Gloria’s grandchildren are nothing if not observant.
“Abuela, why does Tia Pamela have peanut butter, and we don’t? Why does Tia Pamela have warm water to bathe in? Why does Tia Pamela have a big bottle of cooking oil, and you have a small one and we have more people in our family to cook for?”
“Abuela, who is Tia Pamela to you? If we call her Tia, why does she have very white skin and we all have dark skin? Why isn’t she like us?”
“Abuela, why doesn’t Tia Pamela wash dishes?”
The literal answers are that any prepared food, like peanut butter, is far too expensive for them to buy. They have cold water not so much because of the initial cost of a water heater and installation, but because of the ongoing cost of electricity to heat the water. When Gloria showered the children here, they certainly liked the warm water. It’s just that their parents can’t afford to provide it for them. Villagers can’t buy in quantity, the larger more economical sizes of things like cooking oil, because a big jug is too expensive in the moment, even if it might be more cost effective over a week’s worth of cooking. And they don’t buy olive oil in any case, even though they know it’s more healthy, but rather a cheaper vegetable oil.
Gloria told them I do wash dishes in my apartment — actually, I load the dishwasher — but not here because I am on vacation. “On vacation” is an utterly foreign concept to these little ones. They know “school vacation”, but that doesn’t involve going anywhere or leading any different kind of life, and it certainly doesn’t include someone to wash their dishes.
Gloria told them she is my friend — our preciously built relationship of “amigas para siempre”, women friends forever — but that when I am here I pay her to help me so that I can relax. Their eyes widened. They had no idea.
The harder question, the connection Gloria tries to reframe, is their associating white skin with privilege. The question is complicated by the fact that in Panama, most upper class Panamanians with privilege also have light skin. The question is also complicated by the fact that associating white skin with privilege is largely true, in our culture as well as theirs.
Gloria tells them what I told her, when we first met and she was struggling with her role as a servant and with her question of why God’s plan always placed her family at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. “In the eyes of God we are all equal. God loves us not because of our skin color, but because of what is in our hearts.”
Ojala que sea asi. I wish it to be true.
These are such hard conversations.