Story Collected by Natalie Cruz
In 3rd grade, I remember sitting at a table watching my mom cut apart black plastic garbage bags, using the flame of a candle to melt the parts together. I watched in confusion until the bags magically took shape into hooded rain ponchos. Amazed at the transformation, I wanted to make one myself, and take advantage of the rare opportunity to play with fire! I remember wearing my poncho on the next rainy day and feeling such pride knowing that I had made it myself, but this excitement was short-lived as the kids at school laughed and only saw it as me wearing a garbage bag. After that moment, I never wore my hand-made poncho again and asked my mom to buy me a rain coat like the other kids. And she did.
It was situations such as this one that I sadly traded my mother’s ingeniously-made, cost-saving creations in for brand-new, expensive, and commercialized products. At the time, I wasn’t able to see things the way that she did and it was often where my upbringing as an immigrant child who constantly heard about how nothing is wasted in Guatemala, conflicted with the common ideas of convenience and immediate gratification that rampantly influenced the products and way of living in this country.
I specifically remember the times when anything Swiffer the cleaning product brand came on TV. I would hear remarks about how there’s so much waste in this country, but all I knew was that I didn’t understand why we resorted to a smelly old mop that needed to be hand washed every single time instead of the convenience of the Swiffer mop. The commercials made it look so simple: stick on the pad, clean up your mess, throw it into the garbage, and never think about it again! (Or at least until the next time you had to sweep and mop). My chores at the time usually consisted of sweeping and mopping so whatever took me less time so that I could get back to my video games made sense to me. But to my parents, it was a never-ending waste of money over something you could instead wash and reuse again. With money not endlessly flowing as a college student, I now realize that they were onto something.
As I’ve gotten older and have become more aware of the waste that I personally have contributed to the world, I find myself returning to the Guatemalan stories of reusing and repurposing that I so often rejected when I was little. We constantly hear that things don’t last like they used to and that products just aren’t made like they used to be. I’m left to wonder if it’s because of abundance. We tend to resort to going through the cycle of purchasing and purchasing because we can and have the means to, unlike our parents and older generations whom, out of necessity, reused and reused.
I want to look at things the way my mom does, giving everything a second life. I think if we destroyed the negative sentiments and embarrassment towards certain practices that are more sustainable, we’d be able to go back towards a truly innovative society that encourages the use of imagination. More old bookshelves that are left on the side of the road would be repurposed into mini-greenhouses like we did. Used Keurig k-cups will be seen as seed starters, and more old pairs of jeans would be reused and re-sewn into an endless amount of little projects. And maybe when a child arrives at school in a handmade garbage bag poncho, instead of being ridiculed, they’d be celebrated and encouraged to share the process so that others could also partake in the awe and excitement that was experienced in its creation.