In Sonia Nazario’s extraordinary book, Enrique’s Journey, she recounts the odyssey of a young boy who faces unimaginable danger to reconnect with his mother in the United States. Unable to feed her children, she had left Honduras eleven years earlier to find work in El Norte. Enrique makes his way north, as many migrants do, by clinging to the tops and sides of freight trains.
It’s a dangerous journey. The tops of the boxcars are controlled by gangsters. Bandits rob and sometimes kill the children who hazard the trains. Corrupt policemen shake down the migrants and frequently deport them.
The trains travel through some of the poorest stretches of Mexico and Central America, and yet it’s common for the people who live along the tracks to throw small bundles to the migrants as they pass:
Families throw sweaters, tortillas, bread, and plastic bottles filled with lemonade. A baker, his hands coated with flour, throws his extra loaves. A seamstress throws bags filled with sandwiches. A teenager throws bananas. A carpenter throws bean burritos. A store owner throws animal crackers, day-old pastries, and half-liter bottles of water. People who have watched migrants fall off the train from exhaustion bring plastic jugs filled with Coca-Cola or coffee.
A stooped woman, Maria Luisa Mora Martin, more than a hundred years old, who was reduced to eating the bark of her plantain tree during the Mexican Revolution, forces her knotted hands to fill bags with tortillas, beans, and salsa so her daughter, Soledad Vasquez, seventy, can run down a rocky slope and heave them onto a train.
“If I have one tortilla, I give half away,” one of the food throwers says. “I know God will bring me more.”
We’re on hallowed ground here.
I’m reminded, sadly, of the invidious distinction we sometimes make between charity and philanthropy. By some accounts, charity represents a kind of weak, emotional response while philanthropy gets to the root of a problem and solves it once and for all.
Views like this are fairly common in our field, but we need to shed them and approach, with fear and trembling, the divinity that illuminates the great acts of self-sacrifice Nazario describes. We can extol the virtues of strategic philanthropy, when practiced well, without also deprecating the acts of goodness that define, in my view, what it means to be fully human.
Albert Ruesga writes about foundations, nonprofits, and philanthropy at his blog White Courtesy Telephone.