On the main road running through this part of Cancun, there always seems to be maintenance happening. For the last month or so, a crew of some 20-30 men with picks and shovels has been digging a trench alongside the road. They have begun to lay some kind of cable. The project has progressed, perhaps, 3 miles. In the states, a commercial trenching machine would have been used, operated by one man. The good news is that this project is employing 20-30 men but these guys have been working at hard physical labor, in exhaustive heat, for 8-10 hours each day.
It’s easy to see their individual faces as traffic slows through their work area. Some of these men are well into their 60s and look completely exhausted. Repeatedly swinging a heavy pick over your head for 8 hours seems tortuous at any age but in your late 60s… I can’t imagine!
Life in Latin America seems to share some similarities between countries. Having traveled in both Central and South America and living in both Ecuador and now Mexico, I’ve noticed that work often performed by machines in the States is frequently done by manual labor in these countries. While heavy equipment is used for the big jobs, smaller jobs rely on manual labor. It is clearly a matter of economics. Labor is cheap and machines cost money to purchase and maintain. Shovels and picks rarely break and if a handle does break, someone with a machete will cut a new one from a tree and work resumes in 15 minutes.
Seeing this hard working crew again this morning reminded me of an observation I made in Ecuador a few years ago.
I needed to run some errands in the small village of San Vicente; basically some shopping but as is always the case, it involved numbers of stops to find what was needed. I timed it so that the bakery would be the last stop. They open about 3 PM and the bread is usually just coming out of the oven. When I arrived, they said it would be about 15 minutes until the bread was done. No problem. I’m retired.
As I waited nearby, I noted the heavy road construction happening only a few feet from me as bucket loaders and graders were removing the old road bed in preparation for a new road bed and paving. About ten or twelve feet from me were two men, construction workers with rags tied around their heads to keep the muddy sweat from rolling into their eyes as they dug. They were covered in the dust and grime that hangs in the air around projects like these and were using shovels to move large piles of dirt from the sidewalk areas into the street, one tiny shovel-full at a time. The shovels were no longer pointed on the end but had been worn to a rounded edge like the side of a tablespoon and were half the size they used to be when new. The task was monstrous and the remedy was underwhelming. That is often the case.
On the bright side, these men had jobs. They worked 10-12 hours per day, moving small shovels filled with dirt to a new location a few feet away; Job security, for sure!
What I also noticed was that these men were about my age. They were 60+ years old and still working at a back-breaking job, six days per week to support themselves and their family. As I stood there, next to my car filled with groceries and some small luxury items, waiting for my order of fresh bread to be pulled from the oven so that I could drive to my beautiful condo with running hot and cold water, air conditioning, large refrigerator, swimming pool and stove with oven…I pondered just exactly why my life was so very different from those men’s lives. We were about the same age and for a moment, I was stunned at the immediate contrast. I felt almost ashamed at my good fortune.
I had worked my entire life and paid into a system that was now returning my money to me (although challenges are frequent to remove Social Security funding and Veteran’s benefits from those who have contributed). My combined retirement income is far greater than those senior-citizen construction workers who continue to work their fingers to the bone. I stood, watching those two old men move shovel after shovel of dirt…one after another. That was how they spent their ten-hour days…every day! Every so often, they would stop, leaning on their shovels for a moment before beginning again.
Those old men were certainly not the only ones on the planet who were doing manual labor into their golden years. Additionally, in some countries, children are virtually enslaved as production workers and forced into the labor market. By absolute luck, I had been born a white male in the United States of America. That fact, alone, put me into a number of privileged categories; white, male, and a citizen of the United States; three things that, merely through chance, offered exponential advantages to me over many on this planet.
These days, many in the United States have entered into poverty for the first time and senior citizens who, not long ago, could look forward to their retirement years now worry about the theft of their social security by politicians and the rising costs of maintaining even a meager existence in the United States.
Time passed and the fresh bread was removed from the oven, its aroma beckoning me back inside the bakery. As I drove away, I could see both old men, continuing to shovel dirt. I noted they were not wearing gloves and I imagined how rough and leathery their hands must feel. I looked at my smooth hands, glanced at the bags of groceries and luxury items in my car, shifted gears and drove home to my beautiful condo.
I realized once again that so much of our lives…the lives many of us take credit for, is pre-loaded simply by the chance genetic code assigned to each of us at conception; Black, brown, yellow or white? The nation into which you are born provides your cultural launching pad and educational opportunities as well as a general world view. Not your choice.
The truth is that we aren’t entirely self-made, none of us! We tumble from the cosmos into a pre-existing set of circumstances, already possessing a set of physical attributes and are, each of us, genetically predisposed toward certain outcomes. Once here, of course, we can most certainly work to alter our course but many things are beyond our control. Try to change your skin color, for example, and changing one’s gender is not an easy task! If chance determined that you were born into the impoverished underbelly of any society anywhere on the planet, the reality is that your climb will be much steeper and rockier than someone born into privilege and wealth. And if your skin color is shaded a bit darker than others, there will be additional rocks piled on your path.
I don’t believe those old brown men chose to be born in Ecuador. And I can’t imagine that they would have chosen a life of hard physical labor, working well into their golden years, if there were other viable options available to them. They tumbled from the cosmos just as I did but arrived in a different place and into different circumstances.
Ain’t that some shit!