“Mis benas no terminan en mí "My veins don’t end in me sino en la sangre unánime but in the unanimous blood de los que luchan por la vida, of those who struggle for life, el amor, love, las cosas, little things, el paisaje y el pan, landscape and bread, la poesía de todos.” the poetry of everyone.” — Roque Dalton, — transl. Jack Hirschman Salvadoran poet/activist American poet/activist
Learning to Sing
You can only imagine the scent of eucalyptus, the trees planted out of sight, or burning as home fires, intense and fragrant. The sun is behind a peak, shadows long, bent sideways, staining the bald, brown earth. There is a low partial wall in the distance, blocks of stone or hard-packed dirt, adobe perhaps, hard to tell, separating one side of emptiness from another. Elvira Solares Herrera, 8 years old, is standing with her abuelita, her grandma, in the moonscape of the high Bolivian Andes.
She’s ‘my girl,’ though I’ve never met her. I ‘sponsor’ her through ChildFund International. I’ve tacked the photo of Elvira and her abuelita by my desk for three and a half years now, along with a quote by poet Maya Angelou, “We are our greatest when we inspire, encourage, and connect with another human being.”
I pull the photo from the wall and hold it in my palm. Elvira and her abuelita stand straight-backed a few inches apart, not touching, a strip of cloud-washed sky, bit of pale ground between them.
Until the letter that came last month, Abuelita mostly wrote the letters from Elvira to me, Elvira’s father gone, her mother often away, working.
“Elvira . . . is learning how to read and write the vowels,” Abuelita told me in her first letter. “She is also learning how to sing.”
On the wall, are two other photos of children, two girls and a boy in worn, hand-hewn, wooden canoes. I don’t know their names or anything about them, though I can still see their curiosity as they looked at the small group of light-faced tourists smiling, waving, chattering away in English. My husband and I met the children travelling on the Río Ucayali, a tributary of the upper Amazon, our second trip to Peru, having previously visited Machu Picchu and portions of the Inca Trail.
Our Amazon guide, Robinson, multilingual and from the city of Iquitos, spoke in the children’s language, and they pointed to a patch of banana leaves on the far bank. They lived there. Robinson told us the Ribereños, the river people, are poor. If I close my eyes, I can hear the way the girls, that little boy, laughed when some pink river dolphins, no kidding, pink, circling between their canoes and our silver motor boat, arced from the water, splashing tepid river into our faces.
Poor in Peruvian Soles, I thought, but not poor in spirit.
Three months later I went to work for ChildFund International and decided to sponsor my first child, Elvira. Now, after nearly 4 years, Elvira has sent the first long letter written in her own hand. I’ve read it a half dozen times since it arrived last month—the translation in English and the Spanish cursive. She signs it as Abuelita always signed, “con cariño y amor,” that is, with affection and love.
I’m struggling to know how to respond. Waves of emotion drift through me, odd, as I realize, I not only have affection for Elvira, I also love Abuelita, though I don’t even know her given name.
I gawk at the photo again. There she is, Hello Abuelita, in her long dark skirt, her red sweater with the huge silver safety pin along an edge, practical, her ample body, her black bowler-type hat that the traditional Andean women wear, an angle of shadow cast by the brim across her forehead, and there, look closely, the hint of a smile. Perhaps her first time being photographed. She’s a little proud.
In the age of the Internet, I selected Elvira, the way I might choose a book online and hit the ‘add to shopping cart’ icon. I went to the ChildFund website and looked at dozens of children’s faces, almost all very serious. Guess it’s hard to get sponsored if you look happy.
I read the brief stories translated and posted by the staff in each project country. They were wonderfully homegrown and unpolished, the complexities of translation creating awkward moments—the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ used interchangeably to refer to a little girl in Indonesia, or the phrase, ‘because of his short age, he stays most times with his mother,’ meaning the Ecuadorian boy was too young to go to school.
Over and over I read how families, often extended families, lived on $25 or $30 a month income, about the cost of a nice dinner out, for one, in the US. The homes consistently sounded basic—one- or two-room structures, a dirt floor, no running water. You don’t see the living environment at that point, only the faces, the puzzled or forlorn expressions, disembodied, little mug shots that suggest Wanted, but the wanting here is To Be Wanted.
So many children in need, too many.
Around the world, more than 8 million children under the age of 5 die from a preventable cause every year. While I shopped for a deserving child, 200-300 children, somewhere, literally expired—all in less than 15 minutes. The curse of shopping is too many options. My indecision seemed a sort of fatal luxury.
I narrowed my search by location and gender. No Peru on the list, so I clicked Bolivia. I’ve stood, a little breathless, looked, listened, felt the Andean landscape. I need that physical frame of reference. Then, not being sexist, but pragmatic, I chose, Girl. Globally girls have fewer opportunities than boys—economically and in terms of personal freedom. Girls are often terribly abused, a simple fact, no, worse, an accepted reality, in some cultures.
Finally, there was Elvira’s face. She looked as if she were about to ask a question, lips dry and slightly parted, brows tensed, deep brown almond-shaped eyes squinting, looking sideways out of my computer screen, not at me but past me, as if someone were standing behind my left shoulder that made her nervous.
Her dark hair was parted in the middle and combed back into two tight braids, stray wisps and strands fringing her forehead, sticking out, softening her image. Her hair must be fine and fragile, like my Mother’s. I leaned in, studied her face, trying to see past the What of this little girl to glimpse the Who.
