Stella Pope Duarte

Humility is not oppression

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Recently, I presented a talk and had with me my mother’s apron, an heirloom I take with me on my travels. It is a simple cotton apron punctuated here and there with safety pins, and in the pocket, another safety pin holds rubber bands for putting up your hair when you’re cooking around the stove. My mother always told me, “Never go out without a safety pin – something could tear or snap, and you’ll be standing there, naked!” Those words were ingrained in my mind, and as I’ve traveled with her well-worn apron, I have had many opportunities to prove her correct. I’ve needed the safety pins! So far, the rubber bands remain intact; no fire-raising events have occurred.

I’ve held her apron many times in my hands, and perhaps if I lost it on an airplane, and someone found it, they would declare it a rag. It has faint food stains on it and seems to be worthless in the eyes of someone who did not know my mother. For me, it is a symbol of humility and self-sacrifice, the humble service of a beautiful Irish Latina woman who thought of only one thing: her family.

Humility, as portrayed by my mother and many others like her, is the freedom to serve another gladly and as an expression of love. One of the phrases common in the history of the Latino world is: A sus ordenes. Strictly translated it means, “I am at your orders.” Tell me what to do and I will do it.

This blatant attitude of absolute respect and deference to another permeates the Latino culture, yet it has no place where oppression abounds. Oppression, which tested the very fabric of humility, was inflicted on our ancient ancestors the Mexicas (Aztec) by the Spanish as they conquered the Mexica Empire ruled over by Moctezuma. The natural humility of the Mexicas, which included welcoming even your enemy, was brutally tested in 1519 when the conquistador Hernán Cortés stepped off a Spanish galleon to claim what would become Mexico for Carlos V, the King of Spain. Cortés struck a tree with his sword in the presence of his notary public, and the whole land that lay before him, in his mind, was now officially owned by Spain. He was sure that his reward would be great, and that he would be set up for life. Actually, the opposite happened; he died in obscurity and his feats as a conquistador were not something the king of Spain would even discuss with him.

With conquest came the subjection of the Indian nation under Spanish rule, a harsh rule that included severe penalties for infractions to the law as set up by the Spaniards. Forced labor, the rape of the indigenous women and discrimination by skin color, class and race was the tragic backlash of oppression. Still, in their heart of hearts, the Mexicans, now Chicanos and Latinos, cling to the attitude of humility that marks them as willing to serve those they love, right or wrong, good or bad, often to the bitter end.

Humility is like my mother’s apron. It is very simple and often is seen as something worthless in a world beset by competition and climbing the corporate ladder. However, its merits can still find a place in the Latino culture as we move into leadership roles and gain much-deserved success. We are learning to celebrate, gratefully, one another’s successes and can take humility to a new level, one that will dismantle oppressive political ploys with a steadfast eye for service.

Stella Pope Duarte was born and raised in South Phoenix. She began her writing career  in 1995 after she had a dream in which her deceased father told her that her destiny was to become a writer. Her work has won awards and honors nationwide.

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