issue 197 - July 1989
The day begins like any other for Paulina, street-vendor,
shanty-town dweller and mother. Got to keep moving, got to
keep working, got to keep dealing, to stay alive in Lima's
hectic, spiralling inflation. But the day ends with a
difference. A short story by Sonia Luz Carrillo.
Beto, my eldest son, is calling out. Day has not yet broken. He is upset, uncomfortable and hungry. And the baby, well, he spent the whole night coughing. At times it seemed he was going to choke. That really frightened me.
A day begins. Just like any other. Why should it be any different? I have to get up before the children waken my husband and he realizes that we have no water in the house.
I fetch the water from about eight streets away. I think I'll get two bucketfulls and try to make them last for breakfast and lunch. Ouch! That pain in the back just won't go away! It's work that does it, but how can you live if you don't work?
What my husband Toribio earns at the workshop hardly buys anything these days. Everything has become so expensive. And work is scarce. Shops and factories are closing down. 'There are no supplies and business is very slack,' says the boss.
Day has just broken, it must be about five o'clock. I return with the buckets full. While I'm attending to my children I hear Toribio grumbling. He is in a bad mood most of the time. My older children, Maria and Beto, are having breakfast: porridge and boiled sweet-potato.
While they eat their breakfast I finish preparing the lunch. I have to rush to get it ready so that I can go out to work.
How that baby coughs! But I'll have to take him with me. I strap him to my back and carry him around while I'm working. I leave the older ones shut in at home, telling them not to play with matches and not to fight. Pray God that nothing happens!
I sell things outside a market in Lima. I have very little money. That's why I sell lemons and peppers, small things like that. My work begins with a trip to the central market. Climbing up into a packed bus with a baby on your back is difficult. Everyone pushes and shoves and you have to be careful because there are a lot of thieves about.
While I'm riding the bus I think about my children at home, about my baby who keeps coughing. And I wonder what the prices will be at the market today. If they are high 1 will have to buy less which means that, after all this effort, I will make very little profit.
My God, I wish the little one would stop coughing! I don't know what to give him. Yesterday I missed work so I could take him to our neighbourhood clinic. But they did not treat him. The health workers' strike is still on and no one knows when it will end. I shouldn't really take him out but there is no one to look after him. His brothers and sisters are very small and my neighbour also goes out to work.
'La Parada!' the bus conductor shouts. La Parada is the wholesale market, a noisy, dirty and disorganized place, packed with people all day, but especially in the mornings. Trucks come from all parts of the country bringing vegetables and fruit.
I make my way through the crowd, looking for things to buy. Many of the stall-holders have radios, blasting out huaynos*. Some prefer chicha music. Others listen to the news. But few pay much attention to the radios; the most important thing now is trading. From time to time the news reports speak of raids and attacks. There are deaths and arrests every day.
'Out of the way, Mamita! Can't you see I want to get by!' A man, staggering under the weight of a huge sack, shouts as he makes his way through the crowd. I watch the veins on his head bulging with the effort, It drizzled at dawn and everything is slippery underfoot. The ground is thick with mud.
I decide what I am going to buy and am just paying when a drunk comes up and grabs my behind. I feel so insulted. The coward! He doesn't even respect that I am carrying a child on my back. He abuses me because I am a woman. People around are laughing. I am so furious, I want to cry. I want to kick him, hard, hard. The wretch just ambles away slowly. Seeing him, mocking me like this, I can no longer control my anger and, yes, I hit him as hard as I can, with my crate!
Now I have to get to the other market where I sell my goods. That can be tricky. Sometimes I am lucky and somebody, seeing me with a baby, helps me to lift my things onto the bus.
I have to be very alert, watching out all the time for thieves - youths, children even, who at the least distraction will rob you. Luckily the baby is not coughing or crying. But I feel his hot head burning my shoulders.
I do not have a regular pitch, so every day I have to find a spot and pray that the police don't move me on. The regular stall-holders complain that people like me take trade away and they call the police. But if I go too far from the market I can't sell my goods so quickly. If I were single or lived close by, it would be different. But I can't waste time. I have to get back home to look after my children.
It is three in the afternoon and I have at last sold nearly everything. I decide to reduce the price of what is left. I can't stay any longer. My baby has not wanted to suck all day. He has only cried and coughed. His head is very hot.
But the goods still do not sell fast - even though they are cheap. Everybody haggles. Even well-dressed women with make-up. How do these women always manage to look so pretty? They are older than me - will soon be 24 - but I must look very much older than them. But this is crazy! Why am I wasting time thinking about such things?
Right. Now I have sold everything. I buy vegetables to make tomorrow's lunch, and count up what remains after the bus fares. I'll use the profit for buying tomorrow's goods. I only hope that the baby does not get any worse, because if he does everything I have earned will have to go on medicines. Once on the bus, on my way home, I realize that I am very hungry.
I am coming back into my neighbourhood. The asphalt road comes to an end and the bus continues on the dirt track. Here you can see only sand, half-built reed-matting houses and a colourless sky. I am reminded of the skies in my home land. I am from Huancavelica, up in the mountains where the sky shows all its beautiful colours during the day. At night the stars are so bright and low you feel you could reach out and touch them. Here in Lima the sky is grey for much of the year. I feel really homesick.
We left because the terrorists came and then the police. We couldn't live there peacefully any more. We lived in fear. At risk from both sides.
We would be better off in Lima, we thought when we came here six years ago. Here we could dedicate ourselves to business. So we sold everything we had and abandoned our plot of land.
Our children were born here. Maria is five years old and Beto four. Then came little Ramon, who died at six months. And now, this last one, who has been sickly since birth. But although we work hard, we continue to be very poor. Will we always be so poor?
I am nearly home now and it seems like I am seeing the faces of my children. Next year we will send them to school. They have to study hard so that they do not suffer in life.
We eat as soon as I arrive and then they go out to play on the street, while I wash clothes. They come with me to fetch the water. I get no rest at all. All day I have lots to do. And by the time Toribio comes home at night, I am exhausted. I serve him his meal. We hardly speak. We are always tired. This is how we spend our days, everyday.
But today while I was working and journeying I was thinking, thinking hard about my life. I decided to do something. Tomorrow when I come back from work I'm going to go to the neighbourhood community kitchen, just nearby. I will offer my services. I can collect water, help to cook or do the cleaning. This way I can be closer to my children and they can get to eat better food too because the women work together, buy in bulk and therefore get food more cheaply. And in some of the kitchens you can also learn how to do things like reading and writing or sewing or self-defence.
I did not go before because my husband did not want me to. It makes me laugh - I know that Toribio does not trust women's organizations because they do not allow men to abuse their wives. If a man comes home drunk and intent on beating his wife the woman can blow a whistle and a group of her neighbours will come to her defence.
But I am going to have to talk to Toribio and convince him. He has to understand, for the sake of our children. We poor people must work together. It is crazy not to.
I am tired of struggling so alone, so unhappily. Now I have made a decision. Why should I wait until tomorrow. Yes, better if I go now. Right now.
Sofia Luz Carrillo is a poet and journalist. She also a teaches at the University of San Marcos In Lima.
*Huaynos are a form of popular Andean music. Chicha music comes more from the coastal areas.