Thursday, October 17, 2013

Shame and Indignity in Honduras

One thing I noticed early in my time here in Honduras is the prevalence of what some would call “low self-esteem.” 

Many rural people, especially the young, are very timid. They are “penoso,” as we say here. They defer to others, especially those who are in leadership positions, be they teachers, politicians, or priests. They do not speak up and some, when questioned, answer looking at the ground, not daring to look someone in the face. 

A US evangelical missionary here who had been in Mexico noted that he found the Hondurans more timid than the Mexicans he had worked with.

A few months ago, I read Brenneman’s Homies and Hermanos: God and Gangs in Central America, an analysis of gang members in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, taking as his focus the lives of thirty some former gang members, some of whom were able to exit the gangs through the “evangelical option.” The gangs permitted the exit of those who had a conversion experience and joined an evangelical church.

What really fascinated me was his discussion on “pre-disposing factors” that lead to joining a gang or were indicators of potential for joining. There were the three obvious ones: poverty, problems in the family, and difficulty in school. But Brenneman added another factor: shame.

Many had entered gangs with a deep sense of shame. They were poor; their family was poor; their family had problems, and in some cases rejected them. They experienced the powerlessness and the marginalization of being poor.

But this is not a mere personal feeling. It is, as Brenneman notes, socially induced.  They may have low self-esteem, but shame has social sources.

In my first years in Santa Rosa de Copán I met a young woman university professor who noted the class nature of society. Thus, many of the students in some universities are really on an upward-mobility track, not only to get a job but to escape the fate of the poor.

This is built into the Honduran society. People are addressed by their titles: doctor, engineer, lawyer, professor, and more. There is enormous prestige attached to a title before your name.

But it’s more than that.

Some people look down on the poor, especially the rural poor.

I remember a college professor I met in 2007 who lamented to me that most of the priests of the diocese were from the countryside and don’t understand city people (and, I intimated, professionals like him.)

But the most blatant example was when the president of the National Congress, upset about the support of rural people in our area of Bishop Santos’ campaign against open-pit mining.

He called them “gente del monte” – which literally means “people of the weeds.” For him, they are hay-seeds, hick, hillbillies.

And so it is no wonder that the poor feel shamed and isolated and looked down upon.

Brenneman refers several times to the work of James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who has worked for more than 25 years in US prisons.

I found his short book Preventing Violence a lucid discussion of the role of shame in society.

He very clearly lays out the social sources of shame, something that is even built into our languages. As he wrote in Preventing Violence:
Why do economic inequality and unemployment both stimulate violence? Ultimately, because both increase feelings of shame (Gilligan, Violence). For example, we speak of the poor as the lower classes, who have lower social and economic status, and the rich as the upper classes who have higher status. But the Latin for lower is inferior, and the word for the lower classes in Roman law was the humiliores. Even in English, the poor are sometimes referred to as the humbler classes. Our language itself tells us that to be poor is to be humiliated and inferior, which makes it more difficult not to feel inferior. The word for upper or higher was superior, which is related to the word for pride, superbia (the opposite of shame), also the root of our word superb (another antonym of inferior).
 And thus we must look carefully about how to respond to violence, as Brenneman notes:
For as long as chronic shame is abundant in the barrios of northern Central America, the symbols, drugs, sex, and weapons of the gang will continue to hold irresistible allure for thousands of youth. Additionally, chronic shame will continue to persist and even increase as long as its sources go unchallenged. The steep pyramids that separate and stratify Central Americans on the basis of class and race remain intact, held together by tacit agreements between a handful of elites and a military with little claim to legitimacy.… Providing more sophisticated weapons and helicopters to national governments will do little to stem the tide of violence.
Looking for more insight into the dynamic of shame, I read Donna Hicks’ Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict.  I had hoped this would help me deepen the insights I had culled from Brenneman and Gilligan. 

Hicks does have some helpful suggestions about the elements of dignity and what violates dignity. But she does not treat the social sources of indignity. Perhaps this is due to her paradigm of conflict resolution which has more to do with individuals and their emotions and actions than with the underlying injustice that often results in violence. John Paul Lederach’s work on Conflict Transformation is, I believe, a more comprehensive approach.

Reading Brenneman and Gilligan have helped me to think a little more clearly about violence here – but even more about how I serve.
  • What can I do to help break down the classism here? 
  • What can we do to help the poor work together for a decent and fulfilling life – in their villages?
  • How can I facilitate training of catechists and church leaders in such a way that the participants recognize their dignity and their capacities?
  • How can we work with young people, helping them recognize their worth?
  • How can we – I mean the people I work with, not me – create real communities where people try to live as sisters and brothers, caring for each other, especially the least among is?

All this, I think, will be much more helpful for the future of Honduras and to the diminution of violence than the military police that have been formed to “combat crime.”

And so I turn to what Gilligan writes:
Our first task, then, before we can even begin to think about preventing violence, is to learn how to create something that would actually be a community.
We need, I believe, to look to the ideal of Christian community presented in the Acts of the Apostles, as a paradigm for our work together:
They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Great awe fell on everyone, and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles. All of those who believed came together, and held everything in common. They sold their possessions and belongings and divided them up to everyone in proportion to their various needs. Day by day they were all together attending the Temple. They broke bread in their various houses, and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts… (Acts 2: 42-46)
And so:
The company of those who believed had one heart and soul…. there was no needy person among them… (Acts 4: 32,34)
And so might shame and violence decrease.


The quotations from the Acts of the Apostles are taken from N. T. Wright’s The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.


Charles said...

A nitpick. Gente del monte are people of the mountain.

But I think the thesis is spot on. Gangs are social organizations. While some may engage in criminality (and some may not), all of them represent a search for community. That it originates in a sense of powerlessness makes perfect sense, since people gain power by forming a community.

Thanks for an interesting post!

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Here in Honduras "monte" is used for weeds or undergrowth. As a Honduran friend just clarified for me, at times they would talk of a finca (coffee field) with monte, indicating that they had not gone through with a machete to clean out the undergrowth.

Monte can also be used for a hill but wooded or green.

Charles said...

Ok; thanks for affirming the localism. It's one I have never heard.

ivan alvarado said...

I am from Honduras, I have lived in the US for many years. I do not represent the majority of the people in Honduras as I am a vrey Spanish looking individual who grew up in the city. Most my family looked very white as well. I recently realized how discriminated the natives are by people like me, it simply becomes the norm, all you have know. We refer to them as "Indio prieto", "Indio penco" and it is shameful to admit it. People in the cities like people with light skin, going to school I was teased by my skin color, but at the same time there was an admiration for it. Some of the lighter skin kids tended to associate with the other, possibly because our parent always says how ugly dark people were.
I have come to learn that this type of behavior dates back to colonial periods when the natives were oppressed by the Spanish. Even after independence, the Criollos y mestizos held the power, and nobody wanted to be Indio, because it had been inbreed by the Spanish that they were less because of the race. The timid behavior is a reflection of hundreds of years of discrimination, first by the Spanish, then by people like me.
Before I get a bunch of hate back to me, in my defense I want to say that today I am open and anti- racism person.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Ivan, thanks for your honesty. I am humbled by the way you examine your experience. Thanks and keep up your willingness to connect with others - especially other catrachos.