Reflections from El Arenal, I

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By Sarah Luke

The children at El Arenal look almost like every other child: hair pulled back in scrunchies, hands ready for a five-second fight if someone comes at them with a rubber band. Especially for a foreigner like me, you hardly notice the holes that line the knitted seams of their school uniforms or the way that the top parts of their shoes threaten to tear away from the bottom parts. Is this normal in this part of the world? Is this the way things go?

When Luis, who is four years old, leaves with his four older siblings, all I want is to make sure that he has someone to wipe his nose and to clean his face before he goes to bed. His nine-year-old brother, whose name I can’t remember, yanks my shirt when I go upstairs for my keys and asks, “A dónde va?” “A la casa,” I tell him. “A dónde vas tú?” I wonder if what the child is really asking is, “What are the secret lives of the volunteers?” These children eat one meal a day and it’s at El Arenal. The volunteers go home to refrigerators full of apples and bread and four-dollar yogurt. Do the children know?

“Déselo a Lucho,” the child tells me, putting a plastic horse toy in my hand. “Lucho” is what they call Luis. The horse is covered in something wet, probably somebody’s spit. I hold onto it for Luis.

After lunch the children have time for play in the park, on the sidewalks, on the hopscotch game that has been drawn into the cement by the building. Luis and I are sitting on a cement ledge in the park when the niñita who never speaks hobbles over to us on her haunches. She doesn’t belong to us, just watches the children as they dribble a basketball behind the slender metal bars of El Arenal. She pulls a sticky blue wad out of her pocket and rolls it in her hands until it is the shape of a worm. She rubs it into the cement ledge with her palm. All the dirt and grass and crusts of leaves glue themselves to it. Before I can stop her she has put the whole thing in her mouth: chewing gum, I realize. I don’t take it out of her mouth because she isn’t mine, and something tells me that this isn’t the first time she’s done this, even today. “We don’t put things from the street in our mouths,” I say instead. “Do we, Luis? We don’t put them in our mouths because they’re dirty. This is where cars drive by and the dogs of the street walk by and the dogs put their caca on the street and it gets on everything.” Luis starts to talk about the caca from the dogs of the street, tapping a stick against the cement ledge to really drive his point home. I nod and tell him he is exactly right, even though I don’t have any idea what he is saying. Perhaps I would not understand it anyway, but perhaps it is just his special way of talking that is slurring all his words together. The snack-time timbre sounds and we pile inside. The little girl is not ours, and as usual, we leave her where she sits behind the gates.

When I walk down the Feria Libre marketplace to get to work, buses rev their engines next to the bus stops and produce thick clouds of smog. A man standing next to a vender’s stand says, “Buenos días. Hey, aren’t you going to say buenos días?” When I walk home from work one night, carrying a sack of groceries for dinner, a man stops in front of a gated walkway, looks around almost like he’s checking for somebody behind it, and then begins to urinate, straight through his pants, straight through the gate. And amidst all this are indigenous women with children strapped to their backs in plaid slings, bobbing their heads as their mothers walk, carrying sacks of oranges.

The children at El Arenal know this area. It is where they buy five-cent popsicles in the afternoon. It is where they pull each other along in the morning. At El Arenal we lock the gates when all have come through. And through the gates stares the niñita with her blue half-moon wad of bubble gum. We’ve locked out all the poverty we could, and we still brought it all inside with us.

Sarah Luke is a Hearts of Gold Intern and Volunteer at the El Arenal Foundation. Sarah is a visiting scholar from Furman University in South Carolina where she studies Spanish and Poverty Studies.

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