Why do the Poor Laugh?

In her latest column, Jessica Dos Santos reflects on every day hardships in Venezuela and how to deal with them.

We sing because it rains on the furrow
and we are militants of life
and because we cannot and do not want to
let songs become ashes.

Mario Benedetti

In the middle of the holidays, the pipes in my apartment got clogged for the second time this year. On both occasions water was scarce for several days, and when it did arrive it brought so many rocks that the flow got blocked.

I had no option but to call our “community plumber.” In other words, a man that for the past 30 years has fixed issues with pipes in this building and nearby (and lately he’s been as busy as ever).

We’re talking about a good-natured fellow, a lovely guy, one of those who helps you carry bags, preaches about Jesus, sends his regards to the family and suddenly tells you, with a sweet smile: “that will be US $200.” And one can’t help but think “he’s screwing me, but how on earth can I curse such a nice man?”

After waking up from the spell, I tried to haggle the price, even more so since it was almost Christmas Eve. The pipes were about to drain more than what I had saved for some nice holidays, which is to say some food and plenty of wine. I couldn’t secure any discount, just a deal to pay “in installments.”

During the repair process the plumber heard me on the phone talking about some articles I had to write and submit, you know, with the tone “fuck! I need to submit these things and see if I get paid. The pipes got blocked, do you know how much they’re charging me? A fortune! I got totally screwed.” He ignored this last bit and instead made me a proposition:

– You should write a book titled “Why do the poor laugh?” Or even better, “Why do the poor laugh in Venezuela?”.

I just stood staring at him, not knowing what to say. I smiled. I liked the title, so much so that I wanted to try and bring his idea to life. At the end of the day, he gave me that for free (unlike the repair work!). But at the time I had no idea what to write.

While I was frozen, I recalled one of those weird TED Talks in which a poor Argentinian woman hit back against the claim that poor women just breed like rabbits even if they have no way of providing a decent life to their kids.

During her lengthy presentation, she claimed that the poor have kids because it gives them “a reason” to get up, struggle, secure the daily bread, try to make things better. All in all, a reason to live.

I’m aware that many people have it much harder than me, and I’m not a mother, but I know the hardships my mother and plenty of others around me have gone through. And it’s true, they dedicate their lives in an attempt to make others’ a bit better. Maybe this is not the most logical of arguments but it touched me deeply. That’s what it’s about: something more emotional than rational. This topic was very much on my mind the following days.

As my head battled with this issue, a friend – who lives in very tough socioeconomic conditions – called me brimming with excitement, inviting me over to his house because he had to show me something. It turns out that my friend had run into “some cash” and bought a couple of huge speakers, those that make every house in the neighborhood vibrate, to throw some legendary parties.

I kept looking at his purchase, which came with colored lights, and I told him borderline outraged: “dude, what on earth is this? Where are your priorities? When you’re in trouble you’re going to eat these speakers. Don’t come calling for help.” You know, the usual thing we say even though we’re willing to do everything for those dear to us, without any need to ask.

His eyes got filled with sadness but retained an astonishing clarity, and he replied: “I’m well aware of everything, Jessica. But music makes me happy. It’s the only thing that makes me forget how I struggle day after day to make ends meet and that I’ll continue to be amongst the wretched of the Earth.”

There was nothing else to say. We both know that a poor person will not get rich through hard work and honesty. We leave that to the false rags-to-riches fairy tales that capitalism promotes to frustrate us even more. This is the bottom line: we work to survive, to feel the music, to give everything for our kids, and to laugh amidst hardship. And, at the same time, we struggle to make things change.

That night we danced until sunrise. I told him about the plumber’s “why do the poor laugh?” This was his reply: “in his case, he laughs when he gets 200 bucks for blowing in a pipe.” We fell down laughing again.

I’ve asked myself often: how the fuck do we go through so many difficulties in this country but continue joking around all the time? I find the answer when I find myself in that very predicament. Sometimes I lecture myself, “Jessica you’re in so much trouble and you’re laughing like it’s nothing. What the hell is wrong with you?” And then, inevitably, I find myself laughing again.

We laugh because that’s the only way to stay afloat. Amidst adversity, every burst of laughter is a victory. When times get tough, we should laugh non stop. The fight goes on.

Jessica Dos Santos is a Venezuelan university professor, journalist and writer whose work has appeared in outlets such as RT, Épale CCS magazine and Investig’Action. She is the author of the book “Caracas en Alpargatas” (2018). She’s won the Aníbal Nazoa Journalism Prize in 2014 and received honorable mentions in the Simón Bolívar National Journalism prize in 2016 and 2018.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.