Recently I had brunch with friends, and I described my wish to help a certain young man from Nicaragua, whom I’ll call N. I’ve written about him before for PT in my blog about the Chorotega diet, as he is the person who taught me the beauty of rice and beans. While we used to visit occasionally to trade English and Spanish lessons, now N lives in a little casita next to mine. He does occasional work for me, but we also spend time practicing our language skills and playing with his baby. He gives me peace of mind in this isolated place, because he sees me in the morning and the evening. I know he would defend me from intruders, or call for help if I were hurt. I help N with minor medical problems, grocery shopping, transportation, and access to the internet. In addition, my husband and I have offered to help him go to school, first to obtain a high school diploma, then college or vocational training. We want to invest in his success.
A friend of mine in Costa Rica challenged me with the following letter, quoted verbatim:
When you spoke about your “house man” and I truly don’t know what people call them here….there seems to be a female sense of “doing right by them”. You are not the first person who has made plans to give a particular personal “help” to a person for a new life that extends to their current life. Maybe as 1st world citizen, we feel some compulsion to help them. However, I’ve heard (and learned) they can turn on a dime. In that all you’ve invested is taken, never to be seen or heard from again. I’d like to think that your person is not that way.
However, I’d like to understand your drive and reason as to why you’d choose a person here in CR over helping a similar downtrodden person in the US to help. Is it just the life situation in CR or you’ve never seen such a US person who wanted the good life so bad?
I wrote back to her, and rather surprised myself in the vigor of what emerged:
It’s a fair question.
The truth is that I've never been socially connected in the US to people from the lower classes. I worked in nursing homes with impoverished older people, and I worked in a Catholic hospital that specialized in providing high quality care for immigrants. Many of my patients were penny-less. However, in the US, my friends were from similar demographics to myself.
In Costa Rica, it’s different. My “family by choice” here include N and his brother and baby, and my neighbor J and her 2 sons. Our Sunday afternoons commonly include watching the older children play in the pool, passing the baby around, and eating arroz con pollo for dinner. Like N, J never finished high school. It doesn’t seem to matter. We spend hours talking about English and Spanish, politics, history, religion, science, food, and music. When N first heard the Beethoven Violin Concerto, he was mesmerized, and his first comment was, “Do you think there is life on other planets?”
My ancestors faced similar challenges to N. My grandfather Teddy came alone to the US in 1904 with nothing, and worked sweatshop jobs for years to help his family emigrate from Lithuania. He saved 11 brothers and sisters from pogroms, the Czar, and ultimately Hitler. Teddy never went to high school. Neither did my grandmother, Rose, his wife. Ultimately Teddy owned a small grocery store, and was famous for helping people during the Great Depression. My father jumped social classes, from being the son of a grocer to having both a PhD and an MD.
My other grandmother Marie was the "housemaid" of a small farmer in Hungary. She was Catholic, the farmer was Jewish. Both the farmer and his son apparently had sex with their maid, so nobody knows which one was really my grandfather. My mother came to the US at age 8 by herself, without knowing a word of English. As a ward of the Home for Hebrew Girls, she went through 15 foster homes. Nevertheless, she graduated from high school at 16 and got a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, and eventually an MD from the University of Illinois. My mother went from being a penny-less, illegitimate orphan to a Professor of Psychiatry.
I have sympathy for my grandmother, the Catholic maid who was forced to have sex with the men in the household. I have sympathy for my mother, a person who beat all the odds to skip many social classes. Talk about resilient! I guess you could say that many members of my family wanted “the good life so bad.”
In each case within my family, there were important people who facilitated their success. Helpful people, like my mother’s social worker, intervened at critical times.
Its true—N could turn on a dime. Rob me blind. Steal the computers, and abandon me. Maybe he doesn’t have what it takes to become a professional. Who knows? My assessment is that N is eager and smart, responsible, and tender with small creatures. He has a great sense of humor and irony. Above all, he cherishes his little 8 month old daughter, and he wants a good life very badly—for her!
I have been lucky. My children have had scholarships. I have not paid a penny for either daughter to go to graduate school, and both will end up with double doctorates. Why shouldn't I take some of that savings to give N a chance?
It is what my grandfather Teddy would call a mitzvot. Except, in all fairness, N helps me. I am not selfless in this. Maybe its simple reciprocity.