The Women at My Gate

GateBy Eleanor Griffis

When I closed up my office and started to work from home, I discovered a whole world operating outside my gate that I rarely came across otherwise. There are the monthly cries by the old knife sharpener and his foot-powered whetting stone, the sounds every June and July of school students practicing on their trumpets for the local Independence Day parade, the vendor with a colorful array of brooms and mops that stand tall in his tricycle cart, and the rag and bone man on his motor-powered tricycle, offering to buy your old fridge, empty bottles, or used clothing.

But the greatest impact has come from four women who call at my gate.

Two of them I’ve known for a long time. Their lives have changed in recent years to the good — one is a seamstress whose six children, for the first time ever, are all earning an income, as taxi drivers or part-time and payrolled employees; the other, now a housekeeper in a wealthy home, has managed to pay for her elder daughter’s technical training and to buy her younger daughter a Tablet, and dreams with her husband of one day buying land and building a small house.

The lives of the other two are not so good and, of course, they drop by more regularly.

What they all have in common is resilience, stoicism.  They are resourceful and amazingly upbeat, willing to learn (they all first learned to read and write as adults), and despite broken political promises and personal tragedies, they bounce back and believe things will be better next time.   It’s a survival tactic. And it’s effective.  Besides, no les queda otra.  They really have no choice.

Of the two who visit regularly, Carmela is the one who always makes me laugh.  She’s tough, a little fresh, quick to see an advantage and, despite her dire circumstances, she has an uplifting spark. One of life’s true survivors. Life is not kind, although much is certainly of her own making, and she looks a lot older than her probably 50-plus years, her face deeply wrinkled, and most of her front teeth are missing.  But her eyes are bright, her shoulder-length hair is always neatly parted in the middle, her petite frame dressed in frayed but colorful cast-offs, she wears beach sandals winter and summer, and little pendant earrings that sparkle with turquoise or pink glass.

The first time Carmela rang our doorbell she came offering to sweep the front garden and patio. When I didn’t need the help, she began to bring a bunch of flowers to sell —usually a gladiola and some roses.

I later discovered she was stealing the flowers from people’s gardens, picking them at three or four in the morning.

“I go for a walk at that time of night because I can’t stand listening to my drunken son yelling at his wife.”

When I refused to continue to buy the flowers, our relationship became more straightforward — she rings the doorbell, we chat for a little while at the gate, and I give her some money, with extra on high days and feast days.

One son and a daughter have died in the past five years, another son is in prison, and she is about to be evicted from the room she lives in. And yet within two minutes of talking at the gate, Carmela begins to smile, she says they’re giving free breakfasts at the parish hall, and that her granddaughter Yadira sends me greetings from the orphanage in Cañete where she is learning to sew and embroider.

With Georgina, the bond is more special.  We talk of many things, about where to find legal aid or what herbal remedies might help. Our conversations are never very long, leaning on either side of the gate in the late afternoon, but they have more depth and I always come away with a new insight, a new awareness of life beyond my own.

Georgina has a life story that sounds almost too bad to be true.  Like Carmela, she has a son in prison, serving time in Huaral, north of Lima, for manslaughter. Another committed suicide.  Her husband abandoned her decades ago and then came back a couple of years ago, to take over the house and kick her out.  When she filed a complaint, the judge told her “señora, that’s the way it is.” Right now, she’s living with a daughter-in-law.

Unlike Carmela, Georgina generally wears darker clothes. She has painful varicose veins and even in summer wears thick sweaters.  She used to get her straight hair cut beautifully for free, at the nearby hairstyling school, but she doesn’t seem to bother about that much anymore.

And yet her enterprising spirit always bounces back, even if sometimes it takes a little longer.  Last week she was wearing a gorgeous skirt that would look elegant anywhere. She twirled to show it off —she got it for two soles at the Emaus thrift store, which is where she also buys the school supplies for her grandson.

“God never abandons us, does he?” Georgina says every time life gets rough, which is amazing considering how often her life does get rough.

When the pain abates, she’s at the gate with a smile and an excited tale about a new way she’s found to make some money. Selling plastic bottles to one recycling plant, paper to another, and the newest trend is to peel the plastic off discarded electrical wiring to sell the copper wire inside. That pays good money, she says. (I wonder for how long, given falling copper prices.)

