*NOTE: As usual, the names of all the mothers and children have been changed to protect their privacy
Turquoise. Purple. Turquoise. Purple. Turquoise. The chipped, sparkling nail polish on my left hand strongly echoes The Little Mermaid’s color scheme. And I’m pretty sure the pattern looks just as childish. Funnily enough, I have no problem owning up to it. I’m a nineteen-year-old woman whose nails look like they went through a five-year-old’s birthday party – and I did it to put a smile on someone’s face.
Life at the Hogar Juana de Aza has never been all rainbows and unicorns. There’s an emotional weight to every image, scene and activity.
On the worn, sun-dappled bench, a thirteen-year-old mother breastfeeds her eight-month-old son. I observe them silently, numbers playing out in my head. Thirteen years minus eight months of his life and a pregnancy period of nine months… You do the math.
Over by the kitchen, another mother pushes a stroller down a stair. In her naïveté, she places the baby inside the pram before moving it. As the front wheels hit the floor, the baby jolts to one side. I cringe internally. That’s a boy, not a doll, I think, rushing over to help her. Do you think she sees the difference?
Upstairs, in the bedroom, a young mother braids her daughter’s hair. Two years ago, she was en route to becoming a doctor. She should be changing pens after a long study session – not diapers after a long day. When she turns eighteen, she tells me, she’ll attend university. Her dream’s not gone. But, for now, she’s braiding her baby’s hair, wishing she were somewhere else.
Bit by bit, day by day, these moments take an emotional toll. If this reality is difficult for me to witness, I can only imagine how difficult it is to live. So, last week, we found a temporary escape.
Alison and Sophia – two other American volunteers – brought the girls an arcoiris (rainbow) in a backpack on Monday. They dragged a long table to one end of the home and lined it with multicolored bottles of nail polish. Their first customer approached with awe and curiosity in her eyes. “Pick a color. Any color,” Alison told her. The young mother glanced down the table in wonder. Fluorescent pink, glimmering turquoise, orchid purple… That’s amazing, I thought. Someone figured out how to bottle a rainbow.
Throughout the morning, the girls and volunteers painted each other’s nails. “You know,” Sophia remarked, “I thought it would be good for them to feel like normal girls for once.” I nodded, smiling. “It’s like a giant makeover party.”
We’ve been sprinkling in these “rainbow moments” whenever we can. Last Thursday, we took the girls and their kids for a walk to the Plaza de Armas. On the way back, Alison and Sophia bought them all helado (ice cream). The girls crowded around the glass-encased freezer, peering down at the multicolored mounds of ice cream. Aha, said the metaphor-happy voice in my head. Here we have an edible rainbow.
At this point, I should add, a rainbow can’t exist without rain. Last Friday, we took the girls and their babies to Saqsaywaman for Intiraymi (Festival of the Sun). We chose a nice, grassy hilltop to set up a picnic and cook potatoes inside earthy mounds. From our sun-baked blanket, it looked like the clouds had parted and dropped a large carnival right beside us. There were giant inflatable slides, live comic shows, and vendors peddling every food item imaginable. Caught up in the hubbub, we sought to make this our greatest “rainbow moment” of all time.
We had just finished lunch when we realized that our party was missing two members. Sixteen-year-old Emily and her two-year-old son Jorge were nowhere to be found. “Ella dijo que iba al baño (She said that she was going to the bathroom),” a young mother told me. “Pero nunca regresó (But she never returned).” Panic tore through my chest. Were they lost? Were they scared? Did they run off, or were they taken?
Stop it, I told myself firmly, choking back my worst thoughts. Stop worrying, and start acting.
“Alright,” I began, addressing our panicked party. “Let’s organize into search teams. Ustedes dos buscan a las policías para avisarles que no podemos encontrar a Emily y Jorge (You two look for the police to inform them that we can’t find Emily and Jorge). The rest of you–” I glanced around us, taking in the chaos of the carnival. There had to be hundreds of people on the hilltop. It would’ve been impossible to sift through the crowd, trying to pick out one teenage girl and her son. Then, the light bulb moment hit. “Does anyone have a photo of Emily?” Two volunteers nodded. “Perfecto (Perfect).” I split the buscadores (searchers) into pairs with at least one Spanish speaker. After ensuring that each search party had a copy of the photo, I dispatched them in different directions to cover the maximum amount of area.
I myself headed for the bus circle. There had been some talk among the girls of Emily planning to run away. According to them, her fascination with dramatic escapes was a chronic issue. If she had decided to run away, chances are that she would’ve gone to the bus circle at some point. I passed from vendor to vendor along the street, posing the same query to each: “¿Has visto a esa chica? Tiene un hijito de dos años. Él se lleva un polo rojo con rayas. (Have you seen this girl? She has a small two-year-old son. He’s wearing a red polo with stripes).” When I showed them the photo, most shook their heads wordlessly. Only a few displayed enough concern to inquire further. “¿Quién es? (Who is she?)” one woman asked me. Without hesitation, I replied, “Es mi hermana (She’s my sister).” It was easier than having to explain the entire situation. And, to be fair, it wasn’t untrue. Over the past month, I’ve grown to view the girls at the Hogar as my little sisters. Though I’m older than all of them, our age differences aren’t significant. I even look a bit like them and speak their language – so the connections we’ve formed are deep and strong.
By 1:30 pm, the afternoon sun felt scorching on my uncovered head. I cleared my parched throat and observed my surroundings in dismay. I couldn’t possibly question every single person along the bus circle, let alone the burgeoning crowds on the hilltop. There has to be a better way, I thought. “¡Granadillas frescas! (Fresh pomegranates!)” I glanced around in surprise. The voice echoed through the air again. “¡Granadillas frescas! (Fresh pomegranates!)” That’s it! I rejoiced mentally. I’ll ask the vendors to make announcements over their speakers! I made my way towards a vendor and, after some persuasion, convinced him to make an announcement. “¡Emily y Jorge! Tus amigos te están buscando (Emily and Jorge! Your friends are looking for you),” he called into the amplifier system. People in the crowd started and took notice. “Por favor, ¿puedes describirlos? (Please, can you describe them?)” I urged, providing him with details of their clothing. He was kind enough to do as I asked.
I went from speaker to speaker, asking their operators to make announcements on my behalf. By 2:30 pm, however, time was up. The search teams met back at the rendezvous point, all equally exhausted and unsuccessful. After rejoining the mothers who had stayed behind with their babies, we relayed the news to the tutor in charge. She shook her head despondently, “No podemos hacer nada más. Ella se fue. Tenemos que regresar al hogar (We can’t do anything more. She left. We have to return to the home).” And so we made the one-hour trek back, dejected and frustrated in equal parts.
One day later, the police found Emily and Jorge. They had hopped a bus to Quillabamba, a town six hours away from Cusco. Now, they’re safely ensconced in the home of Emily’s mother.
As an impetuous teenage girl, Emily probably didn’t realize what carnage she would leave behind – upset girls, legal issues, overwhelming uncertainty… All she saw was her need to fulfill a whim. She didn’t consider consequences for herself, her son, or the other girls. Which led me to one incessant thought: She’s not ready to hold another life in her hands. And yet, she does.
In the wake of Friday’s crisis, my relationship with the girls became stronger than ever. Now, we know we can depend on each other when all hell breaks loose. We’ve cultivated mutual trust, understanding, and compassion. In that sense, we serve as each other’s Human Umbrellas. When clouds gather above, we protect each other’s heads. And, when the sun breaks out, we sit together and enjoy the rainbow.