Truth is a Mother — 10,000 words on El Carmen de Bolívar, Colombia
Overlooking Plaza Trinidad in a so-so pizza spot that had somehow becomes ‘ours,’ I watched two young women in tight blue, two-piece evening numbers step out of taxis, pulling their skirts down in false attempts at false modesty. When one raised her arms to brush her long black hair to one side, her skirt rode right back up, setting off a sexy-cause-and-effect that probably lasted well into the night, song after song after trago after trago of ron Medellín, until the whole shit just peeled off later, as I imagine it, in some 3-star hotel in Boca Grande, revealing not much more than the other bocas grandes we already know to be true of humans. On the curb, their compañeros — older, whiter, uglier — paid the taxista, adjusted their dinner jackets, and fussed over their button downs while watching their dates try to walk over the unevenly paved plaza in high heels, before stepping off the curb themselves, mesmerized, guided by the two incredible culonas in front of them leading the way with a steady rhythm of heavy, global ass.
B ate his croutons, expressing a new found love for ‘salad’ which he had never eaten much of. “Greens are good with a bunch of ranch, huh,” I said, signaling for the check. He crunched. I waded through my wallet getting money out, stumbling upon the image I had stuffed into my wallet as precious visual cargo before getting on a plane for Cartagena the previous July. I fished out the photo of my Mother, given to me on the eve of my travels by hers truly.
“Here! Take this.”
<It is impossible that I accidentally forget you, you know that, right?>
She doesn’t know. Perhaps she fears this is a possibility. So she gives me tokens of/from her; wide pants from the mid-aughts, non-descript, stretched-out skirts that probably cause infertility, stuff I might have liked in my childhood (you love embroidery!), etc. — it is a remember me and also a do-not-forget-me. How to love a person is a wildly interpreted act.
In the wallet-sized photo she is in her early 40s, maybe — hard to tell. Her hair is blown out and frames her oval face, her lipstick, a rich maroon with a bit of sheen, looks fresh, applied for the purposes of a staff shoot at the junior college where she taught for a number of years. Her smile comes naturally and although she is undeniably pretty, everything about the photo feels normal to my eyes and above all, mom-ish.
I show B the photo.
Whoa. His eyes widen. While chewing he says matter-of-factly, you know your Mother’s more beautiful than you, right? Just like that. And just like that, I nod back, fast, instinctively, not thinking. Yeah, yeah, I know that, sure. The shit is that I think I do know it, or at least have gathered that from external indicators. I was attempting, I think, to show him that I was beautiful, too, through the image of my Mother, by extension, maybe. Or, since we were sleeping together, I assumed that she wouldn’t register with him in that way at all. But a young man is a man is now an old man squeezing ass cheeks in overcrowded spaces. In those years I lost, away at college, I taped her image on the wall to make me feel pretty — by lineage. But I didn’t, I didn’t feel much for quite some time.
I hoped to show B where I come from and, should we spend more years together, where I’m going. My smile fades fast, my eyelids well up, and he puts his fork down and looks at me desperately: oh no…it’s a compliment. She’s beautiful is a compliment! I would be flattered if you told me my brother was more handsome than me! I nodded fast mm-hmm-mm-hmm, mm-hmm-mm-hmm. All of a sudden I was back in O’Brien’s grocery in Modesto, and some fucking horny male working in the produce department has ‘mistaken’ us for sisters, again, and again, I fade, and play the back, and I become an observer. I take on my Father’s task in his absence, and I watch the world reinforce what she relies on being reinforced: this necessary and expected beauty.
“Women and their Fathers” is a book we both read at some point in the last 15 years, though she has no memory of reading it. I couldn’t tell if the sections she had highlighted were read as a daughter or a mother. What an incredible feeling to find I am a textbook case some 20 odd years later. Someone has already written me, parsed me right down and condensed my experiences into symptoms, manifestations, representations, just like that. What’s astonishing is its accuracy.
Photo of the slide I scanned a few years back while in a cast at home in Greenpoint, recovering from a popped Achilles tendon. The frame is split into two distinct sides. In the background, on the left, a gorgeous woman in her late 20s soaks up the Colombian sun and the photographer’s attention. She is revelling in it, in all of it. She is one leg on a stair, doing a self-aware “I love the sun” type gaze that says “water me,” waiting for the shutter to click. She is aglow, warm, she is all things honey-soaked and sun-drenched. Nearby, in the foreground, out of the sun and into the shade, is a young, short pipona, quite literally a belly in saggy white underwear with a short curl reaching into the Frida part of her non-unibrow. Her arms are crossed, she is a dark cherub.
<I am Cupid in the Shade.>
I scanned all of the negatives from this particular afternoon’s shoot, reinforcing with each rendering what I fed myself to be true time and again. But nothing could possibly be so black and white, Ansel, nothing tastes as good as our own gospel, nothing is as split a frame as that short and naked pipona to the right and the angel on the left. Perhaps the pipona had interrupted the session, and there is another negative I haven’t seen where the pipona catches some of the light, illuminating the deep belly button and nubbin features that were just coming into life.
The check comes and goes. I gather my things. B doesn’t know how to get me back. He wishes he could. I wish he had never said anything. I wish I had not been arrogant enough to show him anything. But within a few seconds, through tears, I can’t really fault him, either. He is simply reading to me from my own book. Nothing is mysterious here, I know why I cry. My only defense, which means nothing, is to say, Well, I don’t care, she’s over 60 now. And less than a month later I will be back in California trying to calm my Mother down on the corner of Valencia Street and Planned Parenthood. “Won’t it be important, this decade and beyond? When you meet another partner he will know only that time has been kind to you and you to it! But he will know you now, as you are — are you closer now to that person you wish they could have seen back then?”
Question for the authorities: Does beauty ever fade?
I made my way outside, B ran after me, miserable, pleading. I had nothing to say except ‘it’s nothing / you’re right’ and ‘please don’t touch me.’ It wasn’t his fault — he had spoken the truth.
