Diary Of Villa El Salvador: An Alibi Staffer’s Journey Through Impoverished Peru

An Alibi Staffer’s Journey Through Impoverished Peru

Ilene Style
22 min read
Villa el Salvador, Lima’s largest shantytown, was built on a giant sand dune. (Ilene Style)
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My first reaction at seeing Villa el Salvador during my volunteer orientation was the same as everyone else’s in my program. As we entered the neighborhood for the first time, we all fell silent, our eyes scanning the streets for something, anything, that would make us think, This isn’t so bad after all.

Many people wished me well when I told them of my decision to volunteer with an organization called Los Martincitos in Villa el Salvador, an extremely poor shantytown just outside of Lima. Some were apprehensive but supportive. Others (notably my mother) just thought I was downright crazy. I decided to e-mail updates to my friends and family to let them know what I was doing and that I was OK. I also sent these updates to the
Alibi , my employer, which generously allowed me a six-week sabbatical from work.

The first thing I noticed, aside from the ramshackle homes, were the dogs. There were dogs everywhere, roaming the streets in packs, walking in front of cars, humping on corners, scavenging through trash for something to eat. None had collars. The second thing I noticed was the trash. It’s everywhere—in the streets, on the sidewalks, in empty lots, in front of people’s homes. Garbage seems to define this barrio. I’m told there are trash trucks, but the pickup system clearly needs massive improvements. As unpleasant as it was to look at, I had a feeling that this garbage was what was keeping many of those stray dogs alive.

Some of the homes we passed, while small, were perfectly respectable. The nicer homes were made of brick. Others, however, seemed to be constructed of materials not normally used to build houses—thick cardboard or something that looked like woven bamboo. (The woven material, I later found out, is called
esteras and is similar to tatami.)

A lot of the roofs were pieces of thin corrugated metal or plastic that lay on top of whatever the walls were made of. Some of the houses had only partial roofs, which is OK, because it doesn’t rain in Lima. However, because of the lack of rain, there is very little green in Villa el Salvador—just a lot of dirt and dust. Landscaping does not exist here. People who can afford water use it for the necessities, and landscaping is not one of them.

The Barrio Land Grab

Villa el Salvador has received many accolades and is considered a model of urban social development in Latin America. But sometimes it’s difficult for me to believe that.

Villa el Salvador was started in 1971 when a group of 200 poor families living in inner-city Lima slums decided to "invade" a tract of desert land on the outskirts of the city. In less than two days, 9,000 people joined them.

The government reacted violently to the land grab, sending in troops to evict the invaders. After several people were killed in the standoff, the government tried to resolve the conflict peacefully and offered the families a massive plot of land 12 miles further south of metropolitan Lima. The land was on a large sand dune and had no water, electricity, sewers or access roads. Nearly 7,000 families relocated there in May 1971, and Villa el Salvador was born. It was officially incorporated as a district of Lima in 1983. All the residents own their land (which was given to them by the government) and live in houses built by their own means.

Years of protests have resulted in running water, electricity and even some paved roads in the more established sectors of Villa el Salvador. In newer sectors, water can be purchased from a "water truck," which comes twice a week to fill whatever type of container the homeowner provides. However, in some of the newest sectors, many of the homes have no running water, no electricity and dirt floors. These are the homes of the people that I visit weekly.

Los Martincitos

Ilene Style
Ilene Style
Ilene Style
Ilene Style
My volunteer assignment in the Villa El Salvador area of Lima is twofold. The first part is working at Los Martincitos, a community-based initiative sponsored by the Catholic Church. Three times a week—on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays—up to 130 poor senior citizens who are eligible for the program receive two hot meals and basic health care services, participate in recreational activities and organized prayer, and have the opportunity to socialize with others, something many of them never get to do otherwise. To be eligible, one must be at least 65 years old and live below the poverty line of $2 a day for a family of four. (The "absolute poverty" line is $1 a day for a family of four.)

The participants of this program face different challenges: neglect by their families, physical abuse, poor health and nutrition levels, inability to adapt to their environment, and social rejection for racial and age reasons.

abuelos , as they are referred to, are incredibly affectionate and grateful to the voluntarios who help with their program. They hug and kiss us and greet us with an enthusiastic “ ¡Buena dia! ” every morning upon our arrival. This is one of the best parts of my day. They love having their pictures taken, and I love taking pictures of my new "grandparents."

None of the
abuelos speak English. Some don’t even speak Spanish but instead speak Quechua, the language of the indigenous people of Peru. It is very difficult to understand them no matter what language they speak, because most of them have no teeth and no resources to visit a dentist. Some are almost blind but cannot afford glasses. Some are in need of medical care but can’t afford to go to a doctor or are too sick to get there. I suspect that some eat almost nothing on the days of the week that the senior center is not open. They wear mismatched and ill-fitting clothing that was acquired through donations. They always try to look their best, although it is difficult to wash one’s clothing, not to mention oneself, when you live in a small shack with no running water. But they are always happy despite their hardships and are a joy to be around.

