“Hola Emi, si puedes escucharme…”
“¡Mamá, hola!” I immediately picked up the phone. Over the past year we had spoken nearly once every three months, and now realizing that this was the second time in one month I had heard her voice, I became anxious.
We have always lived outside of the capital city Lima, and even the tentacles that stretch from the modern commercial city – “El Pulpo,” octopus, we called it – do not reach our community. My mother must have endured the nauseating, forty-minute bus ride into the city to access a phone to call me. Why? But a humid, dense package of air pushed through the window, filling the room, my lungs, and subduing any active thought.
It was July day in New York City and the family whose Park Avenue apartment I was guarding day and night would not return until August. This summer “job” of living in their home would earn me the necessary two thousand dollars by October. Two thousand was the magic number of dollars I would need to give once I had submitted my application to the university in Lima. I completed high school with top marks and never questioned my going to college, but knew I would need to earn the money first. Now I only needed eight hundred dollars to realize my dream of becoming a biology professor.
“…Emi…” The mention of my name sent a signal through the haze and scattered my thoughts. “Actualmente tenemos una buena noticia en la familia sobre Marisol; ¡fue aceptada por la Universidad de Lima!” My younger sister Marisol had just finished high school this past year. I had fully expected the “good family news” my mother was talking about to be a good job, or a serious boyfriend. How was my younger sister already accepted to the University? Why did she even apply? We’ve never had the money. From what I understood of the monologue that followed, my sister had been set up by one of my mother’s very generous friends to become a language specialist.
“Que bonita amiga,” was all I said. What a nice friend indeed.
“Emi, te llame pa’ decirte eso, pero también porque se necesita el dinero.”
Money was needed? What about the very generous friend?
“¿Emi, por favor, sé que no tienes tanto, pero con tu trajabo, puedes enviarnos algo del dinero, porfa?”
My money was needed? I could not comprehend the rest of my mother’s words and my own thoughts at the same time. I asked her to call me back.
What a selfish little sister – the same sister I had given so much. I had helped her with homework; I had played games with her; I had lent her my clothing, made her dinner! What more was she going to take from me? My life is so unfair!
I sat down and started to write a letter with the argument I could never have the strength to speak to my mother. My hand pulled back on the pen as its leaned forward and instead my tears cleared out transparent holes in the paper.
I thought about myself at her age, and reimagined the journey I had taken here to New York. Looking back, I know I would never have been able to shed the responsibility of my family life in Peru and focus on my own life without the generosity others had given me.
* * * * *
As we walked up the cement pathway to Alicia’s house I quickly pleated my school skirt with restless hands. Their housekeeper opened the door to let us know that Alicia was running late, and that her father Dr. Hernandez would take us to school so we would not be given detention. We, four best friends – me (Emi), Alicia, Maria, and Andrea – crowded into the back seat of the Hernandez’s car.
This was my second ride of the day. My father had saddled both me and my younger brother in front of him on our old family motorbike. He dropped me off a half mile from Alicia’s and continued with my brother out to the farm where they worked.
As we got close to the school, the buildings began to grow in size. It was a short ride into the city from Alicia’s house, which itself is practically part of Lima. If you looked at the diagonal incline of the buildings’ heights, her house would be closer to the top. Mine and Andrea’s would be towards the end. I don’t know about Maria because she lived so much deeper into the countryside that it was inconvenient to visit her house.
We watched Alicia’s father hand her two dollars for lunch money and then ran out of the car knowing that the holes that sunk into the each of our stomachs during class time would be filled as usual.
The bell rang and we found each other at the lunch line. Our hungry eye examined the choices. We bought four of the same, for which Alicia traded her two dollars. Andrea, Maria, and I thanked her as usual, but to insist on paying would have been embarrassing, since when we did –about once a week– she would usually need to cover the difference.
“Está bien. Aquí, lo tengo,” she would say so casually as if this were a chance occurrence. “It’s fine. Here, I got it.”
After lunch we had one more class, met out front, and walked home.
We talked about our score books, and to the surprise of none we had all gotten the exact same grade. Our routine quizzing during lunch and on the way to and from school never failed us.
We continued walking, moving farther from the commercial center, dropping off Alicia first. Andrea and I went separate ways after another while, and Maria continued on by bus after reaching Andrea’s town.
If you wanted to know about a person’s life, you only needed to know how far they lived from the city. That was why we only talked about the experiences we shared together and the different characters in our towns, never the towns themselves.
