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For Community-Driven Global Development

Voices from the Field: Paul Cajamarca on Grief, Brotherhood

Voices from the Field: Paul Cajamarca on Grief, Brotherhood

By Paul Cajamarca

We ascend, and our pickup truck bumps and slides over not a road, but small round boulders. The Andean altiplano unfolds before us after mounting a ridge. There are shiny, snowcapped peaks far off to the west. Sergio, Ramonita, and I are on our way to Pascha—a small community nestled in a barren valley. Pascha is one of 23 mountain communities served by Fundación Alfarcito, an Argentine NGO committed to this region’s socioeconomic development and preservation of indigenous culture.

Pascha is home to a primary school that educates about 30 children from the surrounding area. More than half the students stay in the school’s small dormitories the entire week, since walking home for hours every day is not practical. This “albergue” model is the norm for these rural schools.

When I met the schoolchildren, they looked at me with wide eyes. I am an unconventional visitor. My features are similar to theirs since my Ecuadorian parents also came from high Andean valleys, but I was born a continent away in the urban, American, sprawl of Los Angeles. We share the same Spanish language, and even some indigenous Quechua words. At their young age, my parents would call me wawa (child), just as their parents call them today, and just as our Inca forebears did centuries ago. I feel both foreign and somehow familiar.

Pascha marks the eastern flank of this region, the Quebrada del Toro. In the center lies the village of El Alfarcito, the foundation’s namesake. This became a home away from home, where I would spend several days each week. Alfarcito itself means “alfalfa bundle,” the lifeblood for llamas and sheep. Alfalfa bundles nourish the wool production so crucial to these families’ livelihoods. It’s befitting then that El Alfarcito is the Quebrada del Toro’s economic and educational heart. El Alfarcito is also truly a home for the 143 students at the Alfarcito Secondary School, the first and only one of its kind in the Quebrada del Toro. Students from distant schools like Pascha’s flock here to continue their education. Many become the first in their families to ever attend university. This is another connection we share: another mental bridge between North and South.

Unlike Pascha, El Rosal does not lie in a gentle valley. The town sits in the middle of an enormous, rocky surface patched with fields of grain. Walls of stacked stone mark grazing grounds. Here, I accompanied Father Walter, the traveling clergyman for this devoutly Catholic region. I wanted to visit towns beyond El Alfarcito to better understand the purpose and impact of my work. I soon learned that today’s mass would commemorate a deceased man, and all family members departed. On July 29, 2014, Florentino Guitiérrez was murdered in El Rosal. Today, July 29, 2015, his family hung a banner at the front of the town’s small chapel. Justice for Florentino.

Father Walter, in his pensive solemnity, asked the parishioners to say the names of their deceased. María. Gonzalo. Abuelita. Names flooded the air. I felt heavy with their grief. After the service, everyone walked along El Rosal’s main gravel road and stopped at a seemingly ordinary spot. A family laid flowers and a painted cross. A warm breeze swept across the hills, and a young man began to speak. “Florentino Guitiérrez was my father,” he uttered through tears. “I used to be known for talking and for singing, but since my father’s death, I’ve grown silent.”

Some people in the crowd began to wail. I tried to imagine this man’s loss, and at the thought, I also began to cry. People could not tell that I was a stranger, and for this brief moment, I didn’t feel like one either. The family wiped its tears and comforted the young man. He then invited everyone present—everyone—to his home for an asado, or barbecue.

These families recognize something about humanity that we don’t, I thought. They opened their home to strangers and gave each one a full meal. All this after mourning the death of a loved one so brutally lost. Chatter and laughter filled the house, along with bouts of gravity.

By the final week of my internship, the brevity of my time here became apparent. The days of work and visits in this region had become totally quotidian. It seemed strange and indecent that people and experiences so vivid and real would pass through my life. But what remains untarnished by time is what my coworkers and these community members taught me. The frontiers cannot—shall not—split brothers and sisters.

Ramonita told the schoolchildren one day in Pascha, “Paul may come from a faraway country, but he is our brother.” These words I cannot forget. A brother, from another America.