My duties consist of visiting with the
abuelos (talking to them in my broken Spanish or communicating in other ways when language is a barrier), assisting in their recreational activities, and helping to prepare, serve and clean up after two 100-person meals each day. All meals are made from fresh ingredients in a small kitchen on the premises. My knife skills have improved considerably in the two weeks I have been here, as I am learning through many blisters what it takes to prepare two meals from scratch within hours for 100 people. I finally understand what a non-native-speaking immigrant kitchen worker in a restaurant feels like. I AM that person on the days I work in la cocina.

Breakfast consists of porridge and a roll with some sort of modest sandwich filling. Yesterday the filling was
sangre , which is cooked blood. Lunch is rice with different types of Peruvian stews, usually made with potatoes or beans. A fruit or vegetable is also included. At Los Martincitos, they try to use the healthiest ingredients the limited funds will allow because these meals are the only nutrition some of the abuelos get. The dishes from each meal (100 plates, 100 cups, 100 bowls and all serving containers) are washed in three small basins of cold water, with an assembly line of volunteers wiping, washing, rinsing and drying. No water is wasted, as the leftover dishwater is used to water a few fruit trees on the property that help feed the abuelos during harvest time. No food is ever wasted. Anything leftover from the meals goes to those who were not able to attend that day. Once a month, the abuelos receive a small ration of dried beans and rice the government provides to the center.

Before lunch, the
abuelos gather for prayer. Since the program is sponsored by the Catholic Church, religion plays a big part in it, although one need not be Catholic to attend. Because Los Martincitos is not open on weekends, we celebrated Palm Sunday last Monday. All of the abuelos were given palms fronds, and we walked in a large procession through the streets of Villa el Salvador, singing hymns to "El Padre." We wheeled those who couldn’t walk in wheelchairs. It was very touching, and I felt proud to be a part of it.

The Work Of Hermana Jacci

Hermana Jacci (bottom right) and a few of the Los Martincitos abuelas Ilene Style
On the two days of the week that Los Martincitos is closed, I accompany Sister (Hermana) Jacci, the nun who has helped run this incredible program for 10 years, on home visits to see abuelos who, because of illness, immobility or lack of transportation, cannot not make it to the center.

Hermana Jacci is in her late 60s and has been a nun since she was 18. She was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in Brooklyn and has worked on behalf of the of the Catholic Church in some extremely poor areas, including a stint in Puerto Rico and one on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. She is, in my eyes and in the eyes of all those around her, the Mother Teresa of Villa el Salvador. She’s one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and yet she can be tough as nails when she needs to be. I feel privileged to be working with her. She’s also the only person at my work assignment who speaks English, so she helps me understand what the
abuelos are saying. When she speaks Spanish, which she does fluently, I can detect the slightest hint of a New York accent.

The homes we visit range from simple to downright crude. Many have dirt floors. If there is more than one room, the rooms are often separated by a curtain or sheet. If there is no running water, there is usually some sort of makeshift outhouse behind the house. Backyards are tiny and are usually filled with trash, rocks, building materials, a clothesline and perhaps some animals, such as chickens, rabbits or guinea pigs. These animals are not pets, but meals. Bedrooms sometimes have several mattresses in them lined up next to each other on the floor. One house we went to was high on a dirt hill. There were no steps leading to the house, so we had to walk over rocks and sand and boulders to reach the makeshift front door. As even I had trouble navigating the path (or rather, lack of path), I don’t know how Hermana Jacci did it.

We always ask if the person we are visiting has eaten anything that day. In one case, we went to a soup kitchen (called
comedors ) to pick up food for an abuela who had nothing to eat in the house. In another case we went to check up on a man we had visited the week before who had a very bad case of tuberculosis, which apparently is quite common here. He was the skinniest man I had ever seen—barely more than a skeleton. He is not part of the Los Martincitos program as he is too young to qualify, but we will check on anyone who is in need. His daughter, a little girl of about 10, answered the door and told us that she and her two sisters (one of whom is mentally and physically disabled) had nothing to eat that day. Their parents weren’t home; her mother had taken her father to the hospital that morning because he couldn’t breathe. We took her to a little store around the corner and bought eggs, milk and bread so she and her sisters could have a meal. (We are technically not supposed to do that, but sometimes compassion compels us to make an exception to the rule.)