* * * * *
My seven siblings, my cousins, and I traveled every day for the next month out to the fields to collect fruit. Summer had been ushered in with waves of heat. Every year it was the same familiar faces, and sometimes younger faces that reflected the same features of their older siblings. We were paid less than adults, but we were still paid, and all eight of us did well enough. At the end of the summer we gave this money to our parents, and over the next year they would give it back to us in the forms of food, education, and clothing.
I mostly wished I could keep some of that money for myself. I would buy nice new notebooks for next year. Alicia had given me a sticker to decorate my notebook this year. I would also return the favor and buy a sticker for her.
* * * * *
Coming back from school, I could hear my mother crying through the walls of our home. I ran into the kitchen, temporarily blinded by the cloth that covered the entrance. My siblings had been sent to their room. My mother opened her eyes and then immediately her arms to embrace me. With tears slipping on the corners of her mouth she reported that guerillas of el Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path) had planted a bomb outside one of the city schools that exploded through three classrooms, killing students and teachers. The police could only rescue eight students after the bomb went off. She didn’t know which school had been targeted.
The Shining Path sought to overtake the government one large step at a time. When I was eight they began their campaign; by the time I turned thirteen they had occupied the Huallaga Valley and set up a Maoist state, capturing one of largest coca leaf resources and thriving with the profits of cocaine production. I was now fifteen, and they had successfully exploded a bomb next to one of our government schools. These men found their only boundary around the state of Peru, and like sparks they set off flames of insurgence, burning black holes into a map of otherwise tranquil, nondescript communities. They had invaded our land and taken everything: money, lives, security, and homes.
I pleaded with my mother to let me go to school the next day. Hopelessly she realized that we all were subject to the actions of these terrorists. Tomorrow they might move closer to the city and overrun our community. Or they might decide to bomb another school.
My community is a peaceful one, but at any point we could have become the stage for a political demonstration or another conflict between the Shining Path and their rival, the MRTA (movimiento revolucionario Túpac Amaru). Both the Shining Path and the MRTA hated our government. However, the Shining Path wanted a Maoist government, and the MRTA wanted a Marxist one. And so they dragged a trail of blood across the countryside with their frequent stabs at each other that took out groups of men at a time. This rivalry, which weakened both sides, was probably the main reason why the government was able to maintain its power.
The revolutionary movement of Túpac Amaru came from somewhere a little deeper in the countryside. They named themselves after Túpac Amaru, the last native ruler of the Inca state in Peru, who I studied in history class. From what I was taught, the Inca Empire’s rule was one of the greatest, most glorious, and progressive time periods for our region. But from what the president said, these people wanted to ruin our country, and so he sent armed men to kill the “rebels.” I did not understand how the MRTA could destroy our country, since their ideas seemed rational. They never killed unarmed men or women or children. They promised more social equality by sharing the rich’s money with ordinary people like me. I didn’t want my younger siblings to continue sweating in the heat of the summer gathering strawberries just for a few extra dollars. What if they didn’t have a friend like Alicia? Even then, I didn’t want them to feel the same shame of not being able to pay for their own food. Plus, if the MRTA gave us money, we wouldn’t need others’ charity. I kept these thoughts to myself, lest the army kill me too. The president’s army killed everyone that made their views public, even just the fanaticizers who spoke of Marxism.
The next day at school only half of the class showed up. Everyone had reason to be scared. From then on I was reminded that everywhere I went I should walk in fear.
When we returned to the strawberry field the next summer, the girl with the black hair down to her waist was only able to use one of her hands. Her cousin told us that she had been victim of one of the bombings of the Shining Path.
* * * * *
Finally, in the year I turned eighteen years old, I was able to make a difference in the government of Peru. I was actually required to make a difference. If you were eighteen or older and didn’t give your vote to change the officials, a fine would be taken right out of your pocket. Voting was important to me, not only because I did not want my family to be charged, but also because it was the only power I had to improve our situation.
Every year on the 28th of July our school marched through Lima. Beginning July 1st we practiced like soldiers, taking periods of class time and recess to parade around the school building. It was a matter of pride: national and school pride. One school would be elected the best group of marchers and win the prize money. We had never been chosen, but every year we donned our best clothing and enthusiastically proclaimed our Peruvian citizenship by singing the national anthem.
On the day of elections, the same feeling of excitement surrounded me as I marched with my fellow citizens in a line to the voting booth. I had known I would elect whoever was running against the current president García. The actions that the Shining Path was able to get away with were inexcusable. My father had been bringing home less money than he usually did, and the government was taking more of that money every year.
