Itocta

“The one joy in the world is to begin. It is beautiful to live because living is beginning, always, in every instant.” -Pavese

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Jazmin, Fabi, Lizeth, Andrea, Ana Maria, and Maria Belen dodging water balloons mid Carnaval celebration at school

At times it seems that so much has passed that there is no way to recollect it all, and I find myself frightened to put pen to paper for fear that I will realize how much has come to pass, without adequate words to express the half of it.

 

It’s six months into living tucked away here in this valley, in a town few trufi drivers know of, (save the 104, the lone wolf public transport van that trucks faithfully along our meandering, nameless street) and even fewer taxi drivers, which always leads to a long and confusing explanation about this few kilometer long stretch called Itocta.

 

And yet, it is here, in a place that few know exists by this name, Itocta, that I have returned to many parts of me the world has stripped away or that I myself have chipped away over the course of twenty-three years. It certainly isn’t a matter of finding answers—without a doubt, I will return with an abundance of questions, and perhaps a few answers. And it isn’t about finally straightening that crooked line—on the contrary, my daily life is scrawled in jagged zigzags as I scramble between thirty something different voices, each with its own will and desires.

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Jazmin, a very proud two teeth lighter. Older sister Sandra was the brave yanker-outer.

Instead, written in these six months is something that has seeped into me like returning home, to my origins, to the forever possibility of a new moment.

 

My life here is a messy one. Primary school teachers probably can commiserate with that feeling at the end of the day when you find your skin and clothes covered with an abundance of different substances, and you do your very best not to think about what all that sticky stuff actually is. But these are the realities of this kind of living: cleaning up spurting bloody noses and peed on sheets and helping kids without the best aim collect urine and feces samples and bathing and hydrogen-peroxiding scrapes and bumps and bruises multiplying, sore ribs from the newest stealth poking game a few girls find immensely entertaining, cracked hands and dirty fingernails, a collection of cuts from the peeling and cutting that occupies a day in the kitchen, lipstick smeared on my cheeks and forehead born of budding makeup artists and models-in-training. At the end of a day, marked on my clothes and skin, is the proof of living a closeness to people.

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Laurita, always ready with a hug

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Lizbeth, Jazmin, Jazmin and Sandra: pyros in training

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Zulma and Kami hard at work washing clothes, Belen cheesing

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Zulma being Zulma

We—forty-some people that is (plus Doris the turtle and the stray cat that despite being chucked out onto the street multiple times hasn’t yet gotten the message that he’s not welcome here)—live within the four walls of Hogar Maria Auxiliadora. We share most things, though myself and the other volunteers and sisters enjoy the luxury of having our own rooms, and our own supply of toilet paper. All the girls bunk in two different rooms roughly divided by age—above or under twelve years old. We all wash our clothes and hang em out on the line for everyone to see. When someone wets the bed, or gets sick, or is in trouble, or has her period, everyone knows. Everyone.

 

It’s a confusing reality to live, this forced openness, the closeness, the startling lack of privacy, especially as someone who is only a visiting member of this family.

 

I remember acutely the cautious easing into the Hogar in my first months. Being painfully aware of how difficult it must be for these girls to have to open their lives up to another new person who they know nothing about, and yet also carrying the responsibility of carrying out a number of jobs which are inherently intrusive—waking the girls up, ushering rambunctious kiddos into and out of the showers, picking out their lice, serving food, handing out cleaning supplies and toilet paper and toothpaste, cataloguing the clothes hung out on the line by the letters that are painted onto the hems to make sure that our serial avoiders of washing haven’t stashed their dirty clothes into the back of their casillero or under their pillows or in the bushes. Everything felt slow—words in Spanish dropping from my tongue lead-like, the careful observation of every new affection or joke each girl gave permission to share, the learning who they were as I cautiously tapped the feet of the older girls to wake them at the 6:30 hour.

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Myself amused by Anita, Anita amused by my early attempts at speaking Spanish

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Kami and Lourdes, triumphantly arriving at our afternoon stroll destination

I know very little about the lives of the girls before they arrived at the Hogar, ostensibly very little about who they were before the day I arrived. It was a conscious decision made upon arrival—their lives, their stories are their own. Where so much of their privacy is relinquished without permission simply by the act of my entering their home, their stories I refuse to take from them.

Indeed, I know very little about their lives. But I know them. It’s the natural consequence of accumulated hours and days and months living here with them, closely.

