Venerability and Strength

By Katie Mayopoulos

They each cried within the first 30 minutes I met them.

Miriam, a local woman who owns a roasted chicken business, intimidated me the first time I shook her hand. She bore a slight cicatriz – scar – on her left cheek, and her focused eyes unraveled my façade of quasi-professional surveying as I jotted down her answers with a pencil and sipped occasionally from my Middlebury bottle.

Silvia, an artisan who sews and decorates fabric, also had a kind of intensity – I could tell she was analyzing everything about the interview, processing all of our questions very quickly. I first saw her with her hair flying back in the wind as she sped up in her car to meet us standing in her dusty driveway. She had spunk, but also the seriousness of a woman who is making goals and working to accomplish them.

Within 30 minutes, they each had laughed with us over the moment when they met their husbands, shared with us their business goals, and walked us through the evolution of their businesses. In these two separate interviews, they each also cried with us. For Silvia, her mother’s recently diagnosed cancer tore through her exterior and out of nowhere lágrimas –tears– flowed through. For Miriam, a dangerous trip crossing the border and the kindness of a complete stranger colored her eyes tie-dye with bloated red veins and glossy whiteness. Suddenly a teardrop slid down her scarred cheek.

It’s not awkward when a stranger cries in front of you. If anything, there is more understanding and empathy than when a friend or family member cries. I could see they were hurting because they cared about another person so much. Miriam dabbed her eyes with a towel that hung limply on her shoulder as she recounted the kind woman’s words with a breaking, quivering voice, “I don’t know you, but if the border security asks, you are my daughter. Don’t be afraid. We will find a way.” She has been unable to get in contact with her since she left the U.S. a few years ago.

Silvia talked of how she would go to Puerto Vallarta to gather material for her sewing, since she had to go there anyway. “I have to go there anyway, because” – and then she paused. Her eyes closed, and it looked as if her lungs weren’t expanding to breathe. She looked up to the sky and whispered with tight lips, “I must see my mom. They diagnosed her.”

In both cases, I didn’t know what to say to them. There are two barriers: I didn’t know them, and these moments would be delicate even in English, so what to say to them in Spanish? So instead, a projection of empathy becomes the only emitted thing. Not words, not hugging, just a silence that cushions the moment and creates a kind of bubble of security. Neither of them apologized for their emotions as you often see Americans do when they reveal vulnerability. They cried what they felt, and we silently projected empathy and respect towards them. I think of these two women as stronger, not weaker, because they were vulnerable with us and trusted us with their feelings.

The majority of my interviews with potential tour clients or microfinance seminar participants are quantitative. Questions like “how many sales do you have in a week?” and “how does your business change among the low and high season?” create the body of the survey. But the qualitative questions, the story of the interviewee, is when I am most thankful for the internship I have.

Regardless of the fact that I am two decades younger than both of this women, or that I live in the U.S. and they live in Mexico, or that I have never owned my own business, there is an automatic connection between humans that we often forget. Everyone hopes for happiness, and everyone has moments of immense sadness. It’s this connection that makes us human.{:}