issue 187 - September 1988
Everything smells of
fishmeal in Chimbote
Money is tight. Relations are bad. Breaking point is near. Dan Vega writes about a night in the
life of Felix, Maria and Rosa - newcomers to an industrial shanty-town on the coast of Peru.
Felix is muttering to himself: it's not simple. Nothing is simple.' All he knows for sure is that he feels bad. Bad, cheated and defeated. And it is not just because of the delicate state of his head, the emptiness of his pocket or the hot glare of that midday sun beating down on the dusty shanty town shacks - although none of these things help.
What a mess! No point in going to work today. Not after yesterday. Not after last night. The boss can sell his own tickets, can hustle the passengers himself. He won't be able to pack the bus so tight, that's for sure - not without Felix there acting as an extra pair of eyes, hanging out of the door and shouting out whether it's safe to turn into side- streets.
Now if only he had managed to keep that job in the fishmeal factory... It meant coming home every night stinking to high heaven, but what the hell - everything smells of fishmeal in Chimbote. But then the Government went and sold fishing rights to the Japanese and the Russians. Their trawlers were much bigger and better-equipped than the Peruvian fleet and the local fish catch dropped. That meant less fish for the fishmeal factory. And no work for Felix.
Since then days have been bad - but yesterday was probably the pits. It went like this: Felix and the boss have been working their butts off since five in the morning to ten at night before they get a chance to count up the day's takings. The boss reckons they are far too low and starts laying into Felix telling him he is an idle hijo de puta. Either he hasn't been collecting all the fares or else he has been pocketing some of them. Felix protests. Now, the boss is one of these stuck-up costeños (coastal dwellers) who think serranos (migrants from the mountains) like Felix are just so much shit. The boss mocks his mountain accent - Felix is more accustomed to speaking Quechua so his Spanish is slow, hesitant and grammatically incorrect. Felix wants to tell him to go to the devil with his lousy job but he needs the money. The upshot is the boss docks his pay and makes some comment about 'indio mierda' not being able to count.
Felix heads home feeling stung, humiliated and angry with himself for not having had the guts to thump the boss. There is laughter coming out of 'Asi es la vida' - a rough cervezaria on the square - as he walks past. Well, just one little beer won't do any harm. But after one he is still feeling uptight and angry. So he has another. Some mates - serranos - come in and they play dice. The idea is that the one who wins buys the next round of beers. So everybody hopes to lose. Felix has the misfortune to win and has to order big bottles of Cristal all round. Before long, several games have been played, the table is covered with empty beer bottles and Felix is sitting there smiling and happy. Yes, happy, hombre! Then the bar closes. It's late, caramba! He walks home. This is not an easy thing to do.
Marta is still up, making empanadas that she will sell on the streets the next day. She glares at him and says nothing. Oh come on, woman, don't be like that! He is feeling hungry so he takes an empanada. She snatches it back and yells angrily
'Not for you, borracho! These are for selling.'
This makes Felix really angry. 'Damn it, woman,' he splutters. 'Show a bit of respect!'
She curls her lip: 'Respect? For you? How?!' She does not conceal her disgust at his beery breath, his slurred speech, his bloodshot eyes. He is swaying over her. Irritated, she gives him a shove: 'Get away!'
This is too much. Too much. He grabs her hair. She screams. Good. Good. He is glad she is screaming. He raises his hand and registers with satisfaction the look of fear that flashes across her face. She knows what's coming. Oh yes! He strikes. Sure. Sure in himself who is boss around here. Assured by her cries that confirm it. He hits her. Again and again. Each blow reaffirms him, each whimper of pain endorses his power. He writes himself on her, stamps his identity on her. Felix Huaman Chavez! Felix Huaman Chavez! A man. A man who won't stand being pushed around! He carries on beating and kicking until he feels dizzy and has to lean against the door frame to throw up.
Last time it happened Marta's neighbour told her not to clear up the mess. Leave the blood on your face, don't remove your torn clothes. Let him see what he has done when he wakes up in the morning. Let him clean up his own vomit.
