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SISTERS IN MISERICORDIA(Excerpt) by Colombe Schneck


By Colombe Schneck

Translated by Adriana Hunter


Azul moves into an apartment in a two-storey building on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, with Moisés, Ximena and Miguel. Juan comes back once a year from his tour which takes him all the way to the Peruvian border. He brings back presents for everyone, Juan and Moisés shake hands and drink beer together, then Juan sets off again. They sell his presents in the market: a brand new saucepan, an alpaca blanket. Azul and Moisés have a little girl, her name is Alondra.

Moisés would have liked a boy too. Azul disagrees, she’s not a baby factory.

Moisés doesn’t say anything, but he wears his hangdog victim expression, which exasperates Azul.

Love is full of shit and marriage is a prison, thinks Azul.

But actually, no, she’s happy. They’re happy with Miguel and Alondra, and Ximena who adapts what she learned in Chuqui-Chuqui’s garden for the city. Natalia lives on the same street with her husband and children.

Azul and Natalia run a stall at the market in Rotonda. They sell earthenware jars of water flavoured with cinnamon, it’s almost milky, or with apricot kernels, peanuts, mint. After mass on Sundays, their mother, the two sisters and their husbands go to the Association for Rio Chico Valley Indians. They dance and sing to the music of guitars and tiny bells:

Mountain Tracks, happy memories,

Our plans and their fate,

Bejewelling our mountains,

Illusions of the gods

Take us to the very heart

Of our fathers.


Moisés is a good dancer, and a good father, but he’s no good with money. He is a Quechua, though, and the Quechuas have a reputation as good tradesmen.

Moisés is in a lot of debt, and Azul doesn’t yet know.

He gave the money he earned with his big truck to his older brothers. He borrowed money so he could give Azul jewellery, a silver pendant, fuel to take her and the children to swim at the waterfalls, to buy a gas cooker, pay for rounds of beers and a little Brazilian television to watch the football world cup. They go through an American phase when they’re passionate about Dallas and Miami Vice.

Moisés gazes, hungrily wide-eyed, at houses with two cars, and red swimsuits, and girls with blond hair; Azul eyes up their tailored jackets, their long flowing dresses, and sews her own almost identical designs. People around them talk of leaving for Brazil, Argentina or Mexico, getting over the border; the Texas of Dallas and the Florida of Miami Vice aren’t so very far away.

That world with its supermarkets rammed full of cereal packets with their colourful lettering (cereals are sold by the weight here), its different brands of beer (there’s only one here), the women driving their own cars, their blond hair blowing in the wind, never plaited, tied up, held back; making the women look free.

Azul is thirty-three, she lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the outskirts of Santa Cruz, with a gas cooker, a television, a secretarial job, her mother in tow, two children, a second husband who doesn’t want to marry her but wants another child – a boy – and who’s in debt… and that’s when she’s made redundant.

The Bolivian economy is in crisis.

Nothing works anymore, her little shop in the market is empty, no one buys t-shirts now, Moisés’s milk distribution tanker has stopped doing its rounds.

Everything’s falling apart, once again, but Azul’s used to seeing things she’s fond of disappear or take a knocking, she freezes on the spot. It lasts only a few minutes. She remembers the hookers at school, remembers when Miguel was ill, the gorgeous Juan who used to sneak out at night – she coped somehow every time. She galvanises herself, but she hasn’t become cynical: she still has her optimistic faith in Pachamama, her belief that she’s protected by the Virgin, that she has these reserves inside her.

She’s enthusiastic, believes in goodness, but she also knows how dark the world can be.

She eavesdrops on conversations, people talking about violence, injustice, downfall, destitution and corruption.

Power is snatched by a minority: senators, policemen, magistrates; they’re white, they speak Spanish, they’re frightening, and their leader is a tiny little man who stands very upright to gain an extra inch.

People call him El Nano. The dwarf.

