Monday, March 15, 2010


So far, I have clocked over 60 hours at the Hawk Clan’s home. A fourth girl joined in (the only one who didn’t need help 60 visits ago, has gone from straight A’s to straight F’s) and I seem to spend my off-the-clock hours looking for material to keep them interested. (How does one teach fractions, word problems, mixed numbers and percent, in a fun-let’s-do-it-again way?)

While I work at the table with one girl, the other sisters play together.
I see their reflection in the TV screen, which they turn off so that I can teach. They lay on the floor, tickling each other. I hear them. I see them making shadow puppets that eat each other’s heads and behinds. They laugh a universal laugh. A laughter that is not Indian, or dark or wealthy. It’s the purest laughter I have heard in a long time.
They roll on a purple carpet that has never been vacuumed , right over the stale pizza slice that goes unnoticed, over dirty blankets and sweaty socks, over Burger King wrappings and squashed KFC cartons. They laugh with abandon and they don’t care that one of their sisters is trying to learn how to divide fractions. Laughing comes first. Education comes second. So they laugh some more.
They crack jokes that I hear from the table. Jokes that are lame and hysterical and have an infectious pull that makes me want to forget who I am and ask if I could please play too. Who needs fractions when a family is this whole.
Sometimes their mother joins in and those seem to be the times when their glee reaches its peak. Even the dogs seem ready to provide free entertainment. They dress them up, put bows on their tails or bandanas around their furry heads. And they laugh. With togetherness, with complicity, with gusto.

I wonder if I should simply realize that they already figured things out. Which is to say, that they already figured what’s really important and that education is not on the list. I wonder why we put so much emphasis on formal education when what really matters is never learnt in a classroom.

The girls want to go back to the reservation up in North Dakota. They want to go back where they sleep under the stars and no alarm clock chimes at 6 in the morning. Where they can play with chickens and hear stories from the elders who have never gone to school but know well how to feed a family, to cure the body by soothing the soul, to hunt a deer without upsetting its creator, to choose their names and to scratch their arms when the time comes.

And while on the scratching subject. Who does it to whom and why? An elder, always a man, scratches the girl to celebrate her menarche: her female relatives get scratched along with her so that the blood unifies and cleanses them simultaneously. It’s a ritual celebrated a few times a year and about which, schools have to be notified so not to mistake the marking with the signs of abuse. Some other clans, I have also learned, do it only to the males, some of whom are as young as six. They do it in an annual ceremony celebrated each spring deep in the Florida woods. I know this, because after the Hawk Clan girls, I was asked to work with their cousins: the Wolf Clan boys.

I work right now with members of four different clans, ages ranging from five to twenty five. Some of them, I know in my heart of hearts, will become productive human beings in their culture or the mainstream culture or both. The rest, will probably fall into the cycle of addictions, jail, rehab, only to re-emerge from years of stupor, hopefully, reclaiming the spiritual freedom of their Indian ancestors, galloping their white horses in the north Dakota plains, giving back to their souls what was lost along the way, the ferocity of the wolf and the wings of the hawk.

Saturday, February 27, 2010


Then comes Dalilah. She is sixteen, dropped out of school in the seventh grade, hasn’t touched a book since (three years) and now wants to get her GED.

She has similar indigenous traits to her two younger sisters, and if put together, you couldn’t tell that they have different fathers. She has tiny teeth somewhere behind a mangle of braces that haven’t been brushed in a while. Her hands are soiled. The grandfather has just given the girls a gopher turtle and Dalilah was playing with it just before the session.

She has tiny, squinty eyes, limp hair that has been highlighted in different shades of blond, and sports a small stud in her nose and another one in her lip, has an array of stars tattooed on her back and a shiny, brand new tattoo on her forearm that in my haste to break the ice I compliment as the greatest dragon I have seen in a long time. Only, it isn’t a dragon; it is a freshly tattooed hawk that she says is to pay homage to her clan.

The tribal office has given her the GED preparation books: a 300-page theory book and a 100-page workbook chock full of exercises that range from simple mathematical operations to fairly advanced algebra.

Minutes into our first session, I realize that she, like her sisters, doesn’t know her times tables and has difficulties differentiating between addition and subtraction. I wonder if I could tutor them together in a single session, instead of three identical ones.

