Voices of Poverty

The Children of Sanchez.
by Oscar Lewis.
Random House. 499 pp. $7.50.

This book is altogether superb. Professor Lewis does what he undertakes to do dramatically yet unobtrusively, and with a degree of taste and craftsmanship that is unlikely to be fully appreciated however much the work is praised, because the format is unfamiliar to most readers. Only a social scientist who has worked with recorded interview materials knows what is involved in editing these in such a way that the life and character of the speaker are revealed and made clear to the reader. It is a measure of the author’s skill that most readers may well think that Jesus Sanchez and his sons and daughters wrote the book while Professor Lewis, after introducing them briefly, just took down what they said.

By letting the central figures tell their own stories at firsthand, Lewis gives the work an immediacy and vividness that are completely compelling. This is a book that will reach almost any reader on his own terms, whether he is looking for an adventure story, a complex and subtle account of human development and disintegration over thirty years’ time, or a basic anthropological study. Moreover, since Manuel, Consuelo, Roberto, and Marta are siblings and involved in the same events, Lewis’s Rashomon-like technique of presenting portions of the account of each consecutively and independently fills the book with moments of revelation as we see how each participant is blinded and paralyzed by his own character at crucial junctures in his destiny.

So it is possible to read The Children of Sanchez as if it were an unusually profound picaresque novel, a detailed and fugally intricate picture of Mexican social life in the lower—though not quite the lowest—depths, or as an unbearably pathetic human document. It is even possible to take it as a soap-opera of unparalleled lubricity; for while Mr. Lewis’s treatment of his materials does not encourage this, the Sanchez family do. Most middle-class readers, I predict, will feel revulsion as well as pity for them and their difficulties.

When one finally finishes the book, the last lines of Othello come curiously, and not altogether sympathetically, to mind:

No more of that. I pray you in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must
    you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away.

Lodovico: O bloody period!

It may be well for the reader to accept this and not wear himself out trying to see the Sanchez’ as lovable. Despite Lewis’s obviously deep respect and concern for them, and despite the fact that (except for a thirty-page introduction) the whole book is their personal narrative, they are not really the occasion for writing it; and its subject far transcends them.

What Lewis is concerned about, both personally and professionally, is poverty. He is perfectly explicit about that in his introduction:

In the nineteenth century, when the social sciences were still in their infancy, the job of recording the effects of the process of industrialization and urbanization on personal and family life was left to novelists, playwrights, journalists, and social reformers. Today a similar process of culture change is going on among the people of the less-developed countries, but we find no comparable outpouring of a universal literature which would help us to improve our understanding of the process and the people. . . . This situation presents a unique opportunity to the social sciences and particularly to anthropology to step into the gap and develop a literature of its own. Sociologists, who have pioneered in studying urban slums, are now concentrating their attention on suburbia to the relative neglect of the poor. Today, even most novelists are so busy probing the middle-class soul that they have lost touch with the problems of poverty and the realities of a changing world. As C. P. Snow has recently stated: “Sometimes I am afraid that people in rich countries . . . have so completely forgotten what it is like to be poor that we can no longer feel or talk with the less lucky. This we must learn to do.”

Lewis has certainly learned to do both, and in the process has defined for himself a special professional interest within anthropology of the greatest and most general human significance:

To those who think that the poor have no culture, the concept of a culture of poverty may seem like a contradiction in terms. It would also seem to give to poverty a certain dignity and status. This is not my intention. . . . I want to draw attention to the fact that poverty in modern nations is not only a state of economic deprivation, of disorganization, or of the absence of something. It is also something positive in the sense that it has a structure, rationale, and defense mechanisms without which the poor could hardly carry on. In short, it is a way of life. . . . The culture or subculture of poverty comes into being in a variety of historical contexts. Most commonly it develops when a stratified social and economic system is breaking down or is being replaced by another. . . . It seems to me that the culture of poverty has some universal characteristics which transcend regional, rural-urban, and even national differences. . . . Although this is not the place for an extensive comparative analysis of the culture of poverty, I should like to elaborate upon some of these and other traits in order to present a provisional conceptual model of this culture based mainly upon my Mexican materials.

In the next two pages of the introduction he does so; and the narratives of the individual members of the Sanchez family brilliantly illuminate his observations. Abstractly stated, the characteristics of poverty have lost their power to shock; “frequent use of physical violence in the training of children” and “a strong predisposition to authoritarianism” do not sound too bad until their victims talk about what actually happened to them. All modern life, to be sure, is made bearable by pretending that experiences are identical with the rubrics under which they are classified for administrative purposes: this is Eichmann’s Law. There is very little left of this illusion after the Sanchez children have told the stories of their lives to early middle age, each revealing through his personal biases and omissions the full horror of what he has helped inflict on the others. The father, Jesus, is not very appropriately named; in his rigid, upright malevolence, sexual exploitativeness, and combined responsibility toward property and suspiciousness and callousness toward people, he is a character wholly at variance with the New Testament. As for his sons and daughters, each emerges, through hundreds of pages of narrative monologue, as a unique and engrossing personality. Lewis has rendered their highly colloquial argot into an English which seems not merely to retain the Spanish character of the original but to distinguish and illuminate the young speakers themselves.