General Banzer is of German descent, he was educated at the School of the Americas in Panama where they teach the best techniques for manipulation and violence, but none of the world’s finer qualities.

Indigenous Bolivians and rural types are excluded from government. They don’t have the right to demonstrate, to express themselves, make choices, take decisions.

Torture is statutory for those who dare to say they won’t comply.

And all around them, in Argentina, Peru, Panama, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay, the far right hovers close by.

Azul keeps hearing that word, fascist, fascist; the very sound of it frightens her.

General Banzer welcomes extreme right-wing sympathisers and Nazis, and recruits them – they’ll give him political and military support. He encourages them to take part in drug trafficking, asks for their advice on how to “whiten” Bolivia.

There are too many indigenous Bolivians. In the press they’re described as dirty, lazy, poor; they have too many children, their hair’s too thick, their skin is greasy, their daughters copulate with dogs, their men with donkeys.

“You mustn’t use the government-run clinic,” Azul’s older sister tells her.

The doctor there is American. He turned up, blond, pink, white teeth, and the whole centre was redecorated when no money’s ever spent on the poor.

A poster on the door reads: “Free treatment for women”, with a photo of a smiling indigenous woman in her black felt hat.

Young indigenous women are forcibly sterilised there.

A country girl from the Fe y Algeria middle school, an Indian, went there because she had stomach pains. The doctor told her she urgently needed an appendectomy, she mustn’t worry, it would be free.

She was asked to come back the following morning for the operation. She confided in her school nurse who stopped her going back.

Despite the fresh paint, the floor is dirty, and the doctor’s overalls are covered in brown stains. He examined her without washing his hands.

Her ballooning stomach was caused by indigestion from eating too much melon.

A month later the clinic caught fire and the American doctor disappeared.

General Banzer also spent a fortune importing white women from southern Africa to populate the country with whites.

Indigenous Bolivians don’t feature in the papers or on television – Bolivia is white.

Banzer was toppled by a coup in 1977 but in 1997, after failing five times in the presidential elections, he managed to get himself re-elected by abandoning his uniform and presenting himself as a kindly seventy-one-year-old “abuelito”.

When he resigns in 2001 he leaves his country in a catastrophic state. Nepotism, corruption, economic crisis…

For several weeks the country is completely paralysed by blockades set up by smallholders demanding a reversal of the policy to eradicate coca.

Everything that once did so well in Santa Cruz, the towering piles of Tarija tomatoes, oil revenues, Texan ex-patriots, the Hotel Los Tajibos with its double peanut-shaped pool edged with mini palm trees and its American bar, motorbikes, rolls of polyester cloth important from South Korea, the dance hall on the way to the airport with its huge entrance porch formed by two painted plaster mermaids, everything that was so modern, so alien to the paradise of Chuqui-Chuqui – it has all turned to stone.

Tomatoes rot in their crates, people queue at cash dispensers, the ex-patriots flee leaving their palaces empty, making their housekeepers redundant, and their cleaners, cooks and childminders, the windows are broken, cars no longer slow down outside that porch with its two mermaids, no one hopes to get together in the American bar at the Los Tajibos anymore or to plan their fortune as they drink American beer.

All that’s left is the Colombians’ dirty money. They can offer work, night watchmen, drivers, mules, the minor players in cocaine trafficking.

She has no choice, she has to leave.

The women go one after another, heading further and further away. To Argentina, Texas, Italy.

Thanks to a contact, Natalia emigrated to Bergamo in Italy two years ago.

She described it to Azul on the phone: she looks after an elderly widow who lives alone in a big house.

The widow’s children and grandchildren come to visit on Sundays. They all go to mass and then have lunch together. The old woman makes the meal, her daughter and daughter-in-law help her clear the table and tidy up, then they all leave in the evening.

In the summer they don’t come to see her for a whole month. They spend Christmas day with her but she’s on her own for New Year’s Day. Every Sunday, on her day off, Natalia takes the bus to Bergamo and goes to mass, then spends the afternoon in the call centre calling her two sons and her sisters.

