It’s Friday afternoon and I’m just now finding a block of time to write. I’ve had a wonderful few days, and it’s a little frightening how quickly the time has passed.
Wednesday I got to take the girls shoe shopping. It was an experience fully rewarding, combined with a surprising brush with ugliness.
I waited on the steps of the Cathedral in the Plaza de Armas for the girls to pick me up at 3:30 p.m. I heard them before I saw them, as has become the custom. I squeezed in their van and we rocked and bumped and swayed our way through the steep winding streets of Cusco. One of the littlest girls, no older than seven, bumped her head during a turn and started to cry. The older girls clearly snap into big sister mode whenever one of the youngest is in crisis. It’s a pure and lovely event…even more so when the tears dry.
We arrived at a line of shoe shops, and the girls piled out of the van behind Sister Ana Yolanda who made haste into the first store. The girls all needed new simple, black shoes for school. Trying to outfit 15 (not all were in need) stood to pose a bit of a challenge. We lingered in the first store while girls tried on different sizes between getting distracted by high-heels and tennis shoes. I was standing outside of the store (as they are all very close quarters) with about four of the girls with me. Sharmeli was holding my left hand, Lizeth my right, and Rosa was standing with us. Rosa is a bit of a firecracker, but on the sweetest of terms. She picked up on the conversation that was taking place behind us; one that Sharmeli had turned directly into.
Three women sat on the sidewalk gossiping about us. My Spanish is not good enough to have been able to pick up their remarks simply by overhearing, but the gist of their clucking was that I was the “pappi” (i.e. sugar daddy) for all the girls and they wondered what they had to do to get me to buy them a new pair of shoes. As soon as I gathered what was going on, I squeezed Sharmeli’s hand and tugged at her to turn away from the women. Meanwhile, Rosa peeked around my arm to scold the women. It was a bit painful to have these little girls exposed to such an ugly and cynical attitude in the midst of an otherwise fun occasion. But through that encounter I saw was how strong the girls can be. Something not lost on Ana Yolanda when she heard about the incident. I don’t know what she said, but it breezed through her with such graciousness that it left all of the girls’ mouths agape as they took it in.
After two more stops, all the girls were all outfitted with their new school shoes. The van could not contain their excitement as we circled the Plaza and they waved and called out to strangers just before dropping me off.
Thanksgiving Day, Edwin and I shopped at the market and headed to Anta to cook dinner for the Hogar. Just as we did in September, we worked together with the girls on the meal. Before saying grace, Sister Ana Yolanda shared with the girls that it was Thanksgiving and a special holiday for me and my family back home. There was no turkey or gravy, but all of the elements of gratitude were abundantly present.
One thing that I had hoped to do during my visit was to get a better understanding of the girls’ individual stories and what they wished for themselves. After dinner, I got permission from Sister Ana to set up a space in her office where I could video record the girls responding to a few simple questions. Since it was late, I thought we might be lucky to get started by interviewing just a few girls and leaving the rest for the weekend. I started with Tania and Rut Karina, and by the time Rut Karina had finished all of the other girls were waiting their turn outside the office.
The experience of talking to the girls individually provided a better glimpse into their lives and — in a way — their humanity. As a group, the girls are like anyone their age — laughing and teasing and kidding each other. But as they each came into the office and sat down, there was a softening that occurred. Sure, there was still ample squirming and giggling. But their tones were clearly different — especially when asked about their families.
I’m still working on editing the video into a more cohesive piece, but I’ll share one girl’s responses here for now. I asked each girl the same six questions:
What is your name?
How old are you?
Where were you born?
Tell me about your family.
What makes you happy?
What are your dreams?
Here is Rosa Maria:
Rosa Maria did not know anything about her family. She also didn’t know how to answer the question of what makes her happy. Her dream is to be a lawyer.
It’s easy enough, I suppose, to provide a child with shelter, food, clothing, and an education. But how does one build for a child a platform on which they can — when grown — stand tall, raise their glance to gaze out at their future, and paint a picture all their own? And how does one do that for 20?
Until the answer comes, let the talk of dreams not end…