Listen To Article

A few years ago, a woman from West Michigan, Rachel, traveled to southern Mexico in order to teach music and English in the tiny village of Berriozabal, not far from the larger but hardly better known village of Tuxtle.

The experience changed her life. She kept a journal. By her own account, this is what she saw.

Rachel saw squalor unlike anything she had seen growing up in tidy, suburban neighborhoods. Her first days were filled with impressions of the dirt, the rocks, the bare feet, the ragged clothes, the shabby huts made of scraps of cardboard and corrugated metal, and the smell of sewage: a squalor that breathed on her and could not possibly be bleached away.

She saw poverty, parents and children malnourished. There was a desperate rhythm to daily life in Berriozabal: crafting, selling, eating; crafting, selling, eating. Whole families would work at weaving a single multicolored hammock, a blanket, a hand bag, or they would work at painting pottery. They would bring their crafts to the open market at San Cristobal where the tourists gathered, sell them, and then buy enough food to feed themselves for a few days. Crafting, selling, eating.

She saw injustice. The open market in San Cristobal was thick with tourists. The tourists came, as tourists always come, to add experiences and souvenirs to their lives and homes. They came to photograph the Mayan ruins, to dine on chimichangas and margaritas, and to bargain on the open market.

For the tourists, bargaining was a game. For the villagers of Berriozabal it was a struggle for survival. Rachel saw the villagers selling their skillfully make handcrafts for a fraction of their value, and she saw them going home with a fraction of the food the needed to feed their families.

She wrote: “Why can’t they make a profit on the beautiful hand-woven things they craft or the pottery that takes so many hours to throw and paint? They have such talent, such abilities with their hands. Why can’t they live as they deserve? The tourists can barter them down to a very, very low price because they need to sell to provide enough to keep their families until the next day.”

She saw joy. If Rachel’s first impression of Berriozabel were of squalor, poverty, and injustice, her final impressions were of joy. She wrote: “These people all have something very powerful and beautiful in their hearts. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit of our loving God. The joy of the Holy Spirit can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the hearts of the poor.” She noted that people were generous and took time for one another. They derived great joy from what little they had.

Thousands like Rachel cross the border each year on mission trips, having similar experiences and telling similar stories. If we take the time to listen to their testimonies, they make it clear that a border has two sides, and “invaders”—as some in the government of the United States call them—cross over from both sides.

From the northern side tourists cross the border seeking cheap vacations, and industries cross the border seeking cheap resources and labor. From the southern side impoverished and threatened people cross the border seeking security and freedom for their families. And the migrations south and north are more connected than we often care to admit. Acknowledging this, we, the church, can perhaps have a more honest conversation about the justice of both migrations and we can perhaps come up with policies that address the border problem at a deeper level.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart recently retired after a long career of teaching Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

18 Comments

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Professor Boogaart,

    A great question to start an honest conversation is this:

    Why are we in the US so wealthy compared to so many in Mexico who are relatively poor?

    How did this happen? And is there anything we can do?

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Thanks Tom … Rachel had a chance to see the people … and the “invaders from the north” … a good point: Don’t bargain; just pay the price; we can afford it … those with “eyes to see” …

  • Travis West says:

    Tom, you make an insightful, important, and often overlooked point here about border “invasions” going in both directions across the border. One important point (nuance, really) I might add is that in many cases the “invasion” from the north is actually what prompts the “invasion” from the south, through policies and trade agreements (such as NAFTA) that erode local economies, promote desperation and violence, and force families to leave the homes and communities they love to seek shelter and security elsewhere, often in the US. If we want to mitigate the “invasions” from the south, we need to look seriously at the root causes forcing families to make decisions they don’t want to make, which will force us to take a good hard look in the mirror.

  • mstair says:

    “… The joy of the Holy Spirit can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the hearts of the poor.”

    Jesus as God and The Son had the choice of all human life-styles in which to reside with humanity. He chose poverty to model His teachings.

    The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me.
    He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
    to proclaim release to the prisoners
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
    to liberate the oppressed,
    and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18-19)

  • Kathy Davelaar says:

    Thankyou Tom

  • Emily R. Brink says:

    Thanks very much, Tom, for this piercing perspective of how one-sided our Northern “invasions” have been for far too long. Kyrie eleison.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Why is paying “full” price a matter of justice? I can understand doing so as a matter of compassion, but calculating what I “owe” as a matter of justice is a bit absurd. Do I owe the full price for goods that I may or may not want only because I’m physically at the market? Does the “injustice” go away if I don’t go to the market?

    • David E Timmer says:

      The question of what constitutes a “just price” is one with both economic and ethical dimensions. A free-market ideology assumes that the just price is always the market price, at which the seller is willing to sell and the buyer is willing to buy. But that ideology pictures sellers and buyers with roughly equal circumstances and motivations. But what if that equivalence doesn’t exist? If the buyer is desperate and the seller can hold out, the price can be driven up drastically; we call that profiteering, and (at least in some cases) we agree that it is unjust or even illegal. Here we have a situation where the seller is desperate and the buyer can drive the price down drastically, with no legal prohibition. But is it any less unethical?