The day after, he brought me lunch, with money I didn’t know he had. I accepted, and then some. One cannot break your heart if you are not currently employing it. I packed my shit and headed to El Carmen, again, as planned.
I will miss you. I will miss you, too. Text me when you have reception. Sísa. See you in a month. Indeed. Talk talk talk talk talk
talk talk later.
Before I left for the bus station, I pressed ‘send’ on an email to his supervisors at Red Bus Tours; a travel agency that hadn’t paid him for decent, honest work in six months. They owed him and a handful of other employees for weeks and weeks of morning and afternoon tours, personal walking tours of the Old City, photos, information, tips, etc.. When a dickhead from Long Island would ask B “Hey, where the prostitutas at?!” B would say “Sorry, I do not have that information for you…bro.”
With offices from Miami to San Francisco and London to Milan I thought they might be a more well-oiled machine, but it turns out the Cartagena office had its own CEO, replete with flaky manager and incompetent accountant. We decided to write to the London office, so that I could be clear in communicating (in English) that he hadn’t been paid, as opposed to asking his local manager, who was clearly a dead end. We gave minimal information and asked simply if someone in the global accounting department could help get him paid. He cosigned, agreeing it would help elevate the issue, one that has never happened in any job I’ve ever worked. It seemed ridiculous, so me and my white-girl fingers typed an entitled and naîve email to the authorities, and then took the three-hour buseta ride back down to El Carmen.
Photo of the life-sized, 3-d painted indigenous man nestled into his shrine with offerings at his feet surrounded by my querido palitos de papaya at the intersection of Mountain Road with Mountain Road, somewhere after San Jacinto, near the empty, unmarked house with the burrito tied to the pole outside that had somehow become a legitimate bus stop.
Every time I got on the buseta headed back to Cartagena I would remind myself, Remember, ask the conductor to stop — that photo is going in your book. Offer to pay; you know personal favors can be bought here. And then I’d sit in the back, with my Hassie wrapped up in dirty underwear at the bottom of a decade old North Face backpack whose label I had cut off with blunt tools to prevent strangers from potentially eyeballing it. The 3-d shrine at Mountain Road with Mountain Road passed me by every time; Fuuuuuuck, that’s my goddamn photograph.
Back at Sara’s and Lucho’s, the old married couple from whom I had rented a room in April when I showed up for what I thought would be a steady two months of shoot shoot shoot, shower / platano / shoot shoot shoot / pan de yucca / sleep, write, I put my motetes down in the small, hot room off the patio, and sprawled across the twin bed covered in sheets made of 100% rayonpolyesterblend, and stared at the abanico mounted above me oscillating right and left while I sang its praises in my head: what a beautiful, technological win for members of high, dry, mountain communities. God bless you, goddamnit, #SoyFanFan!
How was Cartagena? asked Doña Sara. GREAT, I brag. Did some applications, needed consistent internet connection, tu sabe. She doesn’t care. And she really shouldn’t. What I was trying to research there she has lived. She has multiple spaces between her teeth which make her look much younger than she is. And I liked that she was larger than Lucho, whom she met at 17. I wanted to study first, because my parents couldn’t read. Lucho cooks, she eats. He cleans, she heads off to church. But when he’s not there, she locks up all the doors by habit and I stand outside of the the gate yelling ‘Aloooooo, Saraaaaaa, Luchoooooooo.’ And then I wait for the shuffle and the locating and then gathering of keys and the unlocking of big locks and the pace, my lord, the pace; no one is in a hurry in this pueblo. Where would we go anyway? She tells me a few stories about all of that other stuff, sensing my curiosity about El Carmen and who-hid-whom-where-when-so-and-so-entered-town.
“One day,” she says, “there was a new girl, younger than the rest, joining us older ladies in la cancha for morning exercise. She just showed up, didn’t say why or from where she was coming. A day prior, I had been walking to the cancha to meet my friends for exercise and a woman says ‘Are you Sara Arias?’ I said ‘Don’t know who that is,’ and kept walking. I walked past and around the cancha and came back home and told Lucho DE.UNA.! The next week or so I didn’t go to the cancha, but the younger girl kept coming back and no one knew why. After a few weeks she eventually left.”
“Was this woman an informer? A guerrillera or paraco? What did they think you’d possibly done?!” I asked.
“We don’t know. I was involved in nothing but community radio at the time, and I’ve always gone to church. You can’t enter a pueblo the size of El Carmen and ask for people by name; it puts people on edge, and suspicion is immediate, especially in those days when each armed group was accusing civilians of belonging to one group or another.”
That Sara Arias was ever potentially seen as a target by any armed group confirms that this war has — long ago — dissolved into pure misfires. “She was a casualty of war” is a phrase you shouldn’t have to write in the future, like “falso-positivos” or “degollamiento” or “desaparecidos.”
Sara gave me a book of photography about downtown Amsterdam made by a Dutch guy who stayed with them in the 90s. I imagine sending her my book someday and returning triumphant with some signed copies, an envoy of big men, old iPhones for the youth, a contractor to build the first ever Montes de Maria public swimming pool, maybe some doctors who have no borders, and maybe just maybe, an entire electrical company who has arrived to put in some real work.
Quick question for the authorities: Why do you think this part of the Caribbean has not benefited from the enormous PR scheme bringing millions in revenue to Cartagena each year?
I hope the book I send to Sara and Lucho will contain the image of the girl sitting on a rock, feet flat on the ground, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin on her fists during her soccer match outside of La Suissa’s school in Nariño. She started rearranging her ponytail while I had the Hassie out. The boy whose image I had wanted that day was too cool for school, too cool to stay enrolled, in fact, but had knowingly posed on his moto nearby. He entertained my interest with reluctant rejection. “So are you ready today?” I asked him, “Because I am.” He pursed his lips Naaaaaw, he drawled. “Vale mia,” I said, “la proxima, entonces,” and kept it moving, clearing myself of his nervous, curious energy.
