Poverty: It's Complicated

By Josh Lieto, BA Anthropology & Spanish, 2012

A stone hearth to my right and a straw roof above, I hunched over a tiny table, sitting at an even tinier chair. Directly across from me a few gourds were swinging carelessly from a sturdy pole, playing games with the few rays of sun that filtered in from outside. Smiling faintly, the woman at my side—Doña Natividad was her name—reached for a round, orange gourd and placed it gently in front of me.

“Yaan in pak’achtiko’on,” she said. After weeks of intense, twisting dialogues in an obscure and exquisitely foreign tongue, it was a relief to hear such a grammatically simple sentence. In Maaya t’aan, the language of people throughout the Yucatán peninsula, Doña Natividad had just informed me that we were about to make tortillas—which, incidentally, was one of my favorite things to do.

Straw-roofed structures such as this one are well-known as traditional Maya houses and are common throughout southern Mexico.

Straw-roofed structures such as this one are well-known as traditional Maya houses and are common throughout southern Mexico.

Maaya t’aan, or Yucatec Maya as it is known in English, is the language of around 800,000 people in Mexico and parts of Belize and Guatemala. An ancient indigenous language of Central America, its linguistic ancestor is attested in the famous Maya hieroglyphic writing system of pre-Colombian times. While living in Valladolid, Mexico and conducting homestays in the nearby Maya village of Xocén, I spent 6 weeks intensively studying this tongue. Doña Natividad was a native of Xocén, and she and her husband, Don Eustolio, welcomed me into their house. By western standards, it was a modest dwelling—a thatched roof house with a stone hearth and few hammocks—but to them, it was home.

To anthropologists, Xocén is known as “el pueblo en el centro del mundo,” “the town in the center of the world.” This speaks to the belief, pervasive throughout Maya- speaking communities, that the Yucatán peninsula is situated at the midpoint of the entire universe, the stars, planets and rest of the world rotating around it. To geographers, of course, the peninsula is simply a tropical limestone slab jutting out into the Caribbean Sea, north the equator but south of the tropic of Cancer.

Who is right?

At first, the question seems silly. And maybe this is because geographers are not actively telling people that their conception of the world is wrong, and vice-versa. But on a more profound level these two worldviews—the indigenous, Maya perspective on one hand and Western, scientific view of the world on the other—have and continue to collide, sometimes with dramatic consequences. During my stay in Mexico, I learned about more than simply Yucatec Maya—I learned about the interactions between these disparate worldviews in the Yucatán, the complex situation in the region that Westerners would label “poverty” and the implications of this for Spartan Global in its mission to bring microfinance to economically neglected populations around the world.

Since the 1500s, people from distinct parts of the world have migrated to Latin America, most notably Spanish-speaking settlers from Europe following the trail of earlier conquistadores. As is commonly known today, conquistadores sought not only to enhance the size and wealth of the Spanish political domain, but to dominate the lives of their newly conquered indigenous subjects— changing their religion, language, and social systems. The Yucatán itself is an exemplary case study of this arrangement, and the mix of Spanish culture and indigenous Maya culture is easily observable throughout the peninsula today.

With the advent of academic disciplines in the nineteenth century like anthropology, sociology and archaeology, western scholars flooded the Yucatán. This trend continues today, and it overlays the social system the Spanish superimposed upon the indigenous peoples of the peninsula. In other words, contrasts between indigenous Maya culture and non-Maya European cultures, Spanish or otherwise, are evident in everyday life. These distinctions and their connections to the western understanding of “poverty” provide the most tantalizing point for further reflection.

This wheelbarrow resting against a makeshift storage shed is a snapshot of life in rural Mexico. 

This wheelbarrow resting against a makeshift storage shed is a snapshot of life in rural Mexico. 

Perhaps the clearest contrast between Maya and non-Maya peoples is economic. As the majority of opportunities for work in the area require an extensive knowledge of Spanish, Yucatec Maya is seen as the language of farmers—it is the language of the field. This automatically denies monolingual Maya speakers from many opportunities for work in the bigger cities, which in turn severely hampers their social and economic mobility. Of course, this situation has only been exacerbated by the rise of tourism throughout the peninsula in the last thirty years, especially at places like Cancún and Playa del Carmén. Working there often requires Spanish and English knowledge—but no Maya.

A western visitor to Xocén would immediately notice this economic contrast—by any western measure, Xocén is “poor.” Don Eustolio and Doña Natividad, living in a thatched-roof hut, seem no exception to this. However, I challenge this understanding of “poverty.” Keeping in mind the history of the peninsula as outlined above, it is important first to remember that poverty has a variety of causes—often owing to the idiosyncrasies of each region and its inhabitants – and that, moreover, “poverty” as we most often understand it is in many ways an invention of the western imagination. This statement, of course, demands an explanation— an explanation which will get to the heart of our mission at Spartan Global.

By “poverty” I refer to a perception, a set of understandings, common throughout the western world and utilized most often by conventional charities to garner money for their causes. “Poverty” is talked about as a lamentably wretched condition, and “poor” people are seen as helpless in their poverty, needing financial support. Emotional catch-phrases and infomercials implore people for donations to help “the helpless.” It is this condition of “poverty” that I call simply a part of the imagination.

At Spartan Global, we believe that this understanding of “poverty” does not get at the core of what it means to live in the developing world. Instead of seeing economically downtrodden or socially neglected people as “helpless,” we try to understand their situations and begin to work with them on their own terms. A short visit to the Yucatán will show that the indigenous, “poor” Maya— despite the fact their heritage and language has been devalued and their economic and social mobility has been thoroughly limited—are indeed a vibrant group of people. It is both unfair and degrading to characterize an entire segment of people as “helpless,” and in the end pity and appeals to emotion do not make much of a difference in these “helpless” people’s lives.

Microfinance, Spartan Global-style, is one alternative to the traditional charities that paint people as “helpless.” Seeing our clients as active participants in a complex and ever-changing world, we reach out, build relationships, and financially support people as they carve out their own path. We realize that—like the Yucatán and its inhabitants— regions, states, cities and families have their own idiosyncratic histories. Remaining cognizant of this, we happily navigate the course to financial betterment with the people we help.

I am certain that I will return to the Yucatán; in addition to having a complex and fascinating history, it provides intriguing cases for the examination of what we call “poverty” and important lessons for how institutions like Spartan Global can continue its work on a global scale.