Juan is a nine year-old in fourth grade, and he gave me the hardest story I’d heard in a long day of painful interviews.
Two big wounds on his left arm were the trigger; I stopped measuring him as I was supposed to, and asked him about the story. He told it with the innocence of someone who ignores the implications: “I was with my mom buying harina PAN. We were 63rd in line, but we did get two packs. We walked home and two motorizados appeared, demanded we give them the packs at gunpoint. I said I was hungry.”
I had been listening to stories like these all day, and this one I already regretted asking. But as much as I wanted to interrupt him, I couldn’t. I had to hear.
“El parrillero stepped off the motorcycle and punched my mom with the gun. He pointed at me and ordered me to give him the bags. I did, so he pushed me and I landed on some debris. Cut my arm here and here.”
“But then a lady gave us one of her packs, so we thanked her and went home to eat. I ate my arepa today because of that pack.”
A few weeks ago, I went to various schools in Petare with the Haz La Diferencia Foundation, the Sucre Municipality and Primeros Auxilios UCAB, to weigh and measure kids from different schools, and give them a meal.
I was with my mom buying harina PAN. Two motorizados appeared, demanded we give them the packs at gunpoint. I said I was hungry.
They weren’t eating properly, which is news to nobody, so the plan was to measure their weight and height and, with that data, create a proper feeding plan. I worked with some 200 kids, from first to sixth grade, and when I spoke with them, a painfully predictable theme appeared.
Carlos is six years old. He starts our conversation by asking me why we’re doing this. “We are collecting data” I say. “We’re gonna come back with something tasty for you and, with time, we’ll see how much you’ve grown.”
I could see in his face he didn’t believe me, but I got him to talk; he loves Messi and FC Barcelona, loves to play soccer with his buddies, likes school because that’s where all his friends are. He also adores walking with his parents everywhere, especially if it’s in the subway. This was all very energetic and with that specific cadence of children (“We did this, and then this happened, and then this happened, and then…”).
The joy went out after a while and his gaze deviated. He spoke of the food he likes, but he only ate breakfast that day, which, to him, means a roll of bread. Not a sandwich: a roll.
And he was happy to eat it. Because it was his favorite type of bread.
Carmen is eight years old and she’s in third grade. Shy at first, with little buns in her hair, she soon asks me my name, and what I’m doing there. I tell her and, unlike Carlos, she did look convinced… but puzzled.
He spoke of the food he likes, but he only ate breakfast that day, which, to him, means a roll of bread. Not a sandwich: a piece.
“Huh” she says. “Why?”
I honestly didn’t expect that from an eight year old, I guess because I don’t have that much experience with children, so I answered the first thing I tell everybody when faced with the question: “I want to help in whatever size, shape or form.”
Her face lights up with a timid smile.
“So good people do exist.”
She goes on about everything she likes. Barbies, dolls, hula-hoops, la ere paralizada, flying kites and going to the supermarket with her mom, and here we go again: she can’t eat all she wants now, so she eats once a day.
“Or every two days” she shrugs.
What can you say to that? I wish I could have comforted her wisely, said anything that she could keep and embrace when the going got rough. But I stared in silence. And gave her this big hug. One I still think of.
Because I went home and ate my dinner. As I always do, as I’ve always done, without fear that it won’t be there tomorrow. As a kid, I had regular kid fears, I played around, I annoyed my folks, I laughed. I used my innocence to tint the bad stuff, which never went as bad or as dark as real hunger. These kids were quiet. No outrage, no anger, just stories told with the voice of day-to-day. And even when this is normal life for them, I fear that calm comes from something beyond acceptance: they just don’t have enough energy to complain.