About Secret History

Commentary on Latin America.
Mostly about Mexico - but not always.
Designed to encourage readers to learn about
the apparently "secret history" of 500 million people
spread across two continents
- but not always.
You can always count on a little snark.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Dear Gringos: Declutter the Other

I've mentioned before the idea that Latin America can serve as something of a model neighbor for the United States. The region has much to teach the northern neighbors, from community cohesion and family values to an amazing entrepreneurial spirit and ingenious creativity. The folks over at the 2backpackers.com (blog?) might mention another reason to pay attention to Latin America (of course, after you take a look at their quote, I will be problematizing the situation). At any rate, this is what they had to say about returning to the states after their massive Central / South America backpacking trip:
After retrieving only a few of our 10 or so Rubbermaid bins from storage at my brother’s attic, it quickly became apparent that we have too much stuff. This is after selling half our stuff at yard sales and on eBay prior to leaving on our trip. During our travels over the last year we have lived out of large backpacks, nothing more. The experience made us realize we don’t need all this stuff and it’s rather frustrating to own it now. We admit, we wouldn’t have realized how little we really needed if we didn’t spend the last year backpacking.
True enough. And this is their final philosophical reflection:
We aren’t shocked, but we are more aware of the culture in the United States and it’s quite different from those living in Central and South America. We are grateful for the opportunities this country has given us, but we aren’t so proud of the way we live in it. Now is the time to change and live with a little less, actually much less. Less stuff and less stress, we believe.
But let's "unpack" this for a moment (my students hate me when I say that). These folks have been living out of a backpack for months. Is their new conversion to simplicity to be found suddenly in the magic of the lives of Latin Americans? I would pretty much argue that their conversion comes from their own lifestyle, and not from some perception of Latin America as the pristine native-child, a land of noble savages and Chief Seattle's waiting for daily communion with Gaia. Backpack across the Unites States and Canada and you're going to make that conversion to simplicity as well.

Admiring the genius of Latin Americans that do a lot with a little and create miracles under difficult circumstances is an understandable approach. I would urge some caution, however, if the next stop on that train is to say that the wealthy and the leadership in Latin America don't need to undertake any sort of reforms for the general welfare of the population. Sure, you might say, Hugo Chavez can run around wasting the petroleum wealth of his country on strange schemes while the urban poor experience massive housing shortages in Caracas - because those Latin Americans just don't need that much. Hallelujah for Calderon for his money-pit war on narcotics in Mexico, because focusing on the welfare issues of citizens that DON'T directly affect the suburban youth of the United States is a waste of time - those Mexicans can do so much with so little. I once had a conversation with a retired norte americano that had stables as part of his sprawling complex. He sure would like to pay the stable hands more, he said, but to do so would just drive the cost of living up for the workers because then they would expect more out of life. "They are so good at doing without - I'd hate to ruin that for them." That, and his other retired friends would lynch him for driving up the cost of labor. It is an interesting dynamic. It reminds me of Gilbert Osofsky's arguments about the Harlem Renaissance: there was no need to carry out reforms in Harlem or improve the lives of working class African Americans because, after all, they were a "singin' race" - they could just sing and dance their cares away.

In sum, emulating the resourceful creativity to do more with less of the working, middle, and poor classes of Latin America is a good idea, but don't lose track of the point that if a family could stop using their chest of drawers (found in a local dump) as a baby bed, a dinner table, and a work bench that they would do it in a heart beat.


Jason said...

Jason, I am Jason of 2backpackers.com. I want to share my thoughts a little more on the topic you bring up for discussion.

For my wife (Aracely) and I, we learned to live with less from living out of a backpack for a year more so than traveling through Central and South America specifically. If we backpacked across the USA, we still would have learned to live with less. When you don't have something, you realize you can do without it. So, just to clarify, it was the act of budget backpacking itself that showed us we can live with less.

What Latin America taught us was that consumerism drives the US economy and will eventually drive countries in Central and South America too. That is the natural progression of a "democratic" state. (I put democratic in quotes, because the mainstream political use of the word today is incorrect to is original meaning.) But, consumerism hasn't reached many of the countries we visited and we can see how people live without it, and why they will eventually adopt it.

People in poorer or less developed countries usually don't choose to live with less, they are forced to by class, wealth, sex, race, the economy or government. I think you agree according to your last statement. I don't look up to those people for living with less, instead I criticize those governments for being corrupt.

My article was more about what we personally learned from budget traveling, rather than a reflection of the people from Latin America.

Regardless, you wrote an excellent article here and thanks for the finding us on the web.

JHD said...

Thanks for popping in and commenting. I'm glad you both had such a positive experience with Latin America and are working to help people better understand the region through your blog.