What could too-cool-for-school do now? A decade or so ago he could have found work in some sector of the tobacco industry, as an option, but now there isn’t one. El Carmen was the epicenter, employing more women than men because of their finer manual dexterity. The veredas, from San Juan to Camaroncito, were becoming mini centers of production, and working within the industry was just another part of being a member of the working class in that region. Kids went to school because their teachers were paid to teach (novel idea) and local transportation ran daily. But an armed group fucked it up, destroying and derailing any system of self-sufficiency that the region had worked so hard to establish for itself — no small feat.
Every few days or so the water would go out at Sara and Lucho’s.Who knows why? was the rhetorical answer that was never good enough for me. I would huff and puff and as if anyone cared I would protest by not showering until the water came back on, but shower or not, I always looked the same. This was only a problem when I got diarrhea and tummy pains for three days, following what I believe to have been a contaminated soup made primarily of decapitated pig’s head brought to a boil with a couple of green onions tossed in for flavor.
Deris made this soup for me on her sister’s abandoned plot of land, the day I met the boy on the burrito who had nothing to say, in front of the thatch-roofed shelter that housed his mother, father, his rumpled blond toddler of a sister, and his four siblings, who were all already working. Also sharing the space were several generations of chickens, turkeys, dogs, cats, and pigs. The rumpled toddler was too young to work but was confusing it with play.
Boiling in the clear water, over a resilient fire in the open air, the hair on the chinny chin chin of this fucking pig was visible; its face looked exactly like those plastic masks of ex-presidents worn at Halloween frat parties.
You know what? I had told Deris, I’m too hot to eat — still full from breakfast! but that answer was not good enough for her. I looked into the pool of pig-head-water and sipped, trying to locate and access my sense of appreciation and adventure. I immediately began to feel the ills of the pig particles settling somewhere in my system, and found acceptance instead. Over the next three days, I only ate saltines, grateful nothing worse was happening internally, peed exclusively neon yellow, and waited for the water to be turned back on. I passed these days by cursing on the hour every hour.
At night, in the tiny bed with my feet dangling off the edge, I pretended to write but just stared at the absent bars implying no internet connection, wishing the windows were open so that I could breathe. Ultimately, I chose sweat over fear. Outside in the patio and everywhere else in El Carmen, night was just that, pitched and blacked-out, and I could imagine only the worst: Colombian Seal Team 6 repelling down into my room for no reason other than that I was there, in the pueblo, poking around with gringo film and gringo questions.
Deris had introduced me to a man named Oscar who had in turn introduced me not only to the ex-mayor of El Carmen but to a widespread public health issue affecting school-aged girls in surrounding veredas who had been falling ill since 2013 due to a ‘mysterious disease,’ as the local papers — and a couple of newsy outlets like Yahoo/MSN/Jezebel — had been calling it, too. There was no real mystery, however, other than why the first lawyer who agreed to take on the girls’ case was stripped of his attorney’s license.
Photo of Andrea against the bush of bougainvillea next to her casita in Caracolí, arms crossed. Photo of her sitting quietly next to me, listening to her Mother recount, symptom by symptom, how she had changed so drastically over the past year.
First, she fainted, then became absent, then lost her appetite, and now she’s an insomniac. At one point she hallucinated and thought everyone around her was touching her. She begged people to get off her while repeating “I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine!” though obviously she was not. Another time she cried that she was burning from within her chest cavity and couldn’t ‘get out’ or ‘scratch’ away the burning sensations. She continues to miss school because nothing has been diagnosed and as such, cannot be prevented, either.
Photo of Andrea watching as her sister and I review her English grammar book. Photo of her three younger brothers repeating everything I said — ‘rrrrehd, orrrrangh, jellowwww, green, blooo, porple.’ Photo of Andrea the last time I was there, complimenting my cheap glasses, bubbly, like a real 13-year-old should be, asking me when I’ll get married, what kind of phone I have. Photo of me by Andrea, full body, amidst the banana plants and mango trees behind their house, sweating, red, in loose, ugly clothes. I pretended to pick a mango for the photo. She liked the way the shutter sounded. I should have left her my glasses.
In the early morning, Lucho and Sara rifle through their pots and plates and fill buckets that double as a kitchen sink with water, encouraging me to wake up before the sun turns on. The first email I read is from Red Bus Tours, asking me for the names of employees not paid for their services and that I was, sadly, equivocada, because “…We are going to find out regarding this case…we really need to know who the guide is [who has not been paid] and have more information about him in order to do a rigorous research.” Nah. Neither B nor his 4 compañeros would ‘come forward’ and tell their bosses they hadn’t been paid in six months. Whistleblowin’ is some shit you just don’t do there, like when you
far postin’ / and you far from home, and /
The email accused me of defamation, that I was ‘welcome’ to come into their office, and that, if what I was saying was true (despite being completely false and unacceptable) to please announce myself! Name signed, CEO tal persona, address, email, phone number.
That was defensive, I thought. I just wanted him to get paid. I wrote back that I was no longer in Cartagena, and that I was sure they would figure it out. My wheels always get turning too slowly, too late. I began thinking that writing London was neither helpful nor smart and that I was in a country where honesty is not always the best policy — and that I fucking talk too much. I had called them out, and someone would have to protect their good name. How to silence a talkative gringa? Fuck. Fuck fuck.
Across the street, El Don Don had been up since at 5 am, shirtless, melding metal; doing the same shit he had done since he was a teen, burning and shaping thin pieces of tin into things he could sell for his family. Where he worked in the front room looked like the personal closet of the Tin Man — a hat here, maybe a sleeve here, some metal shorts here I mean I really have no idea, I lacked vocabulary in either language for the metal pieces that hanged and leaned about that room. I told him it looked like an artist’s studio the first time I met him. That did not move him. Well, “What blue eyes you have,” I told him the next time. That moved him a little bit. A corny line but I meant it! Eventually he took to grabbing my hand every time I passed by and I would yell Where is your wife?! And he would point to the back, and out she would shuffle with their 5 year old granddaughter, who also lived there.
