Hopes and Dreams, Ways and Means

A Caracas slum with shacks clinging onto a mountain side

A Caracas slum with shacks clinging onto a mountain side. (Photo: Bertrand Parres / AFP-Getty Images)

Working from stereotypes, we’re too busy avoiding homeless people, or poor people in general, to realize that in many ways they’re not all that different from us. They have hopes, dreams, plans, and yes, even ways to fulfill them.

The American Dream of a single-family home and a white picket fence in the suburbs seems far from the minds of most Venezuelans. For some, a shanty in a Caracas slum shines like a beacon on a hill.

“To get my shanty made no matter what,” replied Jennyfer Willaruel when asked about her future goals. That image might make us cringe, but considering that Willaruel lives under a bridge adjacent to Los Caobos Park with her two daughters puts her hopes in perspective.

Rafael Justo would prefer to get a more proper home from the government. Yet from his current home under a bridge that connects Plaza Venezuela to the Central University of Venezuela (U.C.V.), he too yearns for a solidly built shanty in a Caracas slum. A family man, he lives with his wife and three children, Justo longs to get off the streets.

Considering their modest hopes, living in the Los Erasos slum in San Bernardino might not even enter their minds. Tucked away behind the Caracas Clinical Center, paved roads wind through the neighborhood, leading out to the city’s medical district. The modest homes seem to enjoy all the basic services, and although considered violent by outsiders, residents consort freely.

If Willaruel and Justo moved here, they might even send their kids to the Street Youngsters Artisanship House where they could earn money for school by making colorful journals out of marbled paper using a technique native to Tuscany.

More than the income, the young artisans go to the house for the creative outlet it provides, and its positive social environment. Rough as Los Erasos might be, the Artisanship House feels miles away from the pain of desperate poverty.

Life on the Streets

Willaruel spent a good part of her childhood homeless. Tired of her strict family, Willaruel ran away when she was 11 years old, staying at halfway houses when she wasn’t living on the streets. She later married, gave birth to Jeglibeth, 14, and Jexibeth, 4, and made her life in a Petare slum. But four years ago, about the same time Jexibeth was born, Willaruel’s husband died, leaving her to fend for herself and her family.

“Since Jexibeth, I’ve been struggling,” said Willaruel. A year ago, half her house, built on the side of a hill in Petare, was lost when the soil underneath gave way to a landslide. Willaruel and her daughters continued to live there until she came back home one day to see that delinquents had destroyed what remained.

Proud, strong, and independent, Willaruel wasn’t about to go home crying to mother. “I’ve got family, but it’s as if I didn’t,” she says. “I’m [better off] alone.” She claims her parents own businesses as well as their own homes.

Despite all her time on the streets, Willaruel says she has never worked in prostitution, or taken drugs. On a recent Monday, she and her daughters visited the Street Youngsters ambulance a block up from Plaza Venezuela. Sober and seemingly healthy, Willaruel chatted with nurse Cecilia Martinez about the girls who keep her going. “They don’t let me get down,” she said.

Willaruel does some washing and ironing to earn money, but she gets most of her income from begging. She doesn’t yet know how she’s going to build that shanty, but based on strength of will alone, it’s hard not to imagine her doing it. Although Willaruel seems a long way from the shanty she yearns for, she is very clear on what she wants.

“To work, get the girls in school, and never get involved with drugs,” said Willaruel.

Ironically, part of the reason she’s still on the streets owes to her uncompromising devotion to Jeglibeth and Jexibeth. Every time Willaruel has gone to a halfway house, they want to separate her from the children. And she just isn’t having it. “I won’t be separated from my daughters,” said Willaruel.

Like Willaruel, Justo has been on the streets for longer than he might care to think. At 17, he left home because “my parents fought, I was dumb, [and] to see what the street was like.”

Also like Willaruel, Justo doesn’t fit the stereotype of someone who lives on the street. He’s friendly, gentle, and sober.

