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First Place - "My Trip to Mexico"

1994 Anne Horton Writing Award
First Place
"My Trip to Mexico"
Jana Novak

In the United States, I have found that our easy-come prosperity has unbridled a sense of ingratitude in our children. American kids have such a vast array of toys, clothes, and other little gadgets that it's hard for them to picture what life must be like without all these commodities. I, like all the other middle-class, American kids, had a hard time picturing children who didn't have any dolls or nice clothes, until I saw my first glimpse of poverty when I was seven years old.

My family and I were vacationing in Southern California one summer and decided to go souvenir shopping in Tiuwana, Mexico. We drove the ten minutes to the Mexican border, and after parking in the United States, walked into the filthiest place I had ever been in my life. (All seven years of it.) I felt like I was in another world.

On both sides of us were little shacks made out of tin, cardboard, wood, and broken bricks. I wondered if people really lived in those things, or if they were just dog houses. We walked on uneven sidewalks, and into a busy market place. There were shops scrunched together on both sides of the dusty streets, which were all in desperate need of paint jobs. Spanish music from dance halls and bars floated through the smog-filled air.

We kept on walking, ducking to avoid the fly-infested meat that was hanging out to dry over the sidewalks from the roofs of the stores, until we reached the shops that offered every style of chest sets, leather purses, or cowboy hats I could imagine. I didn't see any toys for a seven year old, so I stayed outside in the hot sun with my grandma, to soak up all the sights of this strange new place. Across the narrow street, I watched poor Mexican children as they tried to sell Wrigley's peppermint gum to everyone that came their way. I frowned as I saw that they were completely ignored in most cases. Some of the kids just wandered aimlessly up and down the streets with their hands out, pleading for money. I shoved my hand in my little short's pocket and searched for any little coin to give, but I didn't have a cent.

And then three young girls approached my grandma and me. With a pitiful and almost desperate look, one of them held out her hand and softly said, "Dinero, por favor." My grandma reluctantly opened her bulging billfold and plopped a dime and a nickel into her grimy hands. I was horrified. Fifteen cents? A measly fifteen cents? These kids were hungry, without a nice house, or clothes, or even toys. And my rich, but stingy grandma had only given them fifteen cents?

I was just about to say," Give them more, Grandma," but I looked into their dirty faces surrounded by a mat of snarled, unkempt hair, and saw nothing but thankfulness in their eyes. They were grateful for that dime and a nickel. I smiled at them, and then those little girls were gone. But I took that picture home with me, and kept it all through my childhood and into my teen years when I finally got another opportunity to revisit Mexico.

I was eighteen years old when I was accepted to be part of a drama team to Monterey, Mexico. Forty of us teenagers and adults piled into a bus and drove two straight days to Monterey. In addition to performing dramas, we were to give out clothes and toys to the poor people there as well. So before we left the States, I bought a doll to give to the poorest little girl I could find.

I picked out a soft doll with blue eyes that matched her blue gingham dress. She had black shoes that buckled across her little soft feet. A little pug nose was sewed onto her face and so were pink lips that curved into a permanent smile.

Once we were in Mexico, I took the doll wherever I went, and scanned the crowds, looking for the perfect girl to give the doll to. There were so many destitute kids around, it was hard to choose-until I saw Maria in a crowd we were performing for. She looked like the saddest girl I'd ever seen. Her sorrow-filled eyes were surrounded by a tangled mess of jet black hair. All she wore was a tattered gray dress. And she had no shoes on her little feet. I walked over to Maria and pulled out the doll I'd been carrying every day. As I pressed it into her arms, I told her it was for her. Free. To keep.

A radiant smile came across her face as she gave me a hug and a Mexican kiss and cried over and over, "Muchas Gracias, Senorita!" She held that simple little doll to her heart and with a thankfulness in her eyes turned to go show her mom what the Gringo girl had given her.

I took that memory back to the United States with me as well, and fondly look back and relive it every time I go shopping and meet up with the pampered kids of America.

One day, I was shopping for a birthday present in Walmart for my sister's seventh birthday. I automatically headed for the toy department and was just in time to hear a five or six year old boy nagging his mom to buy him another lego set. His mother promptly said, "You already have a set like that."

"But I want another one," the spoiled kid wailed as he flung himself into a temper tantrum. I quickly left the aisle to avoid getting a headache from the screaming monster, and from the shouting mother who tried in vain to control her child.

I went down two more aisles to the doll section, just in time to hear another girl beg her mother over and over to get her just one more Barbie set to add to her bulging collection. The eight-year old girl received a stern no from her frustrated mother to which the girl let out a stream of "Why nots," and "You never get me anythings." She went on and on until I was forced again to leave the aisle.

Inwardly, I longed for the sweet kids of Mexico who only needed fifteen cents or a doll to make them happy. It never ceased to amaze and frustrate me how ungrateful the children of America are. They get everything their little heart's desire and it still doesn't seem to be enough. The Mexican's lack so much, but are perhaps the most grateful people I have ever met.

Maybe we need to take our children passed the border for a while, to let them see the poverty in which most the world lives!