Welcome to El Porvenir

When Rafael and I first arrived here to Perú on January 26th of this year, we spent a few weeks living with the Comboni Fathers at their house in the city of Trujillo while we settled in and became more familiar with the area. In March we moved out on our own, to the housing that the Comboni Fathers have provided us within the district of El Porvenir, a slum on the outskirts of the city. Living in this district are an estimated 164,931 people, in an area just over 22 square miles. We live among the people here in the neighborhood of Grand Chimu. This name comes from the leader of the Chimu culture, which thrived here in the northern part of Perú, until they were conquered by the Incans in 1470. We live in a couple of rooms on the second floor of a small parochial school for children, teens, and young adults with disabilities, which is next door to a small chapel that is cared for by the Comboni Fathers.

What is the area we live in like? Let’s set the scene. First, picture a dry, sandy desert. Now add some mountains in the distance, and picture a pretty, colonial city about 20 minutes away. Imagine that you and your family are from the Andean mountains, you and your ancestors have lived off of the land for generations, but as the people say here, no one in Perú has died a millionaire by being a farmer. You and your family live in extreme poverty, you never graduated from elementary school, and your children have limited opportunities for education. You decide to leave your mountain pueblo, and move to the outskirts of the nearest city. You arrive and see the sand stretch out before you. There are rows of “ranchitos,” make-shift dwellings make out of sugarcane, plastic, cardboard, reeds, whatever people could scrap together. This isn’t exactly what you had in mind, but it’s the only option within your reach to get land near the city.

You and your family invade a space of land and call it your own. Each night someone comes around to take attendance to make sure that you are in your dwelling. If you aren’t there three nights in a row, you are kicked out of “your” small parcel of land. You walk an hour each day to wait in line for several hours for your ration of water. Sometimes you arrive and there’s no water left for you, and you have to beg your neighbors to share with you. This is a composite of the accounts of many of our neighbors and friends about what life was like in this neighborhood in the 1970s, when people first began inhabiting this area. Our neighbors have come here mostly from the Sierra, the Andean mountains of Perú. Others have migrated from the Amazonía, the Amazon Jungle.

Now fast forward a couple of decades. The district of El Porvenir has continued to grow and expand, but not without it’s share of intense growing pains. The region in which we live thrives off of tourism, but with the flow of money into this area, gang violence, drugs, and extortion unfortunately flourish as well. Last month, over 15 million dollars worth of marijuana plants were discovered in the region where we live, called La Libertad. (There are a total of 24 regions in Perú.) This was three times more marijuana plants than found in the whole of the country during the past year. In our local community, we have thankfully been welcomed and accepted into this community without any issues. One has to take some safety precautions and not wander around in areas where you aren’t known, nor walk around after dark, but overall we feel quite safe and very happy here. While El Porvenir is definitely not the place we would have chosen to live in if we were, say, going to pick a beautiful or tranquil place live, but we couldn’t picture ourselves being anywhere else in the world right now. The spirit of the Comboni Missionaries, following in the footsteps of Saint Daniel Comboni, is to live in solidarity with the poorest and most abandoned people of the world, living and serving where no one else desires to go.

I am quite obviously a foreigner here in our neighborhood. People often hear about me before they ever meet me, thanks to good old word of mouth. Being a “gringa,” foreigner, in this neighborhood is a bit of a novelty. I have yet to meet another gringa currently living in El Porvenir. This neighborhood isn’t exactly a tourist attraction. Through the eyes of people here, I am seen as having dark-blond hair (last time I checked my hair is so dark that I believe it would be considered brown, haha!) and being incredibly tall. At a baby shower recently, I became the life of the party when I was able to tape a fallen balloon back to the ceiling without needing to stand on a chair. Now, I had never considered 5’7” to be much taller than average, but nearly all of the women in my neighborhood do not even come up to my shoulders, and I am taller than the majority of men here too.

