It is 5.30pm and I have been sitting on the grass at a Recoleta playground for the last 2.5 hours. It is one of those neighorhood spaces down a normal street and placed so smack-bang in front of people’s houses that residents must drive their cars through the playground to reach their driveways. There are a few exercise machines meant for the elderly but that get invariably commandeered by adventurous children. There are two swings, two slides and some trees interspersing a small grassy area. In front there is the usual corner store that Emilio will forever associate with cheap icecreams and in the near distance there are cranes building yet another apartment block.
The first tme we came here I felt nervous and more than a little obvious, mainly as Emilio and I are both fair unlike the majority around us. For another, teenagers slumped in tight circles on the grass with loose cigarettes hanging from their mouths while on the roadside groups of men lingered, immersed in clouds of marijuana smoke. Today, for example, there is heavy metal blaring from somewhere nearby while the occupants of the shadowy house beside the park are doing little but standing outside with their beatup car and their fake Nike. The ground around me is littered with poop and ciggie butts and every so often a dog will come over to me, sniff my butt and then leave after confirming that, yes, I am here.
For all of these seemingly ugly features there is something special in this park, something which draws us back day after day, for hours at a time. And that reason is the children. Right now the air is filled with the sound of laughter and squealing as Emilio plays with the neighborhood residents. One of them is about three while the other is around 7 – the latter a mother-hen type who watches her sister like a hawk, reprimands her when she is naughty and comforts her when she falls. She also looks after Emilio and plays with him, pushes them both on the swing, giggles when he does and dusts his bottom off every time he gets (very) dirty. There is a nurturing aspect to the children we have encountered here that I do not recall ever witnessing as the norm in New Zealand, or even when I take my charges to the park in other areas of Santiago. Of course, I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, I just have never noticed it to this degree. Everyone seems to be really looking out for each other, and I see this time and time again. I can’t even safely say that it’s because the girls are being shaped into the moulds of their mothers because I’ve noticed the same from the boys as well. I remember when Emilio attended the neighbour’s birthday party and decided to jump on the trampoline with the big kids. They were all so protective of the small fry amongst them that it really touched my heart, with one in particular going above and beyond to help him up every two seconds as he fell down. Alot.
These are good kids, despite some of them growing up in difficult situations. Recoleta is, after all, a barrio just like Conchali, if you will recall the encounters of Ojos Abiertos last year. Or perhaps you can remember the story of Jose, our neighbour, and his family. Some of these children will spend much of their lives sleeping in the same room as their parents, bearing witness to acts that children shouldn’t otherwise see. Some of them will go on to make bad choices, made bad friends or head off in unwise directions. Some of them may copy their parents and follow a path of crime or other unsavoury activities, while others still will strive and achieve success.
I can’t remember if I have mentioned Diego before but I have certainly meant to. He is the adopted son of Jose, of the famous empanadas, and at a guess I’d place him around twelve years old. He is tall, skinny, softly spoken and has a shiny earring in one ear. I cannot tell you where his birth parents are or how he is related to Jose, but I assume Diego has had some difficulty in his life. I admire Jose because not only has he transformed our street to have a strong sense of community, but he actually no longer lives next door to us (though he continues to work there every single day without fail). When he and his wife were expecting a baby they moved to the countryside near Batuco, taking Diego and Maria with them (another cheer for the subsidio grant!).
Not all the kids we encounter here are angels but Diego has something special. He is caring, considerate, extremely intelligent and most of all he exudes a quality of gentleness. Every time he sees Emilio he hugs him or gives him a high five, and if the other kids are around with a toy or a lollipop he encourages them to share. One of the children from next door is close in age to Emilio and about as similar to him as night and day. I will call him Daniel and his mother is one of the daughters of Luisa. Daniel is not a happy toddler, in fact every time I see him he is either crying or bashing Emilio over the head with something. His mother, Ashley, is extremely aggressive and will never make eye contact if I encounter her a few metres away from her house. I do not imagine that she has had an easy life either, and certainly she has made a few mistakes along the way. Daniel, according to Luisa, was one of them, as the whole street found out the night when her pregnancy was ever so discreetly announced. Luisa was screaming at her using every curse word and foul thing to say under the sun – right below our bedroom window – mainly because the lack of respect her pregnancy brought but also, I suspect, because the father is about as big a drug addict as you can get, does not work and therefore would not be able to contribute to the growing costs of pregnancy, birth and raising a child (even using the public system of healthcare and education). The family were already strained enough, with a good twenty people sharing the small living spaces next door. That was all two years ago now and during that time Ashley has been kicked out of a rented room down the road, moved back in with her mum and given birth to Daniel. Daniel and Diego are as different as chalk and cheese but they originally started out in the same household. What a difference the guidance of Jose has made. I really, really hope that some compassionate teacher will see the potential Diego has and single him out, hopefully providing him with further positive mentors and options for his future. If he receives that, Diego will go a long way.
Being a mother here in Santiago has come with plenty of ups and downs but the general attitude towards my son has been overwhelmingly positive. Strangers will look out for Emilio and interact with him, sometimes in the most unlikely of situations. But what I really love is how warm and caring so many of the kids are, especially when I’m sitting on the grass, five months pregnant (and therefore slow to get up) and writing a blog entry, like today. If the future is in the hands of the children then the future of this city looks bright indeed.
Very bright indeed.
Note: the featured image for this blog was drawn by one of the students of Hoda and Georgina in Conchali last year, during the volunteer Art Expression classes organized by Ojos Abiertos.