The Unsinkable Minnie

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Video of Minnie Making Tortillas

Click here to view video on YouTube

I vividly remember being exposed to abject poverty when I was 28. During a visit to El Salvador, we naively rented a vehicle to drive through some of the outlying areas. Gorgeous, large stucco homes with carved wood garage doors were perched alongside corrugated aluminum or cardboard huts, and the disparity of those with wealth and those without even plumbing or electricity felt wrong. Sometimes ten or twelve people survived inside the dismal huts. Whenever we traveled with our children during their middle school and high school years, we tried to show them how others in third world countries live and survive. Travel changed my belief system and I maintain that it molded my children’s views as well. All of us are aware that we are fortunate to have an intact, loving family, to have an education and to have life skills.

Fast forward to today. Many of my tales from the beautiful isle of Ambergris Caye in Belize make it sound like the perfect little quaint Caribbean community. For those of us who have enough money to vacation or live down here, it is perfect. Unfortunately, there are countless Belizeans who live from hand to mouth and who barely make ends meet.

Minnie

Earlier this summer we were riding our golf cart from “town” to go back home and prepare food for lunch. A young woman carrying a huge package of toilet paper and paper towels flagged us down and asked for a ride two miles north of my house; I told her we would take her as far as our home and she gladly accepted the ride. Her other choice: to walk barefoot for the 5 miles carrying her paper products. The man who gave her a ride to town loaded up his golf cart to the hilt with her food supplies and there was no room for her to ride with him back home. I was immediately drawn to her and we talked the entire ride. Here is her story as she told it to me.

Minnie is 41 years old; she is now single. She has 9 children ranging from 5 years old to 25 years of age; 5 of them live with her. She has never attended school yet speaks both Spanish and English quite fluently. She was born and reared in Belize near Douglas Village of the Corozol district. Her father died when she was 5; he was hunting with her uncle, and the uncle allegedly handed a gun to her father who was perched high in a tree. The gun, according to Minnie, backfired and killed him. Shortly after her mom “met the next man” and left Minnie with her very poor grandparents. She told me that her grandmother sometimes made dresses from old socks so Minnie would have clothing to wear.

Two of Minnie's Sons Samuel & Phillipe

By the time she was 30, Minnie had 7 children. She parted ways with her husband because he battered her and was verbally abusive; at one point he put a knife to her throat and raped her. She has been alone supporting her family ever since. Minnie’s mother now lives in Cancun and Minnie hasn’t seen her in 7 years; as she put it, this is her greatest sadness. She feels that her mother does not love her, or she would not have left her for the remainder of Minnie’s youth. And yet, she talked about wanting to send money to help her mother. She also talked about her dream of her father caring for her, had he not passed away at such a young age.

Minnie’s 24-year-old daughter is married, has two children and keeps asking Minnie to help her financially which Minnie is not able to do. Her 22-year-old daughter was living in Belize but Minnie does not know where she is now; it was evident from the tone of her voice that she is greatly saddened by this. Her 17-year-old daughter Emily (Chabelly in Spanish) helps her every day with cleaning, taking care of the 5 and 8 year old boys and running the food concession. Emily went to school until age 13; Minnie described her as shy and extremely serious.

With Minnie and her daughter Emily

Minnie works seven days a week. She begins at 5 am every day when she prepares three meals on her open fire for the construction and resort workers. Breakfast means 3 homemade flour tortillas, rice and beans and some type of chicken or eggs for the beans. Lunch is usually rice and beans and chicken (some days shrimp or beef) and dinner is the same as breakfast. Each meal costs $2.50 US. On average she feeds 25 workers each day. Everyone buys lunch with “credit” and at the end of each week she collects from the resort that pays the workers (bartenders, maintenance workers, landscaping help, etc.) Sometimes she collects no money and provides up to $40 US for food for which she is not reimbursed because some of her patrons were fired or don’t really work at the resort. She told me her only profit margin is from selling juice, Coca Cola and bags of chips. Meanwhile, on the day we met her she went to town and spent $600 USD for soda, chicken, rice, beans, eggs and supplies to last the week.

Minnie showed me their simple living space, which was an 8 X 8 foot plywood room. Two ancient refrigerators occupied a lot of space, and they were filled with frozen chicken, soda and cooking supplies for the week. Along the other wall were a double sized bunk bed and a hammock. Minnie sleeps in the hammock, three children sleep on the lower bed and two more sleep on the top bunk alongside toilet paper, food containers and nonperishable supplies. I don’t believe they have running water.

As Minnie finished her story, she told me something that I will hold forever: “It’s not a sin to be poor – it’s a sin to be nasty.”

This woman’s tenacity and endurance were so inspiring. Despite the cycle of poverty that pervades and the circumstances that led to her very difficult life, Minnie is a fighter. And I have seen so many women like her. Women who are not educated and end up with low paying jobs. Women who start having children at age 15 because that’s what their mom did. Absent fathers. Women who send money to their parents and support their children at the same time. Women who go without medical care and are subject to crime, poor nutrition, inadequate diets, high rates of disease. And the cycle continually repeats itself.

I searched for Minnie during our last visit and was unable to find her. I hope to see her when I return. Perhaps she’ll teach me how to cook some of the dishes she makes. I know she’ll continue to inspire me for many years to come.

I hope you’ll watch my video of Minnie and her family – you will see how she makes her flour tortillas on a cast iron plate over the open fire. For those of you who want to make flour tortillas at home, this YouTube video demonstrates exactly how I learned to make flour tortillas – I was taught to use oil instead of shortening. Also, oil the counter as you roll or pat the dough into the round shape before flying (flip the dough over so both sides are oiled) and use a seasoned cast iron skillet or griddle.

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3 Responses to The Unsinkable Minnie

  1. Marilyn,

    This is a moving story, particularly what Minnie said to you. Sometimes it’s truly a wonder, the small moment that might have passed, but didn’t…and changes your life in big way.

    Beth

  2. eileen mccann says:

    The beauty of who Minnie is as seen through your eyes and told with your words, made me cry. Especially, “it’s not a sin to be poor…it’s a sin to be nasty.” I wept. Thank you for so skillfully and deeply bringing us this reminder about life and its realities. eileen

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