Abuelita emerges wearing a knee-length skirt made decades ago that does not necessarily match in fabric, hue, or design the blouse also made several decades ago, when she had breasts or was working. Shrunken arms inside cap sleeves, a slip visible from the gaps in space between skin and button and fabric. Her sidekick is a most beautiful baby girl, brown with skinny limbs covered with baby fur, in cotton shorts with no pockets and a white cotton t-shirt that says something that didn’t pass quality control in Hong Kong like: “Wink Wink for the Boys” or “Flirt Friends Flower Dolls” or “Just take me to the Paradise and I’m Relax” etc. etc. El Don Don is and has always been too busy welding steel and making coffee pots from scratch to deal with kids.
On that same street, headed towards the main plaza and big Catholic church, I would always pass countless little uniformed babies on their way to nursery school mounted on the handlebars of bikes or motos driven by their Fathers, who were probably moto taxistas. No need for helmets. Their baby hairs had usually been coerced into silky, bouncy ponytails, their shoes and socks and shirts were clean, they didn’t smile at strangers. I would think about this and my baby cousin and her dad, my Tio, and I’d imagine him taking her to school in Cali somewhat like this when she was a little monita and how different/same our lives could have been here/there. By the end of this daydream, I would enter the Plaza and reawaken to the sounds of El Perífono on the megaphone, working out of a discount store off the plaza square:
“Shirts pants 1.99 youwon’tbelieveit shirts and pants all for 1.99 youveneverheardofabetterdeal…Sara…Saraaaaa…where have you been I’ve been worried about you… shirtsandpantsfor1.99 wowoowoww.”
El Perifono was the man who’d always appear when I was thinking dangerous thoughts: Why is that man walking past with that machete?
Why won’t those men laying cement not shut the fuck up about hiss hiss mami mami — and on the day I gave it to them EAT SHIT MOTHERFUCKERS he swooped in out of the blue with chepacorina in his hand and –
“Sara! Toma Sara, a ti te gusta la chepacorina? Mejor dejar esa porqueria alli, no sabes quienes son ni con quien andan. Vamos, Sara, olvidate de ellos, vamos.”
And he would escort me into the plaza and I would thank him and he would start in with the conspiracy theories and I would remind myself to shut my fucking mouth and to bid farewell now. Politics here is as simple as with whom you were seen exiting the bakery.
Perhaps it was because of the night thoughts, my isolation, talking to older Carmeros, and the emails between my Father and I that spoke about a very real sense of ‘impunity on the Caribbean Coast’ that I began to see and feel it, nine months into my stay. I had seen some marches in the name of human rights, I had been to some community meetings, I had witnessed theater and therapy marry in recreating the rapes, pillaging, and murders that most of the women I met in Cartagena had lived through. I had met people who still had not seen justice for friends wrongfully incarcerated, for houses and history and property lost. And I had just been very mildly pressed for information that in the States would not have felt like anything other than casual conversation. Women here were always telling me to play my cards close, to not give everything away too quick or make it easy to take advantage of me. I didn’t understand that method of getting to know a person. I believed in pure transparency. But perhaps this is why in all of the “interviews I conducted” with women and campesinos from Cartagena to Los Montes it never really felt like I was the one inquiring. Perhaps one doesn’t strive to “get to know one another” as flippantly as we do over beers and pizza in the U.S.
Here there is no apolitical: What will you gain by knowing this specific person?
I just wanted B to get paid — simple. But alone, fearful, I twisted it in my head that I would head back to Cartagena and that I would be found dead or some shit in Getsemaní without my cell-phone; the CEO’s henchman would have made it look like any old robbery attempt.
“Well, we tell all tourists to keep their iPhones in the hotel,” the police would say.
<In that book about Fathers and Daughters they say that daughters who have experienced a father’s absence — because of death, desertion, divorce — often take on something of their father in his absence. Perhaps it starts with keeping old things of his, or rifling through familiar photos and taking on an air of something in them, a hat, an expression, a method. Perhaps the daughter wears old clothes left behind, inhabiting, physically, a space she thinks is his.>
Photo of me on my 5th birthday with the sun in my eyes at Ocean Beach, taken by my Father. Photo of me driving past Ocean Beach in the following years feeling like that was the only year, just, that was the only year. Photo of me incapable of becoming the type of woman I thought I’d be. Photo of me falling in love with a European who never had any intention of staying in the U.S.
The day after I met two families in Caracolí and two mothers who lived by the old lagoon in El Carmen whose daughters had been suffering from adverse reactions to the HPV vaccine, Oscar, bless his corazón-zone, introduced me to the ex-mayor of El Carmen. I had seen him earlier that day for a trip to El Sala’o, where the massacre of 2000 is still palpable in the scent, movement, and stares of its inhabitants. The town’s center for older folks was a still life in itself, every day watching itself go by: one abuelito staring out the window watching nothing roll by, hand on chin. Another abuelito on the bench inside, watching an office employee do light paperwork. I suggested a light stretching and walking class for the old folks but I sensed some push back from the room with regards to ‘exercise’ –Fair enough, I said, I, too, believe that the act of looking is in itself a worthy act.
At the end of the walkabout, under an indiscriminate sun, we gathered by the bodeguita where I bought soda and water for everyone (Omer, T., son of T, Xavier, Oscar, Oscar’s taxista) before heading back to El Carmen on the three trusty motos.
Photo of the massacre site, F32 at high noon: bent metal, rusted reds, green weeds over flat grey concrete; absolutely no one plays here. Photo of the inside of the church from a hole in the wall. Photo of the chicken hanging upside down, with blood draining out of its neck from a tree nearby. Photo of the man who looked like the Marlboro Man himself, headed to his friend’s house, f5.6, 1/60 in the shade, shirtless, cowboy hat on.
Photo of the young Afro-Colombian who had just joined the military and had carried with him some assault rifle to the bodega. Photo of the sweat on his brow, holding, threatening to roll down the sides of his face. Photo of his adolescent hands cradling the massive weapon.
