One day when I was thinking of strolling down to the zócalo I said to myself, Uh uh, let’s not go there! I was afraid of running into Sosanna. Somehow, in my thoughtless gringa carelessness, I did something wrong, or held some wrong ideas about behavior, which I don’t know how to remedy. Would it have helped if I responded to Sosanna’s request for new shoes?
Sosanna was seven years old. Her face could have been forty-seven with its worries; her forehead and mouth reflected, like water touched by wind, every passing disturbance. She usually appeared in the company of her buddies, Arturo age eight and Juan maybe nine. They came to the zócalo clad in ratty shirts and pants, with gaping shoelace-free shoes, or ripped sole-flopping sneakers. Sosanna wore a soiled navy blue dress with a torn collar. They came to work. They sold Chiclets.
Chiclet brigades form a common sight in the Oaxaca zócalo. The vender children range in age from five to twelve. Most of them look bewildered, as if they can’t process exactly what life is doing to them or what it expects of them. They wander among the tourists with their boxes of cellophane-wrapped four-to-a-pack colored squares of gum. The very young kids like to handle the little packages, This is cinnamon, this is vanilla, this is blue, this is green, they recite, handling each in turn and replacing it in the cardboard box, a simple rehearsal of what they learned. Each sales-child’s box holds two layers of gum packs, twenty-four to a layer. Forty-eight transactions. According to Sosanna’s sister, it takes five to six hours to sell all her Chiclets at a peso per packet. And how much of this forty-eight pesos does she keep? I asked. Five. And what will you do with the money? Buy something to eat.
The following day I saw the three smaller kids perched on a step outside a tourist restaurant. Beyond the glass wall diners sipped their cappuccinos and without much interest watched costumed folk dancers bob around the floor. Sosanna, perched on an outside step with her back to the holiday cheer, looked like she’d been crying. Arturo was sitting beside her, quiet. Juan was already at the age when his reaction to adults is rage, and aggression waited only for him to get more size and muscle. He snarled at me.
Juan had begun his second job, which is begging. I asked to take their photo, and Juan insisted on being paid. Fair enough. I offered them in equal shares five pesos each and keep the gum. But I was short two pesos in change, and it was Sosanna who got only three ‒ how did that happen? Juan grabbed and I didn’t react quickly enough. Sosanna’s face showed she’d been cheated again. I approached a tourist couple (Americans) and begged, Can you let me have two pesos, I ran out of change? The man snarled, What for? I attempted to explain I live here, I promised two pesos, I ran short−. Blah blah. When the man realized I was planning to give the two pesos to a child, he pulled out some candy and snarled, Never give them money! They’ll just ask for more!
The man strode off. His wife paused, looked at me, and handed me two pesos. Which I handed to Sosanna, but she and the boys already faced into a different crowd, and two pesos were neither appreciated (and why should anybody appreciate a gift of less than one cent) nor hardly registered in her sad face.
Once again I did something wrong. What? I know it was wrong, but I can’t quite put my finger on identifying the deed. I tried to participate (in what?) and somehow failed − there was no way to equalize our respective power. Recipients are not participants.
Now I know something more about participation, and by extension, politics. Which is, if you don’t know enough, if you don’t know how to do it right, if you are left behind feeling guilty and stupid or, like the American tourist, angry and righteous, everything you wish to do turns to shit. Consequently, you back off and do nothing.
When politicians use the phrase inclusive, as men like Oaxaca’s governor Murat, or Lopez Obrador, or back-in-the-day John Kerry or Jesse Jackson used to do, it’s in the sense of a campaign promise to include or be inclusive of everybody, worker or boss, black-white-old-young-gay-straight-bent-broken, you name it, in a future as yet without form. Probably forever without form, which is why none of us believe campaign promises. That rhetoric lies in view like a dead cat in the road. What is meant is merely, We include you in our list of potential voters or donors. As one of the included, I gave my dollars, I mailed my absentee ballot. But I yearn for participation. Inclusion and participation cause two different behaviors; politicians wave the first like a banner; the second is where it’s at.
Participation requires receiving a prior invitation to inclusion, the kind where friends embrace you and say, Sit next to me, or What’s your idea? Participation means not only belonging to the family, the society, the culture, but actually doing something that contributes. Participation helps shape as well as acknowledge the outcomes. Since the day I carried out the trash for the neighbors, brought flowers and a vase of my own to participate in a memorial for their dead, when one of the sisters meets me on the street she embraces me. I´m in. She never returned the vase, assimilated into their space like a gift. Now there’s Marichuy, now there’s the National Indigenous Committee.
I would have liked Sosanna to embrace me, but I fucked up. I think it happened in the gap while I was out cadging two pesos. I left her detached from me, passive and waiting. The money didn´t matter. She was helpless no matter what I did, and she knew it.
I let go of Sosanna´s hand.
I’m not indigenous. But I’m eligible to vote here in Mexico. In the upcoming 2018 election I’ll vote in favor of participation, if too late for me, then for others.
Power is sum leverage, gained from efforts and determination by many people after many conversations, during which we may all finally understand who’s sad and angry and damned tired of selling Chiclets.