I could paint two pictures of where I am living—and they would both be true.
Honduras is a breathtakingly beautiful country. It’s a land of green rolling hills and mountains – pine forests, tropical beaches, jagged cliffs. Houses are painted in bright oranges, purples, and greens, with banana and coffee plants filling lush backyards.
There is also a spot at the entrance to my community where trash fires are always burning. I see men bent over heaps of garbage sifting through it for something to salvage. There is no trash collection in the barrio, just a single dumpster where some people take their trash—others leave it in the street, or pay a bolo a few cents to dump it in front of someone else’s house.
There is beauty and ugliness here, and there are two ways to misjudge that, particularly as outsiders. The first is to see only the ugliness, to look only as far as the trash-littered alleys and no further.
This picture of Honduras is incomplete. It misses the people who are making Honduras great: the loving families, creative students, and brave fighters against injustice. It defines beauty in a particular way, more like familiarity, more like safety. Any artist will tell you that beauty is seldom safe.
And yet the other fault in vision is equally wrong, if more subtle. That is to see and to talk about nothing but the beautiful in a world where much is not. Adventurers claim, perhaps, to prefer cold bucket showers, or the tedium of hand-washing clothes. They admire the aesthetic of existence eked out of a mountainside and wax nostalgic for someone else’s past.
This is condemnable, particularly for those of us who act so more from whim than necessity. These adventurers seek beauty in a sort of authenticity, yet they do so inauthentically, by choosing to live in a way that others cannot choose to avoid.
By calling symptoms of poverty quaint or beautiful, we privilege our perception over the lived experience of those whose lives we admire. The poor I have known would, if they had the option, choose a life for themselves and their children less picturesque and much closer to ours.
The child playing in the puddles outside my house may be adorable, but if I see only her beauty and not the garbage in the street, the ill-fitting clothing, the perpetually-running nose, I distance myself from her. Were it my niece, my daughter, I would rush to clean her up and change her clothes, to bring her inside from the rain. It is the starving children of others that we call beautiful, remember – our own we call hungry.
We stood on the sidelines of the cancha half watching the local soccer teams play. The boys were distracted by smooth rocks and bugs, our neighbors distracted by their own jokes. With a loud voice someone hawked ciruelas in plastic bags with salt and lime.
It was Sunday and the sun was out—this is what I remember. A trio of sloping mountains towered above us, peaks shrouded in mist. And the teams ran in unison, white shirts against red dust, sweat in beads on their foreheads even in the cool air. I was breathless with the poetry of the scene. I wanted the moment to continue, exactly as it was, exactly as I was in it. The boys shook me out of my reverie and asked me to take them to the playground.
They led me to a dirt field empty but for a few rusted structures. David untangled a rusty chain from what was once a swingset and gripped it, swinging a few inches above the ground, shouting, “Look, I’m Tarzan!” and laughing.
I watched the boys play as the air grew cool and the clouds gathered low at the mountains’ peaks. I noticed the way the children laughed, the boys turning to me when they managed a flip, and their wide grins. I noticed trash, the scent of urine, the climbing bars’ missing rungs. The night was beautiful and ugly at the same time and it was confusing because like the seamless transition from daylight to dusk, I couldn’t tell where one stopped and the other started.
Beauty has a sense of aesthetic, but more than that a sense of order and rightness. Things are beautiful when it seems that out of all possible options this is the best one, no matter how surprising. Beauty provokes feelings of longing, even possessiveness. I want to hold that moment at the cancha, for example, in my mind, my heart, forever.
Ugliness is the opposite: a manifestation of things gone awry, out of order, not as they should be. It is children left with rusting shells of playground equipment, trash fires burning, the choke of car exhaust.
There is more to beauty and ugliness than can be captured by sorting between the two categories. In the end, I think we are all living in and witnessing a mix of the two, seeing beauty rise out of ugliness and ugliness taint beauty. We must be honest about that—to relish beauty where we see it but not shy from the ugliness that comes alongside.
This is part of the human condition. We are beautiful, it is beautiful here, beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).