We hear the unmistakable sound of a toilet being flushed upstairs and yellow water trickles down one of the walls in the dining room. I look at the water, then at Dalilah, who is now working on an assessment test.

“Is this what I think it is?” I ask, pointing at the wet wall with my pen.
“Oh, that?” she says, “pee water,” and she goes back to the test without giving it a second thought.

She is soft spoken, polite and reassures me that she understands what I’m explaining with comments like “oh, ok. I get it,” only quickly I learn that this is just a habit and that she is in fact, not getting it at all.

“Tell me about your plans.” I say, in an attempt to give us both a break from numbers.
“What plans?”
“Why do you want to get your GED?”
She shrugs her shoulders and inverts her mouth. “Don’t know.”
“How about college? Is that what you want?"

Dalilah looks at me as if I have just asked her opinion on quantum physics.

“College? Like getting a degree and stuff?” I nod.
“Don’t know about that.”

She rolls up the sleeves of her Abercrombie hoodie and goes back to her test. She has the same bloody marks I saw earlier on Mariah’s arms.

“Grandpa’s been busy, huh?” I say looking at the dry blood on her forearms.
“Yeah,” she says, covering the marks, leaving me as clueless as I was three hours ago when I walked in.


Sunday, February 14, 2010


After Esmeralda, comes Mariah. She is twelve, going on thirteen, is in the fifth grade and has a set of mischievous eyes and an infectious giggle. Like Esmeralda, Mariah hasn’t seen her backpack in a while, doesn’t know what kind of grades she is getting at school and gives me a blank stare when I ask her which classes besides Math and Language she is being taught.

“Nothing, I think,” she says.
“Nothing?” I ask. “How about P.E?’
She giggles and shrugs her shoulders. “Maybe. Don’t know.”

A few minutes into the session, I realize that although Mariah is one grade ahead of Esmeralda, they should be together in the same year: third grade.
One of the cats walks across the table and sits on the folder with my attendance sheets. Mariah giggles some more. I ask her to please put the cat on the floor or somewhere else but she is now distracted cleaning his ears with her index finger. So I nudged the cat out of my way and try, in earnest, to regain her attention.

While she works her way down a math worksheet, I take a good look at her. She is pretty, with high cheek bones and fleshy lips. I can’t decide whether her hair has been recently shampooed or if it’s greasy. Either way, it shines under the 60watt bulb illuminating this table that must have been, at some point, used for dining. Mariah wears expensive clothes: red Abercrombie hoodie with angel wings design, Adidas basketball shorts, and a pair of fashionable Converse shoes.

There are other signs of wealth in the house. A massive flat screen TV, an X-box with several video games, some still in the wrapping, a few laptops, two of which look brand new, and several USB wireless adaptors laying around.

Mariah is struggling, but I tell her not to worry about it, and to do as much as she can without my help so that I can assess her needs. She rolls up the sleeves of her hoodie. I gasp. She has bloody scratches on each arm. Four or five blood trails evenly spaced and too symmetrical to be an accident.

“What’s that?” I ask. Trying to sound casual.
“Don’t know,” she says and rolls the sleeves down.
“The cat?” I press.
“No. It’s grandpa.”
“It sounds like grandpa needs to be declawed,” I say and she giggles again. Mariah blushes and I know she won’t talk about it. I’ll have to wait until the session is over, at which point I’ll ask the mother.


Monday, February 8, 2010


It’s a nice neighborhood. Two-story houses with manicured front yards, enclosed swimming pools and high wooden fences. It’s a middle class community fifteen minutes away from a swanky shopping mall with Sephora, Pottery Barn, Anthropologie and many other high-end boutiques.

The house that I’m looking for is in a cul de sac. From a distance it looks as though it has been either recently built or recently remodeled, but as I drive closer I realize that the house is abandoned. Its front yard littered with bottles, cardboard, oxidized bicycles. The garage door is open, showing its messy belly full of clothes, garbage cans, plastic containers, everything, that I think, was left there before the family moved out. The area has had a few sink holes in the last few years and I wonder if the house has been condemned.

