Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, Ph.D. Degree

Counting Our Blessings

At a meeting of some of the poorest citizens of this city of Manizales, Colombia, perched 7,000 ft. above sea level, high in the Andes I noticed a woman trying to read a newspaper. I say ‘trying’ because she was holding it up side down and only on seeing a photograph did she turn it around. I asked her for permission to visit her residence as I was studying how folks such as she lived. “Oh, mister, my dwelling is very humble. I don’t think you would be interested in visiting me.” “On the contrary,” I responded, “I want to visit persons in all social situations.” She gave me the number of her house in Barrio Galan and suggested that I call at 2 p.m. the next day. The health department numbers all shacks in these slum neighborhoods.

The next day at 2 p.m. I knocked at the door frame of the indicated shack. Looking inside the open door I noticed a large bed frame. One family lived above the bed frame and another lived underneath it. The dwelling was less than three meters by four meters in size. I informed the occupant that I was looking for Sra. Fulana de tal (Mrs. so and so). I was informed that she lived “en los bajos.” (in the basement.) The shack was built on a steep hillside so I went around back and looked into a small space cut under the floor boards of the shack above. Every time some one walked in the unit above dirt would fall down on the residents of this poor space. A single light bulb of about 20 watts illuminated the darkness even though it was two in the afternoon. The electricity was stolen as someone had tapped into the city power line.

The woman I had met the evening before was there and apologized for her humble circumstances. With her was her husband, lying on a litter in the limited space that they occupied. I was informed that he had a broken back and could not work. An infant was crying. The woman gave the baby a bottle that had colored water in it. I inquired what she was feeding the baby and was informed that she had put a bit of panella (sugar from sugar cane) in the water as that was all that she had to feed the child. She explained that they had another child about 10 years old who was mentally retarded but one day he went out and never came back. She thinks he was probably kidnapped to work on a farm as slave labor. But she has never heard of him again.

To begin the interview I asked her where she had come from before she lived in this barrio and was told that she and her family had fled from the countryside as the violence there threatened their lives. [this was the time of the civil war called “La Violencia en Colombia.”] I followed up this question by asking “How do you like living in this barrio?” and I will never forget her response. “God has given us such wonderful neighbors, we are blessed. When we arrived a neighbor nearby came with a small cup of soup to welcome us to the neighborhood. Yesterday another neighbor brought us several bananas. We truly feel lucky and count our blessings to live in such a wonderful neighborhood.”

Ah, yes, let us count our blessings.

During this time my wife and I were living with our two sons in a three bedroom house in a nice residential neighborhood of the city. At noon, when we were having our meal, if there was a timid knock on the door we would have one of our boys answer the door. If it was a child from the local orphanage begging leftovers (pidiendo sobreitas) we would have him go to his plate and share some of his food with the kid at the door. We wanted our sons to have the ability to recognize that they were blessed and should share those blessings with the less fortunate in this world.

Walk a mile in THEIR shoes

On one occasion when I was in one of the worst slums (tugurios or barrios bajos) in the city of Manizales, Colombia I was caught in a torrential downpour. I pressed tightly against the wall of one of the slum shacks hoping that the small overhang of the roof would keep a bit of the rain off me. The door to the shack opened and an old woman appeared and invited me to step inside and get out of the rain. “Thank you, Senora,” I said, “but I really do not want to disturb you.” “No problem,” she responded and again invited me in. I stepped inside this little dwelling, about nine feet wide by nine feet long, barely large enough for a bed and a small table. It was the epitome of poverty. The woman looked ancient, dressed in black and looked like she was only skin and bones. I wondered how she managed to live under the conditions I envisioned from her surroundings so I said to her, “Senora, I am a college teacher. You and I will never meet again. I would like to tell my students about persons like you who live under the most trying circumstances. May I ask you several personal questions? Would you help me inform my students about how you live?”

She studied me for a few moments and responded, “Si senor.” My first question was “How old are you?” “72” “Do you live alone?” “Yes.” “How do you survive? How do you get the income to pay your rent, purchase food and other necessities?” She quietly said “I am a whore.” “How much do you charge?” “Whatever I think I can get. Sometimes ten cents, some times more.” “How many times a week do you have visitors?” “Not too often, three, four, five times. It varies.” “Is that enough to live on?” “Barely.”

