Do we have a responsibility to our neighbors? Which neighbors?

Here we are, foreigners living in Mexico, escaping from the pressures of our own countries, not to mention the high prices, and living more nicely than we can afford to do up north.

All around us, there are poor people. There are people who can’t afford necessary medication, who can’t visit their elderly parents in their villages because of the bus fare, who can barely afford non-leguminous protein.

We, on the other hand, may concern ourselves about paint colors, reupholstery, entertainment options, replacing the housecleaner, or finding shoes and underwear in large sizes.

Do we have a social responsibility to help bridge the gap? To do even small things that help people who have very little? Many of us feel as if we do. And we act on it in a variety of ways. We work on environmental issues, we tutor, we give money, and sometimes send people to school.

In a way, this is a luxury. Something we weren’t able to do as easily in the USA, where things are complicated.

How many of us concerned ourselves with volunteering or community service before we moved here? Did we worry about the great unwashed in Detroit and Pittsburgh or in Appalachia? Did we volunteer in their schools or give them cast-off clothing?

No? Why? There are several reasons. First of all, because we were scared of them, that’s why. They were angry and unpleasant and tended toward insulting us. They roiled and seethed with anger. They didn’t appreciate our charity. We avoided the inner cities and stayed in our own neighborhoods where we couldn’t see the signs of misery and where they couldn’t express their anger directly at us, endangering our safety.

And we were equally angry at them. They lived in the land of opportunity, for god’s sake, and any wrongs perpetrated against them in the distant past had long been addressed and remedied. Why couldn’t they be more like us? Why wouldn’t they, even the white ones, stop drinking and using drugs long enough to join The Great Society and work for things the way we did? Why didn’t they stop bellyaching and do something? A few did, but most of them…well…they were simply society’s failures.

The differences between the American black underclass and the poverty stricken Maya are huge and have to do with national histories.

It’s complex in the USA. We are talking about people whose grandparents and great grandparents were forcibly dragged over to the US from Africa, torn from their families, and sold, naked, on marketplace platforms. I’d still be mad too. Now, my grandparents also endured hardships. They came to the US packed like sardines in the disgusting holds of ships, riding with the rats, and struggled to establish a base in the new world. Maybe part of the reason it was possible for them to “succeed” in one quick generation was that they were able to retain family structures. And another reason is because they weren’t instantly visually identifiable as property.

“High class-low class” relationships are prickly in the USA. Recipients resent the word Charity. Is it because they feel entitled?  The word Charity implies the rich deigning to give to the poor without getting too involved with them.

But they still feel wronged and we feel we have fixed all their problems already. The issues are so deep and so complex, bridging them has become nearly impossible.

If you volunteer in a foreign country, like Mexico, it is possible to have positive experiences. (Unless of course, you feel called upon to attack your perception of the country’s basic problems.)

The Maya here in Yucatan do not seem outwardly angry, and so our desire to do good for those around us is more easily met. Maya attitudes are different from those of angry poor black people in the US or even poor hispanics.

But why? The Maya were enslaved too. Are they less bitter? Or do they think we represent a continuation of the colonization that’s been going on here for hundreds of years? Quien sabe?

Here, we feel appreciated. If we make a weekly appearance at an orphanage or school, we are met with appreciation and smiles. Our better instincts, those that want to make this a nicer world, are easier to exercise here because we don’t have to be afraid. Because those lovely brown eyes look up at us with temporary happiness and even gratitude. For a few minutes, we have made someone’s life more pleasant, if not more hopeful.

And this is great and we actually make an impact.  It’s a positive human trait to want to help.

But in the USA, many of us have given up on trying to make things better. It’s hard. People who have less than we do, people we would like reach out to, resent rather than appreciate us. If they could, they might club us over the head and take our cars. They are rude and unpleasant and don’t keep appointments. We have donated money and volunteered our time, but get little positive feedback. Why do they respond this way? We’re just trying to be nice.

When you are a nice person volunteering, you aren’t interested in the underlying reasons for the types of receptions you get from different people in different places. You just want your reception to be positive, befitting your generosity.

We in the USA feel that we’ve given the “underprivileged” enough. They can eat, go to school, get some kind of medical care, and usually find shelter. If they can’t, it isn’t our fault – it’s theirs because they haven’t been sharp enough to jump up and seize the opportunities presented to them. What happened to them in the distant past is not our fault.

The yenta has been thinking a lot lately about her responsibilities to other people, if any, in the USA. It is, after all, her country, and she wonders whether there are things she can do to make a positive impact in a time when positions are getting increasingly polarized. As many of you may know, the yenta is not the most diplomatic person in the world, so explaining her quandary to those who aren’t interested is nearly impossible so, believe it or not, she keeps her mouth shut.

She has no conclusion to this debate with herself.

About BG

Beryl Gorbman is a writer and private investigator who divides her time between Seattle WA and Merida Yucatan Mexico. She has published two works of fiction, 2012: Deadly Awakening, and Madrugada. They are both available on Amazon and other outlets. Also at Amate Books, and Casa Catherwood in Merida. You can read about them in various articles on this site.
This entry was posted in Merida Expat Life and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Do we have a responsibility to our neighbors? Which neighbors?

  1. I think another thing that happens NOB is that a lot of people are one paycheck away from homelessness themselves so they distance themselves from it. They want to believe that there is a big difference between them and the “underpriveledged”.
    Most of my volunteer work NOB was because of my children. Volunteering at school, in 4-H and other things like that. So in a way, it was more motivated by a type of self interest than the stuff I do here. The guy who coaches his kid’s team helps all the kids but he probably wouldn’t have done it if his kid didn’t want to play.
    Here I have more leisure time since by our circumstances I am freed from having to earn a living.

  2. Myrna Potter says:

    Ys, it is less overwhelming to volunteer in foreign countries. We both volunteer to teach classroom subjects in Nicaragua (we are bilingual), something that wouldn’t happen in the US for many reasons.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Give it a rest, Beryl.

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