On Mafia and Meditation

by Ricky Toledano

In two days’ time, twelve people would be coming to my home for a holiday meal, so I didn’t care what the price of the tomatoes was. I didn’t even look at the price. I needed them. Throwing them into a plastic bag, I’m sure I was suspicious of them when I saw how perfect and uniform all of the red fruit were, but I was more preoccupied with trying to remember how many I would need for the various recipes I would exact. It was same subliminal suspicion that had made me separate, but not read, an article on the global Italian and Chinese mafias for tomatoes. The startling topic had immediately caught my attention – the same way avocados had caught my eye after I had grabbed my tomatoes in the other aisle. Unlike the tomatoes, however, I actually looked at the price of the avocados and concluded that the cost-benefit of adding a Mexican guacamole to my menu in Brazil did not make sense. The delicious fat of the Pacific avocado is a favorite of mine and one I have always missed for the more than twenty years in Brazil, where only the large, sweetish and watery Atlantic variety prevails. I had already suspected that the latest health fad – avocados – had finally brought the green fruit to the country, since I had started spotting them, sold by their English name, in supermarkets and even street fairs. And that is why another unread article I had separated throughout the year had tripped me: it was one about a very violent avocado mafia in Mexico.

Apparently, gold comes in many more colors than I had imagined.

Which was all I cared to know about controversies, so I quickly added the reports to my reading list, together with one about what was wrong with the production and global distribution of yet another health craze: dates from the Middle East.

What was really wrong, however, was why I hadn’t read the reports. Yes, they were longish, I suppose. Indeed it may have followed that they were topics I considered more interesting than important. And, yes, many more pressing political and economic issues kept cutting the reports in my reading line, but the startling headlines had caught my attention precisely because they were not actually about food: afterall, mafia is about politics; it is about economics — not avocados and tomatoes.

So why didn’t I want to know about it?

Anyone who has a regular practice of monitoring one’s own mind knows that those lacunas, those the holes in your knowledge – especially those where ignorance is a choice – are put in a place inside where you keep fear, prejudice, ignorance and all those other dirty things you don’t want to see. It is a place like a dark broom closet where you throw the things you don’t know where to put, or the things you would rather not use.

Like many other conscientious people, I have already given up many things in deliberate protest. I have never owned a car, a microwave or a television; I have not eaten meat for almost two decades. Such contributions, however, do not necessarily constitute sacrifices. Regardless of how grounded in knowledge such abstinences may be, they are still related to personal tastes and aversions that may be relatively easy to accommodate. Try taking tomatoes away from me, however, and I might serve your liver, roasted with white wine and shallots.

There are items we are not willing to give up, and just those headlines were enough to alert me that there might be more things I consume that I would need to analyze better. That is why I did what any reasonable person would do with such news: I threw it into that broom closet.

It is like getting a blood test: you may intellectually understand that knowing is better than not knowing, but emotion will always defeat intellect, and that is why you would still rather go on in the bliss of ignorance.

Now, at the end of the year, I have finally pulled those reports out and I have read them. I now know what was obvious – that I am the last link in and party to a sinister global supply chain – but the real benefit of knowledge comes in reflection.

It is clearer for me than ever before that the history of humanity might be summarized in a history of mafia, how individuals have come together in cooperation and ended up in corruption. Curiously, the two words share some etymology, at least a conspicuous prefix, and there is but a razor’s edge dividing them. For as long as human beings desire More, and want others to do the unpleasant work, there will be those who will conspire to deliver by the fastest route – at the expense of others. I’m sure that explains the waves of empires. It most certainly explains the British-East India Company, the United Fruit Company, and today’s US lobbyists opening up indigenous lands for logging, farming and mining in Brazil and Indonesia, as well as in their home country.  They simply subvert legislation by writing it themselves to undo environmental and social protections to gain the highest margin possible, or by simply relocating entire industries somewhere where there isn’t even any legislation. This year, I’ve realized the detestable truth that colonialism has not ended, which means that slavery has not ended, which means all the murders will not end. That is why indigenous people around the globe are in grave danger at this very moment: they are being murdered because they refuse to cooperate with the mafias who want the resources they are sitting on; they refuse to be enslaved. They have already lost everything, and they have centuries of experience to know very well that even the best democracies seem to end where their interests begin.

Do I really want to give up the benefits of slavery? I wouldn’t be so fast in answering that question. Remember that we are all connected to a global supply chain in which there are many, many mouths to feed. Besides, my tomatoes were perfect and conveniently located just down the block in a store that had everything I wanted, although genetically-engineered and sprayed with chemicals that are prohibited in their home countries. I’ll wash everything with diluted bleach, I thought, standing at the check-out counter. I don’t see another choice but to poison the water, at any rate it will affect other people first, just like the agroindustrial chemicals are killing workers in the fields, poisoning indigenous and the poor all over the world.

Anyway, do I really want to start looking at the price of tomatoes? How much more would I pay for a new mobile?

This year, I began to understand the panic regarding the environment of young people around the world. They know the crisis is here and, if people continue to think and act like me, there will be a rush to merely have the right to die last, if something is not done now. Right now.  

Those were some of the many things that went across the screen of my mind as I waited in the boring holiday check-out line, watching the screen of my mobile phone when I saw the latest local news: another man shot in head during an armed robbery, another incautious tourist shot walking up the wrong hill, then there were other shootings. Shootings and shootings. I flinched seeing the homicide reports from the endemic gun violence in Rio de Janeiro, where more than 3,000 people have been killed just this year – and Rio is hardly the most violent place in Brazil. I immediately removed my gaze from the phone. It is a subject there is little I can do about and one that particular affects me, after two occasions in which I had to throw myself on the floor to avoid gunfire between gangs – mafias – supplied with guns and ammunition by other mafias, since most firepower is neither permitted nor produced in Brazil; it comes from all over the world.  

The events led me to move to a less violent although less beautiful area, which is more or less what people in many parts of the world are doing. The world is on the move right now, people are looking for safety, willing to pay mafias to flee violence. They are refugees with a great desire to be able to consume – not unlike yourself.

I carried a very heavy bag home from the fruit and vegetable mart, but it could never be heavier than my thoughts. I could see inside that I was just another person doing anything to satisfy my desire, the great pleasure it is to cook and receive friends for the holiday, unconcerned about its (real) cost. The complexity of being both evil and good is difficult to accept.

Don’t despair. For however difficult it is to accept complexity, and however difficult the year has been, I am quite certain that there is an opportunity in this maelstrom of news at the end of the decade, as long as we can see the place where red tomatoes meet green avocados, where weapons and toxins meet our holiday dreams.

They are all in the broom closet.

In the new decade, none of the issues that really bothers us will be solved unless the individual fills in the lacunas, cleaning out even the broom closet, facing the things we don’t want to understand, witnessing how desires surge and we satisfy them – or not. On the contrary, all the finger pointing will continue outward in vain, everyone insisting upon their innocence, blaming others. It is the fault of the government, we’ll cry. They are not regulating correctly; we are victims; our leaders are corrupt.

Yet we won’t pay more for tomatoes. We won’t give up a damn thing.

There might be very little we can do about the issues that bother you in the world, but we can start by opening the broom closet. Although you might find your mafia in there, knowing is better than not knowing. Right?

I bid you well with the words of Kabir: “Once I set out to find [but] the crooked of heart and returned disappointed. Then I looked into my heart: I found the king of crooks hiding there”.

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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