The other man was Alberto Fujimori, the son of immigrants from Japan, and I wanted him to be president anyways. He was a mathematician and so I could trust he would keep our money safe from the greedy hands that were always knocking on the politicians’ doors. He was also greatly supported by the Inca population, native descendants from the great empire. I knew I was right about him when just months after his election my parents returned to giving me the usual amount of money for school. Fujimori’s presidency was the most noble and giving one I can remember.
The ratio of strangers roaming the countryside was an increasing number of policemen to a decreasing number of rebels. Policemen gave their lives riding the buses town to town and stationing themselves outside all of the schools. Fujimori built government facilities long overdue to the rural communities, and even community houses for the most impoverished areas. My youngest brother was born at home like many of my other siblings, but this time a doctor from the new nearby hospital facilitated the birth. I had only one more year of high school, but José would be able to attend the new school not far from our town. Fujimori gave back everything that terrorism had taken from us: money, security, and homes. And in his generosity he gave money to all of the schools, regardless of their marching abilities.
* * * * *
Andrea, Maria, and I were walking up to Alicia’s house for one of the last times. We only had about a month or so left of school until graduation. The morning was without humidity and so we waited in the yard for Alicia to come running out with her heavy bag of books hitting her in the back with every step. After one minute, even through the insulated walls, we heard Alicia cry. We ran to the door and saw Alicia through the small glass window, on her knees, pleading with her father.
“Por favor, papá, necesito el dinero, es para mi educación.” Her father hadn’t given her any money and now she was begging with him.
“Alicia, te doy tanto dinero cada día ¿y no ahorraste nada? Debes aprender porque ahora no tenemos tanto. ¡Sal a la escuela! ¡Déjame!”
I understood why he was upset. If my father had given me so much money all of these years, he would have expected me to save some of it, or at least enough to buy lunch for one more day.
Apparently the effect of Fujimori’s presidency hadn’t been the same for everyone. Alicia’s family was wealthy and they didn’t get any extra benefits like mine did because they had a bank account and things like cars and a nice house. Her father was especially frustrated because they weren’t adding to their savings. I didn’t say anything since I knew the money Fujimori was using to supply rural communities like mine came mostly from the rich.
Before, I hadn’t questioned that what Alicia was doing by sharing with us was a good thing, but now I realized it was also a bad thing; bad for her and her family. We consoled her on the walk, but each of us had calculated that with our money together we would only be able to buy one sandwich for lunch. After all of the daily sacrifices she had made for us, we owed her at least a slice of turkey and lettuce flattened between two pieces of bread.
I carried the sandwich to where the other three were sitting and placed it on the table, at which point Alicia reflexively got up for a knife. We told her that because she didn’t get a good breakfast she should take the sandwich. She declined and cut it into four triangles. She complained about her father’s recent grumpiness because of Fujimori’s more socialist policies. The three of us continued eating, sometimes nodding and making sounds of agreement through closed mouths. Fujimori had been a blessing to three of us four. Alicia continued to share her money with us until the graduation anyways. Now, however, our families could have their own savings. We would no longer rely on others’ generosity to sustain ourselves.
* * * * *
Fujimori deceived us all. When I found out how much Fujimori had taken and that would not be given back, I left to the United States.
The University in Lima was my dream, and two thousand dollars was the means to get there. My family had started saving when I entered high school, but during Fujimori’s first term – when I was a senior – was the first time that our old, hidden coffee sack had grown substantially in size. When I had peaked into it before I would wonder if somehow money had fallen through the impossibly small holes between the woven threads and count the total again. I knew I would need to earn most of the money myself, but at least we had something. Humanity had been generous with me.
In the year I turned twenty I was one year out of high school and my prospects changed. I, along with the rest of the country, lost innocence about our president.
I came into the house after a day of work to find my mother’s friend Lucinda narrating a story in a hushed voice, to which my mother’s only response was “¡que terrible!”
I sat down with them, intrigued by the women’s conversation. Lucinda reported that Fujimori’s men had been doing terrible things to the poor, indigenous women not far from the borders. The army men were being trained as a battalion of doctors to sterilize women in an attempt to control population. They paid women to do it, bribed doctors to do it while women were in labor, and sometimes even forced women into clinics. These were women that had nothing, and most spoke only their native dialect.