The store, which was no bigger than a bathroom, had an iron gate in front of it, which was locked. The store owner asked what we wanted to buy (everything in the store was within arm’s reach) and passed the items through the bars of the gate. Hermana Jacci said this was common in Villa el Salvador because people might steal things if the store owner allowed customers to actually come inside. Although there is a commercial district with stores that are accessible to anyone, in the poorer areas where we do our homes visits, the stores are very small and might only carry basics like bread, milk, eggs, beverages, snacks—and always Inca Kola, the national soda of Peru. Most residents shop for their regular groceries in outdoor
mercados , as there are no supermarkets. Hermana Jacci told me that when she goes grocery shopping, she tells the meat vendor which live chicken she wants, and he kills it right in front of her. At least she knows her food is fresh!

Passover In Peru

It took a week of calls (and a lot of help from my program director), but I’ve finally been approved to attend a Passover seder tonight at the conservative synagogue in Lima. There are only two synagogues in the whole city (population 8 million): one orthodox and one conservative. The Jewish population here has declined to less than 3,000 from a high of 5,200 in 1970.

According to the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Lima, anti-Semitic attacks are increasing and threatening the Jews here. Rabbi Guillermo Bronstein, chief rabbi of Asociacion Judia de Beneficencia y Culto de 1870, has been observing the rise of anti-Semitism in Peru and attributes the increase to two main causes. Many Jews in the community are viewed as having close ties with the government and having too much influence over government decisions. Another cause is the rise in neo-Nazi groups throughout the country, who Bronstein describes as “a tiny minority but very noisy.”

The community is closely watching the activities of these groups. Because the conservative synagogue I will be visiting has been bombed twice, the security level is high, which is why I had to be approved and why I will have to show my passport when I go. I am hoping someone there might speak a little English. If not, Hebrew will be our common language tonight.

Seder In Lima

The seder was led by Rabbi ( Rabino ) Bronstein. I was assigned to sit at his table. Rabino Bronstein has a brother who is the rabbi of a synagogue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Both rabbis were born in Argentina.

Another man at my table, whose impeccable Spanish convinced me he was Peruvian, was actually from Queens, N.Y. He moved here 12 years ago because he "needed to get away." He never went back. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish when he moved to Peru and learned it without ever taking a class. (There is hope for me yet.) He was there with his wife from Bolivia, who doesn’t speak a word of English.

At another table was a British couple from London passing through Lima on their way to the Amazon rain forest. At yet another table there was a group of folks from Argentina. There were 120 people in all. Few spoke English. It was the most international seder I have ever attended.

The prayers and songs during the service preceding dinner were all in Hebrew, as they are at every seder everywhere in the world. During this wonderful service there were no language, social or cultural barriers. There was nothing about the meal afterward that indicated I was even away from home. The seder plate, matzo, gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, roast chicken, fruit compote and flourless cake were all present and accounted for, as was the traditional kosher sweet red wine, although it wasn’t Manischewitz. It was the most food I’ve eaten since I’ve been in Peru.

After the seder was over, the rabbi and his family insisted on walking me to an area where I could get a "safe" cab home. (Taxis are sometimes a bit sketchy in Lima.) They told me to please call them if I needed anything during my stay. I think I have a new family here.


Pablo y su familia Ilene Style
Seeing Pablo for the first time two weeks ago broke my heart. He is a 19-year-old boy who had an accident at work in January and became paralyzed from the waist down. He has been in bed ever since, as his family cannot afford a wheelchair. Their house is high up in the sand dunes, and it’s the one that Hermana Jacci and I had so much trouble getting to because there is no road to the house and no path to the door—just rocks and sand and a very steep hill to navigate on foot. I fear that he will never leave the house unless someone physically carries him out and down the precarious hill. His parents were not home when we visited the first time, and his little brother and sister were keeping vigil over him. He seemed to be in good spirits, but I still had to hold back tears as we left. Hermana Jacci is going to look into resources for Pablo. Her organization has already donated the hospital bed he lays (lives) on.

We went back today to check on Pablo. He now has a makeshift device with which to exercise his paralyzed legs: loops of material that slip over each foot, with a rope attached that he holds with his hands to pull up each leg. His parents were there today. They had seven children, although one died. We brought an old sofa with us that someone had donated and, with the help of five people, were able to carry it up the steep hill and into the house. It will serve as a bed for one of the children, as they have only three beds in the house for six people.

Today, I asked Pablo’s mother if she would like a photo of the whole family. She shyly agreed. I think it is the only family photo they have.


Petrona’s granddaughter poses with her most prized possession, a Barbie backpack. Ilene Style
Petrona, one of our abuelas , lives with her daughter and son-in-law. Her son-in-law is abusive to her, but her daughter is unable to do anything about the situation. One of Petrona’s legs is very swollen, and she doesn’t know why. My voluntaria friend Margaret from Ireland, who is a nurse, was on this visit with us. She thinks Petrona has some sort of infection, possibly cellulitis, and should see a doctor immediately. However, it is very painful for her to walk, so she will need to figure out a way to get to the doctor.