Natalia left her son Gus and her daughter who’s still very young with their father. She knows she can also depend on Azul and Ximena, and Julio and Moisés who live nearby. She makes long phone calls every Sunday, it’s not enough to give them an upbringing.

Every month she sends them the equivalent of three people’s salary in Santa Cruz. She’s told the children’s father that if he didn’t do more for them she’ll come home.

Natalia has admitted to Azul that she feels guilty, but she knows that living like this, away from them, is the only way she can give them a good education so they won’t have to work by the time they’re twelve like so many children their age.

Azul’s going to leave. She doesn’t think about it for too long, she’s afraid she’ll back down; but she has no choice.

Azul will go to Italy, Natalia will help her.

Since 11th September 2001 it’s become very difficult to get a visa for the United States. You have to cross the Mexican border illegally on one of those death trains; she doesn’t want that.

Women are killed along the way. When they’ve been raped, their bodies are “disappeared”. So people say. A story that’s been peddled around the Mercado. The daughter of a woman who works in a canteen in the market has suddenly stopped sending any news. She and a friend of hers wanted to emigrate to the United States. They’ve disappeared. Azul remembers meeting the girl, a skinny little teenager. She didn’t look much older than ten. So thin. She headed off north, she was seventeen. Her mother doesn’t know what to do to try to find her. The police have told her she should forget her daughter, but how can you forget your seventeen-year-old daughter? Azul, who isn’t even her mother and who saw the girl only once, remembers her cat-like face, her nose which didn’t seem to have any flesh on it, and her tiny slender arms. The girl’s fragile figure looms in Azul’s mind’s eye.

Her name was Rosario.

You can get into Europe without a visa, Azul’s going to Italy.

She’ll fly to Rome because in Rome there’s Pope John Paul II and it’s a big city, she doesn’t want to live in the country, isolated. Natalia has to take a bus on Sundays to get to the call centre. Azul wants to be able to call every day.

Over there, Catholic associations help immigrant women find work with good families. They’re given bed and board, taken into the household.

Natalia has confided to her sister just how attached she’s become to the old lady.

Just when Azul is planning to tell Natalia she’s going to come and join her, Natalia comes home. She’s put a bit of money aside. She can’t go on living away from her children. Back in Santa Cruz it will be her turn to look after their mother, Ximena.

Azul suggests to Moisés that they should leave together: him, seven-year-old Miguel and two-year-old Alondra. He refuses to. He thinks they’ll never make it, it’s too difficult, going that far to a country where you can’t talk the language, with young children. How would they find work and accommodation when they don’t know anyone? Or the language, the streets, what people eat, or their laws.

How would you buy milk, and not get lost, how would you rent a house?

It’s impossible. We’d be sleeping on the streets, and over in Europe it’s very cold, people are racist, they don’t like foreigners.

Azul knows all this, she’s no fool, but she doesn’t have any choice. She’s just as frightened as Moisés.

Azul gives herself a year, long enough to earn the money to repay Moisés’s debts. She just hopes she won’t be gone any more than a year, a year without seeing her children, or Moisés.

She has two friends who’ve already made the journey. When they came back they had $5,000 in small denominations in their bags, enough to pay off their men’s debts, build the walls of a house and buy a stall in the market.

Azul knows exactly what’s in store for her. She’s going to be torn in two, torn away from Miguel and Alondra, torn away from one life and two languages, Quechua and Spanish, from thirty years of connections, brothers, sisters, husbands, friends, the city of Santa Cruz whose every street she knows, its pitfalls and potholes, the staff at the city council, those who can help and those she instinctively knows to avoid, the bus timetables, how to keep out of the rain or the sun, where to find beef at a reasonable price, who to say hello to in the administrative offices, who’s generous, and who isn’t. All that useless information. A foreign world to learn.


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