El Universal, a quaint open-air restaurant that catered to tourists, had a black metre-high wrought-iron fence. The fifteen circular tables were picture perfect, set with simple white china and matching flatware. We five gringos had come to Mexico to immerse ourselves in Spanish language and culture so that we could better help Third World immigrants and refugees in our future apostolates. We had spent many evenings discussing the Option for the Poor. Tonight we would focus on Liberation Theology.
No sooner had we found our haven than little drops of rain could be heard on the tin roof. The mozo saw the American dollars approaching and seated us at a sheltered table in the centre of the restaurant. Joe, the Texan member of our group, interrupted the young man's Spanish courtesies to declare that the first round of Dos Equis was on him.
Mike very intelligently began the conversation stating that Liberation Theology grew out of the Central American struggle of the poor to achieve a better existence. Economically and politically oriented, it questions the western standard of living and calls for a concientización to replace selective blindness. Angel added that the basic questions of food and shelter came first, and therefore concientización calls for a restructuring of society. Joe emphasized its call to action for the oppressed and poor. Katie was against the rich getting richer while the poor must fight for what is rightfully theirs. She voiced the fears of the hierarchy, who state that Liberation Theology borrows ideas from socialism and Marxism.
I skimmed some prices: filet mignon, 5,000 pesos; shrimp, 4,500 pesos; white fish cooked in wine sauce, 4,500 pesos. Angel quoted the Medellín documents to define the economically poor. Joe asked for another round of Dos Equis, and we placed our order. Four filets, cooked medium well, green beans, baked potatoes and bread. Katie had the white fish. Since this was a memorable occasion, Mike ordered a bottle of the best house wine. After all, this is Mexico. How expensive could it be?
By now I was listening more than talking. I noticed two boys pass the fence to get some shelter from the rain. They appeared to be brothers, the taller one about ten years old, the other no more than seven, both as skinny as the bars of the fence. My watch showed past ten, and I wondered why they were not home in bed. Shoeless, with dirt caked between their small toes, the boys were clad in dirty blue jeans and brown T-shirts, which I soon realized had once been white. Their concave faces displayed small noses and tiny mouths, with two sets of eyes that ached of pain and daily hunger. Their dark skin and round heads spoke of Mayan descent.
Interrupting Joe's monologue concerning the poor, the boys asked if they could sing us a song. The elder brother carried a Popsicle stick and an old white Clorox bottle with the bottom cut out and the sides folded accordion-style. Joe took out a purple peso note and admonished them that it would be theirs if they sang a song he liked. The two faced each other and deliberated. The elder began to rub the stick against the bottle--one and two and three and four and....They both filled their little lungs and exploded into a high-pitched monotone cry. They put their hearts and souls into every breath. When they ended, Joe lifted his wine glass in toast to them, gave the elder the note and told him to share it equally with his brother.
As they left our table to approach another, the mozo came with our mouth-watering food. Joe asked that we hold hands and thank God for the delicious meal, still sizzling hot, placed before our eyes. He pleaded with the Lord to bless the poor of Central America. He then lifted his wine glass to toast friendship. I could not lift mine.
In those few minutes I could only think of chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel: "For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink...." Yes, the poor are those who live a substandard life. But "poor" can also describe those who talk before they think, and who follow a treacherous double standard. The two children were the first kind; we were the second.
The discussion resumed. As I stared at the succulent filet, a tear rolled down my right cheek. One of the women broke into my thoughts, "Ed, aren't you going to eat?"
I did not learn much Spanish language or culture that summer. But those boys taught me a lesson: talk is cheap. I cannot physically stand in solidarity with the poor, but I can do something practical in unison with them. Since that summer of 1983, no meat has passed my lips, and I have never forgotten the Clorox bottle song.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld