Privilege. Oh, it’s a word that makes me think of my parents. They have always drilled into me and my brothers that we are damn privileged. If one of us tried to deny this fact, whining about whatever, they would tell us “stop playing the victim” “you don’t know how good you have it”. Even so I never really considered myself one of the privileged few. It’s hard to realize and admit when you have more than the person next to you. It’s much easier to make the comparison the other way, “I’m paying my own way through school” as opposed to “I’m able to go to university”, or “I don’t have a car” as opposed to “I can afford to take the TTC”.
Being told that your privileged, however, really doesn’t have the same impact as feeling it. Never have I felt it more than when I was in El Salvador.
I remember early on when I arrived in El Salvador, I really didn’t know how to deal with the fact that I would be seen as the privileged Canadian. I felt ashamed and guilty and a bit in denial. “I don’t have money” I tried to convince myself, “I gotta make ends meet too”. I’m used to just being in the mass middle-class. Suddenly becoming someone not only completely outside of this society, but also better off than most people within it, was a huge adjustment.
There was no chance of me being able to ignore the gigantic gap between my income, my opportunities for education, work, and the average Salvadoran’s. The reality of it all was constantly reinforced as I did my job. I interviewed the members of various artisan groups in order to make sure things are happening in a fair trade sort of way. I have to ask some pretty probing questions – income, education level, who they live with and their incomes, state of their homes, is there water? electricity? The answers I received never failed to shock me – families live below the already far too low minimum wage, many adults have only a grade school level of education, rural communities live without electricity, potable water is a luxury even though El Salvador has some of the highest water contamination levels in Latin America.
Despite witnessing this all the time and experiencing some minor parts of it, I’ll never understand what is means to live in these conditions and to have almost no hope of escaping them. I began to see this as another kind of privilege: the privilege not to have to deal with such a reality. In Canada, depending on where you live, you could grow up seeing hardly any poverty, not realizing that people are starving, being treated unfairly. To be able to exist as care-free as the majority of Canadians do is a huge privilege. Salvadorans also have a history that weighs heavy on their shoulders. Anyone above the age of 20 will remember the civil war and the atrocities that were occurring constantly throughout the twelve years that it lasted. This mental burden is much more permanent and ingrained than not having enough money.
As I saw and learned more and more of the Salvadoran reality, I became less and less certain of how to deal with my privilege. At the very least however, I came to accept it. I saw the huge differences that remained between myself and the friends I had made. With that acceptance it became easier to connect with people. I couldn’t help feeling guilty still but at least I realized there was no denying my privilege.
And yet I still find it very problematic to just be accept the fact that one person is more privileged than the next. One of the experiences that baffled me most was working with a particular women’s group in a very rural area. The first time I visited them to do a sewing workshop, they were very skeptical of me. While I was slightly uncomfortable, I understood completely why they weren’t about to welcome me with open arms. What did I know about their lives? But by the end of the workshop we had made a shirt. They decided then that I should come back another time. Soon it just fell into place that I would come back once a week to work with them. They became incredibly welcoming over time. They would make fun of my cluelessness sometimes, but other than that I think it was just kind of accepted that, yes I was from Canada and yes I have things better over there but what can you do?
While I was thankful not to be judged for being privileged, I was still so frustrated that it was something that could so easily be accepted. I don’t like to just shrug my shoulders and say “that’s how it is”. But with its many variables – class, nationality, skin colour, gender, age – changing the situations that surround privilege is not something that can happen over night. So much of privilege is inherited, not literally in money, but chances are we are in similar social situations as our parents and so our level of privilege is similar. Slowly things are changing. Certainly I have more opportunities than my Grandmother did. But equalizing privilege between Central America and North America is a daunting task, one that I’ll need to work on as much as everyone else in the these continents if we want to enact real change.