Love for Peru invited me, all expenses paid, to document the not-for-profit work they were doing in a community of shantytowns in the District of San Juan de Lurigancho, on the outskirts of Lima. I was to stay in a hotel with a group of American volunteers, and travel each day to Nueva Esperanza, the name of the community encompassing nine different shanty towns, or asentamientos humanos, as they call them in Peru. But I asked to stay in one of the cardboard shantyhomes instead. I wanted to experience the life of the people I was there to photograph.
When I arrived, I was blessed and welcomed by the community, and soon named vecino Isaac, which I took as a compliment, as the other volunteers were addressed as hermanos. During the seven years that Love for Peru had worked at Nueva Esperanza, none of the volunteers had ever asked to stay there. My vecinos welcomed me with open arms and were very grateful to have someone listen so intimately.
I was very present to the fact that it could have been me landing in such circumstance. I could have been born here, living the daily hardships of living in a cardboard house, not knowing what I was going to eat that night. Or of having to go to the bathroom every day in a hole in the ground, watching for the giant rat that might come out of said hole.
This was made very clear when I met Betsabé, then President of New Hope. She had grown up in a middle class family, and even had a maid, but her mother lost everything when she divorced her alcoholic husband, since divorce in Peru was a big no-no back then. Now Betsabé lives among the poorest of the poor, putting in countless hours visiting with neighbors to learn what can be done to improve their living conditions.
At first, I stayed with Marina and her beautiful family: her children Marisol and Yhon, and her granddaughter Yamilé. All four of them normally slept in two beds; Marina with her granddaughter, and Yhon with his sister. But Marisol took the night shift at work and Yhon slept with his mom and niece so that I could have one bed to myself. Never mind that theirs was a cardboard house with dirt floors; I felt right at home. Marina’s the most generous human being I’ve ever met. She fed me the largest portions of her delicious food. She gave me the only candle in the house so I could write my diary while she cooked in her coal stove in the dark, When I left her home after a few days, she cried.
Later I stayed with María, who lives in one of the new homes built by Love for Peru: four wood panels over a cement floor, covered with a thin tin roof. As in many homes here, her husband was also absent, and she took care of all the children on her own, including seven-year-old Carmen Rosa, who’s severely handicapped, needs to be spoon-fed and wears diapers. She can’t walk or talk, and never will.
With the economic crisis we think we have it difficult. But my neighbors in Lima are really living day by day. I hurt myself playing soccer with the children one evening; boy can they play! When I came home with a bloody knee, Maria sent her son Juan Carlos running to the neighborhood store. He returned with two individually wrapped diapers for Carmen Rosa (one for the night, and one for the next day) and one single Band Aid for me.Then offered me some cologne to disinfect my wound. Luckily one of the American volunteers had given me a less-painful disinfecting wipe, just in case.When I came home with a bloody knee, Maria sent her son Juan Carlos running to the neighborhood store. He returned with two individually wrapped diapers for Carmen Rosa (one for the night, and one for the next day) and one single Band Aid for me.
As the Americans were leaving me behind the first evening, they treated me as a hero for being so brave as to stay while they went back to their hotel room, with showers and clean sheets. But, I’m no hero. I only stayed there for a few days. My vecinos are the heroes.I left a piece of my heart there. It was truly an eye-opening experience. I’d wanted to document life in a shantytown for years, part out of curiosity, part to show the world what’s hidden in plain sight in many cities of the world. Once I was crazy enough to hail a taxi from the U.S.-Mexico border and tell the driver to take me to the nearest shantytown, where I proceeded to try to convince the first family I found to let me stay with them for a few days. They thought I was delusional, and I took the same taxi back to downtown Tijuana, with only a few exposed frames of black-and-white film in my camera.
I’m still moved by the generosity of my adopted community in Lima. They gave me the best of everything, and made due with less food to make sure I had plenty. I get goose bumps remembering my neighbors, displaced from the green Andean mountains by wars involving terrorist groups, drug cartels and the government.
My neighbors in Lima were a rich community in love, and in respect for their neighbors. But they were poor in possibilities, in opportunities to improve their lives and living conditions, and in their environment. I don’t miss the never-ending brown palette of dirt and pollution. During my time there, the ground was brown, the sky was brown, even the few plants that sweet vecina Basilia kept with love where covered in brown dust. The sun never shone completely through the murky skies, and the light always seemed as if filter by a sepia veil, a veil created by cars burning unrefined oil and the refuse from unregulated factories. The lack of green really got to me. When our group later landed in Cusco and Machu Picchu for a tourist visit, I felt guilty. I wanted my vecinos to be here, after all this was their green land, not mine.
A blue sky, green plants, clean rivers and oceans add real richness to our lives; they should be a human right. This wealth I’m afraid is not measured in a nation’s GDP. If I could do anything for the people in Lima, the ones who made me an honorary neighbor, I’d give them colors: blue skies, white puffy clouds and green trees; I’d give them Machu Picchu.
Thank you, my vecinos for opening your hearts and your community. It was an honor to be in your company. I will always remember you, Basilia, Marina, Betsabé, Yhon, Marisol, Milagros, Selene, Christian, Juan Carlos, Yamilé… And Maria, your wise words still resonate with me. Upon meeting your Carmen Rosa, I told you, “Seeing your daughter makes me realize how blessed I am with the health of my children.” And you responded, “So am I.”
How Love for Peru got started
Love for Peru is the brainchild of Piero and Magali Solimano, Peruvians now living in Florida. When they visited their sponsored child in Lima for the first time, they were shocked by the living conditions there, without running water, trash collection, electricity or sewers.
Their collaboration has sparked the transformation of a community of forgotten people, who were also divided in their daily survival. Thanks to their guidance and lobbying, the nine communities that form Project Hope blossomed in working in partnership with each other and with their “American brothers,” who occasionally visited to help build, on average, five homes in five days.
Love for Peru has brought over 500 volunteers to Project Hope. They have helped build hundreds of homes, five preschools, three community kitchens and two libraries. Thanks to Love for Peru, the landfill at the bottom of the hill was transformed into a soccer field.
After my visit, Love for Peru continued working on their goals, including meeting safety regulations so that the area could be zoned for living, so that the people there could receive titles to their homes, which was accomplished. Next, the community got running water and a sewage system. And the main road is now paved.
The non-profit is now no longer building homes, but continues to supply Nueva Esperanza with medical care, such as sponsoring regular doctor visits. Never let it be said that a lot cannot be generated from a little… as long as it’s done with love.by