Don Ernesto leaned back on his overturned bucket and repeated the phrase again. “Tell me what you have and I’ll tell you what you’re worth. If you’ve got nothing, you’re worth nothing.”
It was late afternoon and we sat under a sheet of tin propped up against Ernesto’s outhouse. I’d been gone for two months, fishing in Bristol Bay and Kodiak, and was visiting Ernesto and his family for the first time since my return to El Salvador.
The smell of urine behind me mingled with scent of the coffee that his wife had quickly given me upon my arrival. Yesica, their 4-year-old daughter, was on my lap, happily smudging me with dirt as she squirmed and played with my sunglasses.
We started talking about Alaska, of course. They asked about my family, and I gave them some smoked salmon to try.
Soon, though, the topic shifted to something more familiar. I met them last year in the community shelter; they had been displaced by the intense flooding in October that ravaged the country. While other families were able to return home after the rains abated, Ernesto, Miriam, and their six children were shuffled from shelter to shelter for two more months.
They didn’t really have a home to go back to.
For the last two years, ever since a previous tropical storm, their small plot of land had been flooded and they were forced to live in a poorly constructed aluminum hut on a public dirt road. When people heard their story, they wanted to help. Enough money from the States came in that we were able to buy a well-constructed, safe house far from any danger of flooding.
I assumed that the worst hardship of Ernesto’s and Miriam’s life had been living in that shack on the road, but today I heard more of their story. Ernesto earns a meager living selling whatever he can in the public marketplaces in nearby towns.
Sometimes it’s toilet paper or toothbrushes, sometimes it’s candy. All he sells goes for food for his family, but often it isn’t enough. Years ago, he was accused of murdering someone and sent to prison in a far away city for a crime he didn’t commit.
They had three young children at the time, and Miriam would take all of them with her into the plantations where she worked, setting them under a piece of plastic for shade as she picked coffee until her hands were as calloused as a man’s.
“I was there four years,” Ernesto told me, “and it was in prison that I learned that the guilty are almost never punished. In this country, if you have money, you pay for false witnesses, and accuse whoever you please. Or, if you are a rich man, and you shoot someone, it gets ‘taken care of’ before you even get arrested because you know who you have to pay off in the police. Of all the men in jail with me, maybe a fifth of them had done the crimes they were accused of. The rest waited for someone to save them, and since everyone was poor like me, we couldn’t pay the fifty dollars for a real lawyer to defend us. We waited for a public defense,” he waved his hand dismissively as if swatting a fly, “but they don’t care a thing about helping find the truth because they don’t make more money if we go free.”
Miriam sighed and added, “It was the week someone murdered my brother that Ernesto was finally released. My family didn’t tell me until after they buried my brother that he was dead. No one knew Ernesto was coming home, and they didn’t want to overwhelm me with grief. A few days after I found out about my brother, Ernesto walked in the door.”
I looked at both of them, their faces lined with hardships, but there was no bitterness in their words. Ernesto explained that after he left jail, he decided to become a Christian, and that he only thinks positively about the future instead of dwelling on past hardships.
As we said goodbye, I wondered for the umpteenth time why I was born into the privileges of a good home in Kodiak. I can’t imagine being incarcerated four years because I couldn’t get $50 to pay a lawyer. I’ve never known hunger or severe illness or much physical suffering at all.
Sometimes I feel ashamed when I sit with my friends here and listen to all the difficulties they’ve faced. Then I think about the rich woman who falsely accused Ernesto, and about all of us who are privileged in whatever way: economically, educationally, racially, take your pick.
Can’t we try to use those privileges for good instead of manipulating the system for our benefit?
The answer must be yes. How we do that is a much more difficult question, but I think it begins with listening to stories like Ernesto’s. He may consider himself a nobody but I think it’s because he doesn’t realize that his wisdom and life experience is a richness few somebodys have.