We leave the car in a residential road, in front of Pablito’s auntie’s house, she assures us there is no problem and she will keep an eye out for its safety. We walk a couple of blocks past old women and children eager to reach their homes before nightfall. I am in my own little wonder world since my yoga class an hour before, watching the sunset sky and smelling the tough summer air in the Villa- the Argentine term for favela-, trying to imagine what it could be like to grow up in such a place. It takes me a few seconds to realize that Agus and Nacho have turned left into a tight path almost hidden by the undergrowth. We walk past shady shacks closed in by precarious gates and protected by starving dogs, my peaks through the darkness bring waste and desolation to my eyes. We turn left again, and within a few paces the path stops in front of an aluminium entrance. Agus claps her hands, then calls for Ramona. Her husband, Ramon, opens the gate and with a weak smile lets us inside the mosquito-infested courtyard. The first things I notice are the nets resembling the ones are used during olive picking, functioning as a roof. I vaguely assume perhaps these are to help some creeping plant, but there is no greenery in the squat-house. Ramon assures us we are welcome and begs us to sit, later he tells me that the nets serve as protection from stones landing inside the yard. Soon Ramona and her little girls arrive, the son Nelson is carrying a large bag over his shoulders, containing Christmas donations, I presume.
As we kiss all the newcomers, it takes us no time to learn the latest misfortunes of the Ramones family, the reason why the little girls don’t gasp in delight at the view of the new shoes we had brought them. Ramon, who has been suffering from heart disease for the last two years and has therefore been unable to work, is undertaking a surgical operation tomorrow to extract a blood clot following a stroke. Ramona speaks of his condition, then goes on to tell us about their first years in the poor Villa of Buenos Aires, all this as if she was talking about someone she had seen on the news. I am speechless in the face of the strength of this women, I merely listen while I play with Cristal, the neighbour’s beautiful baby.
Ramona tells Agus parts of her story every time she visits. My cousin had to win her trust before she could open up to her, finding a remedy in sharing her pain Agus convinced her to attend group sessions for women, but she hasn’t managed to go for months now. Much to her unease, Ramona sees my cousin as her daughter who passed away, or her guardian angel. Ramona was 12 when her parents married her to an old man for two barrels of wine. He violated her innocence and gave her five children, two of which he took away again with beatings. Ramona arrived in Buenos Aires after finally escaping her prison and meeting Ramon, the love of her life. Living in the streets and through the charity of neighbours, they hid their shame deep in their pockets and started collecting carton to recycle in exchange for some money to feed the babies. Through this extreme experience, they soon met some good humans who helped them. The guards at a resort allowed Ramon to officially do their recycling, giving him the keys and trust which he never abused. An Italian spinster showed them charity in countless ways, and got to ask Ramona for the adoption of her oldest son. But Ramona puts her family before food and wealth, her children are her hope, her husband her force.
As Ramona told her stories, I remain shocked at the amount of shit that she had to go through even once they managed to construct this precarious shack they call home for themselves. Almost all the kids have undertaken a surgery, Omar’s liver failed when he was 2, Pedro almost lost his eye during a train accident… Ramona has diabetes, but she has no time to think of her own health. She asked us to pray for her husband today, knowing that hope and faith is all that can save him. She saw our visit, last night, as a sign of God.
I forgot how to pray 10 years ago. When people start do their hashtag thing and tell people to pray I am literally like WTF. But this afternoon I will be sending all my positive thoughts and energy to Ramon, for his family needs him alive. Not for his labour or skills, but for his wonderful sense of humour, his strong spirit and his love.
So if there is good energy in you, if you know a prayer or a magic spell, I beg you to say one for Ramon.
I arrived in South America three weeks ago, looking for a feeling that could restore my faith in humanity and in faith itself, a courage and hope that I struggled to find in this “under-terrorist-attack-Europe”.
On my first Saturday in Buenos Aires, my cousin Agustina took me to the primary school of Villa La Cava, where we listened to seven special people introduce their lives. Their childhood spent surrounded by countless siblings in poverty; their adolescence bringing them a need for rebellion took them to out to the streets to find drugs; their youth soon becoming violent and took them to addiction, depression and starting a family of their own to continue the vicious cycle. The people talking at the Creer Hacer event where all there because they had found a way out of this life, just before it took them like it took their friends or family. Their salvation took place through social initiatives, art, education, entrepreneurship and religion. Each one of them had to reach the bottom of existence to get back up, each of them got back up thanks to their family and community which reunited to share their pain with God and each-other.