On the ride back we yelled ‘adiooooooooooooos‘ at the men working along the dusty carretera lying down cement to make it an actual carretera — how were they working in heavy long-sleeved cotton uniforms? Their work stretched for weeks, maybe years, along the many back roads used by FARC and militia and the others to access veredas from El Carmen to El Sala’o.
<‘Adiooooooooooos!’ — The Montes de Maria equivalent of “aloha” >
These backroads are unmarked and roll only slightly. Their colors are indicative of The Artist’s paw strokes — whatever The Artist looks like to you — when it was making Colombia. The Artist did so by dropping a hefty, oily mass of juicy greens right where the Amazon grows. From there, The Artist smeared green with its paws up north and west, over Bogota, Cali, and Salento, up into Los Montes, and by the time its paws reached the Caribbean and La Guajira, there were only a few places where its paw pads could continue distributing green paint. There, dried clay, tan, coconut shell brown, yellow, gold, and papaya tree green abound; and the cemeteries are white, as are the Sunday clothes. Nestled off the road about an acre or so are casitas, made of cement or cin or other natural materials. You only see people on burro or moto, and if a large vehicle rounds the curve, the moto swerves to the side of the road and you bury your face in your shirt, squinting and spitting out the dust inside your cheeks, like a cartoon cat whose teeth have been bashed in by a mouse with a mallet, and set to fall out one by one like piano keys… Ptooey.
I wonder what you are supposed to say when you live in one of these natural-fiber houses and someone comes to blow your house down, take your shit, intimidate, or rough you up. There isn’t any lock in any part of Los Montes capable of keeping anyone out who wants in. This is the kind of place where one could live in continued peace off the land, or the type of place where if you starved in the hills up behind the church where the massacre occurred, you might never be found, and your story would not be unique.
Photo of the last stretch of road headed into El Carmen. Photo of the dead tree shaped like a cross, covered with a solid coating of invasive vines that outlined and accentuated the shape of the cross. Photo of me shaking my head in disappointment, again, as we zoomed under the cross while touching the Hassie in my bag, loaded with film. Goddamnitshit. Photo of my mouth tightly pursed in judgement-of-self as our motos sent up dust in the air behind us, one…two…three, like smoke we exhaled, like blowing kisses to the dead made from their own crumbled bones.
Three hours later I was showered and back in the plaza.
Saraaaa, Sara soy yo, Oscar. Quiero que conozcas alguien importante. Nos vemos en la plaza en media hora.
What did people assume about me as a Gringa, really? That perhaps I had more access to news outlets. That perhaps I had more money than some countrymen. That perhaps I had answers, resources, and access. That perhaps, even if I had said, “I’m a first grade teacher and I like to take photos of my feet in the sand” that Oscar still would have introduced me to the families of these young girls who had been given the HPV vaccine without parental consent and to people like H., the ex-mayor of El Carmen.
Oscarrrrr, que mas? Y éste man que? Porque quieres que yo le conozca?
We roll up to Dude’s house and are met by the housekeeper, a woman with a tight, black ponytail of heavy hair, dressed casually. The house is bigger than any I’ve been in around here; each room has framed photos, the floor is smooth and sweepable. We step over his parents’ legs, both seated in La-Z-Boys, watching something on the television next to each other but not together. I shake their hands, we continue out to the patio.
Oscar has brought his friend T., from El Sala’o; a tall, restless man who birthed an even more restless son, always in motion, trustworthy but uncouth, spitting here and there, inside and outside, raising his eyebrows in judgement when someone declined an image from me. He had been proud to show us around his vereda, which included a trip to his mother’s abode, a mostly empty house that smelled slightly of urine and had a house cat tied up out back with a simple piece of string. His mother, born in 1930, could barely hear; one had to shout at her to get any bit of conversation across. Her legs were white and bony, her back was hunched and her spine hit that kind of plastic chair endemic to the region at an aggressive slope. The scene was sparse, a single curtain — petal pink — divided her bed from the rest of the room, the walls were outgrowing themselves and had begun to crack. The chicks out back had bald patches where feathers should have been, the white horse Oscar was petting had sunken spaces in between each rib. It was a skeleton of a house. I sat in the doorway changing film frantically. “1930!” T. yelled to me. I nodded in amazement. The sister made us hot coffee and served it to us in tiny plastic cups.
In the meantime, Oscar mounted the white horse and saddled over, continuing to try and get me to convert to Christianity.
“Sara! Yo sé porque estás aqui!”
“We’ve been over this, Oscar!”
Oscar should be on a Colombian money note, I thought: Postobón jersey and blue jeans sitting on a white horse in a backyard in El Sala’o, holding a tiny plastic cup of coffee, equal parts sugar.
Photo of the Doña in between a petal pink wall and a petal pink curtain. Photo of her slim shins, no calves like before she could walk.
The Mayor wore a slightly sweaty white t-shirt and baggy black swim trunks. He was barefoot and immediately offered me water, like a good host would. I wasn’t sure what the agenda was or who was leading this conversation. He asked me how I liked the visit to El Sala’o. Oscar and T. stood nearby, watching. I could tell Oscar admired this man somewhat, but I was immediately thrown by his eye contact, which stuck to my face a little bit too much. His intensity did not convey he was listening with great care or empathy, just that his gaze was sticky, his pupils too liquid, and his jaw too tight; He was being maneuvered from within by some prescription drug. In a hand motion he made while sitting next to me, a different side of him — a repressed side — flashed bright, it was unmistakable. I did the same: repressed my thought — nah, a gay mayor could never get elected in these mountains.
Photo of the housekeeper folding laundry behind him in the patio. Photo of me momentarily considering if my water was poisoned. Photo of me looking at Oscar to please say something.
In an email dated May 9th of this year, my Father sends an email to my Mother and I, regarding the “hairy business this of acting as advocate against injustice in a country famous precisely on this account.” The emails between the CEO and myself had come to a head and I had continued hallucinating out in the field about who awaited me back in Cartagena while trying to interview these girls and their mothers about the HPV vaccine crisis. Is the house where I was staying safe, despite its neighboring a police station? How much would it cost to change my flight? He continues saying that these messages should probably stop — they did — and that I should make myself scarce.
