A sublime reflection hit me at the most random moment. Seeing all kinds of people flocking to the store to get corn tortilla chips, Coronas, avocados and lemons last evening at my job made me chuckle at the delicious irony of it all. Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that celebrates the Mexican army’s conquest of the French army, a moment where the unbowed defeated the colonizers. These are the moments which history quickly washes out in order to peddle alternative facts through the lens of the victors.
This one thought crossed my mind; people who not too long ago were vilifying immigrants and advocating building walls to keep out “the illegals” were the same ones lining up to honor a holiday that that pays homage to the bravery and valor of Mexicans who refused to submit to Franco tyranny as the defeated the mighty Napoleon army at the battle of Puebla. But there was a deeper irony that I pondered as serendipity tickled my synapses when I saw someone purchasing a twelve pack of Coronas with a bag of lemons on the side.
A while back ago, a Mexican co-worker told me that lemons were once used by Mexican farm workers and field hands in order to keep flies away from their Corona bottles while working dusk to dawn. This story was told to me during my days of upper middle-class privilege; while the story made sense, I did not want to give it too much credence beyond a connection I made between this story and poor people back in my native land Ethiopia. All the sudden, three years ago, life took a twist and I went from upper middle-class privilege to all the sudden working with blue collar workers and minimum wage earners. I went from social justice warrior wearing suits to the same statistic I used to cite to win debates over lattes and wafers.
It was during one of my shifts working at Hy-vees in Ankeny, Iowa that a Mexican co-worker confirmed the same story that my former office mate told me a few years prior. All the sudden, a quaint story took on a more meaningful place in my mind for the plight of those who bust their behinds to earn meager means was no longer an abstract notion—I found myself walking in the same shoes I ignored for too long. After years of getting all the breaks and skating by as I climbed the corporate ladder, at the age of forty I got a taste of the struggle that my father went through raising me and my three siblings.
But here is the twist, I’m not telling this story for the sake of pity nor do I see myself as a victim. I found the happiness and purpose I’ve been chasing for decades right in the midst of hardship and indigence. Almost twenty years climbing corporate ladder—pay raise after pay raise followed by promotions and six figure incomes—not once did I feel satiated as getting more begat nothing more than wanting more. Too often in life, we chase happiness but few realize that it’s the chase that is in the way of happiness. Happiness is found where we are at; the more we run, the more we outpace joys and only end up with emptiness and the thought that life has no purpose.
A long time ago—when I was but six years old in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia—I used to wander aimlessly from city to country side. One day I trekked very far and ran into a gojjo (hut) that was made of mud. A lady came out to greet me and treated me with warmest smile. The memory is distant yet crystal in my mind for that would end up defining my memory of my native land. Shortly thereafter, I immigrated to America with my family and Ethiopia became a distant past. However, I hear all the time from people who travel to Ethiopia how the kindest people are the ones away from the city who have little to their names as they insist on giving the little of what they have to strangers and walkers by.
Addis Abeba is full of some of the wealthiest people in “Africa” yet many of them are as selfish as the Grinch on Christmas. The givers are found in the huddled masses and the poor who have few and reside in mud homes while the nouveau-riche habeshas (that is not a compliment) are living it up and smoking shisha in Kurifti. This is why the capital city is always Finfine to me for a city is not a flower unless it takes care of the soil that nourishes it. The treasure of my native land is not the wealthy few who chase modernity and western acceptance nor is it the coffee—the worq (gold) are the poor people who have the love of God in their hearts.
The reason I bring up my native land Ethiopia in an article about Cinco de Mayo is this one connection. The same way that lemons in beer bottles have been turned as status symbols and trendy drinks is the way that tikur (dark) injera has morphed into sign of elitism in Ethiopia. But the lemons in beer bottles and tikur injera were both reserved for the lower class and the rich not too lnog ago wanted nothing to do with deha (poor) lifestyles nor the people who lived a life of penury. Once dismissed yet now sought after; the more those of us who have get, the more we end up going back to where we came from. The chase for materialism and accumulating possessions does nothing more than possess us into a life of never ending consumption. Eventually what consumes us is sorrow and dejection.
The same way lemons in beer bottles and tikur injera have became status symbols among the “cultured” is the way that soul food and endless foods and possessions have become tres chic. Go to a soul food restaurant in DC and you will be charged an arm and a leg for collard greens and corn bread. But these were the foods of former slaves who were given scraps and left overs yet found the ingenuity to make meals out of nothingness. The rich ended up desiring what they gave the poor out of greed; things come full circle as the rich now chase what the poor have because they realize foie gras and truffles have nothing on the souls of those who have the least among us—delicious irony indeed!
Perhaps the poor people have it figured out after all. Maybe this is why the bible says “the least shall inherit the earth” for they have already inherited abundance for gratefulness is what makes one truly rich. Wealth by way of opulent homes, luxury cars and high end clothing is bankrupt; each time you get more is a countdown to wanting yet something newer. The answer is not in attaining, the answer is in giving. Just like the people in the country side of Ethiopia give to others all the time and the way that Mexican field hands gave to one another, happiness is found in sharing and not hoarding the abundance of this world. Viva la deha lomi; long live the poor lemon. A lemon is only poor if it never gives of its seed; a lemon is blessed that gives us lemon trees. #DehaLimon
“To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men!” ~ Cesar Chavez
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Check out the Ghion Cast below, the topic I discuss in it is “accepting the duality of life” and how blessings can be found when we think we have the least in life.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.