
With near seventeen million residents, Guatemala holds the position as the most populated country in Central America. Living below the poverty line, with only $1.90 in their pockets each day, 60% of these seventeen million Guatemalans struggle. In addition, 23% of Guatemalans live on only $1.25 per day or less, putting them below the line of extreme poverty. Specifically, indigenous Mayan people suffer the most, and 80% live below the poverty line. Farming of coffee, sugar, bananas, and vegetables makes up a large portion of the Guatemalan economy and employs many of those that are impoverished. These jobs do not include a consistent or high rates of pay, and workers are left unsure of how much money they will be able to make and when they will be able to bring in money for their families. Natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and landslides can often destroy farms and cause problems for the workers. Poor families cannot rise above the poverty line because they cannot afford to send their kids to school. Their kids can end up uneducated with no other job available to them than farming. Without much money, families eat non-nutritious meals of solely tortillas and salt, and their lack of money doesn’t allow them to pay for health insurance or dental care.
My feet came stomping to the ground, and I charged forwards. I galloped across the path that sloped up the hill until I grew tired. Edwin, the boy riding on my back, shrieked with delight. My boots made clouds of dust at my feet as they carried us ‘round and ‘round in circles. The giggles from behind my head sent a message of approval, and I spun around one more time before coming to an abrupt halt to face the direction I had come from. Gearing up, I brushed my foot across the earth beneath me again, and again, and again. The child burst with anticipation, “Olé! Olé!” A small hand stretched its way down from its grip on my shoulder to my lower back. Fingers bumped against my spine repeatedly, “Olé! Olé!” With that, my body lurched forward. The weight I carried on my back bobbed up and down like an apple in water, and the small hands tightened their grip around my neck. Air whipped past my face and muted Edwin’s wildly excited screams. My pace slowed, and a deep breath brought the air back into my lungs. Bending at the knees, I lowered Edwin back to the ground, and the boy stood on his own two feet once again. My hand extended outwards in a fist. A small fist met my knuckles, “Fist bump!” A smile spread from my face to that of the riled-up child in front of me.
Joy is like the solid walls that make up the newly built house. Joy does not move with a storm. Joy does not permit the rain. These walls stand tall and strong. Rough stone bricks make up the house. Each brick climbs upon the next in a pattern stretching towards the sky. Melted between them is the now solid formed mortar. Row upon row of brick and mortar, constant like unwavering joy, construct the simple house. One door and one window interrupt the brick pattern. Light penetrates through the glass window and rests on the cement floor inside the house. Inside the walls, empty space roams. A layer of paint covers the four walls. Joy does not notice the imperfections of the house. Joy gazes upon the house and finds, with all of its empty walls, a reason to smile.
Ana Maria’s voice quaked with passion as she delivered the words of her prayer. With her eyes shut, she tilted her head upwards towards God, “Señor.” My eyes disobeyed me. Despite my intention to shut them, they stole glances at the praying woman, and they glazed across the other members of my workgroup who sat around the table with their heads bowed in prayer. Standing at the head of the table, Ana Maria’s words, spoken in Spanish, conveyed a deep gratitude for her new home. Her kids would be sheltered from the rain, and they would walk on a solid floor. The relief of this realization spilled out with her soft rolling tears. My eyes disobeyed me again, and I brought my hand to my face to rub away their redness. Her powerful speech captivated my mind although I could not understand the entirety of her language. She finished her prayer, and we began to eat the first meal in the new house. The empty concrete walls were filled with the sound of laughter. On the table in front of me, a paper plate presented itself. The food on the plate had been prepared earlier by Ana Maria. She had called her daughter over to help cut the radishes, “Yenifer, ayudame!!” Even though she didn’t have much, she still wanted to provide food for all of us. I looked up from my radishes then back down to Edwin who was now crawling around under the table. “Cuidado Edwin!”
In front of me, Edwin stood. His big beaming eyes stared up towards me. His lips parted and the corners of his mouth turned upwards into a smile. A crease formed along each of his cheeks, and lines danced under his eyes as the movement of his face narrowed them ever so slightly. His light teeth juxtaposed the color of his smooth brown skin and short black hair. Like himself, his teeth were little, and they poked out of his gums in an organized manner except for the spaces between them. In the intense sunlight, his teeth glistened. Where his top row of teeth met his gums, the color faded from white to green. His teeth were rotting. Without ever going to the dentist, his teeth lacked the care they needed. In front of me, Edwin stood with a smile on his face and rot on his teeth.
Edwin hung his head. Moments before, energy flowed from his body, but now he sulked. His arms dangled limply at his sides. The members of the group stood in a circle. Tyler kicked the soccer ball to Edwin’s feet, but he did not react. “He’s only four. He probably needs a nap,” someone suggested. I approached him, and, once at his side, I picked up his arms and flailed them at his sides. A small grin flashed on his face for a moment before he brought himself back to his dramatic state of low energy. After more failed attempts to cheer him up, the group continued to kick the soccer ball with Edwin’s older brother, Jonathan. As the ball juggled back and forth between our feet, I watched as Edwin took a seat to the side. Minutes later, Ana Maria, Edwin’s mother, approached from around the corner to return home for the day. Upon seeing his mother, Edwin leaped to his feet and screamed, “Mama! Mama!” All his energy came flooding back into his little body, and his brother joined him in welcoming their mother home. In the moment, I was glad to see Edwin happy again. After, my questions hit me: When we go back to America, who is here to cheer him up? Who does he play with when his sibling leaves for school? When his mom leaves him to go work in the fields, where is the four-year-old then?
As a single mother, Ana Maria’s supports her family. She split with her husband months ago, and she cares for her three children Yenifer, Jonathan, and Edwin. Without economic support from the kids’ father, Ana Maria must work to bring in money for the family. Her work in the field earns her family fifty quetzales per day, but the money is not always enough to cover their needs. Without education past the fourth grade, thirty-nine-year-old Ana Maria will likely not attain a higher paying job. Her twelve-year-old, Yenifer, and her nine-year-old, Jonathan, study at a local school in the sixth and third grades. Edwin, only four years old, stays home without having received any education yet. Their old home was built of wood, corrugated metal sheets, and a dirt floor. The family could not afford repairments and suffered from the cold, leaks, and moisture. They have basic access to running water and electric services, but they lack a functioning sewer system. They do not have much, but their poverty does not define them.
Their struggles do not define them.
Their smiles, their faith, and their generosity define them.
Within their poverty, they find joy.