Dogma vs. Cheese

Among my numerous flaws is the fact that I’m not very charitable. Yes, I give money to worthy causes and all that, but I’m stingy with my time. My wife does volunteer work, which is one of the eight thousand things that I admire about her. Still, I’ve never found the energy to join her on her endeavors or to paint a dilapidated inner-city house or to devote a holiday to working in a soup kitchen or to do something else community-driven and altruistic.

My reluctance may be due to laziness or cynicism. Or it could be that my youthful stint doing volunteer work in the barrio of my hometown was less than satisfying.

I was a teenager, and I accompanied my mother on her rounds giving food to poor people. Again, I went not because I was bursting with the milk and honey of human compassion, but because my mom told me to. She needed someone to lift the heavy bags of donated foodstuffs, and I was informed that I was this person. So we drove around town, and I lugged clunking sacks up flights of stairs, entering each family’s hovel with the slump-shouldered, sullen indifference of the American teenager.

The families were overwhelmingly Hispanic, most of them recent immigrants who were still struggling with English. The land of opportunity was a lot harsher than many of them thought it would be, and they were, without exception, grateful for our help.

In fact, they were excessively grateful. I was hugged numerous times, and more than once a weary-looking Latina mother would burst into tears or repeat, “Gracias” over and over again.

This was not a moving experience for me. On the contrary, I got embarrassed. I didn’t like people falling over themselves praising me, especially when all I had done was carry some groceries. Plus, none of this charity work was my idea and all of it was against my will.

But still they went on in rapid Spanish, until my mother interrupted them to hand over the bill. You see, the food was free – but it still cost something. The price for being fed was a lecture.

The lecturer was my mother, and the topic was birth control.

My mother and I had noticed that most of the households were overrun with shrieking children. The Latino obsession with family (which I have addressed in these posts more than once) was in full flower. This was one of its negative outcomes.

So my mother tried to explain to these destitute women that they didn’t have to keep cranking out babies. She pointed out the obvious – more children meant more mouths to feed – and she tried to convince them that in America, they had freedom and choice and other abstractions that didn’t exist in their home countries.

But the lectures were not popular with the receipients. Many of the immigrant mothers were mystified about basic birth control, as if my mother were trying to convince them to buy a magic talking chimpanzee. It was just that exotic.

Those who knew about condoms and pills and IUDs usually dismissed them out of hand. It was against God, they argued, by which they really meant it was against the Catholic Church’s teachings. This showed me at a young age, as if I needed any further proof, that religion can do more harm than good and that people will abdicate responsibility for their own personal disasters under the guise of being holy. It also convinced me that Hispanics will never improve their quality of life as long as they remain fanatically devoted to the pope (see my earlier post on this).

Other excuses popped up. Some women implied that it was their culture’s way to have lots of children, oblivious to the fact that they were in America now. At least one woman said that her husband refused to wear a condom because it wasn’t manly. This was a special moment when my mother translated this particular item for me (and not awkward in the least!).

In any case, many of the immigrants had come to expect my mother’s sermon. They had to choose between having their belief system questioned or receiving those enormous rectangular cubes of cheese that exist solely for poor people’s consumption. It was their Sophie’s Choice.

So they listened, and then they said, “Gracias,” and then we left to repeat the whole futile process again.

And that’s why I don’t volunteer anymore. Or maybe I’m just lazy.


4 Responses to “Dogma vs. Cheese”

  1. 1 evenshine
    October 10, 2008 at 9:49 am

    First of all, enjoying the blog. Rare to find someone eloquently talking about the Latino life.
    I think, though, that you may be misunderstanding a great deal about both Hispanic culture and the Catholic religion when dealing with the issue of birth control. “Quality of life” isn’t only dependent on the number of figures on a check, but is reflective of a person’s goals, dreams, and values. A person’s quality of life could, actually, be based on very different measures than you might find meaningful, such as the Hispanic emphasis on family, which I am sure you’re familiar with. In this scenario, the recipients of your mother’s generosity had very different values and priorities. Assuming they’re just ignorant is erroneous.
    It’s easy to judge a person’s motivation from the outside, but it may be less easy to *understand* personal motivation. Especially when you don’t hold the same standards.

  2. October 15, 2008 at 1:56 pm

    My mother had 10 siblings (3 of them died before reaching their second birthday), my grandmother died when she was 36 years old with a severe tuberculosis. She had 20 years of basically being a mother. Her only success in life as she recalled was finishing High School, something my grandfather was jealous and not proud at all, he wanted her to be pregnant all the time, because he used to say that otherwise she would be cheating on him. That’s a Bolivian family in the 40’s. Family values and culture are simply social structures, ignorance and superstition play a huge role in our Latino culture, that’s why the more educated the women the less kids they are going to have, it’s not about values and priorities, it’s about education.
    I’m with you in this, I believe that having all the kids that “Dios nos quiera enviar” is not a healthy statement, have only the kids you can feed, that won’t send you to hell!!

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