      We visited Chiapas twenty-six years ago, just before the outbreak of the Zapatista rebellion. Compared to Yucatan, where we were based, the poverty in Chiapas had a quality of palpable desperation, similar to what Rachel describes. We didn’t come up with any easy answers to the questions of “just tourism,” but we realized that the questions are anything but “absurd.”

    • Matt Huisman says:

      Profiteering, price gouging, etc is usually associated with the seller having the advantage. In this example we have the opposite. Your proposal is more like the minimum wage laws here in the US. It’s “unethical” for someone to sell themselves for less than the “just price”. (We in the US have the advantage of having King Solomon himself set those minimum wages, so we KNOW those are totally ethical and there are no negative consequences.)

      But down in Chiapas, your minimum price means that you’ve taken away the ability of the seller to make their own decision about what’s best for them.* Is that ethical? Someone will arbitrarily set the price and never have to deal with the results. That seems absurd to me.

      * And here I’m going to suggest that many of those sellers are very good at extracting high value relative to the goods being sold.
      ** Also, I recommend trademarking the term “Just Tourism” – there’s a market for that.

      • David E Timmer says:

        Hi, Matt. I’ve been poring over my previous reply to find where exactly I proposed a “minimum price” as a solution. I haven’t found it yet, so I’m beginning to suspect that you have simply attributed the idea to me (or perhaps to Tom?) on the assumption that “it’s what all those SJW’s think.” Nobody is proposing specific policies; Tom’s blog just called for “a more honest conversation” in order to “perhaps come up with policies that address the border problem at a deeper level.” One element in a more honest conversation, in my view, is questioning the assumption that markets always produce just results, even when the economic and political circumstances of the participants are wildly unequal.

      • Matt Huisman says:

        Hi David – Whenever I hear complaints about “just” prices, I always wonder what the alternatives being suggested are. Perhaps I took your comment regarding “…no legal prohibition” too far. If so, we’re still left with an “honest conversation” that has zero ideas on how justice should affect how Invaders from the North buy goods from Mexicans. Scott proposes that we add a dose of compassion to the mix and I agree. Marty has better ideas, but some of them are likely to be of the “blame the victim” variety and therefore are never included into most “honest conversations”.

        • David Timmer says:

          Matt – It’s fair enough to call for some concrete ideas. I think Kelsey Timmerman’s books (Where Am I Eating? and Where Am I Wearing?) offer both good insights into the impact of globalization on vulnerable populations and some good ideas on local responses. And you can always talk to your local fair-trade international craft store about its efforts to help provide a fairer market for developing-world artisans. But if you and Marty are serious about wanting solutions, you could try proposing some serious ones of your own.

          • Marty Wondaal says:

            Thanks for asking!

            Free markets, capitalism, free trade, property rights, rule of law. These are some of the foundational economic ideas of Western Civilization. They have done, by far, the most good in bringing people out of poverty and creating prosperity. Christians should be promoting these ideas from their rooftops, if they care about helping the poor.

            Of course, capitalism does not result in economic equality. This fact is a stumbling block for many people who then feel that capitalism is unfair. But is is the most fair system in an unfair world.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Thanks, Tom. Years ago my wife and I were in Southern California and on a day we visited San Diego, we also crossed over into Tijuana for a couple hours to shop at its many markets. There were any number of things we bought, though we never dickered on the price listed. But whenever we walked away from something we had been looking at, we discovered we could not walk away. The vendor would lower the price–once, twice, three times, seemingly endlessly to implore us to buy the craft in question. Usually we did not do so, though on a couple things we did. We returned to San Diego feeling . . . dirty. The desperation to sell at any price was so palpable, and this article reminds us why that is so. And that properly kindles compassion.

  • Travis West says:

    Tom, you make a very important, insightful, and oft-overlooked point here about how the border “invasions” happen in both directions. Thank you for this important reminder! I would add one important point (a nuance, really): in many cases it is the “invasion” from the north that actually prompts or forces the “invasion” from the south. The policies of the US government, the practices of multi-national corporations, and macro trade agreements such as NAFTA erode local economies and make it impossible for families of, say, subsistence farmers to make a living when US corn is available for purchase below the cost of production.

    We would do well to remember that the “invaders” of our borders often do not way to cross the border, and did not want to leave their families and communities in the first place, but were forced by circumstances beyond their control that are directly related to our policies and practices in their country. If we want to stem the tide of “invaders” from the south, we “invaders” from the north should take a good, hard look in the mirror.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    So far in this discussion I see two possible solutions to the injustice of poor people in Mexico and Central America:

    1. We can all get on a bus and drive to Tijuana with fat cash in our pockets and pay full price for every tchotchke we can find. I just don’t think that will help much.

    2. We can advocate for virtually open borders. We can call Trump and anyone who favors limits to immigration racists and bigots. We can rail against free markets, capitalism, and white supremacy. But that won’t solve the problem either. There are billions of people who would want to come here. Plus, calling people racist doesn’t change people’s minds, it can’t even get you tenure at Calvin College anymore.

    Isn’t there any other ideas that will work?

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    In a way, we are. US retirees are moving to Mexico in droves to get away from our high cost of living, especially in health care. Unfortunately, we are still on the hook for expatriate’s Social Security and Medicare.

    Free trade is wonderful – I will trade Baby Boomers for ambitious young people all day.

Leave a Reply