Friday, July 9, 2010

Combatting Lonely Liberty: Olga

I was caught out, stereotyping again. Luckily, stereotypes are so often true.

"I couldn't help but overhear...and it's so, so true...," the woman at the next table at Parco said.

The tables are so close together that one can never even pretend privacy and I'm certainly not quiet, but still. I hadn't even paid enough attention to see who was there before I started on my rant about the beauty and challenges of the Mexican culture to my friend and French roomie, Jeanne. The upshot was that the culture was so warm and lovely but that people there, from a young age, were forced from circumstance to be extremely crafty, to do whatever it took to take care of themselves.

"The little kids there, on the street, would come up with all kinds of elaborate ruses to sell us 'chicle'..." I recalled, picturing as I said it the little kids, younger than even a young me, running up to us on the streets of Nogales, coaxing and cajoling me to pay top dollar for their little packets of Violeta-flavored gum that actually tasted like the flower it was named for.

That was the moment when Olga had piped up. It turns out she is from Cuba, came to this country in 1967. She could relate to what I was saying about the forced necessity of fending for oneself in cultures where corruption reigns. She told me stories of people who had come here to America and, out of habit, had stolen things unnecessarily, recognizing only afterward what they had done so instinctively, out of habit, out of having to.

"We are so lucky to be in this country..." Olga said.

I smiled but couldn't wholeheartedly agree. Of course we are so lucky in so many ways. But it is the warmth piece I had mentioned about Mexican culture, Latin American culture in general and a trait prevalent in so many otherwise difficult countries, that is often so lacking in this puritanical place. We have the self motivation bit down, surely, but where, I wondered aloud to my new friend, "Where is the community? Where is the connectedness?" That, I'm afraid, we are so often lacking, in spades.

Olga tries in her own way to keep her culture of connectedness alive. Her son, for example, lives with her well past the age most Americans might tsk tsk that he isn't pushed out on his own. Why do we push people we love into forced isolation? What lesson are we trying to teach exactly? Independence is a hallmark, a trait the good ol U.S. of A is predicated on, but it is so often taken too far.

That's why I gave Olga her gold star, for trying to maintain the best aspects of her culture, for joining in the conversation, for trying to connect. She was so pleased, and thanked me profusely before giving me the address of her apartment around the corner.

"Come over, anytime," she said. Aaah, how I wish we could all be so kind and warm-hearted. Liberty can be so lonely.

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