The Laborer

What do you see in this picture?

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A poor man? A day trader? What status did you assign him? Is he alienated? Is he a pawn of capitalism?  I occasionally use this photograph in class to illustrate how easily opinions can be formed based on appearance rather than true information gathering.

This man rolls in his goods to sell to tourists every day, each for one dollar. I was caught by the glimpse of this burden. Unlike many of us, encased and seated in air-conditioned offices, what is daily life for him? He toils under heat and rain, with worn shoes and callous feet—no Nikes here. He displays an industrious profession, a vendor selling artwork, tapestries, and carvings.

I had joined a group excursion during an international conference to visit a major archaeological site on the Yucatán peninsula of México. Apart from the pre-Colombian Maya temple ruins, I was struck by the residents running the sales and noticed this man in particular. Did he enjoy his labor? Was he struggling to survive? Was he caught in a scheme where the yield of his labor was withheld and placed in the hands of another? I remembered how stratified the world’s wealth is. My own presumptions based on cultural mores, however, were called out. I had unwittingly superimposed on another the status of  “less fortunate.” This man could well be satisfied with his life.

My lessons in that moment were: Be slow to judge. Work hard. Be grateful. Share what you have. And the next time we travel and see something to buy that costs less than it’s worth, consider paying the artisan what it is worth, in a small personal redistribution of wealth.

“Well, I’m weary of the spoils of my ambition, and I’m shackled by the comfort of my couch. I’m just a little jealous of the freedom that you have, unfettered by the wealth of a world that we pretend is gonna last.” – Andrew Peterson, “Land of the Free” on the album, Clear to Venus

Adapted from original publication in the International Educator.

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