I'm sitting on the sidewalk outside our door while José meanders in and out of the pickup soccer game happening among the kids from two doors down. The boys, anywhere from seven to fifteen years old, are familiar with having José in the middle of their concrete, slightly sloped soccer field. I tell them to go ahead and keep playing and not to worry about accidentally hitting him with the ball. My words are unnecessary. There are few limitations here about who can be involved in the game or in what way. The littlest ones will ride their straddle cars up and down the street; the game stops and everyone moves out of the way when a car comes; the game morphs into something new when a team member is called inside by a relative. José's presence is part of the game and he never gets injured. The boys are good enough soccer players to maneuver around him and good enough human beings to give more importance to his participation than to putting the ball between the rock and the car that are their goal posts.
I sit on the sidewalk where three young girls have gathered to talk and play. I call José over to take bites of his chicken nuggets and apple sauce. The girls are grilling me on English vocabulary, mixing up their own language as they ask, “Cómo significa pelota . . . pollo . . . correr . . . patear?” I'm surprised by the ease with which the oldest, Kenia, is able to pronounce our “r,” one of the more difficult sounds for Spanish speakers. I think about how she would have excelled in the English classes that I taught at one time and wonder if twenty pesos an hour was too much for her family to afford.
The girls start asking me about the English equivalent of the names of all the kids around us, most of them first cousins. Kenia tells me, “My name is also the name of a country.” I say, “That's right. And do you know where that country is?” She shakes her head. “It's in Africa.” Her eyes grow wide as she imagines the distance between us and her namesake. I call José over for another round of apples and chicken. The girls are curious about this menu. When I mention pureed apples they look a little confused. I say, “Like Gerber” and their faces relax, heads nodding. One of them says, “That sounds good.” The others aren't so sure. I say, “Do you want a taste?” She tries a quarter spoonful. She approves and the others want a taste as well. There is consensus. Kenia says, “My mom sometimes gives us that kind of chicken. We get two pieces each. I'm not going to look at it. I'm not going to look because it looks really good,” as she turns her head, eyes peeking. And that's when it happens. That's when my heart is broken open for this girl, liquid compassion spilling like apples from a blender. Everyone gets a taste of chicken after that and apple sauce flows. It is no longer José's dinner. It is a four place table setting. One cup, one spoon, four beautiful mouths.
I don't remember how the information became relevant. Maybe chicken nuggets and apple sauce inspired her cousin to confess that Kenia needs glasses because she can't see perfectly well. My ears are hearing this confidence as if a friend were baring her soul. I gaze at Kenia, truly seeing her for the first time, as I imagine the deep disruption of this lack. “It must be hard to see at school,” I say. She barely nods her head, unsure whether to trust me. Time stands still as poverty becomes personal, a crack in the universe has only just become visible.
I have birthday money that I've been instructed to use to treat myself. There are lots of ways I could indulge myself. I've thought about my favorite shampoo, online TV shows in English, shoes that aren't broken in some way, pants that fit, Mexican residency paperwork, dinner date with Rogelio, books for José, classroom materials. But I can't get the image of Kenia with glasses out of my head. Entitlement exhales dust when my privilege is reflected in her broken eyes.
Every day my mind comes back to this radical and offensive idea: that I have no more right to that money sitting in the bank than anyone else. A friend once wrote, “Everything I have comes from God. [It] doesn't belong to me in the first place.” I want to ask Kenia's mom if I can help buy her glasses. It's a noble idea, right? But then I start thinking, “What if she's offended that I would offer her charity when we don't really know each other? What if such a gift would pour salt on a patriarchal wound? Should I try to give this gift anonymously?” It keeps getting more and more complicated in my mind until I realize that the one thing that would smooth this path is relationship. I do not want to be a savior or one who gives but doesn't know how to receive. I want to allow for dignity and humanity and that happens within relationship. I feel shy and awkward when I think about trying to initiate contact with Kenia's family. Even if we get to know each other, this kind of generosity between neighbors is almost unheard of here, in my experience anyway. My best friend felt “weird” when I made her a meal during a long season of sickness. The woman on the bus never expected me to put 50 pound José on my lap so she could sit down. At the store around the corner, a woman was shocked when I dropped my sweet bread on the floor in an attempt to rescue her falling tomato. I am afraid of approaching this the wrong way. Will this fear cause me to mend my heart with cheap sentiment? I tell myself that failure will help me learn for the next time. But failure could mean a wall between me and my neighbors or no glasses for Kenia. Could glasses be the price of courage? I ask my Lord to give me the chance to bridge our cultures. This might just be my biggest lesson yet.
*In Mexico, Kenya is spelled Kenia
What are your experiences of giving? In what ways have relationships been a factor?