Tuesday, September 30, 2008


This is the stairwell to my apartment. It's been rotting away since I arrived.

Today has been full of ugly things; of miserable poverty, sodden cardboard and plastic bags, dirt-covered buses, caca. Today I saw a woman bent over with age and need, screaming at the lucky ones catching a bus somewhere else. I saw posters for iPhones along a street where no-one had work, and not all had food.

But hidden behind the ugliness, there is sometimes kindness, friendship, hope.

A man with a terrible tattoo, as if his drunk mate had scribbled on his arm with a blue biro, pushed back the window of the colectivo and called out encouragement to a cartonero, pushing his cart of cardboard and plastic through the hot streets. Both away from their barrios doing what they needed to get by.

On the cold, miserable bridge, as trucks screeching through the gap and the stench of smoke grew worse, a hand touched my shoulder and I saw the bright face of Marga, resplendent in an aqua turtleneck.

A raggedy boy in dirty clothes, his one eye twisted, walked past the bus-stop begging. A young man offered him his Coke bottle. The boy took a swig, handed the bottle back, and moved on down the line.

And the wall? I came back home to the wall and seeing it made me smile. Because as I left, Rocky, my favourite builder and the only one I am glad to see, had been scraping away at the plaster, ready to repaint the wall. A sign that finally, the floods of the past three years are coming to an end.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

si no existe el más allá

Si no existe el más allá, la injusticia del pobre se prolonga eternamente. If there is nothing more, the injustice of the poor will go on for ever.

Colectivo MR is Spanish art critic, Ricardo Ramón Jarne, and Peruvian photographer, Marina García Burgos. Their latest exhibition, currently on display in Buenos Aires, is a collection of portraits of a family from Huancayo, in the Peruvian Andes.

The regional outfits change in each portrait, as does the setting. The scenes were all shot in fashionable Miraflores and San Isidro, the wealthy districts of Lima. The family sit in a luxury restaurant, at a stylish bar; they gather around the exercise machines of a gym, or the clothes of a designer store. In other shots, they sail on a yacht, wait to board a plane, or look out from a private theatre box.

The exhibition suggests that it is still strikingly unusual for pueblos originales to be present in such situations. They are unwelcome and excluded; sometimes directly bared from entrance, more often, unable to afford such experiences. In the fancy restaurants of Lima society, people in traditional dress entertain, but never eat.

One of the photos will be exhibited later this year at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I think as part of the
Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2008.

Photo via this blog. See also this report.

on seeing the hats again

It was on the way here that we turned up at the wrong place, lost each other buying provisions, and took a taxi backwards, before scrambling onto the bus.

It was hours later that a man called Pablo met the bus and cooked us banana pancakes. It was here that I slept on a mattress with no sheets, stumbling across the black courtyard to clean my teeth before morning.

It was a mile or so away that we drank sweet tea, and ate bread and boiled eggs, as the sun rose pink against the far snow. It was at Cruz del Condor that the condors rose swirling from the canyon below. For an instant they drew level with us, then up, gone, away.

It was here we parted ways. It was heading back to Cabanaconde that the man overcharged us such a small amount, but the woman sitting next to me rebuked him and reminded him to welcome these strangers.

It was from the mountains that two bearded Americans appeared, holding an empty, blue plastic water can. It was here a child played in the muddy street, and offered us lúcuma, a melon-peach fruit that we peeled with a pen-knife. Sunset fruit. It was in the square where we whiled away the afternoon sun, watching kids play football outside the white church.

It was here an old man, alone in his house, made delicate hats of black woolen cloth, steamed into shape, and covered in embroidered flowers and birds. It was in this tiny village that the women wore plastic bags over their hats to protect them against the rain.

It was here, years later, a friend read in the guest book that I had hurt my finger; but I don't remember how.

It was from the canyon's edge that far below we saw a footprint of green, El Oasis, and a boy offered to take us there on his mule. It was in the plaza that I would have eaten roasted llama, had it not been for a friend's warning shout.

It was from here that we caught the wrong bus back down the valley.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

the rabbit house

La Plata, 1975-6
I don't know who had the idea of the rabbits...Rabbits? Why did we have to take in hundreds of rabbits to protect ourselves?

The Rabbit House
is Laura Alcoba's attempt to explain her childhood, or lack of it. Until she was ten years old, Laura lived in Argentina. But because her parents were militants, members of the banned Montoneros organization, she has pieced together her memories without the help of family photos, or school friends.

This was a childhood of life-or-death secrets: a printing press hidden behind rabbit hutches; a father in prison; and a mother who hid under bright red wigs. The book describes a transitional life, moving from one safe house to the next, and from one surname to another until, when the fashionable yet friendly neighbour asks Laura her name, she cannot think what to say.
I said only 'Laura' because I know that this is the only part of my name that they let me keep. Straightaway, she asked me, 'Laura who?' And truthfully, I don't remember what came next. I must have started to panic, because I know very well that there is a warrant out for my mother, and that we are waiting for them to give us a new name and false documents...What is, after all, my name?

In my tutorial today, we talked about how even (especially?) the most idealistic movements betray themselves, giving into violence and fear, and demonstrating an abject failure to care for and protect their members, especially those lower down the scale.

Murder and kidnapping are always inexcusable. But state murder and kidnapping, that uses the instruments of the State - the armed forces, medical profession, church leadership and judiciary - against its own people, must be judged with even greater severity. Such are the conversations we have here, as we watch the long-awaited trials of military generals, who, thirty years on, still claim torture, murder and kidnapping are legitimate tools of the State.

Laura Alcoba's testimony ends with her search for Clara Anahí, the baby of the couple her and her mother lived with in the rabbit house, who is suspected to have been illegally adopted following the murder of her parents in 1976. The recent review in the Guardian notes that several thirty-two year old women have come forward since the book was published, wanting to establish if they are the missing Clara Anahí.

Both Laura Alcoba and the still missing Clara Anahí must piece together their childhood, out of the silences and secrets, the missing photos and false names. There is still much truth to be told in this land. There is still much truth to be told in every land.

The Rabbit House was published in English this month and is available on Amazon.

Photo of Clara Anahí with her mother, Diana Teruggi.

rabbit factory

Lima, 1995

The visit was not a success. I could barely look at the caged rabbits as the priest explained the project. Wool and meat, he told me, for the people of this pueblo joven set on a stony hillside.

Wool and meat. A rabbit factory.

I didn't feel like eating. But from the hall, we stepped into the dining room. The brown wood and thick carpet did not match the dust outside. Neither did the stew the housekeeper brought. Gravy smothered the boiled potatoes and carrots. I scraped off the brown liquid and swallowed quickly.

This was not what I had hoped for. No-one sang cantos del pueblo. No bright arpilleras bore witness. There was just a man, longing for brown stew, and seeking ways to 'feed his flock.'

Monday, September 15, 2008

Monday, September 08, 2008

graffiti near a hospital

Si el papa fuera mujer, el aborto sería Ley.
If the Pope was a woman, abortion would be legal.

Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir are one of several groups working in support of women's reproductive rights in Latin America. The US sister group is Catholics for Choice.