Posted by: ktzefr | May 9, 2018

On Birds, Russians, Mexicans, and the Art of Exclusion




I bought these birds 35 years ago in Cozumel.  For most of that time they sat on my mom’s what-not shelf in Kentucky.  They now perch on the window sill where, if they could look out, they would see real birds congregating at the bird bath.  Some birds get along well; some don’t.  Birds of the same species take turns at the bath, share food, fly and sing together.  They are not always so generous, however, with birds that are different.  Neither are we. 

This got me to thinking about Cozumel, about the many manifestations of Us and Them, about a day at the beach in 1983… 

We are sitting on a white-sand beach in Mexico, the sea calm and the sky as clear as blue glass.  I listen to laughter, music, and the voice of vendors.  A Soviet ship sits in port.  The smokestack with its red band and golden sickle and hammer stands like a sentinel against the blue Caribbean sky. 

 The Russians (actually, Soviets at that time) are lying on towels alongside us, as if we are all alike, as if we could be friends just hanging out together on a day at the shore.  We do not yet know that we are almost at the tail-end of the Cold War.  We do not talk to the Russians.  They do not talk to us. 

In the Soviet Union only the elite could travel as tourists, the selected few, the people who could be trusted by the government.  They were given vouchers to see the world and warned against the capitalist habit of displaying pretty trinkets in store windows to make folks want to buy. 

We buy trinkets, laugh with the Mexicans, quickly separate “us” from “them” – the Americans and Mexicans on one side, the Russians on the other.  They are the ones that don’t belong. 

I watch them eat and laugh and joke amongst themselves.  Are they talking about us? Or about the Mexicans?  Perhaps none of us are mentioned at all.  The local shopkeepers speak some English; we speak a little Spanish.  No one here speaks Russian.  

I recall those pictures and words and ideas on standardized tests in elementary school.  They had to be examined to see which one didn’t belong with the others.  It was vital to make distinctions, to choose correctly, to look for differences. 

Remember Sesame Street’s characters examining a series of “things” – three circles and a square? And the little song…  “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong.”  Smart kids quickly find the odd one.  Finding the odd one is rewarded. 

Do we go through life with this little ditty or a similar bit of “wisdom” stuck in our minds?  Do we naturally look for differences instead of looking for ways that we are alike? Does there always have to be something, someone, some team, or some country that doesn’t belong?  

Until the Russians came ashore that day in Cozumel, we were the ones that weren’t like the others.  We were the ones that didn’t belong.  What a difference it makes to be included, to be part of an “us.”  And how quickly – and sadly — the “us” can locate a “them” to exclude.





  1. Good story!

    Sent from my iPad


    • Thanks Mayla!

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