Juan lives with his family in a rural village in Mexico. He farms a small plot of land which provides enough food to give him a fairly-well balanced diet. He does not have a lot of extra cash on hand. His home is very basic with little furniture; just the basics. There is no running water in the village or indoor plumbing. Water needs to be carried from the river which is about a quarter of a mile away.
Most of us from the north would consider this man living in poverty. But he is surrounded by family and friends who help him out when he has a special need; like when his daughter got sick and he didn’t have any money to pay the small fee charged by the government-supplemented clinic. His brother’s family paid the fee, not expecting anything in return. It’s the way things are done in this rural village. Some day Juan’s brother may need the same assistance and perhaps Juan will be in better financial shape and return the favor. Or pass the favor on to someone else who is in need.
Juan lives in tune with the rhythm of nature. He gets up at sunrise, goes to sleep at sundown since there are no artificial lights to keep him awake. He knows how to read the signs of the seasons and how to hear the sounds of the flora and fauna around him.
Recently Juan has had to give up farming his small plot of land. Since the NAFTA neo-liberal economic trade agreement that his country made with the USA and Canada, corn that is subsidized by the US government is flooding the market in Mexico. It is cheaper to buy US corn than the corn that Juan raised on his small plot without subsidy. Without any source of income, Juan emigrated with his family to the nearest City to try to find work.
Unfortunately, because of NAFTA, hundreds of other Juans are doing the same thing, competing with each other for the few available jobs in nearby cities. Juan lives in a hovel with his modest belongings. He has better access to health services and schools for his children, but he can’t afford them. He sends his children to the streets to sell whatever they can to help supplement the family income. His wife had to find a job as a maid with a rich family because Juan couldn’t find a steady job.
Unlike when he lived in the village, he worries every day where his family’s next meal will come from. His support system has been severed; in the marginal community where he lives, most of his neighbors have their own problems, few are willing to help each other out. It’s a dog eat dog world. He also is estranged from nature. Because he has no job, he has too much free time on his hands. He spends his time worrying about the future, or devising plans to earn money for his family; both legitimate and illegitimate. He is lonely.
When Juan walked around his village he held his head high. He greeted everyone and they greeted him in return. He now walks with his head down, recognizing few people, and caring less for them.
Juan is a caricature of two poor men that I have met over the years in Latin America. I always thought that the man in the village was poorer than the man in the city. After all, the Juan of the city has all sorts of services available to him that didn’t exist in the country. Economically speaking, however, and by the standards of people in the north, they were both dirt poor. They both are in need of some charity.
There is one huge difference between the two men, however. The Juan of the village had his dignity. The Juan of the city did not. The Juan of the city had his spirit crushed. The one of the country did not. The Juan of the city is much more susceptible to alcoholism, drug abuse and exploitation. The Juan of the country is not as susceptible to these plagues.
The lifestyle of most people of the north is more like the Juan of the city than the Juan of the village. Although we have lots of money and live in relative comfort in comparison, like the Juan of the city, we are generally cut off from support systems of family and community. We are cut off from and alienated from nature. We have too much time on our hands and worry incessantly about the future; especially if we will have enough money for retirement. We are lonely. We have lost our dignity and try to find it through over-consumption of food, sex, drugs or material goods. We are poor.
In order to recover our dignity, we need to identify the God image and likeness within us. This will help us proclaim that we are beloved of God. Our belovedness reaches out to the belovedness of others and we form a community of the beloved. To really recover our dignity, we need to get in touch with nature. Respect it rather than exploit it. Restore right relationships (what righteousness means) with God, our fellow human beings, and nature.
Juan of the village is rich in dignity. It has nothing to do with money or possessions, but rather with right relationships. May we recognize our poverty and our need for dignity through right relationships.