I call my office to verify the address. Yes, I’m at the right place. I describe the house that I’m looking at and offer the most plausible explanation: it has been uninhabited for quite a while. The voice at the other end of the telephone promises to double check and call me back. I decide to drive around the area until the office calls back. As I reverse out of the drive way, a petite woman emerges from the house, waving her hands at me.

“Are you the teacher?” she asks. I nod.
“Do you live here?” I ask.
“Of course,” she says

She holds the door open for me and the moment I enter, the smell of animal waste makes my stomach contract. I hold my breath for a few seconds until I’m ready to breathe again. There are piles of clothes strewn all over the floor, shoes, backpacks, plastic bags, something that looks like a couple of stale slices of pizza, dirty blankets, either a mattress or a sleeping bag, it’s hard to tell what is what. I find myself looking for empty spaces to put one foot then the other.

“I don’t want to step on your clothes,” I explain.
“What clothes?” she asks as if it is the first time she ever notices the chaos.

Where the foyer meets the living room, right where the white tile morphs into a burgundy carpet covered in old pop corn and decayed fries still in their Burger King wrapping, is a yellow puddle that reeks of urine.

“Damn dogs,” she says as we both go over the puddle.

One by one, the pets begin to emerge. Four little puppies and their two parents; two cats, a ferret, a caged mouse, and on the dining table, where I’m about to spend the next three hours, is a rabbit in a cardboard box that hasn’t been cleaned in months.

J. cleans half of the table and asks me to wait. She’ll get Esmeralda, the youngest of the children I’ll be working with. From the dining table I can see the back of the house. Swimming pool and Jacuzzi, both covered in a green slime that spills out and onto the blue tile framing the pool. A dog squats by the Jacuzzi, defecates and drags his rump on the tile, leaving behind a brown squiggle that in three hours, will have attracted a few black flies.

Esmeralda appears under the arch of the living room. Short, chubby, with round Indian high cheeks, porcelain skin and straight, shiny black hair, she plunges into the seat without looking at me.

“Hi there,” I say and proceed to introduce myself and crack a couple of lame jokes to break the ice.
She doesn’t reply and is now looking out of the window, arms crossed across her chest, a major pout forming at her mouth.
Quickly we establish a few things. She doesn’t want to be tutored. She doesn’t like school. She is ten but she is in fourth grade because they just moved out of the Indian reservation in South Dakota and she misses the snow and she hates Florida. I explain that I’m working with the tribe so that the “no child left behind” program is in place and with that, she will be able to catch up with her class. Would that not be nice? I ask. She shrugs her shoulders and I take a long, deep breath.

“Let’s see your homework. Got any?”

She doesn’t know. She can’t remember where she left her backpack, which could be somewhere at home or maybe the school, or the school bus. It’s hard to tell because she hasn’t been to school in a few days. Yesterday, she didn’t feel well; the day before, the alarm didn’t go off; the day before that, was a long time ago and she doesn’t remember. Neither does mom, who seems to live in a permanent state of befuddlement with tiny squinty eyes, long thinning hair that hasn’t been trimmed in a while, and a limp that seems to add instability to the picture.

We do some additions and subtractions and Esmeralda seems to be quite the mathematician until we get to the times tables. Soon, she’ll have to take the FCAT and she is still counting with her fingers trying to figure out what 7x2 is. We take a step back and start from1x1 and on. Only we don’t move on, because she doesn’t know this either. And whenever she stumbles upon a problem, she stabs herself with the pencil, gently first on her arm, just letting some steam off, harder later when we get to the 3’s and as hard as she can when we get to the 7’s. This time around she breaks her skin with the pencil and is grunting words that I can’t understand. I stop math immediately and move to reading and comprehension.

She covers her face with her hair and quickly I learn to read the hint. That is her “closed” neon sign. That is her “come back later,” her “out for the day,” notice. She spends the last few minutes trying to discern the meaning of the words she is reading so proficiently. She can read the words but the words make no sense. They carry no message. There is nothing to be comprehended because the words are disjointed in her mind. They are loose consonants and vowels grouped together randomly, whimsically.