After listening for hours to the pitches, I felt cold, a little bit sick. I had goose pimples and a great need to lie down and cry a bit, rest my nerves and my head which had been strained in struggling to understand ghetto Castillano (spanish, duh) all afternoon.
But I am the kind of person who never says no to an opportunity that sound surreal, so when Agus offered to take me home while she would continue to Villa Ricardo Rojas, where the young kinds from the AAA group she has been guiding had invited her to the church, I assured her I was fine and I could go with her. “Worst case scenario, I’ll take a nap in the car”, I told her.
Something that I didn’t know I had left inside of me, curiosity I assumed, dragged me out of the car when we parked in front of the church. At once, as usually happens at large meetings in South America, I found myself kissing everyone’s checks, hugging and smiling, suddenly feeling the buena onda (good wave). We all sat on the floor of the church, ready for what became the most emotional and alternative mass I have so far attended. It started with a play, kids walking around, drinking mate, joking and then swearing (IN A CHURCH!) when learning that a friend had been hospitalized. The last scene of the play showed them, trying to make their friend in bed feel better and joining hands to pray together.
Then Sergio, a sweet, chubby young man I had just met, was invited to tell everyone his story. It started like the pitches from the afternoon, I was not sure if I could handle yet another depressing story, watch his friends cry and feel completely spoilt for my fortunate life. But Sergio managed to crack me too. His story ended in a different note, as he emphasized how he found faith in himself by giving himself to God. Under the loving eyes of Jamie, the most envisioned priest I have ever met, Sergio wasn’t repeating catechism phrases. He was speaking with passion and emotion, showing all the love and strength that had been inside him since a little angel, as he called her, took him to the church where he started his treatment. At this point, my emotions where a massive bundle inside me, and they finally leaked out when Sergio got up from his chair and went to hug Pablito, a young father and apparently a great friend of his, who was standing with his eyes lost on the details of the floor tiles in concentration on far away thoughts and present fears. The genuine happiness that exploded as Sergio finished his nervous talk and realized he had done pretty well came with my tears, lining down my cheeks, as we kneeled down to do something with God that was beyond me.
I was brought up as a God catholic, that is what I tried to be until adolescence rebellion hit me too, parallel to history and philosophy classes which all took me to abandoning the catholic church, and searching spirituality in yoga, meditation, love, travel and whatever that may take me.
So I kept myself open to meeting religions, but I wasn’t expecting I would return to meet the same one I had decided was just a superficial show of power, tradition and conservationism. My tears of happiness came from the overwhelming feeling of the power of these young kids, once lost in facing death and violence, but today with the certainty that the presence of God was giving them the will to live with sobriety. I knew that nothing has changed in their world but themselves as the sole drivers behind their healing, but they assigned all their trust to God, giving Him all the merit. I thought it wonderful that religion can truly help people that find no hope within or around them. My tears were of happiness for the kids I was suddenly surrounded with, because they had the luck of meeting Jaime as they were sniffing glue with their mates in the streets or getting high on sleeping pills in the square, finding themselves eye to eye with death and deciding to follow Jaime’s kind voice into his church instead of giving into their weakness and fears, as many of their friends had already done.
My tears were dried by everyone’s hugs as we wished each-other peace. Jamie was the first to embrace me and welcome me, thanking me for coming with a big smile. I had never exchanged a hug in a church. In Italy you shake hands coldly. But the kids did insure me that this mass was special, that it’s not like this everywhere in Argentina.
I learned about the daily struggles of their rehabilitation at the Thursday group meeting organized by Jamie and attended by young missionaries like Agus and her friends. I was once again left speechless by the maturity with which young teenages could talk of their fears and struggles to everyone else with little shame. They told of their desire to go out dancing again, to drink beer and smoke weed; which for them is something they have had to give up, as it is still the gateway to falling back into addiction. They spoke of their wishes of spending Christmas with their families, of going back to school, of getting through their treatment. After two hours of this intense session, we all met in the church, singing and playing music while each of them in turn would tell God their feelings. I admired each and every one of these kids, even just for the courage they have to pray.