This is a portion of the essay submitted to join the Magis Society by one of this year’s winners of the Dorothy Day Award.
La Chureca. The name itself always sounded sinister to me, as if it suggested the misery it contained. As we drove through Acahualinca, the neighborhood just outside of the dump, I remember shoeless, dirty children peering at us out of scrap metal houses. And the animals. Emaciated horses with matted manes and ribs you could count. Three-legged dogs drinking black water from puddles. And I distinctly remember a pig who somehow added to the eerie atmosphere of hopelessness and desperation. We had been told to bring no cameras, to wear no jewelry, to carry no money. In the back of my mind, I asked myself, “Why are we entering into this trash dump where people live, with all of our privilege to leave when we want and return to our comfortable bubble?” I felt like a poverty tourist, and the emptiness in the eyes that watched my bus rumble through the gates of the dump brought me shame. What must they have been thinking? What have these rich white people come to take pictures of now?
As we entered the dump, wee roasted behind our closed windows as we passed, no more than five feet from the bus, a blazing mountain of trash. There was a trash truck in front of us, bumper complete with the row of positively filthy trash workers. I remember the sudden burst of fear I felt as one of the trash workers leapt from the back of the truck and momentarily seemed to be running toward our bus. Every inch of him, skin, hair, and clothing, was the color of the inside of a chimney, except his eyes, which, paired with his matted hair, looked wild. Is this what the option for the poor is about? Where is God in these children sniffing glue inside of their homes literally made of trash? My gut reaction to the dirty trash worker who leapt off the back of the truck had been not compassion but fear, and pondering that made me feel not gratitude but shame.
In high school, I might have left La Chureca praising God with gratitude for how I had been blessed. Maybe I even would have thanked God that the crazy man had started running the other way, and that he didn’t contaminate us with his stench, his filth, his poverty, and his suffering. Maybe I would not have hated the twinge of relief I felt as I secured my window shut against the empty eyes of children and the plotting eyes of men who knew our wealth despite all our efforts to hide it. But experiences like this one at Xavier have taught me that disparity is not about blessedness and damnation. It’s about unearned privilege and oppression all the more unearned. It’s about systems that I buy into with my purchases and my complacency, that I subvert with my questions and my attempts to love. So as I sat in the sweaty comfort of my airtight bus and watched the dirty trash man run toward the mountains of trash, through my grappling and mixed feelings I could see the system that had placed me in the bus, that man on the trash truck, those children behind the sheet metal doors, and that trash in that landfill. And I thank God that I knew then that that system was not Her.
Anna Robertson is a graduating senior who spent an ASLS in Nicaragua, traveled to El Salvador as a Bruggenan Fellow, and co-directed the 2013 Encounter Retreat. She can sing the Head and the Heart almost better than the band can. She will be spending her first year away from Xavier at a hospitality house in West Virginia.