Small kindnesses add up

In the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas

When the MEL Women’s Tour to Chiapas arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, the ladies dragged into the lobby of the Hotel Monctezuma looking pretty wiped after their long day on the bus. But within an hour, they had gathered again, eager for Sergio to walk them to the nearby Main Plaza. Their eyes danced around and they laughed like school girls – they’d heard a lot about the city – and couldn’t wait to discover it.

When they returned, most had found a restaurant they enjoyed, and the next day, they LOVED shopping in the huge artisan market. However, observing the indigenous women selling their crafts until late at night distressed the group, and obviously, everyone felt their children should be home in bed, not roaming the streets in the hopes of earning a few pesos. “In Chiapas, need seems more acute than in Yucatan,” one of the group members said.

Poverty is defined by many criteria. But to me, it means having no choices. Somehow people make it from day to day, but they do not have a say about what they will eat, and their living conditions are always precarious. Many children do not attend school. No matter what their age, the poor have to accept whatever is imposed upon them. They are vulnerable to the whims of self-serving politicians, big business encroachment into rural areas, their own cultural biases, religious taboos and family interference and pressure. 75 – 80% of Mexico’s population endures poverty to some degree. And sadly, it seems doubtful that the numbers will be different in the next generation.

Such a pleasure to meet Claudia Castro, the Director of “La Casa de las Flores”

But in San Cristobal, as in every city in Mexico, there are angels who refuse to accept these grim statistics. Our group visited “La Casa de las Flores”, a drop-in centre for street children. We saw first-hand, that love and learning CAN overcome the odds stacked against the kids. What a wonderful morning we spent playing, reading, singing and folding origami cranes with the 7 – 8 year olds. Before leaving, we served cake to them and to the delightful, dedicated volunteers. Our donations of toys, school supplies, clothing, and other items were most welcome – but tomorrow – will more needed supplies come through the door?

Ana Darson reading to the children

Read more about the “Casa de las Flores” on their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lacasadelasfloreschiapas/

One of our group members asked the Centre’s director: Is the best tact to support the children by buying their products, and also offering help those who fall through the cracks, as they do in every culture? What other responses would be helpful?

Claudia Castro, the dynamic founder and present director of “La Casa de las Flores” told us that yes, it was important to buy from the children. “Otherwise, they don’t eat,” she added sadly.

Boxes of donations from the MEL tour participants

It seems clear that the country‘s political and social agencies can squash or stimulate the quality of life Chiapas, and the state needs economic growth that will benefit the majority, not only the wealthy. Private individuals like us can’t possibly help everyone that crosses our path, but by financially supporting initiatives like the “La Casa de las Flores”, we can be sure our donations will reach the people who need them.

1,000 Cranes

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a tried and true maxim, and my mother-in-law was the first to show me the importance of living by this “golden rule”. At first I felt terribly self-conscious. I felt embarrassed – and yes – I felt guilty. “Share what you have,” Doña Bertha would urge me, and she helped me get over my discomfort. Slowly I became more open to approaching people who look like they need help.

The big market used to be the best place to buy groceries of all kinds. I would go there with her, and I saw that she always carried a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of some kind of drink in her big purse. Like it was nothing out-of-the-ordinary, she’d give the food to someone who looked hungry. I used to worry she might offend the person, but I never saw anyone turn her down. When I started to do likewise, no one ever refused my offerings either. And over time, I learned there are many ways we can all help out.

I learned that I can help, by asking for help for myself. For example, I sometimes hire a young kid to help me with some “tech’ task” like updating the contacts list on my phone. The lady who works with me in our home has a daughter who comes once in a while and helps me clean and organize the closets and shelves. She actually enjoys doing this and in addition to some cash, she likes to take home what I can no longer use. I often ask a neighbour to help me in the kitchen when I have a party. It is a win-win deal, I am happy to have the help, and those I ask for it, appreciate earning some extra cash.

Tip the parking “dale-dale” man, and the ones who bag your groceries. These people receive no salary. Most look at least as old as me, and I give them a minimum of 10 pesos.  While dining at outdoor cafes, Jorge often buys a rose or I buy a fan from a vendor. From time to time, Jorge agrees to get his shoes shined, and he says, , if a musician asks to play us a song.

There are times when someone wants to sell us something, we don’t want at all (like cigars) Nonetheless, we don’t just brush them off. We say no as pleasantly as possible,  look them in the eyes and smile before we turn away.

Showing respect makes a big difference.  You may not think that the 10, 15, or 20 pesos you give, or spend on a “service”, means much. You may not believe that a smile helps, but I assure you, it does.

