The first stamp on my newly minted passport: Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico, la ciudad de la primavera eterna (the city of eternal spring). Cuernavaca was a floral oasis, 70 degrees year round. At nineteen years old, I was curious, naïve and full of adventure. As Mexico was my first study abroad and international experience, the love affair began. Mexico opened my eyes to the outside world. Like most tourists, I was enamored with the beaches of Acapulco, climbing Teotihuacán, visiting Tenochtitlan, eating tamales, speaking in rich Spanish tones, and dancing salsa until la madrugada with mexicanos guapísimos. I returned to Mexico annually for five years, consecutively. I found it difficult to let go of my adopted patria. Like most relationships, my love affair with Mexico was complicated. Soon, I would be forced to recognize that there was injustice everywhere.
Poverty was not foreign to me. In my own country, I had grown up in poverty. Both my grandmother and mother worked as housekeepers for most of my childhood. Often times, I would accompany my grandmother to work to help her clean, or to babysit her employer’s grandchildren. We would either catch the city bus or drive my grandmother’s unpredictable hooptie. My grandmother cleaned for wealthy White doctors in the exclusive Buena Vista community of my hometown. I later learned that those Spanish words meant good view; however, I recall the dissonance that I experienced as a child when we crossed Liberty Street, the Black part of town, to enter Buena Vista.
My grandmother’s boss, Mrs. Peebles, would drive us home sometimes. Notwithstanding rain, snow or extreme heat, she made a hard stop at Liberty Street, citing that she was advised never to cross that street. She would drop us off at Liberty Street, forcing us to walk several miles to reach our home. Of course, at 12 years old I had no idea how the outside world viewed our community at the time. Therefore, I did not understand why Mrs. Peebles feared the very community that I loved…a community that had nurtured and protected me.
Unfortunately, the dichotomy between rich and poor was also apparent in Mexico. At the age of 19, Mexico birthed something in me that I could not disregard. I saw life in another context, yet familiar and reminiscent of my own community. Mexico allowed me to comprehend how history, politics, race, religion and so many other dynamics define societies. A few years after studying abroad in Mexico, I became a Study Abroad Director. One day, while in the Director’s lounge of my University in Mexico; I met a Mexican housekeeper named Amalia. She was small in stature with short black hair. Her high cheekbones and caramel complexion highlighted her indigenous heritage. Amalia entered the lounge and began to clean. As I watched her dust, empty the trash, and perform her duties, she reminded me of a younger version of my grandmother: so diligent, so focused, so kind.
Each day Amalia was tasked with making a pot of coffee for the directors and professors. Rarely did anyone actually drink the coffee. Quotidianly, I noticed Amalia performing the same rituals. One morning, she entered the Director’s lounge sheepishly, and asked to speak with me. Amalia explained in Spanish that she makes the coffee every day and no one drinks it. At the end of her shift, she throws the entire pot away. Since I was the only one who drank the coffee, she asked if I would mind if she had one cup each morning as long as all of her chores were completed. I looked at her in wonder. A conversation in Spanish ensued.
– “Amalia,” I said –my Spanish now embellished with a twist of Black girl attitude, “I am a visitor here. I do not buy or sell the coffee. Please get whatever you’d like. You do not have to ask for my permission.”
– “You’re the only one that I see drinking the coffee,” Amalia explained, “but the bosses said that if employees want coffee they must buy it from the cafeteria. If I buy the coffee in the café, it costs me 15 pesos, and I only make 600 pesos ($60 US dollars) per week.”
– “At the end of the day, don’t you just throw the unused coffee away?” I asked.
– “Yes, but the boss is very strict about us using anything that has been designated for directors or professors.” Amalia explained.
– “From now on, don’t ask for coffee. Just take a cup. Hell, take two or three or four.” I replied frustratingly.
Amalia gave me a hug, and then she served herself. She walked out of that office as if she held gold in her hands. She was humbled by my benevolence. I did not feel that I had done anything worthy of praise. I had given a human being something that would be discarded, and then licked up by stray dogs. Amalia had caused me to ask some stirring questions that I still wrestle with today. This experience forced me to look more critically on a global scale at issues of race, class, gender, and access.
I was staring privilege squarely in the face over something as minuscule as coffee. What were the larger implications? My students’ tuition for a summer stay in Mexico would take Amalia months to earn. I will never know if my actions actually caused Amalia harm. Did the university administrators ever learn of Amalia’s defiance and my encouragement? Did my actions cost Amalia her job, her livelihood? Coffee over people. In the moment, I did not consider any of these dynamics. I was simply unnerved to see a grown woman cowering over coffee, a reaction that I had observed with my own grandmother in her interactions with Mrs. Peebles.
I pray that everything worked out in Amalia’s favor. Today, as I assess injustices that are perpetuated throughout the globe, I continue to question a society that allows me to sip the coffee that Amalia was forced to throw away.
Note: The events of this blog post occurred around the year 2000.