The Mexicans

In preparation for next year’s Year of Mexico, I’m reading Patrick Oster’s The Mexicans: A Personal Portrait of a People (1989). Oster was a journalist stationed in Mexico City in the 1980s and the book is a collection of his columns, each one dealing with a different aspect of Mexican society, not all of them flattering (e.g., police corruption or journalistic cowardice). I was curious to read the chapter entitled “The Evangelista,” as it deals with an interest of mine:

There are those in San Juan Jaltepec who say that their village’s luck changed when they got a new patron saint. All villages in Mexico adopt a special saint who is supposed to watch over them. For centuries, the patron saint of San Juanito, as most call the tiny settlement, had been San Juan Bautista, or St. John the Baptist. But some time early in this century – no one seems to remember exactly when – there was a change. Things were going very badly for San Juanito. The village priest suggested a new patron saint might bring better luck. He proposed a switch to the Virgin of Candelaria.

The Virgin was known to bring good luck to children if they were brought before an image of her shortly after their birth. Sometimes she even performed miracles, it was said. Another village already had the Virgin as a patroness. But that was all right, the priest had said. her goodness was big enough for San Juanito, too.

To make the switch, the villagers bought a three-foot-high plaster statue of the Virgin. Her white countenance now looks down from the altar upon a sea of brown faces that worships her from the cold marble floor of the village church.

While the Virgin’s miraculous abilities seem to focus on infants, the story goes that if you ask her for something else – better crops, good health, a son – you might get that, too. But if you do, you have to offer some sacrifice in thanks on her feast day. February 2. Typically, people bring flowers, such as the red gladioli and yellow mums that festooned the altar that February night that I visited San Juanito’s church. But gifts of candles and homemade clothes for her statue are common, too.

Year of India

This is the Year of India at Reinhardt, and I’m taking the liberty of reposting a recent email from Curt Lindquist, professor of religion and coordinator of the Year of India program.


“Watch your step.” “No pictures.” “Don’t stare (or in my words, don’t be tourist voyeurs).” Dava had other rules before we made the thirty-minute drive to Mumbai’s Dharavi slum for a walking “reality tour.”  I and four others were outside the Leopold Café. As a popular downtown Mumbai café, the Leopold was one of the sites which was sprayed by terrorists during the November 2008 terrorist attack. Besides encountering a reminder of India’s recent terrorist attack, I knew that this walking tour was going to be different than my walking tours or primarily religious sites in New Dehli, Varanasi and Kolkata. Our destination was the Dharavi slum, the largest slum in Asia.

The twenty-one-year-old Dava told us his story. Basically neglected by his father, he supported himself delivering newspapers and tea. Having to find a place to live, he moved into the slums. One semester away from earning his university degree, he now worked for “Reality Tours.” Dava oriented us to Dharavi: “It is two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park, but in its approximately one square mile area it has over a million residents.” More importantly, Dava communicated a sense of pride that Dharavi slum residents have.

Upon arriving at Dharavi, we slowly walked for four hours up and down its “streets” which varied from three to five feet wide. Often, these “streets” had a foot-wide drainage ditch running down the middle. In the middle of that ditch and slightly raised ran Dharavi’s water pipe. Drinking water and sewage side by side! We passed shelters that were homes. In these shelters, usually ten by ten, family members stared at us; we quickly glanced at them and then tried to find something else to view. Generally, we couldn’t tell how many individuals lived in these rooms, but we did see a bed, a table, a shelf, and, two or three times, a TV. Dava wanted us to be surprised!

Dava exclaimed that “Dharavi is the heart of Mumbai.” The individuals of Dharavi keep Mumbai from being swallowed by its own filth.  Dharavi has shed after shed devoted to recycling. With no official permission or contracts, young children to older men bring Mumbai’s waste to Dharavi.  There, workers melt aluminum into ingots. According to Dava, Dharavi  produced three and a half tons last year.  Workers also wash, separate, melt, and cut plastic into small pellets. Other workers make ceramic tea cups or sew shirts for 10-15 rupees per shirt. Dava concedes that the workers do not make much money, but enough to “earn and eat.”

Dava didn’t sugar-coat slum life. He showed us one latrine. I didn’t enter. Although it was probably the size of the Gordy restrooms, the latrine served 10,000 individuals. Usually the men, not the women, behaved in the universal manner of men. They didn’t use the latrine; they used the nearest wall. He also showed us the clinic which tried to help with the cases of diarrhea, of malaria, of respiratory disorders, of malnutrition. Dava wasn’t interested in exaggerating the effect of the clinic. There are too many serious medical issues and too few medical resources.

Dava did criticize our unspoken stereotypes. You know one stereotype. “Slums are complete wastelands.” As I mentioned above, Dharavi is “the heart of Mumbai.” Dharavi is useful in that it prevents the 8,000 daily tons of garbage from overwhelming Mumbai.  The inhabitants are the “lungs of Mumbai.” As removers and recyclers of that trash, Dharavi’s “industries” produce an estimated $500 million in value. There is another stereotype: “All the inhabitants are life-failures, lazy, dependent upon drugs, waiting for handouts.” When Dava lived there, his neighbors knew when somebody else was sick; they knew when somebody else was having a family problem; they knew when somebody had an accident. According to Dava, there is “a powerful sense of community among Dharavi people.”

There are other accounts of Mumbai’s slums. A New Yorker correspondent, Pulitzer Prize winner for Public Service, and National Book Award winner, investigative journalist Katherine Boo spent several years painstakingly talking with slum residents, and recording events in their own words. Her bestselling Behind the Beautiful Forever is a must-read. It shows another side of Mumbai’s slums. Her book shows the moral loose ends of slum life. There is police extortion, a lack of justice because the only individuals who entered the Mumbai’s court  “were those too poor to pay off the police.” And community?  “Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously for gains as slender as they were provisional.”

Mumbai’s slums? After my five hours of a walking reality tour, I felt sadness, guilt, relief, even admiration. After reading Behind the Beautiful Forever, I felt an even deeper sadness. There is a fragile massiveness, a porous solidity to Mumbai’s slums. The slums are massive, solid; they can’t be altered by one person or by one organizataion. But, the slums are also fragile, porous; many individuals live in their midst, adjusting their lives hourly and daily in order to live.

What else can be said about Mumbai’s slums in particular, and India in general? This week is our Year of India Film Festival. I’ll be showing Slumdog Millionaire, a film centered on Dharavi slums. We’ll also be showing OutsourcedBride and PrejudiceLunchbox, and Kumare. Come, make your own judgment about Mumbai’s slums, and continue to learn about India.