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Jenifer, bday girl Belen, Celia

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Yolanda and her sparklers (not pictured), New Years Eve

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Ruth Ana & Lizeth

A few weeks ago, friends from the city came out to the Hogar to visit with the girls—they arrived in the middle of a baking frenzy as the girls made up an enormous batch of donuts. A finicky drain in the kitchen floor had been acting up, spewing gray water all over the tile that was half-mopped up in the chaos of dough-frying. Mid-chocolate-glazing, catastrophe struck as one mishandled wok pan of chocolate sauce resulted in a good deal of the brown stuff splattered on the floor. Fear not, these economy-minded young ladies didn’t let any go to waste, proceeding to lick it directly off the still dirty-drain-water streaked floor. Perhaps a bit shocking for our visitors. For us, just another normal occurrence in life at the Hogar.

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Laurita, Jazmin, Zulma, Jharlet & Belen unhappy about being informed they have to go do their chores. 

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Jharlet

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Hna Lourdes & Rosa Liz, pensieve pre-haircut

It’s not easy to live closely. It gets uncomfortable quickly. I’ve seen more tears and screaming matches and tussles, and had more trying conversations and moments here than perhaps in any other period of my life. People call things like they see them, say things that are offensive, and abrupt, and tough to hear. But the words always speak a truth—about the speaker, about the recipient, about their relationship. And many times over a day, I see people fight and forgive. And I think of those words: “the one joy in the world is to begin. It is beautiful to live because living is beginning, always, in every instant.”

 

It doesn’t always feel joyful when I live it—the difficulty of living closely with other people. It forces you to confront who you are: your impatience, and pride, and expectations of the people around you, your tendencies to judge, your anger, your deep fear of the ugly parts inside you. And it exposes all this to the people you live with, forcing an abandonment of any pretense we carry that we’ve got it all together.

 

Jharlet, one of our youngest at four years old, and a handful at that, often walks around the Hogar with a baby doll (or a Coca Cola bottle filled to the brim with water that she insists is a baby) secured in a jacket stolen from one of the older girls. She meticulously wraps the doll, then slings it over her back and ties the sleeves around her neck in the same way that many women still do the world over. She then proudly parades around the Hogar, insisting that we all admire her beautiful little baby, or instructing us to pipe down so as to not wake it from its nap.

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Jhenny Elizabeth engrossed in Korean soap opera, best buds Jharlet & Jhorlin

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Jharlet using alternative methods to secure her baby doll

When I think about what it means to feel that I’ve returned to parts of myself, to my origins, it is these things I think of: the girls gleefully licking chocolate off a dirty floor, a screaming match and profuse tears followed only moments later by former adversaries cleaning up the shared mess made, lock hand running out to the garden to make mischief together, and Jharlet proudly parading her baby doll around the hallways.

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Teresa (staff member and beautiful bride) and Nilva

Living closely ain’t easy. It’s messy, and humbling. It shows us we aren’t perfect.

 

Perhaps that’s why at least among my generation we seem to avoid it like the plague. On the surface, we may live closely. But living closely in proximity isn’t comparable with living closely in a proximity of heart.

 

Indeed it is a great risk to take another person seriously, with all the weight that carries—their ability to both cause you pain and bring you great happiness, to show you your flaws and to urge you to grow, the differences in how they live and think that will drive you up a wall as you realize how angered you feel when people do not fulfill your own selfish expectations for who they ought to be, the ways they speak that will offend your sense of self or the world you live in and invite you to realize I don’t got it all figured out, their flaws or strengths that strike to some fear nestled squarely above a point of pride. Is it not worth it though, to invite this discomfort if the people around me are always a help to me, not problems, not merely offensive packages of ideas or viewpoints or ways of living?

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Master griller Jazmin

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Jhenny Elizabeth, Laurita, Melody

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Anita, Marisol, Padre Pepe, Celia

 

I see Jharlet, with her baby doll secured safely to her, and of all the possibility that lies in each new moment, in the risk of living closely. I imagine my own mother holding me as an infant; she with no guarantees of who I would be, or with the impression that I would never pose myself a challenge to her.

 

But that is the privilege of living closely, of taking others seriously. Each time we allow people to settle close to our hearts, instead of immediately distancing them in a sense of justified indignation for the threat they pose to our settled views of ourselves, of the world, we learn again who we are. Close to an awareness of our wretchedness provoked by our interaction with another, closer yet to the hope that springs from allowing ourselves to be constantly formed by the people around us, we learn to live.

To begin. Always. In every instant.

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