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The Wages Of Work


new internationalist
issue 239 - January 1993

Illustration by JOSEF HERMAN RA
The wages of work
Work makes us do strange things. Eduardo Galeano
casts a quizzical eye over the results.

When do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know.

In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development?

The Cuban Revolution triumphed during the year of greatest affluence in the history of that island.

In Central America, the more wretched and desperate the people, the more statistics smiled and laughed. During the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, stormy decades, turbulent times, Central America boasted the highest economic growth rates in the world and the most extensive regional development in the history of human civilization.

In Colombia, rivers of blood merge with rivers of gold. Glories of the economy, years of cheap money: in the midst of euphoria, the country produces cocaine, coffee and crime in insane quantities.

Back in my salad days, I was a bank clerk.

Among the customers, I recall a shirt manufacturer. The manager of the bank would renew his loans purely out of pity. The poor shirtmaker was constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. His shirts were not bad, but no-one bought them.

One night, the shirtmaker was visited by an angel. When he woke that morning he had seen the light. He sprang out of bed.

The first thing he did was to change the name of his enterprise to Uruguay Sociedad Anónima ('Uruguay Company Limited'), a patriotic name whose initials are: USA. The second thing he did was to sew labels onto the collars of his shirts that said, with complete honesty: Made in USA. The third thing he did was to sell shirts like hotcakes. And the fourth was to pay off his debts and make tons of money.

For sale:
One halfbreed negress of the Cabinda race, for the sum of 430 pesos. Knows rudiments of sewing and ironing.

Leeches, recently arrived from Europe: prime quality. Four, five, and six vintenes apiece.

Carriage. Will sell for five hundred patacones, or exchange for one negress.

One negress, thirteen or fourteen years old,free of vices; of the Bangala race.

Small mulatto, eleven years old, knows rudiments of tailoring. Essence of sarsaparilla, two pesos per bottle.

One nursing female. To be sold without offspring, has good and plentiful milk.

A lion, tame as a dog, will eat anything; a bureau and chest, both of mahogany.

Maid, free of vices and disease, of the Conga race, approximately eighteen years of age; also, a piano and other pieces of furniture, all at reasonable prices.

From Uruguayan newspapers of 1840, 27 years after the abolition of slavery.

The system
If you're not quick, you're dead. You are obliged to be the screwer or the screwed, the liar or the target of lies. These are times of what do I care, what can you do about it, don't interfere, look out for number one. A time of swindlers: production yields nothing, creation is pointless, work has no value.

In the River Plate basin, we call the heart a hobo, a fool. And not because it falls in love: we call it a fool because it works.

A system of isolation: Look out for number one. Your neighbour is neither your brother nor your lover. Your neighbour is a competitor, an enemy, an obstacle to clear or an object to use. The system feeds neither the body nor the heart: many are condemned to starve for lack of bread and many more for lack of embraces.

Illustration by JOSEF HERMAN RA Celebration of friendship
A friend told me how, on an avenue in Paris, a woman beat off an entire battalion of municipal workers with her umbrella. The workers were catching pigeons when she sallied forth from an incredible Model T, one of those museum pieces with a crank starter, and brandishing her umbrella, launched her attack.

Wielding her sword with both hands, she pressed forward, her righteous umbrella smashing the nets they were using to snare pigeons. Then, as the pigeons fled in a tumult of white, the woman turned her umbrella on the workers.

The workers shielded themselves with their arms as best they could, stammering protests which she ignored: 'Show some respect, ma'am, if you please, we're trying to work, we're just following orders, ma am, why don't you go take a whack at the mayor, calm down, ma'am, what's eating you, this lady has gone mad...'

When the furious woman's arm grew tired and she leaned against a wall to catch her breath, the workers demanded an explanation.

After a long silence, she said:

'My son died.'

The workers told her they were very sorry, but that they were not to blame. They also said that they had a lot to do that morning, you understand...

'My son died,' she said again.

And the workers: yes, yes, but they had to earn a living, that there were millions of pigeons flying loose throughout Paris, that those bloody pigeons were the plague of the city -

'Cretins!' the woman exploded.

And to the confusion of the workers, she said:

'My son died and became a pigeon.'

The workers fell silent, and stood in thought for quite a while. Finally, pointing to the pigeons that populated the skies, the tile roofs, and the sidewalks, they proposed to her:

'Ma'am: Why don't you take your son and let us work in peace?'

She adjusted her black hat:

'Oh no! Absolutely not!'

She looked through the workers as if they were made of glass, and said with great serenity:

'I don't know which of the pigeons is my son. And even if I did know, I wouldn't take him away. For what right have I to separate him from his friends?'

Grapes and wine
On his deathbed, a man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela's ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:

'The grape,' he whispered, 'is made of wine.'

Marcela Pérez-Silva told me this, and I thought: If the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell who we are.

Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world's tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

'It must be around here,' they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

Eduardo Galeano is a journalist and historian who lives in Montevideo. His many publications include The Open Veins of Latin America and the three-volume history of Latin America, Memory of Fire. Cedric Beifrage, who translated this piece, wrote The American Inquisition on the McCarthy era in the US.

From The Book of Embraces, copyright © 1989 by Eduardo Galeano; Copyright © 1991 by Cedric Beifrage. Published by WW Norton & Company, Inc, New York, 1991. Originally published in Spanish as El Libro de los Abrazos by Siglo Veintiuno. Reprinted by permission of Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York.

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