Today I joined in on home-visits of five elderly residents of Villa El Salvador with Sister Jackie, an American-born nun who has been living and serving in Villa for the past thirty years. Benedicta, Juana, Domingo, Irene, Urbelina. All are regulars at Martincitos, a community center for the elderly that provides meals, activity, and an extended family of sorts. It’s a place that is heavy with love– the “love thy neighbor” kind of love– done very well.
We drove through the narrow dirt roads of the residential area in a white van. Passersby holding the hands of small children stopped, stared, and smiled back when I waved. The homes are small but most are painted bright colors, at least on the exterior. The residents greeted us with hugs and kisses and adamantly insisted we sit down when we walked into their homes. Most had to pull up small chairs to accommodate our group, which consisted of five very gringo volunteers and one street smart nun.
Sister Jackie asked them how they were feeling, when they’d last been to the doctor, and whether they were eating regularly. Answers were always in the affirmative. “Sí, Madre.” “Ya, Mami.” Jackie would turn to us with raised eyebrows and say with a hint of an eye-roll, “It’s always yes, yes, yes with these ladies. They’re old school. They’ll always ‘yes’ the nun.”
Some of the homes had linoleum floors, but others were just on packed dirt. The nicer ones had wallboards and televisions; the poorest had bricks and chickens. They all were guarded by somber images of Christ and the Virgin Mary hanging on the walls.
Housing in Villa El Salvador was built in the mid-seventies in a planned community structure on top of sand flats, after the impoverished founders were forced out of another neighborhood in which they’d been squatting. Over 5,000 families converged in what was an area called Pachacamac (Quechua for “creator of the earth”) from the highlands, jungle, and countryside to construct a community based on a “culture of peace and equality of opportunity.” Residential areas were split into sections, blocks, and lots; an equal amount of square footage was given to each family. Community leaders and secretariats were named and charged with organizing programs in healthcare, education, and sports (the importance of which is still evident in the number of parks, playgrounds, and fútbol fields in Villa).
Although its people were poor, Villa El Salvador grew and prospered. Comedores were opened to feed the hungry and day-cares were created specifically to support working mothers, all by concerned residents. An entirely new district of Lima was built on bricks, sand, and love in a single decade. Villa became a global inspiration with its progress and its message, enough to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
We questioned one abuelita nearing her ninth decade about her life in the early days of Villa El Salvador. “Oh I forget.” Her son chimed in, trying to jog her memory. “Were there houses here when you first came?” Something clicked. “Ohh, no, there was nothing. No houses. No water. No food. No streets. I walked several kilometers to the farms every day, and walked back with sacks of sweet potatoes on my back, 30 to 40 kilos, and sold them here.” She went on to explain that she thinks the manual labor was the cause of her current ovarian cancer. Funny, I come from a country where we blame our ailments on a lack of activity.
The biggest load I carried in my younger years was a full backpack. The only thing I lacked was a dependable dial up connection… and that was only while we had AOL. Now as a volunteer, I find myself careening back and forth between poverty and luxury, highlands and coast, indigenous and colonial, work and leisure. There is value in exposure to new cultures but for me it often comes with the price of guilt and confusion. My life is very, very good, by any standard, but Villa has shown me I still have a lot to learn about the meaning of community and commitment.
More to come about life and volunteer work in Villa El Salvador in the coming weeks, but for now, if you’d like to learn more, check out Slum Upgrading and Participation: Lessons from Latin America by Ivo Imparato and Jeff Ruster, or Villa El Salvador’s municipal website (in Spanish).