The day I learned I was not poor

Translated  by Marvin Najarro 

In the early days of the 1990s, Ciudad Peronia began to fill with shacks and people who came from other poor neighborhoods and from the country’s west to invade the sector now known as El Mirador. It consisted of brushwood, tepetate streets, and an open-air market; a dusty place where vendors threw empty sacks and cardboard boxes to serve as a table to display their products on.

 A bus station with two or three microbuses, and a large esplanade at the dump’s edge of the market’s ravine, which eventually, by the sheer kicking of the ball, became the slum’s football field. Peronia City was the living face of misery and oblivion. It bordered on the villages of La Selva and El Calvario. Further up, at the foot of the green bottle mountains there was a military base, the soldiers mostly from the west of the country barely spoke Spanish; playful children whom we were never afraid of. Children that over the years we would sell ice creams, pupusas de chicharron (pork stuffed corn cakes), atoles and choco bananas (bananas covered with chocolate) which they paid us at the end of the month. 

Around those years we began selling ice cream in the market, in schools, in villages, in the military detachment, everywhere. We barely had enough to eat; tortilla with salt, and bean broth all week, the beans had to be saved because they had to be boiled for the following day.

On lucky days, my dad would arrive with a little extra money, and I together with him went to La Terminal to buy cow entrails; the cow legs broth was a delicacy in those years. But they were oddities, happening from time to time. 

Our house was a cinder block box. With a fabric partition we separated our bedroom from the kitchen. In a metal bed with a hobbling leg, we, the four children of Lila and Guayo, used to sleep. By 3 in the morning when we got up to do the house chores and prepare the goods for sale, we had already been wet -sheets and clothes- by the younger siblings urine. We covered the doors and the windows with cardboard pieces.

The floor was of tepetate where goats, hens, ducks, and dogs, walked back and forth, it was the same ground where the little siblings crawled. A pine table and a three-burner stove were all we had in the kitchen; and two or three dishes. Outside a half-barrel served as a wood stove where my mother made the tortillas and began to teach us how to tortear (shape the tortillas with the palms of one’s hands). When the tortillas came out in caites (sandals) shape, as my Nanoj said, she would take them out of the comal (hot plate) half-baked and put them back in the dough to do them again, until they came out as she wanted. Like tortillas and not like our ugly faces (said my Nanoj).

The newborn siblings looked like white-feathered chicks. At four o’clock in the morning we used to go to the village to buy a liter of freshly milked cow’s milk, just for the babies, it was not enough for anyone else. 

One afternoon a bus arrived with people who said they were coming on behalf of the government, and that we had to go to a house on Usumacinta Street to check us in so we could get some food -products of the basket of goods. Without telling my Nanoj, both my sister and I went to the place and signed up, we told them how many members we were in the family and what was my dad’s job, the food was handed out in rations depending on the family members, and whether both parents worked or only one.

That afternoon we arrived at the house excited, with a yellow corn bag, a ham can, one of yellow cheese, and a powdered milk bag, when my mother saw us with our eleven sheep, she asked us where we had gotten all this, we explained her excitedly, and my mother became so enraged that, in the typical style of Jutiapa, she grabbed the broomstick and shouted to us: daughters of the great whore, you are not poor, you have no need, you work, there are people who really need it! Return that food immediately if you don’t want me to beat the hell out of you!

Without hesitation we rushed back, and in a heartbeat we were in the place returning the food. That ration was to be given to us once a month, but right there we got them to erase us from the list. There were lines and lines of people, recent invaders, waiting to be given food.

That afternoon, I realized that the privation we lived in was not poverty, it was just shortage, that there were people living in misery, people really in need of those food bags.

And I learned it as a child; my Nanoj taught it to me wielding a broom stick. He taught me to look around me. I’ve never forgot it. 

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Ilka Oliva Corado @ilkaolivacorado

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