“Él es como un dictador. Hace lo que quiere.” Fujimori had indeed become a dictator doing as he pleased. I was upset and confused. How could the man who was so generous take from so many people? By the time this information became world news about a month or so later, we had also learned that the amount of money we had transferred from our old coffee sack at home into the national bank had decreased, due to “los escándalos políticos de la corrupción.” Political corruption had taken our money, but who had our money now? Disillusioned by the amount of greed in Peru, I left for New York City.
* * * * *
Lucinda had a friend Maria who had moved to New York and married there. Maria was going to have her first child in three weeks, and so Lucinda reached out and asked whether she could use an assistant. She agreed to let me stay in their apartment and pay me enough that I would be able to go to school in two terms.
“Todo que puedo hacer pa’ una amiga,” she had replied. Someone who would do anything for a friend sounded like a great person. She was one of the great people I met in New York.
The day I arrived at JFK I received a notice from the man that picked me up that Maria had gone into labor unexpectedly. The city was a blur of gray and my eyes did not have time to process anything I saw. We ended up at a tall building after passing a thousand other similar-looking buildings. He said something to the doorman and took me upstairs. The doorman had a message from Maria saying that I should meet her at Lenox Hill immediately. From what I knew about New York there were no hills in Manhattan, and I was daunted by the prospect of another long trip after my flight. I took the elevator back downstairs and asked the doorman, “¿Perdón, como puedo llegar al hospital?”
“I’m sorry I don’t speak Spanish. No español.”
I froze. I remember feeling the shock and embarrassment and panic when it hit me that I could not communicate with the people here.
“Stay here. Un minuto.” And he left. The generosity I knew people to be capable of in Peru had followed me to New York. Quickly he returned with another identically dressed man who introduced himself as Tony in a mix of what I recognized as Portuguese and Spanish. He was Brazilian but could manipulate his vocabulary into Spanish well enough, and I was so grateful for any connection I could make.
“¿Como puedo llegar al hospital ‘Lenok Heel’?”
“Tome un taxi y diga a ele que quer ir a ‘seventy-seventh and park.’” The other man ran outside and a yellow car pulled up right in front of him.
“Gracias.” I thanked him and walked out to the car. He had told me to take a taxi, which was what I was doing, and tell the man that I wanted to go to…¡maldita memoría! My mind was blank. This was like one of those flashcards we studied in school that I knew I would remember if Andrea gave me the first syllable. I remembered a seven in the address.
“’Scuse me? Seven? Street or avenue?”
“Lo siento no hablo ‘Inglish.’” I wanted to direct the driver back to JFK, board a plane to Peru, and go home where at least I could talk to someone.
“Do you know ‘el numbray’? Name? ‘Numbray?’”
“Yes! Quiero irme a ‘Lenok Heel.’”
“Lenox Hill? Hospital? Seventy-seven an’ park?”
A five-minute ride took us to the hospital. I was about to get out of the car when I heard the meter click and had another stomach-sickening realization: I had no money. No, I had a dollar in my pocket. But it was Peruvian money.
“Señor, lo siento no tengo ‘money’ pero tengo ese ‘dollar.”
He turned his head back and noticed my shaking hand pinching the dollar between all five fingers.
“‘Bien,’ iz ok, ‘gracias.’ Really, truth, I don’t speak English too. ”
“Gracias, muchas gracias, lo siento.” I thanked him for his kindness and apologized profusely.
* * * * *
Things have changed so much since my first day here in New York. I have learned English. I have friends and a beautiful baby to look after. And I have worked so hard, but still don’t have the two thousand dollars. Now my mother wants me, after all of these experiences I’ve gone through to get here, to give the rewards of my work and the dream of University to my sister. But after looking back on all of these experiences, I now know I would never have had the same educational experience, the same quality of life, even the opportunity to come to New York, if not for the generosity of others. My journey has been supported by these acts of kindness, without which I would never have been able to shed the responsibility and limitations of my family life in Peru and focus on my own life. I had also seen selfishness and greed, and the suffering it caused. I could only imagine how devastated my sister would be, since she had no job open to her like I did.
I had forgotten that I lived on so little of my own growing up. Even in New York I owed many people for their help translating, finding someone who spoke Spanish, or even using their limited knowledge to help me. Why did I hesitate to return these giving favors? And to no stranger, but my younger sister?
While I waited for my mother to call back I filled out a check of one thousand one hundred forty dollars for Marisol Melo.
Juliana O’Donohue, Grade 16, Age 11, The Chapin School, Silver Key