I spend the last few minutes of this first session with Esmeralda thinking whether or not I’m the right person for the job. I don’t have the patience, maybe not even the qualifications to work with her. And I’m yet to work with her two older sisters. I’m pondering my options and seriously considering a call to the office and opt out when I look outside. There, in the drive way is the mother’s shiny black F150 truck with its Eddie Bauer high-end interior design. The front plate reads “A Proud member of the Hawk Clan,” and I instantly decide to stay and teach the Hawk women of the house.


Friday, January 29, 2010

We are the world/ We are the children... So let's start giving/

First came Band Aid, the charity band of Irish and British musicians who in 1984 raised funds for famine relief in Ethiopia with the multimillion sale of their song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” We bought the single. It was criminal not to help save a country “where nothing ever grows nor rain or rivers flow…”

Following the success in the UK, an American benefit single for African famine relief was born. The charity single “We Are the World” was a worldwide commercial success, instantly becoming not only the fastest-selling American pop single in history but also the biggest selling single of all time. Who did not sing along? Who did not slowly sway the arms above the heads, lighter in hand? Who did not take part in the circles of love, hold hands with strangers, and sang off tune …we are the world, we are the people…who did not feel that cozy jitter of satisfaction buying the track, knowing that the money was going to stop hunger in that far-away continent? The song went on to raise about $70 million for humanitarian aid in Africa.

Then in 1985 came Live Aid, a multi-venue rock concert watched by 400 million viewers across the globe. Throughout the 16-hour long concerts, we the viewers were constantly urged to donate money to the Live Aid cause. At the launch of Live Aid, Bob Geldof, argued: "Doing nothing for Ethiopia would mean you were complicit in murder." So when Queen opened the concert with Bohemian Rhapsody, we reached for our wallets—we didn’t want blood in our hands-- and when they played We Will Rock You, we prompted those around us to look into their pockets, and by the time we were finished singing along We Are The Champions, we’ve called everyone we knew urging them to donate. Three hundred phone lines were set up so that we could make donations using our credit cards and every twenty minutes the phone number and an address where we could send our donations to stop hunger were repeated.

Seven hours into the concert in London, the British had donated only 2 million dollars. The organizer took the microphone and dropped the F bomb on those who hadn’t donated yet as well as those who had donated too little. The abuse must have been persuasive enough, because after it, giving increased to US350 per second.

Everybody gave. The arts again were put to good use and in the spirit of music and charity; the world sang and donated in unison. But all words and no pictures can be misleading. So a video was shown in London and Philadelphia, as well as on televisions around the world, with images of starving and diseased Ethiopian children. The song "Drive" by The Cars, playing in the background. And the giving increased at a furious pace. This charity fundraiser/ concert raised approximately $285 million dollars.


Fast forward ten years. It’s the mid 90’s and nothing has changed in Ethiopia. Where did the money go?

Overall GDP (US$89 per year) is lower than it was at the beginning of the nineties.
The country ranks is 169th out of 175 in the human development league of the UNDP
Life expectancy at birth is 42 years
Infant mortality is as high as 116 per thousand compared to 6.7 per thousand in the US
47 per cent of children under five suffer from malnutrition
Ethiopia has the third largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS of any country in the world.
Only 24 per cent of Ethiopians have access to water sources

Ethiopia has been repaying its national debt to the G7 creditors, meaning us (you and me and Canada, Italy, UK, Germany, Japan and France), at a rate of US$35 million a year. This means that every penny collected through the fund-raising concerts of the 80’s that should have been used to end hunger ended up back in our pockets.

Fast forward 20 years after Live Aid, G7 creditors have stalled our annual commitment to alleviate the situation in Ethiopia and are doing nothing. Not anymore. And in the coming years, we’ll have several new causes, all noble…Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Indonesia, and now Haiti.

And how about Haiti? How much money did the telethon Hope for Haiti raise? Reports indicate the telethon pulled in more than $57 million. And more money is likely to come in because the songs performed during the telethon are being sold through iTunes with proceeds going to the Haitian cause. And guess what is Haiti’s annual debt repayment to us? Between $50-80 million per year. You do the math.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haitians in South Florida

In November 2005 while doing fieldwork in Immokalee I came across a Haitian community. It was in the wake of hurricane Wilma and Immokalee’s streets were littered with uprooted trees, branches, garbage, rooftops and material remnants of human existence.

