I remember that it was a sunny day in El Paso, as it almost always was, and I was upstairs with my girlfriend in our dusty apartment when we heard someone calling to her through the window.
We went downstairs and found a young woman named Lupe, a friend of a friend, who lived just across the border in Juarez. My girlfriend had mentioned some time back that she had some extra clothes, and Lupe stood for a minute or so trying to work up the nerve to ask for them. A little girl, one of Lupe’s four children, peeked out from behind her legs.
Lupe worked at a maquiladora in Juarez, sorting American coupons as I recall, and as a day maid in El Paso. She and her children lived well below the U.S. poverty line.
I’m not trying to ennoble her. I have no real idea whether she was a good person or a bad person, whatever that means. I only know that she was an extremely poor person, with four children, and she was working hard and not making enough to provide for them and so she was here, on the sidewalk, trying not to appear to be begging in front of one of her children.
Then it got worse.
This blob of white liquid landed on her head. Splat. None of us could understand what was happening. For a second, I thought she’d been shot and I was seeing her brain matter. Then I looked up. A pair of fat pigeons was perched above her on the phone wires. We stood there in excruciating silence. The little girl said nothing. Her eyes were dark and unsurprised. She was about the age of my daughter, about six.
There is no moral to this story. It is something that happened in El Paso many years ago, and that I have been unable to forget.
I can remember, also, the view from the porch of that apartment, which was of the Rio Grande, and the colonias of Juarez, where families built houses out of cardboard and old tires and collected water in steel barrels and pirated electricity.
At dawn, the day maids like Lupe would wade across the Rio Grande—a river so dirty American children were not allowed near it—with plastic bags on their heads. They would scramble up the concrete embankment to the American side and pull their dry work clothes out of these plastic bags and change into them while also trying to hide their exposed flesh. Sometimes it was cold and they shivered. Sometimes a green INS van would show up and chase them through the low desert scrub.
I could watch all this from my balcony, as I sipped coffee.
I remember, also, covering a wildcat strike by the young Mexican men who were bused up to the fields of New Mexico to pick the tasty green chilies we enjoyed eating so much. It was brutal labor. The fumes from the chilies caused their nasal membranes to swell. The pickers were paid by the bucket. I believe they were on strike because they wanted 37 cents per bucket, not 35 cents.
The buses left before dawn, to insure ten hours in the fields. Most of the workers slept in the shadow of the International Bridge, curled like question marks on cardboard mats.
I am not speaking here about the character of these people. I am speaking about what little I knew of their material circumstances. I don’t think they regarded their lives with pity or contempt. I think, for the most part, they just lived their lives and did the work necessary to support themselves and their families.
I found this work remarkably arduous and humiliating. But that’s only because I was born into privilege. It’s my hang-up.
Most Americans who travel overseas suffer the same hang-up. It’s what Mitt Romney felt when he saw all those young women working at that Chinese factory he once considered buying. There’s a kind of awe in his voice as he describes how hard these women work, for how little money, under circumstances most Americans would consider slave labor.
Romney sees the story as a kind of inspirational morality tale about capitalism: this is how the poor should behave. They should be grateful for any opportunity to better themselves. “This is an amazing land and what we have is unique and fortunately it is so special we are sharing it with the world.”
The real problem with America isn’t that we have too many poor people but that our poor are insufficiently grateful.
That, in a nutshell, is Romney’s pitch—not just to the swells eating $50,000 chicken breasts; to all of us.
One of the great wonders of the conservative movement is how effectively they’ve constructed this inverted narrative in which the rich are victims, and the poor are perpetrators. They’ve managed to convince tens of millions of decent Americans—many of them poor—to ignore any evidence that contradicts this worldview.
You can jump up and down and scream, ‘Hey, the Americans who don’t pay income tax are dirt poor, or serve in the military, or are aged!’ Or, ‘Listen, the top ten percent of our country controls 75 percent of our wealth, while the bottom half controls 1.1 percent!’ These are factual statements.
But they don’t register.
The reality conservatives cling to resides in their hearts. The poor wind up poor not because they lack access to opportunity—to good education and good jobs—or because they lose their jobs, or get sick, but because they’re parasites. The rich are rich not because they were born that way, not because they’ve rigged the system in their favor, or because they’re ruthless or unethical, but because they’re braver and more noble than the rest of us.
More and more, I’m convinced that this mindset is psychologically protective. It’s how citizens in a nation of unprecedented abundance justify our own inaction, our entitlement, our sloth. It’s how we make it okay to eat gourmet meals while other human beings are starving. It’s how we transmute our guilt into rage.
Conservatives take the lead. But most of the rest of us go along. We don’t take to the streets to demand an end to greed in our time. We drive hybrids and complain to each other. This allows us to feel superior without putting much at risk. It’s a cozy arrangement. The Romneys of the world provide cover for our own moral negligence.
But still. I have to believe that there must have been some part of Mitt Romney who walked through that factory and saw more than “favorable labor costs,” who looked around and thought: Gosh, these young women are the same age as my sons. What if my sons were born in this country? What if the most they could hope for in life was a slightly larger apartment on the edge of some blighted Chinese landscape?
I have to believe this because Mitt Romney isn’t a robot. He’s a human being. He’s a father.
Sometimes, at night, I close my eyes and I’m back on that sidewalk in El Paso. There’s nothing I can do about it. I’m just there. And there’s Lupe. She’s come to beg for clothes. Her hair is suddenly covered in bird shit, as if the pigeons themselves know the order of things. But they don’t. It’s just dumb luck. It’s mean luck. Lupe is standing there. Her daughter is behind her, looking up. There’s nothing I can do about it. She’s still there. She’s still the same age as my daughter.