In The Tortilla Curtain, a novel by T.C. Boyle, Delany a “liberal humanist” who lives in a gated community on top of Topanga Canyon in the hills above Malibu hits an undocumented worker with his car as he is coming back from recycling glass bottles, which he took careful effort to separate by color.
Candido, an undocumented worker who lives in a makeshift hut in the Topanga Canyon, does not want the police to get involved for fear of being deported. Delaney is afraid of ruining his perfect driving record and an increase in his insurance premiums. “Candido is in very bad shape, with blood seeping out of his mouth, a torn left sleeve and arm, and a shredded left side of his face. In addition to the tortillas, Cándido has a grocery bag, which is now torn by pieces of glass and wet with orange soda. He is in very bad shape, groaning, barely able to stand and unable to focus his eyes.” Though Candido is badly injured, to soothe his conscience, Delaney gives him $20 and drives away.
That is the image I confronted as I wondered why I had only given Lourdes $20; I was the “liberal humanist” soothing my conscience. For weeks I could not take her or the incident out of my mind; a sense of guilt and pain loomed within like fog.
I have discovered that the world is a mirror, and through it I have the opportunity to learn about aspects of myself that otherwise would continue to exist unrecognized. This was a very difficult concept to accept for it forced me to look at each experience internally rather than externally. I had to take accountability for all the experiences in my life, and realize that even if I wasn’t a direct cause, I was still a participant in everything that occurred to me and within me. Shakti Gawain says the mirror process is based on the following two premises:
- I assume that everything in my life is my reflection, my creation; there are no accidents or events that are unrelated to me. If I see or feel something, if it has any impact on me, then my being has attracted or created it to show me something. If it didn’t mirror some part of myself, I wouldn’t even be able to see it.
- I try never to put myself down for the reflections I see. Everything is a gift that brings me to self-awareness. I try to maintain a compassionate attitude toward myself and my learning process.
What did Lourdes mirror within me? What did I see in her that was a reflection of me? Vulnerability. Lourdes was a reflection of my vulnerability; the fear of rejection and abandonment that abides in the little girl inside of me. Seeing her marginalization from society evoked painful childhood emotions that were a product of the instability and uncertainty I lived as a child – and the poverty. There were many times in which hopelessness loitered in our lives – no one to come rescue us. Lourdes, like millions, will never be rescued from her poverty. My grandmother’s birth certificate was my “lottery ticket” – she was born in Texas.
What I also saw, was my participation in structures and institutions that create and perpetuate the structural violence responsible for the conditions and oppression of Lourdes and so many like her. This is why I was confronted with the image from The Tortilla Curtain. When I choose to pay cheaper prices for a product like green onions without having awareness of where the product comes from, I participate in the perpetuation of structural violence.
Paul Farmer, a physician and anthropologist who has made it his mission to transform health care on a global scale by focusing on the world’s poorest and sickest communities, defines structural violence as “the invisible structures of modern society [that] divide humanity into the impoverished and the affluent denying large percentages of the world’s population access to” the opportunities and resources that those who are privileged have (An Anthropology of Structural Violence).
Because of international economic policies like NAFTA, many American agricultural companies are exporting their farms to places like Mexicali where they are able to pay workers as little as $0.57 per hour, but where a gallon of milk costs $2.20. In other words, a worker has to work half his/her shift to earn enough money to buy milk. American companies benefiting from NAFTA, “despite the law, pay less than minimum wage, with no taxes, health insurance or retirement benefits [and] are now estimated to employ over half the workers in Mexico (Mexican Miners Fight Privatization in Revolutionary Cananea). This of course is no different from the sweatshops in Asia, which manufacture so many of the products I enjoy sold at stores with mottos like “Expect More. Pay Less. and Save Money. Live better.” At whose expense do I get to live better? In my pursuit of the American Dream and the comfortable lifestyle I have come accustomed to, what dominant structures have I turned a blind eye to?
The pain, guilt, and shame continued to loom. I kept questioning why I had only given Lourdes $20. I continued to probe in the places that made me uncomfortable, even in the places I wasn’t being honest with myself, but it became a guilt-inflicted process in which martyrdom and victimization would over shadow the true lessons the universe wanted me to learn about myself. I came to realize that in many ways I was like Delany in The Tortilla Curtain, an American in my own invisible gated community of comfort and privilege who had become unmindful of the plight of the have-nots. It’s one thing to read about it or hear about it, and it’s another to confront it within you.
Once when discussing with my daughter Carmen why it was always only a small group of people who effected change, she responded from her personal observations that people tend to stand up for injustice until it becomes a burden on their sense of comfort or safety. That day I gave Lourdes $20 because giving her more would have meant I would have had to sacrifice how I had planned to spend my money. There I was with my expensive camera and my indulging display of food and I couldn’t bring myself to offer her everything I had. I realized later, that my spirit wanted to give her more, but my form was afraid that by giving her everything I had, I would experience the same sense of instability and uncertainty I had experienced when I was a child. My form had learned to compensate for that fear with the things that brought me a sense of comfort.
Not only were the pain, the guilt, and the shame coming from my having to admit my participation in structural violence, I began to realize that the compassion I thought I was feeling was really a reflection of the parts of me I had not yet healed. Compassion does not come from a place of guilt or pain. Compassion is a selfless emotion from which the drive to help someone is rooted in love for that person, not pain for oneself. I finally understood that as I use the mirror to heal, I would begin to channel divine energy to truly help heal the world.
I will make a greater impact on those whom I make a connection with when I radiate love and light. I know in this state of being, I will no longer have to struggle with what action to take, because I will begin to trust that the universe is guiding me in the manner in which I am aligning with my purpose. This also means that as my form continues to align with my spirit, I will have to have compassion for myself, because my form will sometimes be guided by fear, and I will just have to learn to forgive myself as I continue to learn to trust my spirit and the universe. “. . . when I’m trusting and being myself as fully as possible, everything in my life reflects this by falling into place easily, often miraculously” (Shakti Gawain).
What I am also learning is that this is a time of tremendous transformation and spiritual awakening in my life. It is also a great time of uncertainty because my ego is not in control anymore. I am learning to completely surrender to the divine wisdom within. From what I have experienced so far in my spiritual journey, I know that the more I surrender “to and move with the spirit, the more enlightened and empowered it will become” (Shakti Gawain). I also know that I cannot force my form to trust my spirit through will, for this is when guilt and fear take over the process. Nothing one does that truly aligns with the universe should ever feel like a sacrifice or forced. If and when I am truly channeling the light of the universe, I am filled with love, compassion, and trust. What I am doing is becoming more aware of my emotions, observing the process I am undergoing, and being honest with myself. When I feel fear or guilt or uncertainty within, I sit with those feelings and learn to accept them as part of my transformation.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t continue to question and probe and challenge myself through the transformation. I have learned in my Yoga practice that if I push too hard, my body will have a tendency to resist. Instead, I use my breath to make the space I am holding more comfortable and with love slowly melt into the form I want to achieve.
Like the soul of the hummingbird, in being I am doing what I was always meant to do.
Thank you Parminder for your spiritual guidance and light.