My father finishes the email with three words: País de mierda!
These three simple words emptied the room. (Oh right, you left long ago).
On these three simple words I now hang my coat. (It was another thinly veiled attempt at proximity to the man).
These three simple words said everything about the possibility of living everyone’s life but my own. (I have been living a life of gestures).
Well then, I thought, I should like to see Uruguay next time.
When there was nothing left to say (that one is a truculent gringa does not a conversation make) I turn to the ex-Mayor and try to appeal to the former lawyer in him.
Doctor, can I ask you something? Does this scenario sound potentially dangerous to you, given the severity of threats, the cc-ing of legal advisors from the CEO Rosario, the fact that the Cartagena office seems to be a front for something shady that the London office does not know about…
<Rosario who? his pupils narrowed.>
The Ceo is Rosario — you know them?
<Let me see their address and number please,> he demanded curtly.
Conversation over. That information could be traced back to me.
<If this is the Rosario I think it is, you…you should just give me the information. The Rosario I know is wanted by a number of agencies, including my office. They stole aqueduct money here in El Carmen and was part of Uribe’s cabinet. You know who Uribe is, don’t you? What he did? What he can still do? We don’t know where they are; but you have the information there, easy, just like that, in your phone. So what neighborhood did you say that Red Bus Tours office was? Let me write it down.>
I shut off my phone. When I leave El Carmen I’ll send you any relevant information, I said.
Well, he pulls the sweaty white t-shirt out from under his teticas. Would you like to have lunch on Friday? he asked.
Yes, of course, I lied. Oscar? Lunch on Friday?
In notes I had frantically written in my phone from that day is something about truth and its impressive ability to bubble to the top, to pop the surface, to break through cement, lies, time. The Truth is inevitable; even liars have a couple versions. I jotted down, with a hundred typos, that the only way to get at the truth is to embed it in secrets between friends or inside baked goods or splattered as if a joke on bathroom walls or in code…
…’those sniffing around for the truth or who expect truth to be the bare minimum of a society will be those who…’ thought unfinished.
The next morning I took a moto to Deris’ house. She has the only soft, indoor cat in El Carmen, and a determined father who’s learning how to read at 84. I hugged him goodbye the first day I met him and I hugged the Christian missionary, too, a family friend, who was teaching him how to read and write in the afternoons after he returned from picking aguacates.
Photo of Deris’ father sitting outside of the house in a desk chair made for elementary school children, learning how to read and write, his feet in chanclas crossed underneath him, the circumference of his eyes beginning to line with signs of cataracts, his white hair offsetting his under-the-sun skin.
That week Deris had accompanied me to visit two mothers in Caracolí and another three, closer to where she lived, whose daughters were also suffering from receiving a couple of doses of the HPV vaccine. Finding myself interviewing mothers and daughters about the crisis was just another instance of chance meetings based solely off of my gringa-ness — Sahara, Oscar and Deris said, you should come to Caracolí, there’s some women you need to meet.
You guys know I’m just working with the University in Cartagena, right? I don’t work for a newspaper.
Yes, they said, shrugging their shoulders. Meet you in the plaza at 7:30 am.
So I went.
In September, I had accompanied La Defensora to the cadena humana, or ‘human chain,’ comprised of campesinos from every vereda in the Montes de Maria region, holding hands along the carretera stretched out from around San Jacinto to as far as it could stretch towards El Carmen. They were there with a basic list of demands that had consistently been ignored or put on the back burner by the government: light, internet, protection when needed, water, paved roads. There, I had seen a number of men I later recognized at the Office of Victims while working on a portrait project, and met a few young adults who participated in Sembrando Paz’s youth leadership program in the Montes region year round.
The first morning we were there, on our way to the cadena humana, I accompanied La Defensora on a house visit to talk to a mother whose daughter was suffering from first-time, out-of-the-ordinary health issues. As I sat on the curb in front of the mother and La Defensora, staring out to my right down the road considering whether or not to take a quick walk around the block towards a rose bush smattered with light against a green wall, I noticed her young daughter, about 11, come outside with her little sister and ask her mother for money to buy a yogurt at the corner store. Her mother gave her the money, and while she was standing there, introduced her to La Defensora, who looked down at her legs and back up to her face, giving her the once over, assessing her limbs and touching her ankles and knees like a wounded colt. As the girls walked towards the store, having not heard the conversation myself, I noticed the older daughter walking as if she couldn’t straighten her right leg; it was locked, and she was walking on the ball of that foot because her heel couldn’t reach the ground.
I rounded the corner to take said image of smattered light over said rose bush against green wall before we had to shove off to the plaza. I met Oscar that morning but didn’t know it then. He had come by to show La Defensora the paperwork he had begun keeping from each new case that popped up of a girl exhibiting symptoms from la vacuna. He was showing La Defensora the kind of information they were collecting and updating her about the organization he had formed with the parents of affected girls, including Deris, but La Defensora, because of precautions and political alliances, was careful not to fully support their claims or condemn the putrid vaccine flat out that had caused, at that time, 300+ girls to fall ill, but listened, instead, with care and concern. At first, after finally understanding what was going on, I was enraged that she hadn’t immediately denounced the Ministry of Health. She has connections, they don’t! They are hurting, she isn’t! Isn’t she the peoples’ champ!?
She is, and also she must live.
Photo of La Defensora walking with Oscar in a bright yellow jersey, carrying a clipboard of data, a walking office doing the work a hospital or NGO should be doing, trying to get the Defensora to listen. Photo of me understanding only the following words: issue, girls, limbs, pain, hospital, multiple girls, sickness. Photo of the affected girl walking to the corner store with one leg bent like an injured gazelle.