Then with emotion she said “Mister, when you tell your students about me tell them that this is not the way I thought I would live when old.” Then, with emphasis and almost shouting she said “But I have the right to survive!” [Pero yo tengo el derecho de sobrevivir!] “Tell your students not to judge me. They have no right to judge me. If they think this is not what an old lady should be doing have them find a way to help me. But do NOT judge me. I do what I have to do to survive and I HAVE THE RIGHT TO SURVIVE!”

I apologized for having disturbed her and, passing a bit of money to her, I assured her that my students will be deeply touched at her situation and would fully understand her feelings. The rain having stopped I departed.

I have often thought about this brief exchange with this poor woman. Don’t we have an expression “Do not judge a person until you have walked a thousand miles in their shoes?” or something similar? My experiences with the refugees of war torn Korea as well as with the extremely poor in various nations (including our own) has taught me not to judge but rather to try to seek understanding. To make moral judgments without understanding is merely prejudice, i.e., a pre-judgment. I am not suggesting that we suspend all judgments or evaluations of the behavior of others but rather that we delay such judgments until we have sufficient information to allow us to do so without prejudice. Not a simple matter, to be sure. I do not pretend that I am without prejudice but I sure try to correct my thinking and my behavior when I become aware or am made aware of such prejudices on my part.

Representing Democracy

When doing my research in the slums of Manizales, Colombia, I attended a meeting of the Central Nacional Pro-Vivienda, a national organization seeking housing for the poor. The meeting was held in the Communist Labor Federation building. The organization had close ties to the communist party in Colombia. I was told the meeting would start at 8 p.m. and arrived at that time. The building was in one of the poor barrios of the city of 250,000 population. Guarding the entrance were two six-foot tall members of the mounted police carrying assault rifles. They were there to ‘keep the peace’ (read: intimidate those who would attend the meeting.)

When I entered the room I found that the meeting had already started. Seated on narrow benches without any backs were about 300 of the poorest of the poor to be found in that city. The weather, at 7,000 ft. altitude, was not only chilly, it was downright cold and yet many of the attendees had only ragged cotton shirts or blouses and no poncho, coat or sweater. All benches were full and many persons were standing in the rear of the room. I stood behind them but since I am fairly tall I was quickly noticed by the chairperson who stopped the meeting and announced “Please welcome our guest this evening, Dr. Drake, from the United States who is here representing the people of that great nation, not the government. Dr. Drake, please come forward and join us up front.” I had not expected that and was quite embarrassed as I went to the front of the room to the sound of a loud applause. There I tried to hide behind a file cabinet so I was not so conspicuous.

The gathering was an assembly of representatives from each of the barrio committees, each of which had their own community projects. I listened as a representative from one of the barrios told of their community health project. She and her friends made empanadas (bits of dough folded over a bit of vegetable or a bit of meat and fried) which they sold to persons walking in the city parks on Sundays when the poor people were out walking and enjoying a day off from their jobs and activities. The woman reported that after several weeks they had made enough money to purchase a small bottle of aspirin which was now the proud possession of the barrio health committee. If someone in the barrio got sick they could go the the community health committee and get a free aspirin! The audience gave her an applause for her report.

Sr. Elias Oliveros, President of the organization, then pulled a fast one on me. He announced “Dr. Drake will now make a presentation.” Everyone applauded as he turned to me and asked me to come forward and speak to the assembly. I was aghast! I had no speech ready. I wasn’t forewarned that I would be called on to address the group. What could I possibly have to say on behalf of the citizens of the United States to this assembly of some of the poorest citizens of the city?

What would you say?

Think about that for a bit. What would you, an American citizen speaking on behalf of the people (not the government) of the United States, have to offer this assembly?

Well, to the best of my memory, here is what I said:

My dear friends it is an honor to be here with you this evening and to listen to your stories of how you are participating in the life of your community, barrio by barrio. You tell of raising money to purchase a bottle of aspirins. You tell of forming committees to call on government officials to present to them your concerns about the help you desire from the government to address the needs in your barrio. I see here, in this room, that you are accepting your civic responsibility as a citizen in a democratic society.

