The Right to Survive

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 had 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 mile 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.