Crossing Cultures: The Peruvian Poor

Poverty is a global reality. Every country has some percentage living below the poverty line, as defined within their economy and cultural norms. Despite the fact that Peru has a strong economy and is a growing force in the world market, the percentage of the population that is considered poor remains in the 30% range, in comparison to the US’s percentage of about 12%. 

That is somewhat to be expected. We knew when we moved here that poverty was a major player in Arequipa, Peru. We had seen the shanty towns where the truly impoverished live with a “house” made of stacked up sillar blocks and a tin roof, surrounded by dirt and rocks, far away from the city’s network of water, electricity and sewage. This is one factor in Latin America that varies greatly from the US. Urban sprawl happens not because those with means move to the fringes, but because the poor take up residence at the edges of the city where no one has yet claimed territory. Thus, the wealthy live in the older, more established neighborhoods with access to utilities, and the poor wait for the infrastructure to reach them and provide basic services. Knowing all of this, our work through ICDU has been to try and improve lives in very real ways. We had expected to witness poverty and planned to address what we could. 

The eye-opening moments have been those times in which the poverty of our friends manifests itself in ways that I never expected. I knew they had less than we do, but I had failed to realize just how harsh a reality it is for their daily lives. Allow me to give a few examples.

  • We had bacon sandwiches with the teenage girls one week. The oldest girl looked at the pile of cooked bacon and asked, “What is that?” “Bacon” I replied. “I’ve never tried it before” she says. 
  • Having a friend ask us why we keep food that is left over after a meal. We explain that we eat leftovers the next day or two. She states that they cannot afford the electricity on a refrigerator, so they must only make the amount of food they can finish that same day. 
  • We were asked for a to-go container for some unused vegetable broth made from bouillon cubes for a recipe. We were told that with a few noodles cooked in it, it would make a good supper that night. (This struck me particularly because bouillon is incredibly inexpensive.) 
  • One of our neighbors collects plastic bottles to sell for a little extra money. I have also seen a man stay about a block ahead of the trash truck through the neighborhood all morning, trying to catch any plastic bottles people might be about to throw away. 

In those moments, I was floored by the realization that these are just normal parts of life for them. They earn what they can and provide for their families as best they can. While I’m sure they wish things were easier, I have not heard them complain. They just live as well as possible. And the beauty of it is that some of them just don’t give in. One woman told me that she considers poverty to be a mindset. “If you’re just going to sit at home and wait for someone else to help you, then you’re poor. But if you get up and go get to work and make your life better a little bit at a time, you’re not poor anymore.” She lives in one of the poorer communities that is working hard to make the most of the situation. 

We can learn a great deal from people like her. I think she far better understands Paul, when he wrote “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (2 Cor 4:16-17) Can you imagine how much that hits home for those around us? Would you be able to live a life as they do and still describe it as “light and momentary”? 

In light of this, we must acknowledge just how NOT poor we are. Have you ever really, truly thought about that? It’s easy to say we are blessed, but to feel tight on cash. We may have the best of intentions, but our attitudes from day to day aren’t tempered by a true understanding of what we have that really is not necessary to life. Let me tell you, they should be. We should be exceedingly grateful that our concerns have to do with maintaining a comfortable lifestyle, not surviving a grueling one. Remember that the next time you eat bacon.