Eight months later, at a coffee shop with the only cross-breeze in town, I sat with Oscar A. Mendoza as he told me about The Ministry of Health arriving in March of 2012 to vaccinate the girls of El Carmen and surrounding veredas with the HPV vaccine. Some girls were vaccinated between one and three times, but some began presenting symptoms that very year after just one vaccination. Each girl manifested differently — fainting, pain in arms or legs, frozen limbs, temporary blindness. Some suffer from seizures, some hallucinate, some stare at the wall all night long and don’t sleep, some do not remember anything from the episodes wherein they convulsed. By the time I was in El Carmen the number of affected girls had grown by another 400. I was told by one family in Caracolí that her girls went to school one day and were rounded up by the nurses and pricked with needles; no notices had gone home asking permission from their parents. The same family told me that one affected girl, from a wealthy family, was sent off to Bogota to be treated by a big city doctor. The doctor told the family he was happy to treat the girl but would only do so on the condition that the girl’s family did not publicize what she was being treated for, nor would he share his findings. The majority of girls in El Carmen and surrounding areas, however, have never been to Cartagena, let alone Bogota; 90% of the population (an accurate estimate) live below the poverty line.
YouTube videos from girls of a similar age to those in El Carmen corroborate these claims. They, too, fainted. They, too, used to be active. They, too, know it was the HPV that fucked them up. The difference is that the young girls of El Carmen are not encouraged to seek medical attention or accuse their system of malpractice. Their parents can barely get their own city officials to listen let alone make a phone call to Bogota; forget about writing an email to third party organizations. Communication is stymied — people rely on word-of-mouth communication, the kindness of strangers, the grace of God. The politicians know this; their toxic politics rely on it. Perhaps most dangerously, politics are seeping into the public health care system — what little that means to begin with — at the expense of the girls’ well being.
The girls from El Carmen, unlike their contemporaries in Argentina, Japan, or Australia, where the vaccine has been banned entirely, cannot access any institution or doctor willing to treat them without fear or skepticism. They cannot treat the actual problem without feeling like they are also engaging in a political issue in the process. Almost every single mother in El Carmen doesn’t give a fuck about the pharmaceutical company and the back-room deals they assume have occurred, they just say: Please treat my daughter. The “get yours,” perro-come-perro type environment infiltrates upwards into those-in-power almost as much, if not more, than those living in more desperate economic situations — not totally unlike politics anywhere else, but the shit of it is that corruption here does not skip over or spare the powerless or less ‘blessed.’ Here the corruption infiltrates hasta la casita del perro, as they say.
Photo of ShyGirl and I on the homemade wood bench outside of her casita in Caracolí, wishing I would shut up. Underneath the palm-leaved-thatched hut roams the chinito-burrito and Kimberly, la gordita más linda del mundo entero. Photo of ShyGirl almost opening up to me about the day she fainted. Photo of her overworked hands at 14, tugging at the other, never at rest and anxious. Photo of an adolescence overlooked. Photo of her loud mother coming up to sit with us, pointing the finger at “ouija board-like” games children play at school. Photo of my eyebrows when the devil is mentioned.
Her mother wouldn’t take her to the hospital again for two reasons: she doesn’t have money to get there by moto and secondly, if she were to arrive at the hospital in El Carmen, she would most likely be handed an IV bag and told to go home and get some rest. The girls arrive at the hospital much less frequently than they did last September, but when they do, the nurses and staff whisper to each other: Miraaaa, llegó otra actriz.
Three more pandebonos please, I tell the waitress. Xavier, T, and I are recording Oscar’s account of the ongoing situation.
“First, 13 girls in Espiritu Santo en barrio Los Mangoes were vaccinated in 2012 and in June of 2013 they presented with headaches, convulsions, seizure, and loss of feeling.” From here on out, El Carmen was put on high alert. Oscar relays that the parents of the girls knew immediately it was the vaccine making the girls faint, convulse, lose feeling. He stresses that some fathers sold their motos to pay for medical treatment of their respective girls. This is the equivalent of selling the family’s only cow — they lose either food or money or both, and in this case, transportation, as well — in the process.
Quick question for the authorities: Can 700 mothers ever be wrong?
Details of where the vaccine came from are murky — I read one account in a VICE Colombia article and I heard a different story completely from a friend of Beatrice in Caracolí, the petite and powerful lady in red who did not need water on the walk up the road to her daughters’ school where I drank 3 full bottles for the both of us. When we arrived, the Head of Administration talked loudly at both Beatrice and I about how the girls needed to rest, implying that those who had fainted or continued to “think” it was the vaccine that’s done them harm just need to take better care of themselves — “don’t run around so much.” Beatrice sat in silence, watching her oldest daughter recover from an earlier incident on a gym mat on the floor of the nurse’s office, absorbing the Administrator’s bravado and aggressive defensiveness.
When we returned to her casita, I sat with her oldest girl and worked through some English vocabulary. Beatrice was in the outdoor kitchen making rice a la lata while her three boys (one pair of twins) ran around play fighting as ducks and geese roamed the property entering the latrine indiscriminately and shitting everywhere — Get them out of the latrine; they’re shitting in it! The ducks and geese and boys were all the same chaos to Beatrice. I glanced over at her husband, on his day off, sitting in a chair under the clothes hanging to dry in a daze.
<So you’re a Christian woman, I asked. And is your husband?
No. He’s not.
You’ve been married a long time eh?
Yes, a long time.
Does he go to church with you?
Oh. Does he help you with all this shit you have to do — cook, clean, laundry, fold, dress kids, feed, put to sleep, wake up, deal with doctors/la vacuna issue…?
No, he doesn’t.
Her skinny arms inside a red cotton button down struggle to mash a formidable pile of ñame inside a huge bowl — ñame day in and day out. With egg, if money allows, with avocado, if they can get some for free at the top of the hill.
So why did you get married?