We leave them in the middle of their lives, perhaps no more trapped than ourselves and certainly no less aware of being trapped, but in danger and discomfort that we could not bear for a month. Neither can they, of course; the damage is irreparable; they are still there and nothing important has changed, except themselves.

And not for the better; there are no incidents in which the Sanchez’ transcend their condition or their character. This is not to say that they emerge as squalid, Erskine Caldwell caricatures; on the contrary. They retain, on the whole, much more courage and a little more dignity than people generally do; but the circumstances of their lives make it clearer than the circumstances of ours do that this is not enough for survival. Our novelists usually try to protect us from too much reality by drawing the poor—when they draw them at all—as either buffoons or tragic heroes; and, indeed, it is hard to see what else could flourish under the conditions Lewis depicts. The Sanchez’, unfortunately, are neither.

The Children of Sanchez, however, resembles a novel less than it does a Breughel painting. Vivid and minutely detailed, it is so masterfully organized that it remains completely lucid and its pattern is never obscured. The book is deeply moving, in parts earthily comic, and extremely colorful; but the color, brilliant as it is, never makes the picture cheerful. The Sanchez’ have their times of revelry, fervor, and passion; but not tranquil joy or affection. Dionysus blesses them from time to time; Apollo never. The commonplace picture of life among the poor as roughly tender and warm, to which so many middle-class people wistfully contrast their own pallid comforts, is shattered by Lewis’s observations. None of the five central characters relates any experience of sustained, mutual emotional acceptance, though they form relationships that last for years. Even the world of Jules Feiffer is cozier.

This clearly is their tragedy. There seems to be a vicious dialectic at play. Among these poor, the people like Roberto who remain loving and affectionate take such a beating that they have no self-confidence left; they never learn how fine they really are and spend their lives in flight. Thus, Roberto as a young man:

I missed my mother then, and I still miss her. Since her death I felt I could never be happy again. Some people feel relieved when they talk about their troubles, but I’ve told this to many people and it has never helped. I feel calm only when I run away, when I go off as a vagabond, when I am alone in the country or up in the mountains. I believe if my mother were still alive I’d be very different. Or perhaps I’d be worse.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .
I wanted to make a kite of my life and fly it in any field.

Those like Consuelo, who drive themselves to acquire enough education and middle-class habits to hold on to respectable life by their fingernails, become too angry and exhausted to respond to love when they find it; while her comments on her brother, Manuel, who also is troubled by aspirations, leave both of them hanging in full view:

Of the three, Manuel had the hardest heart. He was never there when he was needed and even if he were, nothing concerned him. He reminded me of a person walking backwards in darkness, without setting foot upon solid ground. He walked and walked and got nowhere. He just moved his legs to give people the impression he was doing something. His gaze was fixed upon little stars shining in the firmament. He tried to catch them and when he managed to get one, he would sit down there in the infinite emptiness and play with it until the dazzling light lost its power. Then he would leave the dead star floating in the air, and go irresistibly after another.

Others, like sister Marta, simply and shortly descend into sluttishness, turning every proposition life makes to them into something dishonorable by their intense—and usually shrewdly justified—suspicions. One of the minor revelations of this work is how little good sex does the children of Sanchez, even though it seems to take up most of their attention and energy. D. H. Lawrence, surely, learned even less than usual from his Mexican experiences. For the people of the vecinidade Casa Grande, sex is no primal source of renewal. They use it as rentiers use the stock market; as a distraction, a raison d’être, a status symbol, a defense against anxiety, and sometimes for the sake of revenue and security. Of course, it makes them very nervous.

“This method of multiple biographies,” Lewis writes, “also tends to reduce the element of investigator bias because the accounts are not put through the sieve of a middle-class North American mind but are given in the words of the subjects themselves. In this way, I believe I have avoided the two most common hazards in the study of the poor, namely, oversentimentalization and brutalization. Finally, I hope that this method preserves for the reader the emotional satisfaction and understanding which the anthropologist experiences in working directly with his subjects but which is only rarely conveyed in the formal jargon of anthropological monographs.”

How brilliantly he has succeeded! The effect, however, is devastating. Sentimentality and brutality are two aspects of the same pathetic fallacy. When both are avoided we are forced to see the children of Sanchez in all their alienation.

Compare lovable Alfred Doolittle, lustily singing “Get Me to the Church on Time!” in nostalgic tribute to the non-respectable poor, with Jesus Sanchez, the real article:

Another man would be in jail by now! But I value my freedom and never looked for unmarried girls. No! All my women had already been married before I lived with them. Otherwise, there would be complications. If they had been virgins, I would probably have had to marry one of them in church or by civil law, or I would be in jail for twenty years!

Our alienation is not very different, but we feel betrayed by it. Though we continually fail one another miserably as sources of love and devotion, our culture nevertheless continues, feebly, to assert that these should exist. Education has done this much for us, anyway; we still have an idea what a hero or a lover would look like if they made them any more. Being the sort of people we are, we use the recollection to pity and delude ourselves, but we still possess it.

The children of Sanchez must manage without these necessities. They know that they have been cheated, and their resentment is perhaps the most potent political factor of the 20th century. But they are prevented by the culture of poverty from formulating precisely what they are deprived of; they do not really believe that it exists. At least, not enough do at any one time to support each other by trust and devotion. This, alone, is what has saved the rich so far. We have always been able to assume that the poor would be jealous of us for the wrong reasons.



+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link