This story was originally published April 4, 2001.
With the stately streets of Kansas City’s historic Hyde Park as a seemingly unlikely starting point, Thomas Becker is expanding his understanding of world poverty one country, one human rights struggle at a time.
So far the Rockhurst High School graduate has seen child prostitution on the streets of Cape Town, South Africa; mounds of corpses and maimed people in Rwanda; the effects of a 30-year war that left few men in many Guatemalan villages; and now, the Zapatista movement’s struggles to bring equality to the indigenous of Mexico.
“I just really wanted to know what was really going on in the world,” said Becker, who made a brief visit to Kansas City last week before returning to his life as a 22-year-old film student in San Francisco. He hopes to chronicle his experiences eventually through documentary films.
Becker stands out, said a former teacher, because of his penchant for heading off on his own, landing in dangerous situations.
“He is a small man, but he seems like a fearless giant in his fight for social justice,” said Nicole Raeburn, a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco. “Every progressive cause that you can think of, Thomas is there fighting for it.”
Becker is interested in grass-roots movements for social change, Third World countries, the impoverished and the undereducated.
“Here, in the United States,” he said, “so many people say, ‘Yeah, I want social change,’ but then they go back to their homes and get comfortable and forget about it.”
Sleeping in the streets, hitchhiking and backpacking through foreign countries are taken with a shrug, a necessary part of travel.
Becker’s most recent activism was taking part in the Zapatista movement’s bus caravan across Mexico, led by the romantic rebel figure Subcomandante Marcos.
Marcos is thought to be a former Mexico City professor. He always appears wearing a dark ski mask, his mystery a media magnet. The caravan of buses took 15 days to travel from the southern state of Chiapas to Mexico City, culminating with a rally attended by thousands.
“As we drove by, the people would be just screaming, ‘Marcos, Marcos,’ “ Becker recalled.
Most Mexican people today are descendants of the Spanish who conquered the lands. But Mexico still has a large indigenous population, about 8 million people. Their struggles are akin to those of native peoples around the world: fights for land, for self-governance, for the right to practice their customs and speak their languages.
Zapatista rebels testified to the Mexican Congress last week as a bill was being considered to give more rights to indigenous people. The “Zapatour” caravan Becker participated in was to draw attention to the bill.
Images from the trip’s beginning, in the jungles of Chiapas, struck Becker. There, hundreds of indigenous people gathered, many wearing the masks that they say helped make them finally visible to the Mexican government.
Becker saw hope in their eyes, sometimes misty with tears.
“To them, the Zapatistas are in control of their lives and their future,” he said.
The trip was similar to Becker’s other adventures, funded more through his idealistic passions than solid finances.
He is applying for grants to fund his summer plans to work on a documentary in South Africa. He first went to Cape Town in 1999, volunteering at a clinic. One of the first patients he worked with was a 2-year-old girl, infected with syphilis through rape. Beliefs that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS fuel many rapes, Becker said.
His stay in Africa was to be three months, but Becker stretched it to six, traveling to Rwanda. He had studied the country’s history, including a political system set up to exacerbate tribal rivalries between the Hutus and the Tutsis.
“But I didn’t think I’d see piles of dead,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was genocide.”
He also plans to return to Central America, where he studied Spanish in Guatemala last summer and traveled through Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Becker’s penchant for roaming led him to find a former guerrilla soldier who had fought in the U.S.-backed contra wars. The two traveled by backpack, viewing hiding places used in the 30-year civil war that ended in 1996.
Becker said his family’s Hyde Park home served as a launching point for his quests. Nearby is the decidedly less affluent Troost Avenue, with its dilapidated buildings and reputation as a dividing line between the black and white races of Kansas City.
He notes that many of his neighborhood playmates attended public schools, compared with Becker’s private education.
Becker is humble enough to realize he is just beginning to understand the complicated web of politics, capitalism and racism that underlies widespread poverty.
But his empathetic nature has already been noted.
When he graduated last year from the University of San Francisco with degrees in sociology, politics, women’s studies and peace and justice, he was given one of the school’s highest honors, the Spirit of St. Francis Award.
The Jesuit university gives it to a senior who embodies the ideals of St. Francis of Assisi. Becker’s “outstanding service, especially to the poor and disenfranchised,” was noted at the ceremony. But he won’t mention the award except when prodded. And he is aware that many activists burn out, become jaded.
“They might be just one person going against a multinational corporation,” he said. “It is so much at times. But I know there needs to be change.”