What do you see in the picture above? Two realities exist, whether you see the young woman or an elderly woman. Illusions like this are meant to make you look twice, to train not only your eyes, but also your imagination to see things in a different perspective. Many aspects of society often beg multiple interpretations, just like this illusion.
In two countries, two men are living two very different realities. One man expresses the immense hardships that arise when living homeless with three children and his struggle to maintain a sense of hope in his life. Meanwhile, 5,000 miles away, our second protagonist drives a luxurious car to work every day, while his hired house staff cooks, does the laundry and looks after his children. Two realities are evident here, but before the obvious ‘one man is from a rich country while the other is from a poor country’ axiom is stated, let’s look at this picture from a different perspective.
I met the homeless man while volunteering at a shelter in Chicago, Illinois. The man with housemaids and nannies lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. We traditionally look for ways to measure poverty around the world, but it is becoming clear that the differences between social classes in each country are often just as stark as the differences between the young and old woman in the picture above.
Poverty is abstract and numerous complexities arise when trying to define it. From the outside, the US is viewed as a very privileged country and on a broad scale, it is. But once one steps inside and looks at things with a keener eye, they will see that not all of the US is privileged. According to this article from the HuffingtonPost, 5.5 percent of Americans are suffering from ‘very low food security’, which is the inability to obtain a sustainable food source for meals and days at a time. Since 2011, the amount of Americans suffering from ‘low food security’ has risen sharply from 800,000 to the 17 million it is now.
Above is a picture of Rocinha, a favela or shantytown in Rio de Janeiro. According to the 2010 census, nearly 70,000 people live within Rocinha; it is the second largest shantytown in Latin America. There is but one street that separates Rocinha from Leblon, which is the most affluent neighborhood in Rio. One can easily see the contrast between the two worlds in the picture above, where the stacking of houses stops and the high-rises begin. It is very easy to pick out the poorer of the two, but to say that all of Rocinha is suffering from immense poverty would be incorrect. When I was volunteering last March, I learned first-hand that not everyone who lives within this shantytown is struggling to make ends meet: a portion of the people who live within Rocinha have jobs, live comfortably and could live somewhere else if they desired. People choose to live there because of the strong sense of community and simply because it is home.
Last February, I was told a story about a family living in a rural part of Cuba that didn’t have access to electricity and had to walk miles and miles to obtain meat. A friend of mine asked the storyteller why this family was so satisfied in living in such poverty. The storyteller replied that the family didn’t consider themselves poor; they were perfectly comfortable and content with their life. This reply caught my friend by surprise because she couldn’t understand how a family can be content with having so little. People in many parts of the world have come to covet material goods. I suspect this Cuban family would not turn down a new car or a big-screen TV, but I also suspect this Cuban family would not be willing to give up their days just to enjoy a car or a TV, when they have lived so comfortably without such things. Some may classify a community as impoverished if it lacks the basic material goods that others find impossible to live without. Yet would you consider the San people, an indigenous group, who posses nearly no material goods, to be impoverished because they hunt with bows and arrows and live in caves and huts? Members of this nomadic group may not have a sustainable source of water or a reliable roof over their heads, but they are a group that spends 90% of their day in leisure, interacting with family and friends. To me, this does not sound like a group that is suffering.Through my time volunteering at homeless shelters in Chicago and traveling throughout Latin America, I have come to realize that poverty is not black and white. Sure, it is easy to look at a place from the outside and judge it as impoverished, but it isn’t until one steps inside and looks at things differently that the truth becomes clear. The town I’m currently living in, Lençóis, thrives off of tourism. The main businesses here are travel agencies, restaurants and boutiques. The residents of Lençois aren’t rich, but they are not poor either; they live comfortably, whether that is with HDTV or without it. On the outside, Lençóis is without a doubt a beautiful town, but it could also be mistaken for poor. But Lençóis is rich, maybe not with big houses and nice cars, but with natural beauty, stunning architecture, and a rich culture.
Is the family in Cuba still poor? Does the lack of material goods make them impoverished? Are the families who are living comfortably in Rocinha considered poor because of where they live? Does a house made of concrete in a ‘slum’ make that community impoverished? Do 17 million people unable to pay for a sufficient food source impact the country as a whole?
Learning to look at things differently will awaken realities of a country that aren’t visible from the outside. The same difficulty in distinguishing the old woman from the young woman applies when trying to distinguish who and what is considered poor in a given society.