Social Action

Eyes to See, Nose to Smell Everyday Injustice

4:05 AM. I flung my hotel door open, bleary-eyed but determined to be on my way home.


I stepped out of the frigid air of my room and into the predawn Dominican humidity.


It’s still hot. It’s August in the Caribbean. It’s kind of always hot.

But I also smell something familiar for the first time on this trip. Charcoal burning. And charcoal burning nearby most likely means two things:

  1. There are Haitians. Even though the DR & Haiti share an island they have very distinct cultures. And one point of separation… even a point of discrimination… is that Haitian prefer to cook with charcoal instead of natural gas or propane. That might not seem like a big deal to Americans but it’s kind of a big deal on the island. (Read this to learn more about charcoal. This photo essay is good, too.)
  2. Haitians are close. The deep breath of humid, smoke-filled air, wasn’t a distant lingering smell. It was clear that I was close to the fire.

As I walked to the front of the hotel to catch my ride to the airport my eyes squinted through the dark to try to see the source of the fire. The truth is I didn’t see it. But, forgive me for the conjecture, I imagined that somewhere nearby– probably just on the other side of the wall surrounding the hotel complex, I’d find a few Haitian families.

In the Dominican Republic, Haitians are to Dominicans much like Mexicans are to Americans. (Let’s agree that’s a big generality, OK?) Much of the economy of the DR is reliant on cheap labor that is often filled by Haitian. And the citizenship/resident status of Haitians in the Dominican Republic is often a political issue. In 2013, a judge ruled that 210,000 Haitians, many who’d been born in the DR had no legal status and might be subject to deportation. Then in 2014, the congress created a pathway for legal residence and citizenship.

Agriculture and the tourism industries depend on the labor of a voiceless, invisible people.

Sound familiar? Yeah, we’re no better in the United States. Not one bit.

Everyday Injustice

Yesterday, I posted this question on my Facebook profile:

Worldwide, tourist areas are places where sexually exploited women/children are trafficked for commercial purposes. If you were on vacation somewhere where this were the case, would you go on an “excursion” from your vacation to learn about the sex trade, what’s being done, what to look out for, etc?

It was just a random thought. Clearly, I’m in no position to start something like that or even know if it’s a good idea. But that’s what Facebook is for right, just asking my Facebook friends what they thought about that idea.

I wasn’t surprised that most of the responses were “not while on vacation.” It wasn’t that my friends didn’t care– not at all. It’s that they wanted to go on vacation somewhere and vacate. For them, it wasn’t the right time to think about or learn about injustice. You kind of want to know and not know at the same time. Like going to Disneyland… we all admit that going on vacation is often the acceptance of a ruse. We exchange knowledge for pleasure.

This is cognitive dissonance. On the one hand we care deeply about issues of justice. We want to know. On the other hand, we don’t want to be bothered thinking about everyday injustice, especially when we’re on vacation. We don’t really want to know.

But it begs the question… many of our everyday activities benefit from everyday injustice. For instance, you buy tomatoes for $.99 per pound and don’t think for a second about the person enslaved in Florida who planted, cultivated, and picked those tomatoes. You don’t think about the person in Tijuana who is raising his children next to a river full of heavy metals so he can make money by assembling a TV you buy on sale at Costco.

And here I was. On a trip to learn about injustice in the DR. And I’m walking across the beautiful grounds of a hotel and something deep inside of me both cares and doesn’t care that the people who made my stay wonderful probably live in squalor just on the other side of the wall from my room.

Seeking justice is complicated, isn’t it?

Photo credit: Haitian Students Breathe New Life into Depleted Pine Forest by UN Photo/Logan Abassi via Flickr (Creative Commons) 
Social Action

We are Israel, We are Russia, We are Mexico

Her day starts long before daybreak. She rolls off a mattress onto a clammy cement floor, hoping to step silently towards the light peaking between the doorframe to get outside. She pulls on the door but it’s jammed a little. Finally, with a thud, it opens. In a breath she looks back to the mattress to see her kids wiggle into her warm spot and slips outside. A car honks down the road in the distance, she exhales, letting sleep go while fumbling into her jeans pocket to fish out a cigarette.

She lights her morning smoke and squats to sit on the step. In the thick air of the morning she sits and waits for her ride. This is the most beautiful moment of her 15 hour day. Fresh morning air, a bird chirping far too early, and a hushed quiet as her neighborhood sleeps.

A few moments later an old Buick pulls up, scratchy brakes announcing it’s arrival. She climbs in the back, squeezing between a few other women to find a patch of seat. In near silence they ride together for 30 minutes to the gate of her job. She pays $20 per week for this ride. She can’t afford it but can’t afford not to.

