The other evening I was sitting outside on a beautiful porch in a small back yard, two huge trees above me. The shade was perfect, the breeze was perfect, the company was perfect, the flowers were lovely and the birds were settling in for the night. I took a deep breath and realized how happy I was. And just how much I appreciated not only my life, but also this very moment.
It was July 5th, the day after Independence Day; the fireworks had died down, though there were still some far away booms here and there. Here, quietly, just sitting in this little backyard in the beauty of the evening, I felt truly lucky.
And like many times when I feel like this, my thoughts immediately turned to Paraguay.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Paraguay in 2002-2004. There are many stories from that time, but the one I thought of on this night was of a little girl named Araceli.
My host mother’s sister owned an almacén in our small fishing town. This was a small grocery store ran out of her house. The store was located on the first floor of her home and the bedrooms and bathroom was on the second story. She had three children who went to school and also helped in the store in the evenings.
My host aunt had taken in a little girl named Araceli. She had to be about seven years old. She was from the campo, the countryside, and her family was too poor to keep her. So, as was common, they basically gave her to my host aunt’s family to work in her store. In return, she would send her to school.
In most of Paraguay, school is only half-days from grade school all the way through high school. Children often have to help their families in their homes or fields. But some education was better than none, and Araceli was thrilled about wearing her little school uniform and going to school every day. Everyday, however, she came home and changed into a t-shirt and shorts and began cleaning the almacén. While the other three children played, Araceli had to sweep the floor, mop the bathroom, dust the shelves and take in the clean laundry from the lines outside. She was treated well, given food and clothes and a home. She went to school and when she wasn’t working, she ran and played with the other children who treated her just like any other friend. But when my host aunt needed something, she was called in from playing to help her. She was basically an indentured servant. No one seemed to mind this arrangement, but as a foreigner, I was always very uncomfortable. This isn’t how we did things in the US. This wouldn’t be allowed where I was from, I thought. I tried not to make comparisons and tried to remember that I was in Paraguay now, and like most developing countries, they did things differently here. I tried to tell myself that Araceli was lucky, luckier than most of the children in the campo who wouldn’t get to go to school at all, were very malnourished and had to work just as hard if not harder.
I was sitting on my porch washing clothes when the children came running. “Lali, Lali!” they were screaming. It was what everyone called me. Come to Zulli’s house, Araceli fell off the stairs. They yelled and pulled at my hands, still wet and slimy from the fatty soap. We ran to the house together as I tried to understand what had happened.
As we entered the house I saw her. Her little, crumpled body lying at the bottom of the concrete stairs. There was blood. A deep black-red coming from her head, pooling around her like a upturned satin cape. Like thick, shiny paint. Like a mistake. This had to be a mistake, I thought. Not real. She had been cleaning the stairs, they told me, and she had fallen from the top platform. Ten, maybe fifteen feet from the ground floor. She had fallen headfirst onto the solid concrete below.
Everyone looked at me. I realized they wanted me to do something. The American. Get the American, they had said.
I found that this was a common belief during my time in the Peace Corps. People often looked to me for more than I could provide. Well you are here, they assumed. From all the way over there. You must know things. You must be special. A doctor? Someone with money? Each time I would shake my head. No, I am not a doctor. No, I don’t have any money. I am… what was I? Why was I here again? I felt small. Foolish.
“She needs a doctor,” I heard myself say, “Jesus, we need a doctor.” But there was no doctor, no ambulance. Actually, there was an ambulance. Just one year ago a small hospital had been build in the town with money from a USAID grant. A small building with several rooms including one ambulance. It had been a big deal, there were speeches and photos and a party, and USAID checked “Villa Florida, Paraguay: One Hospital” off of its funding list. But they didn’t plan on how they would continue to pay the doctor or nurses for the coming months and years, or how they would maintain the medical equipment or buy more supplies, or how they would keep gas in the ambulance or pay the driver. It was a municipal clinic, so the mayor’s office was in charge of keeping it running. But we all knew how that worked. Tax day came and the next week the Mayor had a brand new truck. Everyone smiled at my American outrage, shrugging and simply saying, “Paraguay,” as if that was enough to explain it all.
So the hospital went mostly empty. In the hot afternoons, people would bring their cows there to get out of the sun.
I knew enough that we had to try to stop the bleeding. But I also knew that it was dangerous to try to move her. Our neighbors had already driven their pickup truck around the back. My host mother Andresa who had by now arrived grabbed a tablecloth and together we pressed it to Araceli’s head. She was breathing but unconscious, her eyes half opened, her mouth open. Jesus, I thought. One of the men picked her up and carried her into the back of the pickup truck. Andresa and I got in, too. We sped down the dirt road so fast that I think I may have hovered for a few seconds. I held on to Araceli’s leg, her bare foot.
We got to the hospital and they took her inside. By then a small crowd had gathered, as gossip, or “radio so’o” in Guarani (literally “meat radio,”) spread quickly that “Zulli’s girl” had fallen. I was swamped by neighbors who asked what happened. I was explaining what happened when Andresa hurried out from the clinic doors. “We need thread,” she said.
“What do you mean,” I asked. “What kind of thread? For what?”
“For her head. They have to sew her up. They have no thread.”
The clinic was out of surgical stitches. Basic materials. Andresa was running home to get sewing thread so they could close Araceli’s head.
I lost it.
For months I had tried to understand. I tried to be culturally sensitive. I tried to respect my family’s medical beliefs that were questionable by my American standards. I tried to be open minded to the traditional beliefs in werewolves and spirits who peeped like baby chicks and beat you up in the night. I tried to understand that this was not the US. This was Paraguay, and in Paraguay, one did things differently.
But this was too much.
I started crying. And shaking. And yelling. And cursing. In a steady stream of Spanish, Guarani and English, I cursed the country and their ways, the poverty that forced mothers to send their babies away to become live-in child maids in the hopes of a better life, their fear and complacency in a post-dictator corrupt democracy, I cursed it all. “What is wrong with you people?” I heard myself sobbing, “This isn’t right! This isn’t right!”
No one got mad. No one huffed at the self-righteous norteamericana crying and snotting in the street. No one said, Your country is perfect, Lali? There is no injustice where you live? Instead, they came forward and wrapped their arms around me. They held me.
“I know, Lali. I know,” they said. “Así es. This is Paraguay.”
My host mother walked me home. Araceli would stay in the clinic in a coma for two days before waking up. They drove her three hours to the capital of Asunción where she was treated in a hospital there. Amazingly, they said she was going to be ok.
She came back to Zulli’s weeks later. Half her head was shaved. She pushed a broom around the floor not far from where she had fell. She wasn’t the same. I don’t know if it was from the accident itself, or if it was the undeniable tension in the air created by this little girl continuing her daily chores after such an ordeal. I talked to her for a bit, but she wasn’t the same.
I visited Zulli’s almacén a few days later. She told me that Araceli was back home with her mother. “Is she going to come back here and stay?” I asked. “Go to school again?”
Zulli wrinkled her nose and shook her head. “No,” she said, “It was too much trouble. Plus, it’s probably bad luck now.”
That was ten years ago.
I sat on the beautiful porch in the small backyard back in my hometown in the US. The shade was perfect, the breeze was perfect, the company was perfect, the flowers were lovely and the birds were settling in for the night. I took a deep breathe and realized how lucky I was. It was July 5th, the day after Independence Day, and I thought about Araceli.