Hand to Hand and the Smell of Poverty

For those of you that don’t know, I’ve been devoting much of my time here in Chile to an internship with Mano a Mano, a research initiative in HIV/AIDS prevention.  I’ve done a lot of entering data, collecting questionnaires, and learning about how to implement a program while researching it simultaneously.  The greatest challenge for me so far has been developing my final project and research proposal, which I’m hoping might turn into a thesis.  It involves looking for a relationship between social capital and self-efficacy with regards to HIV prevention.  Anyhow, more on that later, I’m sure.  Here are some of my thoughts from one of my first experiences in the comunas in which we work.

September 2, 2009

Thornbushes and paths that lead to an open field border the narrow dirt road at the edge of the neighborhood.  Rodrigo parks the car on the side of the road, trying to avoid the huge puddles that haven’t drained from the rain yesterday.  We climb out of the car and walk toward one of the small houses, boxed in with a makeshift wooden fence that stretches almost to the tin roof and whose poorly fit boards create countless holes.  The roof also has seemingly random belongings strewn about it, like most of the street and properties—clothing, tarps, scrap wood… and dogs are everywhere.  We ask if the young man we’re looking for is home, and someone goes to wake him.  His mother is outside, sitting near a broken couch and making lunch over a small fire.  She picks up a hatchet to cut up more of the scrap wood spread out over the ground.  As she adds it to the fire, smoke billows up around the black pot and kettle, pouring out in the same bleak, subdued color as today’s overcast skies.  The Cordillera is invisible today.  A man standing nearby (I assume he was her husband) asks her what she’s doing.

Fanning away the smoke with a piece of cloth, she responds, “No sé si el humo les molesta.”  (I don’t know if the smoke is bothering them.)  She looks to us with a kind face of inquiry.  When we indicate that it is fine, she responds with a smile, “Olor a pobres, na’ ma’.”  (It’s just the smell of the poor.)

Strange.  I would never think of the smell of smoke as a smell associated with poverty.  A moment before, the smell combined with the Chilean winter air and overcast skies was taking me back to calm November days in Vermont—days when only stubborn brown oak leaves still cling to autumn and the air smells of wood stoves and my hair is wrapped with the breath of earth and coming winter.  But here, gas stoves are used to heat the house and cook your food indoors.  Unless you have no means to cook inside your house.

This comment sticks with me, and I stand, waiting, watching a hand-sized puppy nip around the woman’s heel, and mulling over those words.  She delivered it with good humor, but beneath lay the shame of poverty, the stigma and isolation that separates greater Santiago from this infamous part of La Pintana, el Castillo.  Her husband leaves with a wheelbarrow and walks down the street into the field.

The young man we’ve come to speak with comes out, wiping sleep from his eyes. Rodrigo pulls out the questionnaire that the man had filled out, and, thumbing through the many pages with little yellow sticky notes (each marking an incomplete question), he tells the man that he might want to put a jacket on.  Rodrigo introduces me and explains that I am a US intern who will be listening in to the interview, as long as he doesn’t mind.  The man greets me with the typical Chilean kiss and says that it doesn’t bother him.  Rodrigo had said that I would leave during questions that were more private, but at no point during the interview does he ask me to leave.  I stand by and listen to most of the interview attentively, as the 28-year old talks about his 3 children from 3 different mothers, how the mothers won’t let them see him because of his heavy drug use, and what he thinks of gender roles in Chile.  At the parts I would expect to make him uncomfortable, like detailed questions about his sex life for the last three months, I try to step aside a little and look around at the dogs, the women walking by with bags of bread or young children, the house at the end of the street playing loud reggaeton, cumbia, and other Latin American music.  The man’s mother, with whom he, his partner, and four other adults live, is eating a hard-boiled egg while the puppy eats the shell at her feet.  Rodrigo keeps his voice quiet but his tone friendly, trying to put the participant at ease while still keeping the conversation private.

Upon finishing the questionnaire, Rodgrigo wishes the man good health and safety, and with a shake of the hand and a kiss on the cheek, the two of us are back in the car, driving to another house to complete more questionnaires.  He asks me what I thought of the experience, and I have too much going through my head to know for sure.  I talk about the concept of privacy and how I was surprised that this man allowed a young woman to listen to what many would consider a very private interview.  I feel like an American would have asked to be left alone at some point.  Rodrigo points out that the man might have felt uncomfortable and not mentioned it because of my position as an intern or scholar.  I nod in agreement, but I can’t help but wonder how my presence might have caused the man to answer differently; he still said he was drugged every day on weed, cocaine, pasta base, or alcohol; he talked about his medical history and whether he’d been tested for HIV/AIDS, what his sex life was like… And what about the questions that asked if he thought a woman should know about politics?  Or if he could keep himself from using drugs for the next three months?

And then I think about how after having three children from different mothers, a man can still view condoms as more of a nuisance than a form of protection, or that wearing one is more of a difficulty than the possibility of having another child that is not allowed to see his father.

We continue through the comuna, passing row upon row of houses boxed in with fences taller than I am, almost each hose with a satellite dish raised half-mast to so-called poverty mentality… maybe that’s odd to say, but these people are in situations where at times they can’t meet basic needs, yet television is a necessity.  It reflects the need to escape, you know?

Now, looking back two months later, I still remember the brown and the gray; gray satellites, gray sky, brown roads littered with holes and who knows what else.  I don’t know what it means.  I don’t know what to do with the experience.  I can’t say it was life changing; I’m sure it was, but I won’t know how for years to come.  Then I’ll be sitting, reading a book, writing a letter to a friend, wondering how I got where I am and how on earth I am to continue, and I’ll think of those satellite dishes.  I’ll think radical thoughts of being caught in the system, of sticking it to the man, of walls painted with Allende’s dreams and Pinochet’s reality.  I’ll sigh and miss that powerful mountain range that persists, remains the same for every ciudadano, whether in La Pintana or Las Condes.  I’ll remember the faith that stirs the hearts of those with the least hope, and how their hope plants disbelief, doubt, and bitterness in the minds of the others, witnesses to injustice and suffering.

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turns grey and cold.”

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3 thoughts on “Hand to Hand and the Smell of Poverty

    • Yeah, I made a bunch of Chilean friends in a Christian group of university students calles “Oasis”… but students in my classes weren’t as friendly. I think next semester will be a different experience, though.

  1. The poverty and satellite dish scenario makes me think of Sara Groves’ song “All I Need”. Americans are such voracious consumers; perhaps that is what you may take home with you…that more is truly just more, not satisfying the spirit. How blessed we are, even with less than what many may consider just “middle-class”, blessed with adequate shelter, ample food, and unlimited love. Taking home the peace that passes all understanding, as well, and knowing that you really can make it through any situation that comes your way.

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