So she does just that. But when he gets up he just looks around bleary eyed and grunts: 'What the hell have you been up to?' Then goes out to have a leak. (At least he is doing it in the proper place this time.) Re-entering he mutters 'God, you look terrible,' before stumbling back into bed.
She looks in the cracked bit of mirror hanging up above the stove in the yard. He is right. Lips like a burst sausage. Eyes tiny slits of pain embedded in puffy red... Ugh! She quickly looks away again. Her ribs ache, sending out occasional darts of pure pain. Cracked? Broken?
She can hear him snoring. He disgusts her but she disgusts herself even more. Incontinent tears stream down her cheeks, They drop onto the bare-earth floor and are immediately absorbed by it. She goes through his clothes to see if there is any remnant of the week's wages. Not one inti. Can he have drunk it all?
Got to keep going. Got to carry on. Got to put the empanadas in a basket. It's obvious that he isn't going to work today. Somebody has to earn some money. She'll send out Rosa, the eldest, to sell the pies. The children stir and start playing in hushed tones. Nervous. Upset Rosa fetches some water and puts it to heat on the stove. Both she and her mother avoid each other's eyes. But you can't hide anything in houses like these. No sounds. No scenes. No shame.
Marta tells her daughter to buy some bread with the money they keep hidden in a stone jar - for emergencies. Rosa hesitates. Go on, says her mother. She goes reluctantly. Marta notices how the girl's 11-year-old body is starting to develop and feels suddenly, deeply sad for her.
'There . . . er. . . there isn't any there,' Rosa says holding the jar upside down.
'Wha. . .!' Marta shouts, halted by the sudden pain of her lip splitting open again. As she brings her hand to her mouth she catches a glimpse of Rosa's face and sees there an expression of mockery as the girl tries to stifle a nervous laugh.
Marta's hand never reaches her own mouth but slaps Rosa across the face. Her pretty, mocking, laughing face with two complete rows of teeth, not yet ruined by undernourishment and pregnancies and men. Marta hits her again, unable now to stem the flow of fury. Somewhere in the back of her mind she is aware that there is a pan of water boiling nearby. But still she hits Rosa hard enough to send her flying backwards towards the stove.
Burning, dazed and confused, Rosa lies wrapped in a blanket on a cot by the door.
She'd been meaning to tell her mother about the money. About the day when Marta had been out selling and Rosa was looking after the youngest children. How they were whining non-stop that they were hungry and she had lashed out at them and then felt sorry afterwards. How she took the money from the jar and they had all gone to the shop to buy biscuits which they had eaten quickly, greedily, and with great pleasure as they sat by the side of the road. Rosa had been waiting for the right moment to tell her mother about it. A moment when she was not cross. But she was always cross these days.
It's hot. It's cold. If she lies still her arms and legs burn. If she moves the rough blanket makes them sting too. The back of her head where she hit the corner of the stove has swollen into a great hard egg. She has been sick once and still feels nauseous. There are black lines around everything. The little ones are squabbling near the cot but their voices seem distant. Her mother, she assumes, has gone out to sell the empanadas.
She can hear her father snoring. Part of her wants him to wake up, to comfort her - another part dreads it. After last night, he is bound to be in a bad mood.
Suddenly Oscar, her younger brother, appears at the foot of the cot. He is offering her a glass of milk. It's the milk he gets at school every day - and he has brought it back for her. He sits on the bed as she takes a sip - but she finds it nauseating. 'Put it there,' she indicates, 'I'LL have it later'. He does so and then sits on the bed again, looking at his feet, long lashes covering his dark eyes. He is embarrassed by her pain. They say nothing. But she does feel a little less alone as she listens to the sound of his feet on the sand as he runs back to school.
Felix stirs and stumbles across the room, unaware that under the blanket on the cot by the door is a child. Unaware that that child is in pain - but afraid to draw his attention. He stands in the doorway, wrapped up in himself and his suffering, blinking at the glare. The all-pervasive stench of fishmeal fills his nostrils as he breathes in deeply, shakes his head and mutters: 'It's not simple. Nothing is simple.'
Dan Vega is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked in Peru.