I was born in a big city in Latin America. When I was a baby my family moved from a very urban neighbourhood to a suburb that was a combination of the business of a city, and a small community feeling. My single mom and I lived with my grandma until I was about 7, and even after we moved out, I spent most of my time at grandma’s. When my grandma was in the second grade her father died from what she believed was stomach cancer, leaving his young wife and four small kids with no income or money. My great grandmother had no option but to pull the kids out of school and put them to work making matchboxes out of cardboard. My grandma used to tell me stories about how she and her family lived in poverty for most of her younger years. They were poor, really poor. She and her siblings used to make sandals out of plastic containers because they couldn’t afford shoes. They learned to cook the cheapest food available to them, which consisted of animal organs such as cow tripe, liver, tail… chicken feet, neck, hearts, pig feet and many other animal parts that were cheaper than beef or chicken breasts.
I came into my grandma’s life when she was about 50 years old. Her life had changed a lot after two husbands and three successful children. She and my mom saved enough money to build a small house outside of the city. Once the bare minimum was built, we moved into that house. I was very fortunate to have such strong women raising me. They were hard working and had vision; they were focused on doing whatever it took to help me succeed. My mom worked long hours to be able to afford a private school where I had access to a great quality education. I started learning English when I was 4 years old; a privilege only those kids in private schools had back in the 80’s. My life was enriched by the two worlds I was experiencing: a humble, lower-middle class home, and the higher quality education not everyone could afford, surrounded by kids whose families were in better financial positions than mine.
On Sundays my mom, my grandma and I would go grocery shopping at a huge wholesale market. It was the cheapest option. I remember thinking sometimes: wouldn’t it be better to do our shopping at the grocery store? It’s closer, nicer, it doesn’t smell. At the wholesale market we would have to walk from one end of this huge fruit and vegetable warehouse with mountains of produce, to the other end to buy bulk items such as beans, rice, dried chilies. Then we would have to walk to another section of the market to get meat, straight from the butcher. To me it seemed like grocery shopping was a 3-hour, obstacle course.
Once a week there would be a pickup truck driving by the neighbourhood selling cleaning and personal care products in bulk. They had big containers full of shampoo, conditioner, moisturizer, pinesol, fabric softer etc. They would park at the corner and people would bring their containers to get them filled up, for a fraction of the price at grocery stores. My grandma would run to the truck carrying a bunch of empty containers as soon as she heard the man on the megaphone “Pinesol, dish soap, Mr. Clean!”. She would try to save money any way she could.
I started my “zero waste” journey a few years ago, replacing an item here and there without digging too much into it. At 40 now, and living in Canada since 2003, I realize the simplicity in some of my grandma’s habits. She didn’t have many choices growing up, so living simple was intrinsic; even when she lived a somewhat comfortable life in her older years, simplicity meant self-preservation. I, on the other hand, am choosing simplicity. Choosing to be a vegetarian 8 years ago was a conscious decision. I have the privilege to decide what I’ll eat and what I won’t eat. I have the means to live a vegetarian life. I have access to so many food options that I can pick not only what I want to eat, but what I think is more sustainable. I have more recently committed to reducing my household waste by changing my consumer habits, not because I need to, but because I want to. I have control over my lifestyle, and I make decisions based simply on what I think is better for me and the planet.
My mom and my grandma, who passed away 12 years ago, gave me opportunities I didn’t have to work for. We always had food on the table, which cost me nothing. They provided me with a supportive and stable home, which I didn’t have to work for. They gave me a good education, which I didn’t have to fight for. I was, in many ways, born a privileged person.
I acknowledge the power given to me and I have consciously decided to take advantage of it for the greater good. It has been my decision and no one else’s. I respect others who might have the same power and decide to go a different route. I, in no way, think of myself as morally superior or more educated for having a specific diet or for trying to live a “zero waste” life. Judging others for their life choices or circumstances would be disrespectful to those before me. To those who worked long days to provide their kids with opportunities, to those who had no choice but to make sandals out of plastic containers, or make a meal out of animal organs to not go hungry.
Tiny Earth Warrior