“Welcome home, Ruth,” the customs officer said with a warm smile.
The signs read “Newark Liberty International Airport.” I took my time walking through the terminal, alone, my bag filled with dulce de leche alfajores and an Argentinian flag, bought at an independence day celebration in Mendoza. I smiled at the designer stores, the bustling American families on their way to one place or another, the duty-free shops filled with overpriced perfume and tacky souvenirs. After two long months living in Córdoba, Argentina and working at a community center in one of the city’s most impoverished barrios, I was finally home.
I stepped in line at Starbucks alongside men and women in suits, chattering away on iPhones; I glanced at my shoes, now permanently brown from the dirt roads of the barrio. I longed for a black coffee, something hard to come by in Córdoba.
Upon taking a seat at one of the small tables, sticky from quick coffee breaks and spilled Frappuccinos, I pulled out my book and began to read, relishing in the aroma of coffee that filled the tiny café and the sound of English being spoken all around me. This is what I was used to.
However, something had changed.
I looked at the few children around me, dressed in nice, clean clothing and playing on their parents’ smart phones. They drank mini “coffee” drinks and laughed and played and whined, anxious to get on the plane and to wherever they were going, oblivious to everything.
I thought of Celina and her orange.
Sweet Celina lived in Guiñazu, the barrio in which I worked. She lived in a one-story, one-room shack made of bricks and scrap metal with her mother, father, brother and sister. She bounced into the community center each and every morning, never crying, never complaining and always with the biggest, brightest smile. It was winter in Argentina, so she wore a big winter jacket, a hat and multiple pairs of leggings. Her jacket, although puffy and a bright shade of red, was tattered with a broken zipper. It had obviously gotten many years of use and was probably a hand-me-down from her older sister. Her leggings were mismatched and riddled with holes; her shoes dirty from the barrio’s mud. I never met her dad, but her mother, a kind woman in her early thirties at most, sold socks on the street to make a living. In addition to the Argentinian flag and alfajores in my bag, I carried a pair of socks: black with orange and pink butterflies, bought for 20 pesos from Celina’s mother.
One cold day during my two-months, Celina flew through the gates of the community center as she always did, her red winter jacket fluttering with the wind and her pink hat lopsided on her head. However, in her hand she carried an orange: a small, bruised and browning orange, mushy from the force of her grip.
I quickly realized that the orange was her toy.
I grew up with Barbie dolls in sparkly dresses, Monopoly, video games and stuffed animals. Celina will grow up with whatever she is able to make into a toy with her imagination. In this case, an orange that her mother probably bought at the supermercado for two pesos. In American dollars, that’s about 13 cents.
Little Celina with her orange in tow, full of the pure innocence of a three-year-old, was completely unaware of her poverty, of her disadvantage. To her, home was home, and home was beautiful. To her, an orange was just as good of a toy as any.
Celina held onto that orange with an iron grip the entire day, running and playing with the other children who barely noticed the fruit she held in her tiny hands. When they did notice, Celina guarded that orange with her life, not allowing anyone to come near her beloved toy. Even when it was arts and crafts time, she set the orange right next to the paper on which she scribbled, keeping careful watch over the fruit that rested on the table beside her. Celina was immensely content to be outside in the fresh air with that orange, drawing with broken crayons and dried-out markers, sipping hot tea out of a plastic cup and munching on a piece of bread. The hum of the other children’s conversations was interrupted by shrieks of laughter – outbursts of joy from a very happy little girl with an orange.
I saw the children around me in the airport through different eyes. Of course, nobody chooses what life they are born into, and they were not at fault for simply being privileged. However, I looked at those children in the airport with a broken heart, seeing all of the things they had that Celina would only ever dream of. I stared at the expensive coffee in my hand, the green mermaid on the bright white cup staring right back at me. I suddenly craved the foamy, more-milk-than-coffee cappuccinos everybody drank in Córdoba and the sweet medialunas the coffee was often served with. I longed for the crisp, cold air of an Argentinian winter. I missed the children of the community center who greeted me with a barrage of hugs and shouts of excitement when I walked through the rusty front gate each morning.
I closed my book and began scrolling through the pictures and videos I had of the children on my phone, blurry selfies taken by three and four year olds, short clips of them singing in screechy, high-pitched, incomprehensible Spanish. I come across a video of Celina, spinning in circles on the merry-go-round, the orange in her hand.
She left the community center that day popping slices of a her peeled orange into her mouth, happy as can be.