In his over 20 years on the streets, Justo has lived all over the city, his longest stay being near Los Caobos Park. Three months ago, Justo moved his family to their current home along the Guaire River on an invitation from “La Mocha,” so called because she’s missing a leg.

“It’s a family,” he says about living with La Mocha, her daughter and son, as well as their respective partners, and Julio Falcon, who works in Plaza Venezuela finding passengers for taxis.

Justo’s real family includes wife María Mercedes, Mario Luis, 3, María Mercedes, 2, and newborn Marco Ramón. Unlike the absent fathers in better circumstances, Justo takes his responsibility to heart. Living on the streets “pains me because of the children,” he says.

Justo and his neighbors live side by side, using carpet, bed sheets, a tarp and a Teresa Carreño Theater poster for privacy. They’ve tied rope around the concrete pillars to hold up their makeshift walls and doors. Inside, every area has a dirty mattress that takes up the lion’s share of the floor space.

In front of the living areas, you’ll find Marco Ramón’s crib, a few battered chairs, and stray dogs for protection. Beyond the living area one comes to the cooking area where, instead of a refrigerator, the residents stock their food in a plastic box.

The food box and the rotting food lying around it prove the source of the constant bugs. The residents own several large pots, burned black by use, where they cook lettuce, potatoes, yucca, and eggplant, judging by the food box’s contents.

There’s no outhouse, but plenty of high grass and weeds, which serve as the bathroom area. As for water, Hidrocapital has a huge pipeline that crosses the river a short walk from the bridge.

When Justo can muster 20,000 Venezuelan bolivars ($9), he leaves his family behind to sell snack foods on the Francisco Fajardo highway or at the Nuevo Circo bus terminal. On a good day, he might make as much as 50,000 bolivars ($23), or a 30,000-bolivar ($14) profit, enough to feed his family, and maybe even get some medicine for an ailing child.

On a recent afternoon, Justo says that it’s been a month or so since he sold snacks. He doesn’t have enough capital to get himself started, but whether from pride or something else, Justo doesn’t want to beg to raise the funds.

“I’m capable of begging for the merchandise,” he explains in a slightly desperate tone, “but I don’t want people reproaching me.”

Justo’s mother owns a home in Los Teques, and he occasionally visits. Although his mom has opened her home to his family, like Willaruel, Justo prefers to depend on himself even if it means keeping his children on the streets. It seems like foolish pride, but if Justo left home once before, what’s the use of moving the kids into a home just to move back to the streets?

But as La Mocha moves to a Charallave apartment thanks to the government, Justo worries about losing his neighbors, and thinks he’ll have to move his family for safety reasons. After finding a safe haven with La Mocha, Justo doesn’t look forward to picking up and moving again. He’d love to just start building his shanty, for which he is slowly collecting materials, but he says he needs 300,000 Venezuelan bolivars ($140) for the bricks. Under the bridge, the monthly minimum wage looms like an elusive dream. But Justo is a survivor. With a little luck, his kids won’t have to be.

Creating Opportunity

Besides setting up the medical unit in a different part of the city everyday, Street Youngsters operates a home for street children in La Pastora and the artisanship house in Los Erasos where they offer tutoring, sports, and artisanship.

The three-story building includes a library where children can borrow books, a kitchen that doubles as a study room, and the arts workshop where wooden plaques with the names of young artisans hang from the walls. There, 16-year-old Winder Gutiérrez and 14-year-old Wilmer González quietly go about their work when they’re not busy with school.

Both currently work three days a week with the instructor Alejandro Arenas, who might prepare some materials for the young artisans, but little else. Winder and Wilmer mostly work independently, painting and cutting marbled paper with which to decorate their magazine racks, and chatting about sports like most boys their age. They are shy and polite, serious about work, but fond of a good joke.

Winder has been working at the house for 7 years, which might explain why he made 600,000 Venezuelan bolivars ($280) in the last three months of last year. Ever smiling, Winder says he uses the money, which is not handed to him but deposited in a bank account, for school and clothes.

