The following picture is of my paternal great-grandfather and his three brothers. He’s the second one from the left:
That picture was taken in 1905. The brothers are working on tanning hides to sell them as leather. When I was a little kid, my grandfather took me to the slaughterhouse to see where the meat that I ate came from. He was also there to pick up some hides. I didn’t quite grasp the significance of what he did back then. It wasn’t until I found this picture this weekend that I understood. It had been a family thing since way back when.
The picture also got me to think about great-grandfather’s expectations for his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There’s no way to know what those expectations where, or if he had any expectations at all. Five years after this picture, Mexico would be thrown into a very bloody civil war. Eight years after that, an influenza pandemic would kill millions around the world as the First World War was winding down in Europe. They were turbulent times, for sure.
I’ve seen my share of turbulent times as well. I saw an influenza pandemic in 2009 — albeit one that was less deadly than the one in 1918. My relatives in Mexico have just been through a very, very bloody drug war, with some violence still left in the towns and cities where they live. As I sit here, Russia is testing the will of the US and Europe to intervene in its plants for expansion. Radical Islamic groups are advancing in Iraq and Syria, killing everyone they deem unworthy in their path. Israel is engaged in an existential war that is killing too many civilians in Gaza. South Sudan is experiencing a tremendous famine. West African nations are shutting down because of Ebola. The US Congress is locked over ideological differences between the Right and the Left. Climate change is brining dengue and chikungunya viruses far to the north, very far from their endemic areas in the Caribbean and Central America.
Looking at things from that perspective, I’m doubting whether or not I’ll have children, let alone grandchildren.
But the world is not that bad, really. Medical and technological advances are prolonging the lives of people the world over. Infectious diseases that used to kill children by the millions are winding down thanks to vaccines. Because of the internet, we can connect with people in far away places and learn from each other, accepting that we share the same world and are all just as worthy of living in it as anyone else. Best of all, because of my involvement in public health and the friends and family I have in the military, I know that there are plenty of people out there willing to head in the direction of danger and do something about it.
We silly humans are the best and the worst thing for our species.
Yeah, I can’t help but get all existential after seeing that picture and feeling my connection to history more than 100 years ago. Fifteen years after that picture, grandpa would be born. Twenty five years after that, he would marry grandma and move to Chihuahua. There, sixty years ago this past weekend, dad would be born. Dad would then meet my mother twenty years later, and they would have me four years after that. Twenty-one years after that time, I’d arrive in Pennsylvania. Like my grandfather before me, I’d leave everything behind and seek to live my own adventure. Like his father, I hope to one day be written about 100 years from now.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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