Peru is not a giving country. It is not part of the culture to donate time, money, or even empathy to those who have not. The average income for a Peruvian is $10,000 soles, but it’s not exactly distributed that way. On our walk yesterday we went through Santa Maria, a wealthy town with landscaped lawns to overlook the yachts tethered in the harbor. The rest of the towns we’ve seen are as brown as the desert hills they are densely built into, with walls of brick and plywood and roofs of corrugated metal. At the top of the hills are the poorest of the poor, living without electricity or plumbing in cave-like conditions with entire families living in a single room. It is these kinds of towns that the street children in Lima have run away from due to poverty, drugs, and the violent home lives that are common here.
For the first 3/4 of today, we visited some of the few philanthropic organizations in Peru. We began at a tiny Jesuit university that has about 300 students. One of the girls from the Surfing Tribe will be studying law there starting on Monday. She came with us on the visit.
The next stop was to see one of the schools created by Fe y Alegria, which translates to Faith and Joy. This organization builds public schools in the poorest communities and trains their own teachers to work there. Normal Peruvian schools are notorious for their harsh conditions and bad educations. Teaching is not considered a respectable job in Peru, and those who choose the profession are considered failures in other trades. Teachers in these schools still use physical punishment and view the classroom setting as something for themselves instead of the children. Fe y Alegria trains their own teachers to run the schools. Here the kids are treated with love and taught by experts who often also teach in expensive private schools.
After stopping here, we stopped at several children’s community centers in the hills outside Lima. We were instructed to leave all of our watches and cameras in the bus because of the neighborhood’s tough reputation. We walked through stinking alleyways squeezed between the stacked houses to get to these tiny centers, where children work on art projects and homework to keep them off the streets. Many small children in these areas who do not take advantage of or have access to these programs stay locked in their one-room houses all day while their parents work. After visiting two children’s centers and the church that sponsors them, we were taken to downtown Lima.
Throughout this trip we have met many children. We have played with them, laughed with them, surfed with them, and gotten to know them by name. We have been told by the people who know them that these girls are pimps and prostitutes, and all are drug addicts, but this information, while shocking, is easy to forget when you’re all hanging out on the beach.
Today, as the sun went down, we entered downtown Lima, where we went to one of the houses that the street children live in. It used to be two stories with 160 people living there, three or four to a room, before there was a fire two years ago. Now the space has been filled by plywood cubicles just big enough to hold a bed. The entire space, about the size of a small basketball court, houses 40 people. We brought the people who live there snacks and sweets and they welcomed us into their home. I was shocked to see faces I knew in this place.
The house smelled like feces, and the people, when they drew near to kiss us hello, smelled sharply of the glue they had been sniffing. One child, no older than six, stood in bare feet on top of one of the small plastic bags filled with dried glue that lie discarded around the house and streets outside. The house was grossly overpopulated, and many of the women are pregnant. Of the forty that live there, two are male, and they are transgendered prostitutes, not fathers of any of the ten children.
As I stood in their roofless living room, I was struck by how hopeless this cycle is. For the first time, I really comprehended that these are prostitutes raising prostitutes. These girls will begin sniffing glue before their breasts begin to develop. They will begin selling their bodies before they are twelve. They will exploit, be exploited, steal, sniff, fight. And by the time they are sixteen or seventeen, they will have their own children. The process repeats.
As we left the house, Miriam, the woman in charge, thanked us profusely for coming, and begged us to come back as soon as possible. My house is your house, she said. And they all smiled as they saw us off. As we walked out, Paul pointed out to me, through the open roof, that overlooking the shanty is the Superior Court of Justice.
We walked through the streets, watching Taxi drivers pick up the young girls and drive them away. One of the women walking with us tells us that for each client, a girl gets 20 soles–about $13. They work all night. We went to the area where the street musicians board the buses to busque for money, and we watched the cops harass and search a few of them. We asked Cleya, the Generacion’s social worker, who works with the kids in these streets every day if she is ever frightened of the pimps and drug dealers that she is interrupting. She says the only people she is afraid of are the police.
We waited for our van to pick us up on a corner packed with young prostitutes half my height. They all know Cleya and they rush to see her when we walk up to the curb. One young man greets each of us three times. He has glue all over the front of his shirt and is still holding the bag in his hand. As we drive away, the girls wave goodbye, and we see our friend La China walking down to the corner to join the girls. She is seventeen, pregnant with twins, and has a fresh bruise on the side of her face.
Very rarely have I been aware of a pivotal moment in my life. But I know with certainty that I will never be the same after today. I saw, smelled, and heard things that I have no context for in my own life. I was scared and I resented myself for being scared. I felt grateful that these people are willing to share their homes and their stories with a group of privileged Americans. I felt lost and angry.
I also feel extreme appreciation for the work that these organizations do in Lima. Everyone we’ve visited targets children raised in unfair and brutal situations, trying to break the cycle. Generacion has been working for 25 years. Some of the Jesuits we met have been working here for 40 years. For several decades they have been working with this community, witnessing tragedy after tragedy, all in the same pattern, and they haven’t given up. These people have given everything they have to the betterment of a small and seemingly unimportant population. They are an unbelievable inspiration.
When I return to the states, I hope this feeling of change stays with me. I never want to forget the bruise on La China’s face of the way the smell of glue makes my skin crawl. I want to appreciate every little thing that is given to me without repercussion or exploitation. I want to stop judging. People are not born homeless. They are not born violent. They are molded by elements out of their control. I want to go home and face people who are different, or even those who scare me, not with disdain and apprehension, but with tenderness.