While Hermana Jacci discussed the situation with Petrona and her daughter, I caught a glimpse of a little girl peeking out from behind a door. It was Petrona’s granddaughter. I went over and tried to talk to her in my broken Spanish. She was wary of me and wouldn’t talk to me or even smile, but she agreed to have her picture taken. She began warming up to the camera and proudly showed me her prized possession, a Barbie backpack, which she insisted be in the photo with her. She finally managed a slight smile after I had taken several shots.

niña bonita was a bright spot in my day. Perhaps I (but more likely my camera) was a bright spot in her day, too.

My camera serves an amazing function here in Peru, allowing me to communicate with people whom I otherwise would not be able, due to language or cultural barriers. It has become my most valued possession, and I keep it with me at all times. Thank you, Dad, for the best birthday present you’ve ever given me.

English Lessons

Voluntaria Margaret teaches English to los niños. Ilene Style
To ride in a mototaxi is to toy with your life. Ilene Style
The talk of the town has been the temblor , or small earthquake, that we had last week in Lima at about 3 a.m. It was a 4.3 earthquake, the center of which was about an hour and a half south of Lima. It was the second temblor we’ve had since I’ve been here, and I am mortified to say that I slept right through it. (I did feel the first temblor though, which came about a month ago.)

After work at Los Martincitos yesterday, Margaret and I went to help teach English to children at an elementary school just outside of Villa el Salvador. We took a bus there with Lady, the student teacher who invited us to help her. It was the first public bus I’ve taken in Lima. Buses are a little scary here. There are thousands of different ones, and I have no idea how anyone knows where they all go, as they all look the same—terribly old, run-down and always overcrowded. Strangely, the buses in Lima are all privately owned, so anyone can buy a bus, make up their own route and hire anybody to drive it. The government does, however, set the fare. All buses in Lima cost one sol, or about 30 cents. There was a man selling bread on our bus, a little girl selling candy and a little boy playing a guitar who solicited money from passengers after his concert. I felt like I was back in New York City.

At the school, we taught English to 3- and 4-year-olds in the form of songs and nursery rhymes. We practiced singing "Mr. Golden Sun" and "Good Morning Teacher," and then Margaret taught the class "Itsy Bitsy Spider." When we got off at the bus stop on the way home, we took a “mototaxi” (three-wheeled, completely unsafe motorized vehicles that we were warned never to take) the rest of the way home because it was almost dark, and it was safer than walking home from the bus stop. The mototaxi was fun, but I discovered quickly that you must hold onto the bar in front, as there are no doors, windows or seat belts to hold you in.

That evening, Carmen, a 22-year-old student who speaks no English and lives with the family I’m staying with, asked me shyly if I would help her with a writing assignment for her beginning English class. After we worked together for awhile, I realized why I had never heard Carmen utter a word of English. She cannot pronounce the words. At first I thought it was odd that she was struggling so much with the word "the," one of the simplest words in the English language. As I watched her frustration, it suddenly dawned on me that there is no sound in Spanish that equates to the "th" sound in English. We spent 20 minutes alone on the word "the," as I tried to teach her how to position her tongue so the "th" sound would come out correctly. I now have a profound new appreciation for speech therapists. We practiced English together for the next two nights, and I wished her luck on her presentation. Before she left for class, she said to me, “
Me gustaria que te quedaras más tiempo aquí ” ("I wish you could stay here longer"), a compliment I will never forget.

Adios, Peru

“If you don’t do something that you’ve never done before, your worldview will be too limited to inspire real change.”

—Steven Covey

My e-mail list grew exponentially as friends kept asking me to add people after they started receiving my updates from Peru. The question I was asked the most was: How can I help? Most gratifying of all was that so many of my e-mail recipients
did help by donating to Los Martincitos. The senior center was so short on funds a few months ago that they almost had to close. Thank you, amigos, for preventing this from happening.

Volunteering is a wonderful way to give of yourself. It teaches you that your value does not lie in how much money you make, who you know or what office you hold. Contributing to a fellow human teaches you empathy on a whole new level. Improving another life is not only a gift to that person, but to you. You may not save the world by volunteering, but you will absolutely touch a soul.

Ilene Style

Ilene Style

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Hermana Jacci (bottom right) and a few of the Los Martincitos abuelas

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Pablo y su familia

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Petrona’s granddaughter poses with her most prized possession, a Barbie backpack.

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Voluntaria Margaret teaches English to los niños.

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To ride in a mototaxi is to toy with your life.

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A street dog in Villa el Salvador

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