BROWNSVILLE, Texas- “Eleven year old inhabitant (Paloma Noyola Martínez) of Matamoros garbage dump wins nation’s Mathematics prize.”
A friend shared that news item with me via Facebook. As Matamoros is the border “sister city” of Brownsville, I happened to be familiar with that particular garbage dump (there are several in the area).It would take a mathematical genius to create an algorithm that could capture the degrees of social misery that abound in the place. One could start with the organic data, counting the flies, or the rats, or the buzzards. At some point, of course, the inorganic data would need to be configured—the slow burning fires that melt the plastic of the junked fax machines, computer consoles, cell phones and other electronic garbage to make it easier to capture the copper and aluminum and similar precious leftovers.
And then there are the harder to quantify social factors—single room structures with no privacy for eleven year girls-becoming-women, the stench that clings to the residents’ clothing, unmasking them as garbage pickers, wherever they may wander in the city. There is the sheer misery of walking through the garbage, dodging glass and sharp metal, or, worse yet, the packs of feral dogs.
Only a personal visit to Paloma’s home–the winner of this prize–would allow a proper appreciation of her achievement, for typically, there are no desks in these shacks, neither is there a quiet space for study. Noise and danger and stress abound. And did I mention the stench? I know that I did and that I should insist on this factor, for it is a sticky smell of death and rot that worms its way into one’s heart.
In my visits to the dump, I found it hard to breathe, much less to think.
I am tempted at this point to say, “You get the picture,” except that in the midst of all of this is Paloma, whose ability and hard work and particular genius was captured by a national examination. She, and the many other still hidden treasures, ruin this sort of calculus of misery.
What kind of a place, then, would this garbage dump be? And what indeed do we discover in a human being—a young girl at that–who not only survives the basurero, but has managed to thrive in the midst of its squalor?
Paloma’s story is a gospel type of scandal, a social fact that trips up the political thinkers and social planners, those who, in the USA as well as in Mexico, divert resources to where they are expected to pay out the highest dividends. Not, for example, to garbage dumps or rural Texas school districts.
It is so much easier to divide people into the “47%” or into those who live in a civilized place, and those who live in a garbage dump. The algorithm that employs the premises of social class and race and gender offers a joyful simplicity that is much in vogue these days, even as it is wrong.
The proof for the refutation of that simplicity is Paloma and her gold medal.
A further mistake, in my mind, would be to think that Paloma is the exception that makes the rule, for she is not. The end of the article that features Paloma’s story notes that there are schools throughout the poorest parts of the city with children who regularly out perform their wealthier peers.
But of course we know that. “Rags to riches” stories abound, with the unfortunate tendency to make those who succeed seem out of the ordinary and exceptional, making “unexceptionableness” an inborn characteristic of all poor people.
Paloma is not an exception. She is not the only brilliant child living in that garbage dump. Her story, however, is amazing. She found a way to protect her intelligence from the horrors of a place in which “fight or flight” is rightfully about the only thing that occupies peoples’ minds. But Paloma and some teachers had a meeting of the minds, so to speak, and she worked a test to the 99th percentile.
I would like very much to see the formula for that brand of amazing. I imagine that one day soon, Paloma could oblige me that.
Michael Seifert is the Equal Voice Network Weaver in Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.