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Nothing is born from diamonds

· Women run the soup kitchens in Villa el Salvador on the outskirts of Lima, Peru ·

The history of the comedores in Villa el Salvador — located in the southern suburbs of Lima — is a history of resistance and fraternity, of emancipation, courage and creativity, and of the fight against hunger. It is almost exclusively a history of women. 

A recent photograph of Fr Gaspare Margottini; today he lives in Huancayo, Peru

However it was a man who recounted this to me, he was a priest who in 1985 took “a splendid leap” from a parish on the outskirts of Rome and landed in a shack on the coast of Peru. There he experienced first-hand a revolution never to be forgotten. Today Fr Gaspare Margottini lives at 3,500 metres above sea level, where he lives and works tirelessly among the poor in the Andes. He recounted every detail of his mission in Villa el Salvador, where he arrived 30 years ago and stayed until 1997.

Villa el Salvador — which resembles a circle from Dante’s Inferno — was created in 1971 when land was recovered from illegal occupation by the poorest of the poor to the benefit of a handful of the rich. Despite a harsh and agonizing opposition which included the arrest of Bishop Luis Bambarén, a symbol of the Church in Latin America that forcefully took the side of the lowliest, its evacuation became inevitable. Thousands of people, divided into sectors of 384 families each, were moved to the desert south of Lima, to a crowded area of shacks which on the map resembles a modern neighbourhood but in fact is a gigantic slum. The shelters are precarious, they receive water only once a week and in many places there are no sewers. Schools are empty huts which lack seating — in fact any child who has a stool brings one from home.

John Paul ii’s providential visit came a few weeks after Fr Margottini’s arrival. On seeing Villa el Salvador from the air, the Pope exclaimed: “How do all these people live?”, revealing the scandal of just another ghetto to the whole world. More than two million people welcomed the Pontiff on 5 February 1985, and when he departed from his written address to look them in the eye and speak, off-the-cuff, their silence burst into tears and applause. Hambre de Dios, sí. Hambre de pan, no, the Pope forcefully affirmed. Hunger for God, yes; hunger for bread, no. That is unacceptable.

A new life-blood is beginning to flow beneath the sands. Solidarity has become the first weapon in the fight against poverty. The comedores, the communal soup-kitchens of the people, are its most exalted expression. Every sector has one, and thanks to the help of Caritas and Sr Rosa Ballon, its director, the comedor has become a place of meeting and reaffirmation for the women of Villa el Salvador. With surprising efficiency, mothers, daughters and sisters divide into committees, elect their own representatives and accountants, organize themselves in shifts and take over supervising the aid from Caritas, which consists mostly of flour, oil and lentils. Then, rounding up the sum with small contributions from families, charitable initiatives and much ingenuity, they get breakfast on the table every day for the children and a meal for everyone. On their way to school in the cold foggy mornings of Lima between May and December, the little ones stop at the comedores, where two sandwiches each, oatmeal and warm milk are provided — an absolute novelty. Likewise on their return, they and their families now have rice, pulses or vegetable soup to eat, enriched with chicken only on special occasions. Fr Gaspare remembers with amusement an outing with the children of his parish — those of section six — and the happiness of a little girl on discovering at lunch that her soup was full of pieces of meat. “Uncle”, she said to him using the typical form of address, “There really is chicken in this. Make it like this every day!”.

The heart and soul of the comedores are the Wednesday meetings which began in order to organize tasks and shifts in the kitchen. They now continue to be held in order to deal with new problems that arise in the community. Every woman’s domestic duties have been expanded to form an open forum where troubles and misfortunes can be shared by all. They decide together on individual social cases, especially concerning those who cannot manage to pay even the small contribution requested by the soup kitchen, who are helped by the parish. Solutions are found together. “The women know everything”, Fr Gaspare said. If a father loses his job, his family has a right to free meals. If someone is ill with tuberculosis, severely undernourished, or pregnant, he or she receives a more nourishing soup and an extra ration of lentils. At five o’clock, when the meeting ends, “they all rush home, each to wait for her husband, as though he were a king”, the missionary recalled, but in the meantime in the two previous hours they have delivered a blow to the male chauvinism that oppressed them. Sharing injustices and humiliations — in 85 per cent of the cases, violence was domestic — many of them begin to assert their rights and learn how to defend themselves or their female companions before the justice of the peace.

The comedores have thus become the starting point for a profound process of emancipation, a war machine for peace building that gave the best of itself in the most critical situation in Peru’s history. Beginning in 1987, the economy crashed, inflation and hunger were reaching unimaginable levels, attacks by the Shining Path were staining the country with blood, and disappearances were the order of the day. Meanwhile, the comedores of Villa el Salvador were increasing and being consolidated. “Nothing is born from diamonds”, Fabrizio De André sang. On the sands of Villa el Salvador flowers bloom. However, although things don’t always run smoothly, Fr Margottini explained: “there have been women who pilfered or exploited their shift in the kitchen. It is important to say so since in such extreme circumstances contradictions are inevitable and there is no reason to be shocked”.

What counts is the whole, the community spirit that succeeds in ventures that are impossible elsewhere. When the cholera epidemic hit in 1991, the dead of Villa el Salvador were numerous in comparison with the national average. “Doctors came to explain to us the necessary precautions to be taken. ‘Wash your hands all the time’, they said. And we who received water once a week smiled. Nevertheless, thanks to a closely-knit and well organized collaboration among the women on the committees, doctors, nurses and volunteers unnecessary deaths have been avoided”.

Of course there was more dehydration, a problem which afflicted the children, especially in the summer. “At times”, the priest said, “they would call me for the last rites and I would realize that it was not the time to die but only to drink. How many lives were saved with a litre of water and a little salt and sugar!”.

When poverty reached its peak, between 1990 to 1992, thanks to its women, Villa el Salvador held its own. The Government decided to grant free kerosene to all the comedores in Peru, and Caritas was faced with the great problem of distributing it while preventing theft and waste. Fr Gaspare Margottini continued: “I remember a very tense meeting with the national branch of Caritas. In addition to Sr Rosa, at my side, there was a representative of the people, presenting a robust defense. He was clutching in his hand the keys of Villa el Salvador’s four kerosene distributors and when he noticed some reticence toward him, he tossed them on to the table right in front of the President of Caritas as if to say, “if you don’t trust us, deal with it yourselves”. And in the end with impressive team work we all saw to it together. Within a week we had become organized. Whereas in the rest of the country they were still discussing the problem. At dawn endless lines of women were waiting for the ration of kerosene for their comedor. I went round giving out the tickets for it and by noon lunch was ready”.

So with tenacity and dignity Villa el Salvador forged ahead and in 1992, when the economy gradually began to recover, the food emergency diminished. Nevertheless, poverty is still endemic today: in the desert periphery hunger still afflicts a large part of the population of 400,000. There are far fewer comedores. They are gradually closing, but some are being converted into fixed-menu restaurants where for one and-a-half soles the host offers a complete meal and a joyful welcome. In the meantime the female architects of the community’s future for more than a decade have changed radically. Many of them are entering politics or continuing to fight for a more just world. They are inspired by the example of Maria Elena Moyano, who grew up with the smoke and smells of the comedores from the age of 12. She became Adjunct Mayor of Villa el Salvador and was killed by a bomb on 15 February 1992 before the eyes of her children in a Shining Path attack. The previous day she had responded to the armed strike by guerrillas against the autonomy of the comedores by organizing a peace march. The following day thousands of people attended her funeral: “We women”, she wrote, “have great strength. We believe in what we are building, there is no need to be afraid. Things are not easy but neither are they impossible”.

Silvia Gusmano

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