When I arrived at the Relief Center where I was to interview a couple of social scientists about the human cost of the hurricane, I found a long line of black parishioners forming a queue all the way to the parking lot and out of the center grounds.

“What’s this line for?” I asked the last woman in the line. She was ashy black with yellow eyes like she had never left her mother continent.

“For free stuff,” she said.

“What’s free?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders and inverted her mouth stretching its corners as far low as she could.

“How would I know? Go find out yourself!”

I walked a few feet towards the door and stopped again to ask another woman what the line was for.

“Free stuff,” she said. This time, I pressed with a more specific question.

“Food?” I asked.

“Don’t know yet,” she said before she switched back to Creole and resumed her chitchat with the women around her.

A few minutes later when the door opened, I waved at Sister Mary. She waved back and let me in.

“What’s going on?”

“Haiti. That’s what’s going on.” It’d been just a couple of months since last time I sat with her, but she looked older. Like the hurricanes had crossed paths right on her white face. Sister Mary had been a relentless advocate for the rights of immigrant farm workers in South Florida and had spent the last twenty years, since she left her motherland Belgium, feeding, clothing and counseling Central American and Caribbean migrants.

“I already made peace with God and, I’m sure, He’s forgiven me,” she said as she looked at the women queuing outside in the sun. “Look at them. Did you see any Mexican?” Before I replied she said, “No, no Mexicans. Do you know why?” I said no.

“Because they’re working out in the fields. For god’s sake. Working.”

Before the hurricane season hit, homeland security pickup trucks could be seen everywhere in South Florida. Sometimes they raided the fields and packaging warehouses looking for undocumented laborers, but other than forcing them to run, scatter and hide like scared animals, “la migra” didn’t do much. The white and green trucks were the government loud speakers. They were there to remind farmers and workers that immigration laws were about to get tougher and undocumented workers would be deported on the spot. At least that was the message heard across the groves. And that same message forced thousands of fieldworkers into a Diaspora of sorts towards post-Katrina New Orleans where anyone willing to work was hired, no questions asked.

Strawberry -planting crews disappeared; orange groves were severely short-handed, tomato-field laborers overworked. This forced migration of workers left South Florida farmers scrambling for manual labor. And now hurricane Wilma had exacerbated the need for able bodies. Two days after hurricane Wilma, the Mexicans who had braved the winds in their dilapidated trailers and waited out the storm, returned to work.

“You saw them this morning, right?” Sister Mary asked as she fanned her rosy face with a fax that has just come in from FEMA. “These Mexicans are out there, stooped over, some of them with their babies on their backs. Did you see that?” I nodded. “And don’t you think it’s odd that now with this huge demand for manual labor, we have Mexicans working and Haitians begging? I mean, doesn’t that tell you something?”

We were standing by the window, looking out on the line of women through the shutters. The Center had been distributing food, toiletries, clothes, diapers, baby formula, toys, etc. The storage room was bursting with donations. The only way to stop people from begging was to stop giving them free stuff. And to stop the arrival of donations, was to the Center, the equivalent of asking people to stop caring.

“I love them, Haitians. I do just because they are God’s children,” Sister Mary said, loudly enough for the rest of the staff to listen. They stopped momentarily and paid attention. “But God knows, I don’t like them.” People nodded in agreement and I heard, “me neither,” from a desk and “nor me,” from another.

“Show her the men,” the pastor/social worker/counselor/fund raiser whispered as he moved bags of groceries from one room to another. Sister Mary took me to the back of the office and opened a door to the Center backyard. There, under the trees, sprawled on straw mats, lay the Haitian men, waiting for the BBQ the Center was about to cook.

“See what generosity does?” The pastor shouted from across the office. “You don’t see parasites in Haiti. There? If you don’t work, you die. But here? Look at them. A thing of beauty!”

As I got in my car, I noticed a Haitian woman sitting on the curb with her baby. She had just collected a couple of plastic bags with donations and a 24-can box of baby formula, which must have seemed a redundancy to her as she tossed over her shoulder half of the cans. She noticed me, and as she disposed the last of the of the baby formula, she said, “la même merde”, the same shit.