Wilmer joined the house 2 years ago, and makes about 50,000 Venezuelan bolivars ($23) a month, which he also uses for school and the occasional shirt. He wants to attend college and become an engineer.

Except for the Barrio Adentro community health clinic and a nutrition center, both relatively new, the artisanship house is the neighborhood’s only program unless you count the basketball hoop. For a dense slum that houses perhaps as many as 80,000 people, educational and recreational programs offer alternatives to getting in trouble.

Although Winder and Wilmer seem like the kinds of “good kids” who wouldn’t get in trouble anyway, that presumes that delinquents are predisposed to antisocial behavior. More programs like the artisanship house would no doubt reduce delinquency. Better than most, Winder and Wilmer appreciate the importance of such programs.

“You forget about everything else,” when at work, says Winder. “If I weren’t here, I’d be around without anything to do.”

“I stay away from where [the delinquents] are,” explains Wilmer about how he avoids trouble. “I know they’re bad.” If not at the house, “I’d be studying or watching TV,” says Wilmer. “Or maybe not,” he adds as if to recognize that even his gentle nature is susceptible to the pull of this violent environment.

Along with his wife Deanna Albano, Gustavo Misle is cofounder and director of Street Youngsters. A former teacher, Misle plays a mentor role at the house. He doesn’t push the kids around, but subtly and gradually pushes them in the direction they need to go.

“The problem isn’t the poverty of lack of money,” explains Misle. “It’s a mental poverty where no one dares to do other things.”

Misle recounts how when the house was started, he suggested to the kids in Los Erasos that they could learn trades such as electricity there. “But they didn’t want to learn electricity. Their fathers worked in electricity, and had a rough time of it.”

Later, thanks to Albano’s Tuscan roots, Arenas and a child traveled to Tuscany for a two-month-long course on marbled paper artisanship and the program was born. More important than the money, the youngsters learn values through the program.

Already on their own, the kids develop a productive independence, express themselves creatively rather than violently, socialize in an environment of respect and acceptance, improve their self-esteem by creating beautiful objects for which they earn money, and most importantly, learn that they can create opportunities for themselves.

“That’s one of the big problems,” says Misle. “There is limited imagination as to the possibilities that exist for them.”

The house has touched a lot of lives in Los Erasos. Of 176 children that went through the program, as researched by a local undergraduate student, Misle says “five weren’t doing anything and three had been killed. The rest were either good students or good workers.” He loves to tell the story about the boy who insisted on eating with a placemat and behaving very mannerly after joining the house.

“The house has a lot of prestige in the neighborhood,” says Misle. “Kids grow up with the hope of getting in.”

“It’s great to be here,” says Wilmer. “They like the place,” he says about the little ones that can’t wait to join. “I tell them since they’re small, they just have to wait.”

Multiplying artisanship houses won’t solve the social problems in a place like Los Erasos, but it’s an example that merits some attention. Despite its limited social work component, the house provides opportunities for kids to grow beyond what society expects of them and even what the kids expect of themselves. The artisanship program not only keeps youngsters away from drugs and violence, and, of course, life on the streets, but also helps them grow as human beings. On the outside, Winder and Wilmer look like any other kid from the slums, which is enough to unsettle some people, but inside they’re much more mature, tolerant, hopeful, and happy than most children from such environments.

When some people can’t take a roof over their heads for granted, helping kids grow as human beings seems like a lot to ask. But Willaruel, Justo, Winder, and Wilmer aren’t all that different from one another. With the possible exception of Willaruel, they grew up in poverty but largely circumvented its many traps. Even Justo, without belittling the seriousness of his situation, maintains a resilient attitude that belies his harsh life on the streets. Justo projects a level of development that many educated people would do well to emulate.

In “Survival,” Bob Marley, that soulful champion of the oppressed, sang that “some people have hopes and dreams / some people have ways and means.” Some people, it turns out, have a little bit of both.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Jose Orozco.