An hour and a half from from the frenetic march of downtown Buenos Aires’ emblematic boulevards, beyond the gritty sprawl of the surrounding villas in the Conurbano, past wintering fields of grazing cattle; a little muddy path turns off the provincial route 210 and leads to where our friend Cinthia has been building her home.
At the moment, it has its four walls of bare 2x4s, a salvaged door that occupies half the frame, and a single electrical line slung tenuously across the facade. The waterproofing consists of a donated vinyl church banner and strategically placed pieces of plywood. There are gaps around all five beams that support the roof, and when it rains as it tends to do in the wintertime, only one corner inside remains dry. That’s where Cinthia sleeps, all together in one bed with her mom and two young children.
We met her three weeks ago at Estación Once where we were handing out hot meals to Buenos Aires’ homeless. Ryan approached her and her young daughter where they were quietly huddled in the corner. He hadn’t seen them at the olla popular before. Even after volunteering for three weeks with Los Manos Que Ayudan, a non-profit that distributes food throughout the Capital to the 198,000 individuals living on the street, certain faces were already becoming familiar to us.
Cinthia began to relate her story to us that night. Her past was a classic immigrant’s narrative, one as old and as familiar as time. Like so many, she had come to Argentina seeking a better life. She emigrated from Peru five years ago with her mother and two kids, was pregnant as a teenager and was physically and emotionally abused by her husband for years until she finally had the courage to leave him. The last straw was when she lost a baby at five months after being physically attacked. For the first few years in Argentina, she sold discount clothes on a patch of sidewalk in the working class neighborhood of Flores. With her two babies tied to her tightly, she kept her mettle during Buenos Aires’ ferocious summers and kept her head down against the winter’s driving rains. Many times she cursed herself for leaving Peru, feeling that her aspirations in her new homeland were nothing but a pipe dream.
Nowadays her children wake up at 5am to catch a bus two hours to school where they are forging ahead in their studies. She is particularly proud of the fact that her fourteen year-old has been continuously present at his technical school, rather than dropping out like so many of his peers who are forced to support their families.
Cinthia searches tirelessly for any and all kind of honest work; ironing, cleaning, sewing and just about anything else to keep her in food and school supplies. Through her hard work and perseverance over the past couple months, she saved just enough to buy a few wooden boards to make a good start on her tiny house, but has struggled to sleep and stay warm with the freezing rain and southern winds that keep barreling in. Her mother, more accustomed to Lima’s more mild climate, cries throughout the nights. Cinthia begs her to “aguantar“, to just hang in there a little more.
Right then and there, Ryan promised her that we would do anything we could to help her stay a little warmer through the winter. Over the next few days, Cinthia found a business that sold chapas – thin-ply aluminum siding panels – that, along with a few rolls of insulation, could effectively keep the rain out. We would get her the materials she needed plus provide her with the transportation to get everything out to her little plot. She was as giddy as a kid the night before Christmas as we loaded Clifford, our trusty Ford Expedition, with the materials for her new roof. As we drove deeper into the province, she recounted how, only a few days before she had met us, she had been attacked from behind while waiting for the bus in a residential neighborhood. The thieves had left her with a concussion, and had taken both her cellphone and all the money she had in her pocket: $4,000 pesos ($90 USD). Everything she had saved for two weeks to buy the materials for her roof.
We have never seen a bigger smile than the one on our friend’s face as she started to put up the chapas on her roof. Our current mood is one of deep gratitude that stems from the fact that this woman, facing adversities and hardships that we will never fully comprehend, has a roof, a warm blanket and a home to call her own… all things she has fought for with tooth and nail against the longest odds.
We just received a message from her telling us that she is dry for the first time in months. What did this cost us? $200 USD plus a tank of gas. What is it all worth? Go help someone who is in need…that feeling is priceless.