Meet Maria Aguirre, Global Citizen

By Timothy Den Herder-Thomas

Macalester says it’s all about global citizenship, but what does that really mean? Is it being international, or having a good working knowledge of the world and its events? Does it mean you plan to go on and manage global affairs, or that you’re somehow above local identity? Does Macalester really know what global citizenship means? Do we, as Mac students, know how to live the ideal? We need some role models as we wander around looking for guidance. This occasional column will explore these issues.Maria cleans the Campus Center five nights a week—sometimes on weekends—starting just about when all of us are forced to leave. She started working for Macalester in 2006, and has since befriended dozens of Mac students in the few minutes she vacuums as we struggle to finish our work. She works here 40 hours a week, has a second job at the Super America, and sleeps during the day.

I met Maria while working upstairs in the Campus Center a few months ago. She told me I was working very hard, and thanked me for my commitment to building a clean energy future. How had she known? She reads The Mac Weekly whenever she can, to know as much as possible about what’s going on with the students who benefit from her work. We started talking more, about energy, her work, her family, and our ideas of the world. Maria has nearly mastered English through 10 years of living by herself in Minnesota—and it’s far more fluid than the Spanish I’ve barely been able to learn.

In Maria, I met global citizenship, plain and simple.

Maria grew up in a small town in Ecuador, where her family still lives. She came to work in the U.S. by herself, first in New York, and then here in Minnesota. Her work supports college educations for her three sons in Ecuador.

There used to be many resources in Ecuador, Maria says—bananas, coffee, and cacao—until oil was discovered.

Maria used all the classic words for the oil curse. It was called “the fever” whenever “black gold” was found. She said that when Shell came over, “all the forest was destroyed.”

Ecuador is known for indigenous and local movements fighting for their forests, their fields, and their water against Chevron, Texaco and Shell. Maria told me that Ecuador only really has service jobs anymore—except for foreign executives—and the banks don’t invest in the country. The Ecuadorian financial sector invested in Russian ventures—speculating on oil and gas—and then collapsed when the bubble burst in 2000.
Ecuador’s economy sunk even lower after the government tied the currency to the dollar, so Maria has little chance of finding a job back in Ecuador. She no longer plans to return to her family since she could not support them without her American job. Her Macalester job.
I asked her about free trade, and she told me that she really wanted to understand these things, and tries to read about them, but after all her work, she falls asleep. She spends her nighttime breaks reading discarded New York Times.

Maria told me, “I try to educate myself … I talk with the students …. I try to be universal in knowledge … [an] uneducated person cannot be ignorant … thinking is very, very important …Everyone can be [taught], but what goes into your heart and your mind is the real teacher.”
Even when confused about big global concepts, Maria gets it; it’s a part of her life.

If education feels like a chore to you, try fighting for it.

Maria’s essence is positivism. I once met her coming back from Macalester after a night’s work as I was heading to the Capitol. She was just as excited to see me as when she starts her shift at midnight.

Maria makes it seem so simple. “We have highs and we have lows, and from lows we get strength… Good things have high labor. The bad things you get easily, but you get a lot of troubles.”

She says she goes home tired but happy, and that she does everything to be proud of herself. Maria believes you’ve got it too. “You need faith. You have so many opportunities here, you are in the right time, and the right place, and the right will to keep it all possible.” She told me we can solve the problems of the world, and empower our lives with our vision all the while.

When I asked Maria what she really wanted to be, what vision inspired her, she answered simply, “I want to be more professional cleaning toilets!” and burst out laughing.

Maria’s father was a democratic community politician in Ecuador, and she’s proud of the way he led. She feels sorry for the politicians who find it hard to do the right thing, since they make so many big decisions when they have so many favors. To Maria, our political problems are personal. She thought of running for office herself to help her community, and also wanted to be a missionary to help the world before she started a family and moved to the US to serve it.

Why is Maria a global citizen? Dimitri da Gama Rose ’10, put it this way: “I wouldn’t call her [a global citizen] because she’s from a different country, but for the perspective she has on the system here. She’s just one incredibly caring person in touch with feeling and religion.”
Maria told me that citizenship starts with the self, and the family, and then the neighborhood, the city, the country, and the world. As members of those many families and communities, we have many obligations. Citizenship is about “how we take care of the world around us.”

As da Gama Rose put it, “a title doesn’t make a person.” I asked Maria if she feels like a global citizen. Her answer? “Yes, being part of the human race is important.”

Maria believes in us, and she wants to help.

Da Gama Rose noted, “She takes me back home [to Kenya] because she’s really warm…I haven’t felt that much from many people…Her personality—no, its not even personality since that isn’t personal enough—is really encouraging.” To him, Maria’s Catholic background is a shared treasure, and an inspiration since she actually knows how to live it.

Maria says she wants to help me. Every time I see her, she excitedly explains what she’s doing to keep unused lights off, and to make sure that “we give everything the proper use.”

She knows her work is small, but she affirms its importance. “The basic thing in our lives is to save. We can be builders or we can be destroyers,” she told me. She said she keeps me in her prayers so that I can keep getting help to sustain my visions.

Maria’s pulling with me, and that feels empowering.

So is it faith, or education, or just being positive? What about the questions I’m sure you have about how much she questions her role as a worker in America supporting a family largely depressed by an American-managed global economy? How can a commitment to living for a better world really mean anything coming from a little old over-worked Ecuadorian custodian? It sounds impossible for someone in such a position to meaningfully engage the world. Perhaps you wonder how it could possibly mean anything for you.

All those doubts don’t matter. Maria does it anyway, which is the very nature of global citizenship.

Last words from Maria to all: “God bless you and IA›ƒ?ªETlove you.”