At one time she was sewing sequins on designer T-shirts yet the pay was so low it was nothing short of slave labor. She also packs A-grade vegetables at a farm in Pachacamac, but she is paid in vegetables which means she then has to go out and sell them.  There are several of us in the neighborhood who pay top price.  And from another farm, she sells the biggest and best double-yolk eggs on the planet.

This week, Georgina brought me a large, black plastic bag of potatoes. This time they were small, long tubers that are delicious and hard to find in any supermarket.  Other times it is huge yellow potatoes.  She has brought them as a gift, no payment accepted — relatives are visiting from her home town of Cerro de Pasco, one of the bleakest mining towns in the central Andes, almost 4,500 meters above sea level and where the temperatures and winds are almost always bitingly cold.

That is where her daughter Cecilia died.  She would be 28 now.  Cecilia was at school, not yet 15, when she got pregnant.   She had the baby, a doe-eyed boy she named Francisco, and then went back to school to complete her studies while her mother took care of the baby. With Georgina’s enthusiastic approval, Cecilia decided to then go on to the state teacher’s training college back in Cerro de Pasco, while her mother took care of Francisco here in Lima.

Three years later, Cecilia finished her training and began working as a teacher’s assistant in a small village near Cerro.  Georgina was so proud. A daughter with a diploma and a profession. Someone in the family who was leaving behind the never-ending cycle of poverty.

But one afternoon as Cecilia and another young teacher braved a storm to walk across the fields from the schoolhouse back to their lodgings, they were struck by lightning.  The other girl died instantly, but Cecilia hung on for another week, just long enough for Georgina to scrabble together the money for the bus fare and travel eight hours with her young grandson to be with her daughter as she died.

It has taken Georgina several years to recover from that blow.  But twice recently she has come almost skipping with happiness.  The first was because someone had given her a large bag of clothes that will fit her son in prison, so that same weekend she was taking the two-hour bus north to visit him.

The second time was a case of pure schadenfraude. She was beaming. Her husband was in the emergency ward in the Cayetano Heredia trauma hospital, seriously ill (he has since recovered), and she was taking dutiful turns with a daughter of his (not hers) to feed him and take care of him.

She was amused, self-satisfied, to be attending to his needs since all he could do was stare at her, not able to talk, forced to accept her help.

“I hope you can forgive him,” I said.  “If you hold any resentment, the only person that suffers is you.”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Georgina said matter-of-factly.  “How could I not forgive him when he is so ill like that.” And then grinning from ear to ear, she said, “But it just goes to show, doesn’t it? We pay for our sins on this earth.  God never abandons us, does he?”

There are no atheists in foxholes (or in the trenches).

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  1. Martin Halpern says:

    I read about 1/2 of these terribly sad stories and stopped in disgust. Unfortunately, too common in Peru and other countries where life for the have nots is horrible. However, when all is said and done, why do the NGOs, etc. provide contraception education so that this vicious circle can hopefully be broken. It is the women that need to be educated. Trying to educate their men is an exercise in futility.

  2. amaya ball calderon says:

    I recently moved to Lima, Peru’ from the United States.
    It’s really sobering to hear these personal stories.
    Is is resilience and strength that keeps these hard working Peruvians going?
    It must be! But it seems like so many people have such a hard life.
    I buy vegetables in the market and I have seen the farm carts come into the Central Market.
    The vegetable sellers look so unbelievably poor.
    There are so many fancy restaurants and expensive places to eat in Lima.
    Why is there such a disconnect between the growers and sellers of Peruvian products with those folks lucky enough to splurge on a lovely dinner of Peruvian cuisine.
    Since I am new to the country I have to ask just who plans on connecting the people?
    Peru’ is an amazing country but I hope to see some effort in this regard!
    The Ladies at the Gate would make a good name for a restaurant that would specialize in training, serving and educating those Peruvians who would benefit from being given an opportunity.

  3. Thank you for sharing this sad but realistic story. It reminds me so much of the time when I lived in Peru (and other countries in Latin America) and my doorbell constantly rang–kids offering to wash my car, old men wanting to trim the shrubs, women selling flowers or begging for a handout to support their children. I too sometimes befriended them and listened to their tales of woe. It gave me a greater appreciation for my own blessings and more empathy for their plight. Except by an accident of birth, that young kid could be me offering to wash a foreigner’s car.

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