Ana begging, Mexico

Ana begging, Mexico

“Our system is one of detachment; to keep silenced people from asking questions, to keep the judged from judging, to keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces.” ~ Eduardo Galeano, “Divorces”.

The photo here is of a woman I met in central Mexico. She is a street beggar. I will call her Ana. Begging, as well as panhandling, and homelessness are poorly understood. When people live on the margins others assume they know why and judgments leap into conversations. I figure, within everything that can be observed there is a story waiting to be told. I am open to stories, as they paint a more accurate picture of life, a lifetime, or an event than assumptions offer.

When I lived in Mexico it was common to hear Americans talk about the beggars. They lumped them all together; the young, the pregnant mother, the elderly woman, the disabled man, the blind, and the double amputee. They assumed most beggars had begged throughout their life. Another assumption was that beggars come from families or generations of begging. A further assumption was that beggars were pimped out by pimps who collected those who looked shockingly pitiful and distributed them on street corners throughout the town. He would later return and take the majority of the alms they collected.

I had decided to study the elderly women beggars of a small colonial Mexican town in central Mexico. I focused in on women who were elderly (over the age of sixty). I wondered why they wandered the streets alone. I wondered where their family was and why they were not somewhere cooking the comida or preparing fresh tortillas.

I would speak to many elderly women who begged over a period of more than three years. I would sit with them, visit their homes, and we would come to know each other well. I focused in on three women for a comparative case study. I prepared a list of questions that I wished to understand. They are listed below:

1. How do the elderly women beggars experience the phenomenon of begging?

2. What is the primary reason for begging?

3. Is there spiritual meaning derived from the experience of begging?

4. Is begging a consequence of traumatization? Do the participants suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder?

I wanted to understand if begging was a clear choice. If offered another option would she choose it? Does the woman obtain a spiritual return from being on the street in her chosen role? Is it possible that PTSD or the culture-bound syndrome known as susto influenced the decision toward taking to the streets to beg? Is begging a smoke screen for past and present traumatic experiences?

All of the elderly women beggars in my study suffered from a condition, known in Mexico (and other Latin American areas) as susto. Susto means to be frightened or startled. Someone who is said to be living in a state of sustained fright or susto is said to be asustado (suffering susto). Susto also refers to soul loss. Susto is an illness or condition attributed to a frightening event that can cause the soul to leave the body. Symptoms may appear any time from day to years after the fright is experienced.

Symptoms of susto include loss of appetite, inadequate or excessive sleep, troubled sleep or dreams, feeling of sadness, lack of motivation, feelings of low self-worth or dirtiness, and somatic complaints including muscle aches and pains, headache, stomachache, and diarrhea.

The DSM- IV-TR states that experiences of susto may be related to major depressive disorder, PTSD, and somatoform disorders.

Susto is a way to deal with suffering, a way to speak of it, and a way to grieve losses. However, it is more complicated than that. The existence of susto may well speak of social contradictions, harm inflicted by ones we love and trust, and the inability of a culture to support profound loss among its members.

All of the elderly women beggars I interviewed would share stories of enduring child abuse, witnessing domestic violence as children, and enduring spousal or familial violence as adults. All of the women had married alcoholic husbands and most were beat, pushed, thrown to the ground, shamed, and belittled by husbands, sons, or adult male grand children.

In the end it was safer to be on the streets.

For all of the women beggars it happened by accident.

Katarina told me a story of wandering.

Her adult son had gone to Lagos Moreno in Mexico with a cousin. The cousin returned but her son did not. She went looking for her son and could not find him. He has now been missing for over twenty years. She started wandering in the streets feeling disoriented, confused, riddled with grief, and at the mercy of a family that cared much less that young Antonio had disappeared.

She sat on the curb of a sidewalk near a church and she was barefoot, as she often left her home in a hurry and left her shoes behind. Someone came up to her and offered her a 10 peso coin. She took it, she cried, and she began to pray and blessed the passerby. This is how begging began for Katarina. She found solace in the passerby, the stranger, the accidental encounter. It comforted her and gave her a mission. Perhaps she could pray for these people and God would smile on her and return her son.

And it begins this way for many people. Certainly the marginalized people of our world are poorly understood. They have a story and a reason for choosing to occupy the perimeter. I think violence is far reaching and all of us are under its influence.

Take care and be well,

Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD

Understanding Loss and Grief
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