Our world is not a fair place. Our efforts seem like “a drop in the bucket”. But even a little help can take the edge off someone’s immediate worries. A reprieve from present anxiety is not a long-term solution, but as my mother-in-law used to say, “Small kindnesses add up.”

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8 thoughts on “Small kindnesses add up

  1. One thing that sets Mexico apart from many areas with widespread poverty, is that most of the children are happy and know they are loved by their extended families. The toddler may be asleep under his mother’s skirts in the market in San Cristobal or Loreto but he knows that she is there. The little boy who invited my much younger grandson to join his friends in a soccer game on the beach felt secure and comfortable. He went to school and had been helped, so wanted to reach out in return albeit to a blue-eyed, curly haired Canadian boy. A little kindness goes a very long way to developing trust and confidence.

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    1. Yes, family unity has always been Mexico’s strength. There is much love, but when alcohol or drug abuse is present, the children are exposed to violence. As you know, our college is downtown… right outside our front door, we witness many dramas… one night we watched a man weaving down the street with a child’s bicycle. He was drunk and had fallen but he clutched that bike for dear life. When he fell again, the police were poised to pick him up, but we convinced them to let us get him into a taxi that would take him home. No cab would, so we did. His arrival was sad but at least he was home.

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  2. This blog brings me back to our time 5 years ago. As I said then “at least today we made a difference”. I try to live by that both here and in Canada and other places we travel.

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    1. What you say is so true Connie. Every day is different, and it is important for us to be aware. I think we instinctively know when we should get involved, and when we should not. Hopefully, when we feel that we should, we can find a way to do so. A friend of mine had a neighbour whose son seemed to be mentally challenged. Many families still believe that they need to keep such children “hidden and protected”. My friend thought the boy could be helped. She found a doctor who helped her arrange for a compassionate social worker to visit the home. It turned out that the difficulties were not so severe, and the little boy got the help he needed and now goes to school. My friend’s intervention changed that family’s life for the better, and they never knew that she’d been the one to start that process.

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  3. What a wonderful thing to do – the visit to Casa de las Flores – on your trip to Chiapas! When it comes to small children, though, I wonder how often there is a person to whom they bring back what they get from begging, a person who may or may not have the basic needs of the kids in mind. Is it better when visiting a place like San Cristobal to give to an organization like Casa than to the kids in the street? I find it very interesting that the director says to give to the kids, otherwise they may not eat. She would know much more about the situation than I do, of course, but I can’t help but wonder. And of course you can simply cover your bases and do both.

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    1. A good question, James… we all wonder what to do. But I think it’s best to “go with the gut”… whatever feels right, probably is. And I have a story I’ll share about that… Some years ago, I sat in a restaurant close to the main plaza in San Critobal. It had gotten late and it was cold outside. My friend Allan and I were trying to get up the energy to go walk by the club where he knew his students had gone for an evening of drinks and dancing… We had paid our bill when in scurried a scruffy little fellow who didn’t look to be more than about 6. Avoiding the “security” he b-lined for our table but he tripped and his clay “animalitos” fell onto the hard floor. Of course most of them broke, and his watering eyes told me what would happen if he went home with no inventory and no money, Allan jumped up and took his hand… “Sell the broken ones to me,” he said. A grin spread all over the young face but the tears kept coming. Three-legged dogs, headless jaguars, a horse with his torso broken in two. Allan said thank you each time a broken creature was placed in his palm. He gave the boy the amount the wee vendor asked for, and I advised him to tuck it under his sweater… it was quite a bit of money… We also gave him the rest of our nachos and chicken wings. He solemnly nodded as he backed out of the door, then ran off into the dark night. Allan and I went on our way so quietly. I will never forget that experience.

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  4. Thank you, Joanna. This is a wonderful blog. I, too, believe that no kindness, no matter how small, is useless. We can carry that thought with us to our friends, too. All smiles, all little acts of kindness, all acknowledgements of special accomplishments or birthdays, all forgivenesses go into the energy of the Universe. And I agree that we should be kind and polite to all the vendors and people who ask for money, waiters, people in service, cab drivers, etc. I once had a teaching that if we give a little, it doesn’t harm us and sometimes if we give that it hurts us a little, especially where forgiveness and understanding is concerned, that is the right thing to do. Again, thanks so much for this blog. I know you are a kind and generous person and I am most grateful I am privileged to know you. — And thanks for the lovely descriptions of your trip!

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    1. Thank you Alex… I know you as a kind and caring friend. I believe that generosity always helps the giver too… maybe not right away but at some point. And I am so happy about your book! I’ve got my copy of “Pinnochio Island” We must get together and talk books…

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