For the next 9 hours she’ll force her hands into the freezing cavity of a fish caught a million miles from here. She’ll make $200 per week, after taxes, union dues, and check cashing fees, she’ll take home $134.50 on Friday. She wonders what it means to be in a union or even if there is really a union. She knows they aren’t representing her but she’s afraid to say anything because she knows they’ll fire her. The taxes she pays aren’t for her because the number she gave the factory were just made up, anyway. But what can she do? She needed the job.

In a thoughtless motion she makes a small cut across the fish belly with one hand while pulling out the insides with the other. Next she cuts makes another cut, breaks the fish open and places it back on the belt. It takes just a few seconds and she’s off to the next. She works as fast as she can with almost no breaks, hunched over, she and her co-workers all trying to remain invisible to the people they work for. Sometimes while doing this she daydreams and thinks of her childhood, happier days, playing in warm breezes with her friends. Back then she never could have imagined her life would be like this. But mostly she thinks about nothing. She just wants to not draw attention to herself. Plus, if she thinks too much she might accidentally cut herself. So she just concentrates on doing what she has to do and getting out of there. She hates this job but knows that if anyone hears that she might want to look for a better one she’ll be fired on the spot.

When her shift ends at 2:15 she walks quickly to a place to clean up and grab something to eat out of a vending machine before another beat-up clunker comes to drive her to the Motel 6 on the other side of town. Another $20 per week she can’t afford.

She’ll spend 4 or 5 hours there, invisible, cleaning rooms for minimum wage. Even though she fights exhaustion– compared to her other job she’s exhilarated at the hotel. She changes into clean clothes at this job– a Motel 6 uniform, and before her shift starts she’s able to wash herself in the utility sink in the storage room where they keep her cart.

Sometimes, when no one else is around, she fills up the big sink with hot water and hops in, squatting into sink is closest thing she has to a tub. To us, this might seem silly and she feels like a giant baby washing in a sink. But to her, those 5 minutes of bathing are pure luxury. She uses half-empty bottles of shampoo left behind by truck drivers or vacationers to have her own spa.

At the hotel, she finds some semblance of dignity, but also cruelty. Her shifts here aren’t regular and sometimes when she shows up to work she is sent away. She works odd shifts to fill in and her boss would text her when he doesn’t need her but her phone never has enough minutes. So sometimes she shows up to work and there’s no work for her, so it cost her money to get there but she’ll make nothing. To make things worse her ride won’t come back until 9. So she can’t go home to be with her kids, anyway.

Late at night she gets back home. Her 3 year old, the baby, is already asleep. Another day goes by and she hasn’t seen her. Her sons are still awake, one watching TV and the other is next door. She goes next door to get her oldest, the three of them make small talk and play cards for a little while before they all go to bed.

She turns off the light. Barefoot, she walks silently across the clammy concrete floor to the mattress. She leans over, slides the baby closer to her brother as she lays down next to her. The toddler re-settles, makes some sweet sighs, and they both drift off to sleep to do it again tomorrow.

We are Israel, We are Russia, We are Mexico

Often, when we watch the news and we think to ourselves, “I can’t believe those countries treat their people like that. That’s disgusting.” We live our middle class lives, we drink our Starbucks, go to our movies, stare at our phones, and we start to think that everything is an over there somewhere problem.

  • How can Israel justify bombing people in Gaza? 
  • I can’t believe people support Putin, what a monster. 
  • Why doesn’t Mexico clean up those drug cartels once and for all?

Let’s not be myopic. It’s easy to look over there somewhere and forget that we have over there somewhere problems right here in our own communities, too.

We’re no better than Israel. We’re no better than Russia. We’re no better than Mexico.

The woman I wrote about above lives in your neighborhood. She lives in every community in America.

She’s black. She’s white. She’s Latino. She’s African. She goes to your church.

Over there somewhere is right in front of you. She’s not invisible. She’s no better or worse than you. You just refuse to see her.

Photo by A C O R N by Flickr (Creative Commons)
Social Action

Childhood Lost – Stay Up All Night

I’m thankful for Childhood Lost.

Social Action

Everyday Protests

This video was featured in a piece on KPBS yesterday, “What Happens if You Don’t Cooperate at Border Checkpoints?

The answer is… nothing. Without probable cause Border Patrol has no right to detain you.

At first I watched this video and was annoyed. Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. But as it went on I think I got the point. It’s a form of protest against a violation of our rights as citizens. 

Wait, What’s Going On?

Social Action

Preparing My Heart for Cambodia

Screen Shot 2013-02-28 at 9.37.45 AMAs part of my preparation for Cambodia, I’ve been getting my hands on books and soaking up stories to better understand the history and culture. Prior to going on this trip I didn’t know much about Cambodia. I’d heard of the infamous killing fields, but didn’t grasp how recently in history the genocide began. (1975)