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On Cafeteria Lunches and Economic Bullies

March 12, 2019 by

This is flash-back material right here, as well as the ultimate multi-task challenge: navigating an overcrowded cafeteria. Priority number one: hang on to loaded lunch tray. Simultaneously: scan the chaos for a couple open seats, don’t lose sight of friend threading her way between the tables ahead, and pray to God that no discarded backpack or protruding appendage in the aisle sends you or your lunch to the floor.

It’s been, like, twelve years since I last did this. Not since my days in public school. Twelve years ago, I was a professional cafeteria navigator and a lucky recipient of Pennsylvania’s free lunch program for kids of families on food stamps. That can be an embarrassing category to fall in, but hey, I got my chocolate milk, same as the rest of them.

The scene has shifted a little. After two years of study in Uruguay, I’m now a matriculated and paying literature student at the highest ranked private university in Colombia. Cafeterias just have this universal quality, I guess. Stuffing the change into my pocket, I dodge another foot in the aisle and do the math. In Colombian pesos, I just paid the equivalent of three US dollars for a heaping plate, and this is the University of the Andes, so it’s exceptionally expensive. Any of the myriad little diners in this barrio would exchange a plate of the same dimensions for more like two dollars.

plate of food in Bogota

Today, for $3.03 USD I’ll be eating: vegetable soup, fresh squeezed fruit juice, a cut of grilled beef with marinade sauce, coconut rice, baby criollo potatoes, mixed salad, a strip of salted, grilled plantain and a fruit salad. None of it processed. All fresh-made, same-day, from scratch. This isn’t a food blog, so I’ll get to the point: fresh, healthy food here in Bogotá is ridiculously affordable.

Tear gas jets across the screen in the corner. People falling, screams stretched out in slow motion, muted by the mayhem around me. Blood. I don’t even need to read the headlines below: that would be Venezuela.

It was chaos all weekend over at the border as protesters confronted the Venezuelan armed forces blocking the American military convoy of food and relief supplies sitting in Colombian territory, waiting to get through.

I wish I had room for all this food I just bought. And I wish the drama over there on the border were really as straight-forward as this news channel is making it out to be, that those American trucks really were simply bringing supplies and good will from up north. But it’s not that simple, and those trucks are loaded with so much more.

Venezuela: it’s as close to home as the conversation on the next table over, as the empleada collecting those empty food trays. She’s a registered nurse who’s been here four months now, working minimum wage and getting by on over-sugared coffees because that money has got to go back to her family in Caracas.

I question every Venezuelan I meet: Uber drivers, empleadas, mostly street vendors. I probably present as a pretty inquisitive gringa, but I genuinely want to hear their perspective. They tell me they want nothing more than to go home, and that they will, just as soon as it’s livable again. I got the same story from those I met in Uruguay, another country where Venezuelan refugees are an increasingly visible demographic.

So what’s really up over there? Honestly, I don’t know. There are so many varying narratives. Recently I read another one of these, an analysis by Australian John Pilger, whose perspectives I generally respect a lot. Pilger’s contextualization of Chavez lines up with what two years down here in South America have taught me about this larger-than-life figure and his socialist transformation of a nation. He draws conclusions similar to what I’ve heard in hundreds of conversations here in Colombia, Uruguay, and Argentina, as well as from classes, movies, and journalism on Latin American politics, history, and current events. People here in Bogotá are pretty sure that this American aid is a distraction for ulterior motives.

With the US military using Colombian territory as its landing pad, many Colombians are not pleased. Is this military convoy the Trojan horse intended to secure the foothold that the United States has been hankering to claim in Venezuela for so many decades? Generous aid to a starving nation – sounds so American, right? But with Venezuela bleeding from the jugular and unable to defend its interests, who will be there to guarantee that the country’s assets, oil fields, reputation and character, social progress, national literacy, universal health care and pride are not auctioned off into oblivion on the trading floor of free market capitalism?

Graffiti on a wall in BogotaGraffiti on a wall in Bogotá’s center: “Americans get out of Venezuela”

Don’t buckle your seat belt for an elaborate political analysis; I have none to offer. I don’t know what all is in play over there on the border. I can only tell you what I see, and what I see are hungry Venezuelans.

On Friday, a friend and I took an early morning bus to Paloquemao, an enormous, three-block-floor-to-ceiling-I-am-not-exaggerating fruit market.

As we passed the Calima shopping center, the scene on Calle 19 took the wind out of me. There in the median strip, just as crass and obvious as you please, were dozens of prostitutes. In the middle of the median strip. At seven a.m.

Yes, it’s a city; you see prostitutes in certain places at night if you know how to read the vibes around you. But what we saw on Friday was a blatant scene of desperation. My friend and I looked at each other with the same question: how many of those women are venezolanas?

In a bizarre rush of nausea and guilt, I suddenly want to get out and tell them: I know what it is to need a free lunch. I know what it is to have not.

How stupid. I know nothing. They would still be standing out there, selling themselves and their intimacy. I would still have the right to return safely to my bus seat and roll on past, dignity intact, fruit market ahead, and a day of fascinating classes, enriching relationships, and a three-dollar lunch awaiting me.

Life is so damn not fair.

view of the University of the AndesBogotá, el Centro

One thing I know: immediate aid needs to come from somewhere. But I worry that my country is supplying it simply as an entry tactic, behind which could follow a far less noble agenda of political strong-arming and economic manipulation. People get anxious when the U.S. gets too involved down here; the history of American-instigated, political catastrophes in Latin America is just too long. It’s a reputation that pains me, for this is my madre tierra, which gave me free lunches when I needed them and supplied food stamps to my parents.

I just want a three-dollar lunch to be within reach of the women who clean my cafeteria, and I want them to be able to return to Caracas and buy it there, at home, where they want to be. And I don’t want my country to risk going down once again in Latin American history as the military bully that elbows its way in, undermines democracy, and leaves tragedy in its wake, while back at home we choose the narrative we want to believe and applaud ourselves.

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About the author

Shannon

Shannon McPherson

Shannon is a literature student at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia.

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