Casting the “White Savior” in Shades of Grey

When I set out to write a book about the late Hanley Denning—the daughter of a privileged white family in Maine who saw the despair and horror of the Guatemala City garbage dump and launched a school for the guajero children—I recognized that my story could too easily sink into a white savior narrative. Indeed, the title I chose, “Angel of the Garbage Dump,” might at surface level suggest that Hanley, alone, was magically lifting the garbage pickers out of the abyss and reinventing their lives for them.

I understood this narrative could be interpreted as overly simplistic or problematic. Much has been written of late about the historic role of white savior attitudes and the harm it has caused. White saviorism is a centuries-old concept that can be traced back to the days when many White Westerners believed that they inherently had the knowledge, skills, and ingenuity to solve the problems of other people all around the world, a recent story in Health magazine, referenced Samantha Stevens’ paper “Exporting the White Saviour.”

“I think it’s been a fundamental underpinning of Western imperialism, and it’s been evident in the global empire-building enterprise,” Danielle Taana Smith, a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Syracuse University, told Health.

One podcaster in the UK to whom I pitched my book and who hosts a series about issues related to poverty replied to me that “I have no doubt that Hanley Denning was a remarkable person who did amazing work. However, within the podcast we try to avoid reinforcing the idea that people in poverty live dirty and desperate lives, and that these can only change with external intervention by selfless and exceptional individuals.”

I shared with the podcaster and told readers in the Prologue that “I chose the book’s title Angel of the Garbage Dump because that’s what the people of the Guatemala City garbage dump called Hanley, particularly following her tragic death. To them she was el angel del basurero. Though the words suggest a hint of white saviorism, I chose this title because it accurately reflects the emotions and words of the “guajeros”—the garbage pickers, themselves.”

Still, I wanted to avoid a surface-level read and misinterpretation of Hanley’s story. I wanted to present her as far more nuanced and complex than an “angel.” I wanted to cast the “white savior” in shades of grey.

I chose a chronological structure for the book in order to show character developments both within Hanley and those around her — developments that ultimately paint the story’s protagonist, in life and in death, as one who inspires change, even though the actual change comes from the Guatemalans, themselves. We see this both in Hanley’s employees and in the garbage pickers and their families.

I wanted to show a personal evolution within Hanley, herself, whose manic devotion to the project endears her to many and attracts funders and volunteers, but it also makes her difficult to work with and potentially imperils the sustainability of her project. I also sought to unveil a page-by-page evolution in her assistant Lety Mendez, a middle-class Guatemalan who lived a relatively comfortable life until she, too, accepted the call to serve the needy in Zone 3 of the capital city. I hoped to show that impetus for change came from garbage pickers like a guajero mother named Ingrid Mollinero, and Iris Ramirez, a student who lifted herself out of the dump and now attends medical school. (I have included brief excerpts from the book about these characters. Read them below)

While I hope this book inspires people to resist the urge to ignore inequity and poverty and to serve those in need, I also hope Angel of the Garbage Dump prompts a critical discussion about how we cast hero protagonists and how we can interpret them as more complex characters with complex legacies.

Book excerpts:

Lety becomes a loca, too:

Before working for Camino Seguro, Lety Mendez was a bilingual secretary with no interest in social work, or teaching, or psychology. Now she was practicing all those skills—without a degree or certificate from a school, but with her own empathy, her own human experience. She was providing emotional support for children who had been abused. She was counseling teenage girls who were pregnant. Years later, Lety would reflect that she was doing the exact opposite of what she thought she’d do with her life.

“Tú puedes. Tú puedes,” Hanley encouraged her. You can do it.

Lety’s first impression of Hanley, when she was talked into working with volunteers and giving tours of the garbage dump just two months after taking the job, was that the gringa was crazy. Totally loca. These guajeros were beyond help, she had initially thought. In Guatemala, “no nos cambiamos.” We don’t change. In Guatemala, “la gente no ayuda.” Here we don’t have a culture of helping each other. Pobre es pobre. Poverty is poverty. She told Hanley as much.

“No,” said Hanley with a smile. “If we can change just one life, then we’ll make a difference … If we change the lives of 50 kids, we’ll change the world forever. We’ll help them study. We’ll give them food, shoes, and medicine.”

Hanley’s plan was audacious. It was madness. But as the mission began to consume Lety’s life, she realized that she, too, was becoming loca.

Ingrid catches Jane:

Jane Gallagher and her son Jake traveled the summer after Hanley’s death as part of a group of six Mainers. But this time when their van from Antigua pulled up in front of the yellow edificio, Jane got out of the vehicle and froze. She began to sob. She’d been to this place before, but never without Hanley. Jane slipped and fell, and suddenly felt the arms of Ingrid Mollinedo supporting her. Ingrid the guajero mother, whose son Christián was sponsored by Jane and her family to attend Safe Passage. Ingrid, who had summoned all her courage and spoke to the First Lady of the United States to compliment her dress. Ingrid who, like so many from the garbage dump community, had found the strength and dignity to send their children to school, to imagine a future for their family that didn’t involve the basurero. She caught Jane and righted her.

Ingrid put her arms around Jane and asked her what was wrong. Using her broken Spanish, the emotional visitor from Maine was able to gasp that Hanley was a dear friend and she couldn’t imagine being in Guatemala without her.

“Everywhere I went that entire week, those moms stayed right next to me,” Jane said. “It’s hilarious that I went on that trip thinking I was helping. But they were the ones making sure I was OK. It was unbelievable.”

They may have called Hanley the “angel of the garbage dump” but at moments like these the colonia was full of angels. Hanley had merely helped these mothers dig deep and find their best selves.

Iris’ journey from the garbage dump to medical school:

The success stories warm hearts and show the impact of Hanley’s work. Stories like Anita, who holds down a stable job working at a bank.

Stories like Nancy Gudiel, the nine-year-old orphan who sold chiclets on the streets, the tough girl who ran away from the Casa Hogar, the program’s first graduate, who now works as a clerk in an electronics store. She lives with her husband Daniél, whom she married in 2010, and their two daughters in a far safer neighborhood in Zone 13 of Guatemala City.

Stories like Daniél Osorio, who Hanley put in a safe house after his stepfather was executed by gangs in front of their house, and who fell in love with video while studying at Camino Seguro. After graduating, he shot and produced much of the project’s marketing footage. Daniél recently received a scholarship to attend a film school in Michoacán, Mexico.

Stories like Iris Ramírez, who once sorted paper and nylon together with her mother in the garbage dump, who stuck with Camino Seguro—thanks to the support of her “padrino” Phil Kirchner from Yarmouth—graduated from high school at age 18, and received a scholarship from Shared Beat, a Texas-based nonprofit that supports Guatemalans who want to work in healthcare. She is now in medical school in the capital doing clinical rotations at Roosevelt Hospital and attends to a rising number of COVID patients, though the hospital and medical personnel lack sufficient supplies and resources.

“I learn more every day, I love what I do,” Iris wrote to me via email. “I love serving people in this way, I love studying medicine, and even after I graduate as a general practitioner and surgeon, I will continue studying.” In 2018 she told me she dreamed of one day working in Guatemala’s western highlands, where her grandparents lived and where campesino peasants with few resources could come and receive care. “When I can do it, I want to set up a hospital that cares for people with low resources … or I’ll go with a group like Doctors Without Borders to care for the neediest people.

“Because of Hanley I am here, and I will be a doctor,” wrote Iris. “Hanley gave my life a path and a meaning. I wish I could stand before her and ask what she saw in me.”

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