Every once in a while, there are several women and children sitting outside our local grocery store. They beg for money. As is usual for beggars in Mexico, the family is, and I hate using this word…”indigenous.” I have no idea, but I don’t think they are homeless. This particular family simply begs, whereas some families try to sell little dolls or other hand-made trinkets.
This is a common thing in Mexico City: The desperate and sometimes creative effort to make money. I’ve seen it all — roving bands of musicians, torch-fire swallowers performing in lanes of traffic, men who do somersaults onto broken shards of glass in the subways, door-to-door salesmen who sell – of all things – shoelaces. In the U.S., you see far less of these gestures, although I have to say, you do see far more straight-up homeless people, drug addicts and aggressive beggars walking in say, Harlem, or downtown Corpus Christi, than you do in Mexico City.
Anyway, as I was about to pass the family, I was fraught with the usual internal struggle: Do I throw them a few pesos? Or do I ignore them, like most people do?
Then I walked by, and heard them talking. It was not Spanish. It was some fierce-sounding ancient language, which, somehow made me feel even more conflicted. What does this mean, that they’re speaking a rare and likely dying language?
Initially, I assumed they were speaking Nahuatl, one of the more common languages spoken in Mexico (there are dozens of native languages struggling to survive here; only a few of which are spoken by more than a million or so people). Last night, though, after I explained what the words sounded like to my Spanish tutor, she said “Oh, that’s not Nahuatl, that’s probably Otomi.”
Otomi? Otomi? I’ve never even heard of that, and once I started to research it, my pangs of guilt returned: I realized I have traditional Otomi embroidery hanging in my house. I bought it a few months ago because it’s pretty, vividly colorful and portrays animal symbolism in Mexico. I guess, in hindsight, buying embroidery was a better way of supporting their dying culture, rather than tossing a few pesos into a cup. But since I bought it at a large market, and not direct from them, I doubt my money supported any Otomi families. Perhaps, perhaps not.
Still, though, I’m left with that internal struggle: What do I do when I walk by them? Give them money? Food? A smile? Or nothing? In New York, I turned away, ignored it. Here, however, I can’t turn away so fast. I am guessing it’s partly because in Mexico City I am considered upper-class, as opposed to middle-class, as I was in NYC….and I don’t quite know how to process this new social status of mine.
But, I have to admit, it also was hearing them speak an unknown-but-local language that made me give pause, made me pay attention to them, made me wonder about their history ….and since then, has made me wonder, over and over, why this simple moment — hearing Otomi — was more powerful than hearing Spanish.