Emma is a large woman with a ready smile of white and golden teeth and a secret salsa recipe she will not share, not even, I suspect, under torture. She has been working in the same restaurant kitchen for 16 years and, when she is absent, the salsa that gets served is slightly different – Emma always boasts of a secret ingredient but, in all the years, no one has figured out what it is.
“Mama, taste my salsa”, she would say to anyone walking by her station. And god forbid you refuse because you just had coffee, it’s 8 in the morning and the last thing you want is a mouthful of fire: she would get terribly upset and ignore you for the rest of the day, a mistake I only made once.
Emma’s back ache has been plaguing her for years but, rain or shine, she will be at work, on her feet all day because she has to keep the money coming and being a cook is all she knows. Most of the Latinos who populate kitchens everywhere in Southern California, or take care of gardens/children/houses, are mirror images of Emma. Working in a kitchen for eight years put me up close with this tight-knit community and what always struck me was the generosity of spirit that is shared by those society often considers at the bottom.
If disaster strikes, in the form of a death, an illness, a deportation, all petty bickering and disagreements are pushed aside, and the community comes to the rescue: money collections are passed around for funerals and births, food is prepared and delivered, small apartments are open to anyone in need. People who don’t have much, who more often than not live paycheck to paycheck, offer what they can. But they always give. Because they identify with their fellow human and their circumstances.
In “Theory of Moral Sentiments”, the English economist Adam Smith purports that it’s this process of identification that is at the base of morality. “Sympathy arises from an innate desire to identify with the emotions of others. It could lead people to strive to maintain good relations with their fellow human beings and provide the basis both for specific benevolent acts and for the general social order” (wikipedia).
Often, this process of identification gets diluted the higher we climb the economic ladder. Money changes us, and not always for the better. Foundations and large donations are mostly the work of the privileged few at the top and, as noble and encouraged as they should be, they are often set up under the counsel of financial advisers and the lure of tax breaks. Their value and the good they can do is not diminished but I wonder where, in the process of identification with fellow man, the so-called one percent in its ivory isolation, stands.
For years I had a bird’s eye view into the life of people who started at the bottom and were vaulted, more or less quickly, into fame and riches. Some were able to stay grounded to a sense of self that did not completely identify with success but others ended up living in a rarefied stratosphere, detached from reality and some of the basic experiences we all share. I am not sure where and why this divergence occurs but I did notice that those who stayed close to their roots seemed to have happier and more balanced existences. I suspect that retaining a sense of what the grind of life is has something to do with it.
Last night I was at a glitzy restaurant, a bit of a rare occasion for me. While waiting for the valet to bring out my car (we do not park our cars in LA and this supports a whole economy…), I noticed Edge of U2 and his wife standing next to me. In my jeans and high heels I felt slightly overdressed compared to their jeans and plaid shirts. I heard Edge talk in his thick Irish accent that years of living in LA have not erased. Both our cars arrived and, at that moment, we witnessed a funny skit. I think it’s normal to compare ourselves to celebrities and feel less than them in many ways – still, right then, we both impulsively turned towards each other and burst out laughing. Adam Smith, of all people, popped into my mind: there was no barrier, there was no difference between me hurrying back to my house and getting up at 6 the next morning and him going back to his mansion. We were just two beings experiencing the same funny moment and feeling natural about sharing it. There was no entourage to shield a rock star from the “little man”, no airs or detachment on his part.
Adam Smith says we cannot possibly know what it feels like to be on a rack but that using our imagination to identify with any situation, no matter how removed from our experiences, makes us moral beings. Southern Africans have a lovely name for this philosophy:Ubuntu, the spirit of togetherness. As Mandela is fond of reminding people “I am what I am because of what we all are”.
As Emma and all the dishwashers and cooks I had the privilege to work alongside taught me, sometimes imagining how someone else’s shoes might fit is the biggest gift we can give them (and ourselves). It says I am here, I might not understand completely but you are my mirror. I stand by you.
All photos C&S’s archives, except for “Boots” found in the public domain
Thanks to sofagirl for the Ubuntu reference