The San Bernardo neighborhood is a strongman’s stone-throw away from downtown Santiago – about 20 minutes by train. Downtown Santiago is the definition of first world capitalist, democratic nations: giant multinational corporations, beacons of academia, suits and high heels. San Bernardo is not. San Bernardo is dirty laundry lines strung across project building porches; it’s front yards littered with rubbish; it’s drug and violence-laden nightlife that doesn’t cease until the wee hours of the morning.
About a 10-minute walk from the elementary school in San Bernardo where my group of philanthropist workers and I slept for the weekend, above what used to be – and in many ways still is – a landfill, lies the San Francisco campomento. About 350 Chileans call this campomento home. But for most of us, the campomento would be called anything but home.
At a quick glance, the community may not even be distinguishable from the trash that surrounds it. Scrap pieces of wood and doors previously disposed of by the Santiago populous are weakly strung together as walls and scrapped sheets of different metals rest precariously above to serve as roofs. Floors are few and far between; instead, the people of San Francisco place their beds and dressers above rugs that have worn into a thin cover from the dirt and rocks beneath them. In some cases, as in José’s, a nine-year old boy who excitedly and proudly walked me through his home (barefoot, might I add), there aren’t even thin rugs to keep the inhabitants from literal horse shit beneath them; if that didn’t seep through for you, José’s his “playroom” is atop the feces of the 4 large horses and 1 calf with whom he lives. The homes have no heating source and are barely fortuitous enough to withstand Santiago’s harsh winds and frequent earthquakes.
Illiteracy is rampant. Health education is scarce. In my two days in the campomento, I met two girls under the age of sixteen who were several months pregnant. In the heaviest case of the weekend, I met a girl who’s diagnosed with Down Syndrome, epilepsy, and chronic panic attacks induced by her being raped at the age of 14. Obesity from overly processed foods abounds. Children suffer from the same diseases as their dogs. The majority of the campomento is interrelated. Chilean police and medical services almost never pass the threshold into the community. It is poverty to a degree I have never witnessed before. Needless to say, on the peripheral level, San Francisco is a difficult sight to bear.
But the people of San Francisco are happy. They are prideful and they are strong. Truly. Take Isabel, for example. The girl I mentioned earlier who was tragically taken advantage of at such a young, vulnerable age is Isabel’s daughter. Isabel’s husband left her after her daughter was born handicapped. She moved to San Francisco in 2000 with her daughter – poor Santiagueños who couldn’t afford the city’s high rent erected the campomento above the landfill in 1998 – and has lived there, providing for Jennifer (her daughter) ever since. After the earthquake of 2010, Isabel lost most of her house and almost everything in it. Years – please realize, years – later, a news station published her story and two generous carpenters from a big-city contracting service showed up at her door and built her a new home, the only one in the campomento with plastered walls and wooden floors. “Que maravillosa la casa que tengo. Jamás en mi vida soñaba de tener una casa tan linda” was all Isabel could say. She loved her house, she loved her daughter, and she loved her life. No matter how hard things seemed on her from my outsider perception, it was impossible not to adopt Isabel’s infectious smile and share one of her tears mixed with joy and heartbreak.
I felt similar emotions with many of the people I met last weekend, particularly some of the children. Ignacio (Nacho), José, and Camilo to name a few. Between playing with them, cooking a lunch of lentils, and nailing in new wood planks on a roof for wintertime reinforcement, I found myself at the end of the day impressed, shocked, upset, and inspired.
Of everything I walked away from San Francisco and San Bernardo with this weekend, some particularities resonated more than others. First, the first-hand image of true poverty is much more influential and heavy than any graph or statistic you can read. Obviously, you may think. But the magnitude of difference and the call-to-action that witnessing such conditions prompts is something I now think can only be understood when experienced. Second, the preliminary method to fighting poverty is acknowledgement and acceptance, undoubtedly; Chileans seem to have banished the people of San Francisco to the shadows of their gleaming and booming city, forgotten them on their path towards 1st world development and international relevance. We Americans must reflect on the degree to which we do the same. And third, despite whatever cliché I am about to assume, it really doesn’t take money or political influence to make a difference in someone’s day. It takes a positive attitude, a couple of hours, and a willingness to work in whatever capacity necessary to put a smile on another’s face.
I don’t think I did anything profound last weekend, but I am glad to say I visited the San Francisco campomento and I am proud to say that I plan to return.