I don’t know.>
Beatrice’s friend tells the story of the vaccine arriving via San Juan, a pueblito off the carretera about one hour outside of El Carmen. It came directly from The Ministry of Health in Bogota and then through Cartagena via the boyfriend of a woman who was with the Health Department at the time but no longer, who didn’t have the qualifications nor the equipment to properly transport a vaccine of any kind. The story goes that he stopped in San Juan overnight instead of driving all the way to El Carmen from Cartagena, went to a bar, got drunk, fell asleep at a hotel, and picked up for El Carmen the next morning, vaccine in tow. (*Note: Anything left in a car in that region will raise in temperature acutely — from my red face to yours). There is one account I heard from another girl in Caracolí, who mentioned the vaccine feeling ‘hot’ upon entering her system. Hot vaccine or not, these accounts produce a similar reaction to hearing about Fujimoto-sterilizing-indigenous-women-in-Peru or Syphilis-testing-occurring-in-prison type scandals. Gardasil, the brand of HPV vaccine released by MERCK, was pushed onto the market within 6 months. The CDC calls it “safe and effective,” and yet… What would better serve a population that has limited access to the internet (and information in general), hospitals, and health clinics, is a regularly scheduled, annual doctor’s visit and more preventative care initiatives, not a mislabeled and illegally administered business deal, served to the people as a public health move made in their ‘best interests.’
The Ministry continues to defend its thesis: Que no era la vacuna.
In an email dated later that week, my Mother asks where have I been all day? She never sends worried messages. She had messaged me a few times throughout the day, but I had been out visiting la gordita mas fina, Kimberly, with ShyGirl and her other sisters, playing in the overgrown jungle behind the casita in Caracolí. The girls had led me out beyond where they kept the burrito and his mother towards their neighbor’s trees from which they sometimes had to steal fruit. The path eventually led to a dry river bed, dropping off about 10 feet down to the softer dirt below. On the other side, overgrown paths disappeared into the hills towards the veredas. The girls cleared the path for me, swatting branches out of my way and looking back at me every few seconds to make sure I was ok. They led me to a cacao tree where they grabbed one and busted it open, handing me a pulpy seed I had never tasted before. They raised their eyebrows in anticipation. Excellent, I confirmed.
Photo of la niña who had been hit by a car outside of the casita on the carretera, recovering from head surgery that left a vicious scar curving down the right side of her head. Photo of her hair growing out around it, chewing on a cacao seed as she smiled at me in the midst of this amazon, earth under foot, in a turquoise, hand-me-down party dress. The sun was bouncing off the dress’s sequins, lighting her up like a bright little disco ball.
The messages continued from my mother.
Subject line: GET OUTTA TOWN
She mentions that she has spoken to her friend in public health in Washington DC and that they feel strongly one person should not be digging around for answers that lead to an even larger unraveling, one between a big time corporate pharmaceutical company and one of a developing nation’s most forgotten pueblos, unprotected.
Do not dilly dally in El Carmen, I believe were the words.
Another quick question for the authorities: Can one mother — let alone 700 — be wrong?
The most beautiful thing about my Mother is not, in fact, her noted beauty, but rather, that she’s always defended and sought the truth. She has spoken hers despite what it has cost her — jobs, relationships, social acceptance. She has risked cultural ‘insensitivity’ if what she was witnessing was wrong. She was the one who dived in to scoop a girl up off the cement outside a nightclub in Cali whose boyfriend was swinging away at her in public. Those who had circled around to watch told her not to involve herself — it’s not your story! It’s their problem!
She has never caved to superstition, like me or my Father. She does not believe in signs, despite her romanticism. Where I ponder a black sparrow belly up on the street for possible meaning, frozen on its back with its stick straight claws reaching into the air with rigor mortis, she says only Ew, a dead bird — let’s keep walking! She draws hard lines in the sand when she has to; there is nothing wrong with setting something in stone. The real beauty here is that she is unlike any woman for miles.
We are seated in a house made of sticks and mud in Deris’ neighborhood where S. and her mother are watching T.V. in the afternoon. I am wedged in the doorway looking out onto the flat terrain of the barrio. They stare at the TV while I compete for her mother’s attention trying to learn more details about the vacuna, its effects, and what now.
“She’s fine,” says her Mother. “But across the street, where Magali lives, her girl, who was in the 11th grade, is pregnant now, and has been sick on top of the pregnancy and dropped out. She doesn’t eat, and she’s six months pregnant!” She shakes her head.
What now? I wonder. If university is for the wealthy and there are already enough moto drivers in the region, what now? If there are enough empanada vendors but the teachers don’t get paid? What now?
Deris sits facing us, watching the conversation about the vacuna unfold. She tells us that the last time they protested in the streets of El Carmen the police came to break it up and they set off a flare that grazed her right arm, ‘see?’ It has left a slim scar on her forearm.
Can we take a portrait of S.? I ask the Mother. I turn to her daughter.
S., do you want to take a photo? Look at the sunlight; it’s honey, Honey! We can sit you right here, you don’t have to move.
She hems, haws, complains, ‘Pues pero no con mi pelo asiiiii? Ni con ésto que tengo puesto!’
I tell her the photo will just be from the waist up, and that her Mother can sit next to her to help carry the responsibility of the frame. The photo is important because she is, no? She agrees, and heads into the other room behind the curtain to change her shirt. She comes out, looks at herself in the mirror, lets her hair down, turns right, turns left.
‘Listo,’ she says.
I bounce up, visibly excited, playing clumsy clown like I do to make people feel more comfortable. I grab my camera and my light meter, arrange them in two chairs in the doorway, and open the viewfinder. I back up, my ass sticking out of the doorway into the open air in an effort to keep them both inside of the camera’s frame. I focus and look up, adjust, focus and look up. I let their faces settle, let their smiles loosen. I try to expose for both of them so that the sun falls on them equally; It is the daughter’s story, but the Mother has lived it, too. I’m not positive any exposure the meter reads will allow for it — one is closer to the light than the other, that’s all. I don’t remember now for whom I exposed the photographs because I had only taken two or three frames before I registered what was written on the daughter’s flimsy, white t-shirt, and had stopped abruptly. In hot-pink, block letters, an offering:
“RUN WHILE YOU STILL CAN.”
Huh. More bullshit fashion that didn’t pass quality control, I thought.
But then, the black sparrow was belly up, and I was gone by morning.