Then I read her story: “Elvira is a restless and friendly little girl living with her mother only in a poor village located in the Andean High Plateau.” I read the word poor out loud. “The father passed away . . . Family lives in a legally owned one-bedroom house made out of adobe walls, tin plates on the roof and earthen floor . . . .”
I remembered the abandoned adobe homes in I’d seen in Peru, openings for windows but no glass or shutters, roofs gone, the walls in heavy rain melting back into the ground, sometimes a goat inside drinking from puddles. An adobe home in the Andes lasts about 20 years and then the family will need to build a new one, typically nearby.
Perhaps watching the old façade decline is a way of keeping track of time in a place where so little changes. Legally owned, what does that mean? A subtle cultural cue? Should I be glad this is no family of squatters?
I chose Elvira. Out of hundreds, thousands, of children, I chose Elvira. What I didn’t realize is that I was choosing Abuelita, too. To help a child, is to touch a family, and ultimately, a community. This idea is not sales pitch or spin. The modest monthly donations, the birthday and holiday gifts, the letters travelling back and forth, the ink, the words, the foreign scent each of our hands leaves in the weave of the paper as we fold it into an envelope, tongues licking at the edges . . . yes, we are each literally touching people who would otherwise be strangers, less that strangers, anonymous, invisible. It’s the most personal form of international peacemaking.
Abuelita began our dialogue, “Elvira is very happy and content to have you as her sponsor.” Abuelita was pleased, too, I’m sure, though she never spoke of herself.
Her letters flew across the continents on green airmail paper, with artwork in the margins and on the backsides: pink and yellow roses for the first letter; later a shepherd with staff and what looked like dogs but must be goats; once, a little girl, face and arms shaded brown, reading a book in front of triangular mountains under a circle of yellow sun with eight rays.
Unable to write much in those first years, the artwork was how Elvira communicated with me. The words were Abuelita’s, and through them, a relationship took root.
When the photo of Elvira and Abuelita arrived in one of the letters, my eyes flew to Abuelita’s image. So you are the famous Abuelita. Standing by my desk where I write almost daily, her back to Andean slopes and lamp lit wall, Abuelita became part of my life.
I open Elvira’s letter again, and discover a photo of her wearing blue clothing beside a simple blue chair, holding photos and a book I’d sent.
What did she make out of the Spanish version of Green Eggs and Ham? She’s in front of an adobe building with thatched roof. The building is the same tawny color as the dirt, so that Elvira and her blue chair seem to be floating in the picture. She’s taller, less thin, healthy looking, and still her austere expression, eyes skeptical, squinting, but maybe it’s just the glare of muted sun.
Elvira tells me, “Thank you very much for the letter and the book of green eggs and ham. I liked the book.” I smile. Further down she writes, “With respect to the trees that are 90 meters high that is remarkable.” In my last letter, I explained that I lived in a redwood forest, converting a 300-foot redwood giant into meters. Not easy to describe a forest to a girl who sees few trees, and mostly scrappy, non-native eucalyptus trees at that.
Then I come to the part of the letter that jolts me: “Respondiendo a la segundo pregunta ya no estoy viviendo con me abuela por que a perdido su vida en un axidente de transito.” I’d asked, as always, how our Abuelita is doing. “Responding to your second question, I am no longer living with my grandmother because she lost her life in a traffic accident.”
My reaction is utter disbelief. First, my rational mind tries to envision a traffic accident in a place too vacant and vast for many roads, with more llamas wandering about than people. What traffic? How could there be traffic? Did she go to La Paz? Abuelita was in a car? No, can’t be, she must have been a pedestrian.
Then the heart takes over. Elvira has lost the most stable adult in her life. Con cariño y amor. I notice the letter’s date, August, and now it’s almost November. I’ve been looking at a dead woman each morning, imagining a daily life she hasn’t lived for more than two months.
Traffic in the high Andes, the huge silver safety pin—unexpected—on the red sweater, a blue chair that floats, I actually sent a rural Bolivian girl a Spanish version of Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Suess’ Juan Ramón and his Heuvos Verde con Jamón, Abuelita is gone, perdido su vida. Unreal.
“Everything you can imagine is real,” according to Pablo Picasso, “Todo lo que puedas imaginar es real.” But what if all that is real is more than you can imagine?
On January 25th, Elvira (I hear her name always in Spanish as El-bvee-ra) will be 11 years old. Ironically, despite her name, she is less Latin that she is indigenous, so she is learning Spanish. Aymara is her native language. I can’t imagine what her name sounds like when she speaks it.
“She is learning how to sing,” Abuelita wanted me to know. I listen in my mind, but there is no reference for a child’s voice singing in Aymara, though on the Altiplano, the solitary voice must echo, the thin air stretched with something new, the melody carried far then down in to the narrow valleys, someone looking up from his or her field, pausing, hearing the faint voice but seeing only stones and ridges beyond the neat green rows, feeling wind pressing at their sweater, almost lonely, but for that distant child’s singing.
In the photo, Abuelita and Elvira, standing in sun, are unchanged. Nothing is moving, though Elvira’s slender shadow pours like a tributary into Abuelita’s.
Elvira doesn’t smile. I’ve read that a tenet of the Aymara culture is to submit, stoically, to suffering. Still, I’m glad Elvira is learning to sing. I start my letter, “Hello Elvira, are you still singing? I’m so sorry you lost your abuelita, but I know she was proud of you and loves you still.”