Two weeks ago I met with Sr. Jose Galat in the national presidential palace in Bogota. He is the director of the program called “Integracion Popular” which was instituted by President Carlos Lleras Restrepo to help strengthen democracy in Colombia. The goal of this national program is to strengthen democracy by helping organizations such as yours develop among the two thirds of the citizens of this nation that are ‘marginados’ and do not have access to the resources of the nation. I commend you for your participation in this gathering here tonight and for your labor in improving life in your neighborhoods. That program, instituted by the president of Colombia calls on you to define your collective problems, to prioritize them, address them through “accional communal” (collective action) and to call on the government for help when and where needed.

As an American representing the people of my nation I want to thank you for the privilege to be with you this evening and watch democracy in action in Manizales.

The next day I received a phone call informing me that the head of the secret police (DAS – the FBI of Colombia) in the state wanted to see me. I went to his office and he told me he was very upset to hear that I was lecturing a group of communists and encouraging them organize against the government. I told him that I knew that he had one or more agents in the room the previous night and that if he wanted I would give them an exam to see if they really paid attention to what I had said. I then asked him if he wanted me, on my next visit to the presidential palace in Bogota, to inform the president of the nation that he, the local DAS director, was opposed to the policy of the president when it came to working with groups of the poor? He blanched at that and assured me that he merely wanted me to know that I was talking to a group of communists and that I had to be careful. So I left thinking that democracy will have a hard time to grow in Colombia.

The program of Integracion Popular was similar to other programs in Latin America of the same time such as Accion Popular, Participation Popular, Accion Communal, etc. What is interesting is that Dr. Carlos Lleras Restrepo, President of Colombia, knew exactly the political implication of what he was proposing. Jose Galat , the man he put in charge of the program, explained it as follows:

“If we wish to save our Democracy, we must be sure that the common good is also available to the marginal man (2/3 of the population of Colombia that do not partake of the “good” produced by the nation for popular consumption.) But, and here is the root of the problem, we can not hope that the common good be FOR the marginal man while at the same time it is not obtained, oriented and decided WITH them and BY them also. In other words, in order that the marginal individuals become beneficiaries of the common good it is necessary that they be permitted to participate as agents and protagonists of the same. And this implies, logically, a redistribution of political power.”

Of course, such a redistribution of power never happened. The oligarchy, the elite, the current power holders, however you want to call them, made sure that such efforts on the part of the poor failed. Good intentions and pretty words alone can not bring about such changes in the nature of decision making in a society. The least threatening form of community action is where the citizens get together and through collective action buy a bottle of aspirin or raise a barn. Such action generally is non-threatening to the holders of power in the society. That is called ‘resource mobilizing.” It is when citizens get together and demand a redistribution of existing resources such as seeking a minimum wage law or a redistribution of land so the poor can raise food for their families or want a home loan program that would allow the poor to borrow money and build a home that the power holders get nervous. Such action is ‘political mobilizing’ and is calling for a redistribution of existing resources, not the generation of new resources. I define power as the ability to allocate collective resources and it is comprised of ‘authority’, the right to make decisions based on position or role in an organization or social system and ‘influence’ which is based on the personality and personal relationships of the ‘social actor’ involved in the decision making process.

So, what does one do with all this reading, visiting barrio groups and studying social power structures in Latin America? Well, on arriving in Washington State to take up my position in the Sociology Dept. at Western Washington State College (now ‘University’) I decided that I would do a study on the power structure of the Hispanic community in the state. I began with a simple questionnaire sent to over 1,200 persons such as mayors, county commissioners, county health officers, school district executives, chiefs of police, sheriffs, all elected city, county and state officials and many other “community knowledgables” who might know something of their Hispanic neighbors. I asked “If the governor were to appoint a committee to advise him on the needs of the Hispanic population in the State of Washington who would you nominate to that committee from the Hispanic population in your jurisdiction, whether or not you know them personally?” The questionnaire wasn’t out more than a week when I received a call from the Governor’s office asking that I come to Olympia to discuss my research with one of his staff. I was informed that the governor was already planning on setting up such an advisory body and wanted me to be a (volunteer) staff to that committee. Yup. Glad to do so and for a number of years I traveled all over the state, often in the Governor’s plane, to attend meetings of the committee, helped them write reports and helped draft legislation. What started out to be the ‘Governor’s Mexican American Advisory Committee’ now, 40 years later, is the ‘Washington State Hispanic Commission.”

Ah, yes, democracy in action.