Rafael is much less obviously a foreigner here, that is at least until he speaks and they notice his accent is not a local one. Upon arriving, and up until our third and even fourth month living here, many of our neighbors asked me if I had a husband. Each time I replied “yes” the person asking would look at me strangely and say, “Oh, is he still in the U.S.?” “No, he lives here with me,” I clarified each time. “Hmm…strange, how come our neighbors, who see us walk by every day think I’m here alone?” I thought to myself. Then one day it dawned on me. Everyone expected my husband to have white skin too. I’m not sure who they had thought Rafael was when they saw us together, but it took months before people knew we are a married couple! It is not common in this city to find interracial couples.

Overall, and especially now that people know us more, we feel very welcomed and accepted by the community here. We enjoy and savor each day here, especially some of our favorite perks of living here, which are the spring-like climate, being just a short walk away from the field where we buy fruit direct from the farmers, and the warmth of the people, who are opening their hearts and lives to us, and welcoming us into their community more and more each day.

Santa Rosa Special Education Center
The school’s name is in honor of the Patron Saint of Perú, St. Rose of Lima. This school exists solely to educate and train children and young people with disabilities to develop their skills, abilities, and independence. There are 30 students here, ages 3 to 30, and their disabilities range from mental retardation, autism, and Down’s Syndrome, to significant physical, vision, and auditory impairment.

The Santa Rosa Special Education Center was founded in 1990 by a group of Irish missionary priests who were concerned that there was no educational institution in this neighborhood for children with developmental disabilities. The Irish priests unfortunately left the neighborhood in the late 1990s due to an increase in violence in the area and direct threats that were made against them. The school continued to operate and in 2002 the Comboni Missionaries came to work in the parish of Señor de los Milagros in El Porvenir, and thus became the involved with this parochial school.

The school is located a block off of a street bustling with traffic and small businesses, and directly off of the Plaza de Armas de Gran Chimu, which is basically a small plaza or park. The school is next door to a small chapel, where the Comboni Fathers currently work. The first floor of the Santa Rosa school has three classrooms; one for children ages 3-5, one for children ages 5-10, and one more children ages 10 and over. There are also two workshop spaces, where the teens and young adults ages 18 and over learn different skills and trades. One of the workshops is a small bakery where children learn bread making three days a week, and where I also continue to host the women’s baking workshops each week in the afternoon, for the community and parents of the children. The other workshop space is where the teens and young adults study jewelry making.

The first floor of the school also has a small kitchen/lunch room, where the mother’s of the students take turns preparing lunch for the students most days of the week. They cook with rice and oil which are donated to the school, as nearly all of the families here live in extreme poverty. The women then manage to bring in a small amount of meat, lentils, or eggs to accompany the rice. Somehow they manage to feed all of the students on an amount of food that looks as if it should feed no more than a family of five. The meals typically consist of about 85% rice and carbohydrates and 15% protein, with little to no fruit or vegetables, depending on what the mother who is cooking can afford. This is the reality of the families and of the school, as the school does not charge a tuition fee and operates exclusively on donations.

The school also has a small patio where the children play at recess. This is one of my favorite times of the day. From 10am – 11am nearly every day, Rafael and I spend time just playing and being with the children. The girls have taught me to teach jacks, and they beat me every single time. It gives them a good laugh. Sometimes I go for a walk around the neighborhood with the teenage girls, or have a “spa hour” with them where we paint or nails and listen to music. Other times I play catch or tag with the boys, or read stories to the kids.

The reality of many of the students with disabilities here is that they are often not included into society. They and their families are shamed by society because of their child’s disability. It is a very unfortunate reality that these children and their families face. The school and the families here make great efforts to advocate for the rights of children with different abilities, such as participating in “pasacalles” or marches to raise awareness of the importance of integrating people with disabilities into society.

There are three teachers and two aids that work here at the school. Most of them have been here since the school’s beginning, and collectively they have over seven decades of experience teaching at this school. They have been very warm and welcoming to us here and are very collaborative colleagues as well as good friends to us.