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American graffiti

| Monday, January 29, 2018

Spending winter break in New Mexico, you notice things. Of course there is the characteristic smell right when you step off the plane, tired from the three-hour flight and mentally exhausted from studying for the finals push you just went through. It’s a blend of chile pepper, fresh air, juniper firewood and the teasing of rain that every New Mexican knows will never come.

You notice an entire winter without snow, or any precipitation of any kind for that matter. Dec. 24th sees everyone in t-shirts and jeans bustling their way back and forth for last-minute Christmas shopping.

You notice the mountains and the sprawling Albuquerque city lights beneath them at nighttime, and you wonder what is going on at every instant at each flickering pinprick, the light that is from a house, a streetlight, a skyscraper maybe.

You notice things when you are in New Mexico. But underneath the wild, beautiful, untamed sights, smells and character that define the essence of New Mexico, you can’t help but notice the profound poverty and contrast that so many of the people here live in.

Last year, the Albuquerque Journal posted a truly disheartening statistic that stated that New Mexico has the highest rate of child poverty in the nation. In 2012, the Huffington Post found that New Mexico was the poorest state, and although things have gotten better, the state remains at that level. Beneath the beauty of mountains and city lights, there is a story.

Photography is a passion of mine and I find myself perennially searching for sights and contrasts to capture with my camera. So far, I have found New Mexico to be the place for a particular kind of contrast that I have not seen elsewhere. It was a cold winter day in downtown Albuquerque with no snow, no matter the amount of threatening the sky showed. I looked out from the backseat car window, searching for shots I could take with my camera. That’s when I noticed an older African American man, sitting against a Walmart shopping cart piled high with probably every single possession he owned. Above him, a neon sign that read “The Freed Company” flickered. To this day, this image has haunted me.

This contrast between “beauty” and pain is one that can often be found if one looks hard enough. On one street that is a back way into downtown Albuquerque, this divergence becomes particularly apparent. There is a graffiti mural on a run-down building of the two hands of God and Adam from Michelangelo’s famous painting, The Creation of Adam. Farther along the road, there is a limousine rental place called Lucky Boyz Limo, where a group of homeless men always congregate.

Even further down, still along the same street, there is Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless and the New Mexican restaurant called Garcia’s, which is famous throughout the state for the best authentic New Mexican food. The fact that so many different aspects of culture, not simply that of New Mexico’s either, exist on the same street within five miles of each other, is testament to the paradoxes we face if we have the courage to see.

But instead of just capturing these snapshots and saving them to “memories” for reflection, what can we do about addressing these kinds of contrasts and bridging the gap between surface and what lies beneath, superficiality and poverty?

Fr. Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, works in the Pico Aliso ghetto in East Los Angeles, one of the most dangerous ghettos in all of America. Homeboy Industries has been instrumental in helping gang members leave the brutal life of gangs and learn skills so that they can lead healthy, joyful lives away from the ghetto. His kind of model effectively involves bridging the gap and attempts to rectify it.

I think instituting a program like this at Notre Dame, which is, in many ways, an “island” in the midst of the surrounding poverty, would be truly incredible. Notre Dame has several programs that seek to aid the poor, but forming one on this scale, where students, the next leaders, senators and changemakers, have an integral role in the process, would completely transform the community where our school is located.

Living in New Mexico, you find yourself “awake” to a variety of contrasts and snapshots. But the situation is hardly unique to New Mexico. The point is not to be on the lookout for poverty to turn it into art. The point is to be awake to the story and struggle beneath every facade.

When we pass each other on South Quad once we return to school, remember the story that exists behind the faces we see every day. One of my friends who was an exchange student at Notre Dame pointed out to me that our school is a “bubble,” both in terms of socioeconomic status and ideology. I think it can be hard to realize the poverty and struggle that exists just outside our beloved campus when we are racing to Hayes-Healey Hall or grabbing coffee at ABP.

Looking ahead to 2018, with the context of a politically, racially and prejudicially charged 2017 behind us, I think this quote from Fr. Greg Boyle’s book,“Tattoos on the Heart” is especially important. “Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new, expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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