As a child, of approximately seven, I found a sealed envelope dumped in the street with two coins inside. Certainly the coins were quite old and dark in color, but in excellent condition.
The owner of the corner store learned of my discovery and called my name one day when I was sent to the store by my mom, and asked me if he could see the coins. Of course I showed them, very proud of my treasure and the old man put his enormous glasses on, he examined the coins attentively, frowning and breathing like a dog tired and overwhelmed by the heat.
“Mmmhhh …” he said.
“These are useless crap”
“They’re old,” I said, a little alarmed and also offended by his comments.
“Yes, but not worth much,” said the old man looking over his glasses
“How about a trade?” he said quietly over the counter. And without waiting for my answer he pulled from his pocket a great automatic knife, full of colors, inscribed with golden letters “Made in Hong- Kong”.
I could not imagine anything better than this knife as an exchange for the two old worthless coins, according to this wise old man. I had never seen a more elegant object in my life and I thought about what my friends full of envy will say in the presence of such beauty. The temptation was great. It was also foreign made, since the words were not in Spanish. I had to be very stupid to miss this opportunity. The coins were old and were useless … The knife raised me to a height superior to anyone I had imagined in my short life.
We did barter as the old man was breathing harder than ever.
“You know kid … you got a great deal with this little knife” he said smiling with his yellow teeth.
The coins passed into his hands, the knife into mine.
My older brother told me that I was the biggest idiot in the entire country since the coins were silver and it had estimated its value in thousands of pesos.
“But, they were not even shinny” I protested confused.
“The old silver must be polished to make it look bright. You are dumber than you look” said my brother furious with me and also with the possibility of being left without a share of the treasure.
We went to talk to the old man at the store, but to no avail. Neither my brother with all his anger, nor myself with my shame could make him return the coins
“A deal is a deal…” was the only thing the old world grocer said to us and he laughed again with the teeth more yellow than ever.
Almost five hundred years before, other grocers in Europe came to this continent with boats full of brightly colored knives and did the same.
When children refused to exchange their currencies by offering trinkets, they took it off their hands, chained them and forced them to work in the mines extracting silver and gold for their evil kings. Thousands of children died from mercury vapors used for the extraction of precious metals in one of the bloodiest and longest massacres in the history of mankind. The European conquest not only took our wealth, but also our children, our dreams and our identity.
At least I ended up with a cheap knife that lost its edge in two weeks and the colored plastic plates came unglued in a month and a half. At least I did not work in the store of the old miser. At least I was not chained to anything except my ignorance and naiveté. Some people called that “progress”. Actually we have progressed in 500 years. Now we only sell our natural resources for miserable dollars that nobody even sees or enjoys. Now our jobs are sold to the usual suspects.
As a child, I felt greatly cheated and felt that they had taken advantage of me. Now as grownups we are grateful and extremely proud to have sold everything that we slaved for years and we teach our children that that place is the “mother country”.
Behind every business desk, there is a grocer of yellow teeth with huge glasses, eagerly examining our silver coins, offering cheap knives in exchange for our natural wealth. A while back we could not refuse, but now we are allied with the forces of power, just as they did for nearly 500 years and throughout history. Our denial is now confronted with violence and repression, in the worst case, and in the best case with lying words and promises that will never be fulfilled.
Our homes are full of useless knives and other toys of the same style while our forests disappear, our copper feeds the powerful, our land increasingly becomes poorer. We have given our sea “which quietly bathes our motherland” to the consumers of the East and all that we produce does not feed our children but the European, Asian and North American tables.
Greed has no limits, and apparently, neither stupidity.
Portland September 9, 1998