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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Operativo – The Raid

I wasn’t surprised to be present when a full-blown “operative” was executed against our barrio on June 30th. What was surprising was how normal it seemed to everyone around me.

An “operativo” or redada (raid or operative) is when the OIJ (FBI equivalent), law enforcement dressed like SWAT, pour into every nook and cranny of the neighborhood and arrest a list of targeted criminals. The operativo is executed by special forces uniformed in black with helmets, masks, black stockings covering their faces, and toting high-caliber weaponry. The newspapers later reported that 13 minors and 9 adults were detained, and there was no resistance.

The raid began at 4.A.M., when I remember waking up to the rushed patter of feet running past on the dirt road outside my bedroom. I went back to sleep not thinking anything of it, because there are always noises of people or animals moving in the street outside my bedroom.

When I stumbled out of my bedroom a couple hours later, everyone was at the entrance to the house peering up and down the street. There are a lot of early risers in La Carpio leaving early for work or school, which generates a lot of bustle in the morning hours, even before sunrise. However, this morning there are visitors in uniform and cars with tinted windows rolling slowly up and down the street in front of our house. Four uniformed motorcycle police perched on the corner, with curious kids sitting around them and watching from the curb. My host brother squatted in front of the pulperia (house-store) and played with his yo-yo-top in the dirt around the policemen so he could watch the event unfold. People peered from doorways to witness the spectacle in case anything dramatic happened, but nothing abrupt broke out. Probably the more sensational entries had been conducted early in the morning and we were currently witnessing minor interrogations and searches.

I watched for a while and listened to the commentary of the people in the home, recounting how family members had narrowly escaped being questioned or ID’d. At this point, the exits to the main road were blocked by police tape and OIJ officers checking ID’s. Nobody made it through without being ID’d and searched – not people on the way to work, not teachers, not even kids in school uniform with backpacks. The family watched and lightly ridiculed students that ascended the hill to the main road, and then returned because they had no I.D. Estaci, my 10-year-old host sister, tried to make it through later that day but was turned around, and took a long side route through other parts of the barrio to get to class.

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Environmental Justice

Health and environmental justice are important topics that have grave implications in La Carpio. These terms are a little vague, so let me provide a little background.

Put simply, research in the U.S. has shown that hazardous waste sites are disproportionately located near poor and black communities (Robert Bullard). That is, if you look at the socioethnic demographics of communities living near hazardous waste sites, you are likely to see more poor and black people living in those areas – not white, middle-class, suburban residents. There are lots of reasons for this, but the result is a cruel impact that affects these populations worse than other groups. The most impacting descriptions of this I read in the books “Amazing Grace” and “Ordinary Resurrections,” in which the author casually describes the impact of a hospital incinerary on the children in the South Bronx. Of course, there are other factors, including lead-based paint and faulty construction – all of which create quite horrifying health hazards for children in the area.

La Carpio is currently the location of Costa Rica’s largest sanitary landfill, receiving 1200 tons of the country’s solid waste, per day. The garbage dump is a Canadian owned company (EBI) with the polite euphemistic label of the “Parque de Tecnologia Ambiental” – the Environmental Technology Park (PTA Uruka). The misleading site name is so painfully blatant, it is not surprising that the surrounding La Carpio community through which the 1200 tons of garbage passes every day is anything but “sanitary.” Although I never heard anyone complain of the garbage dump within La Carpio, I know that rich foreign property buyers across the valley have complained frequently about the smell, including a blog called “Save Cariari” that was written in an attempt to save the elite guarded community across the valley from the woes of the landfill eyesore and the accompanying odors that waft across the valley. The author of the website is aware, I am sure, of the La Carpio community of 30,000 “squatters” without legal possession of their land living on the same peninsular protrusion of land as the garbage dump. However, most of the complaints about infractions of the landfill on the “people” refer to the rich people in luxurious homes across the valley and their eighteen-hole golf course of the Cariari Country Club.

I feel a little convicted as I write this particular entry, because it is probably quite insulting to suggest that the commendable efforts of the people in the La Carpio community toward building a better life occurs within this material context of pollution and health risks. I never got the impression from those I lived with that we were living on a trash heap. I even observed an internal stratification within which those who gleaned through garbage and worked the trash route seemed to be at the bottom end. However, I have chosen to exclude the dignity, resourcefulness, and pride of the La Carpio community members from this particular account, in the hopes of being more detailed and explicit about the very real environmental hazards that they face. The La Carpio community is less than 25 years old… more aggressive confrontation of these issues could avert the same plight that we have irreparably constructed into our U.S. society.

Some of the pioneering members of the community, particularly those in the area in which I lived, are aware that the terrain was originally used as a disposal site for hospital waste. Anecdotal accounts tell of bones, bags of blood, hands, syringes, and all sorts of horrifying medical waste that had to be cleared in order to make the place inhabitable. The sanitary landfill, if I understand correctly, was officially inaugurated in 2000. To be fair, its presence is controversial to members of the community, and EBI has assisted the community in various ways such as sponsoring soccer teams and building a classroom location (one of the three elementary school sites). That is, it has made attempts (with sugary PR releases) to compensate the community in various ways in exchange for their presence in the community.

Indeed, a good deal of the local economy seems to revolve around what is true utilitarian recycling, resourced by the garbage trucks’ daily route through the community. Costa Rica boasts a “culture of recycling”, which often shows up by artistically re-purposing pieces of trash. I didn’t see any native examples of this, although outside parties (myself included) tried to experiment with various ways of making artisan crafts out of local garbage, and get people interested in it. In La Carpio, the reality of waste re-purposing is a complex system that is quick, dirty, and purely utilitarian. I cannot say for certain if the trash circuit is formalized, but a brief description of my observation follows…

The garbage trucks thunder across the thin land bridge, and slow down for the first “muerto” (speed bump). The first buildings on the right of the community are always open during the week while the garbage trucks run, one with the cryptic message “Dios Padre / Bless takers” spraypainted across its grey doors. Young males from about 14 and up leap onto the trucks and begin pulling off anything that can be re-purposed – computer parts, wood fragments, electronics, etc… They then drag these mangled masses of trash back to the huge buildings where they break them down into their most elemental form. Signs at the entrance explain the price given for different raw materials – copper, aluminum, bronze, etc…. Copper seems to be the most valuable – most electronics and wiring can be broken apart for their copper innards. Some of the trucks slow down or stop, and some seem to have special loads of salvageable waste, some of which can be repaired and resold within the community. I suspect that some of the electronics I saw used in the homes, such as televisions and computers, had been repaired at one of the many shops on the main road. There are places along the main road that specialize in various forms of re-purposing and repair – carpentry, electronics, clothing, etc…. I was never able to understand how much of this process is formalized, and which parts were ad hoc. For example, I can’t tell why some trucks slow down, and others barrel through. Some require the kids to clamber up top and push materials off the top in a race before the truck gets to the dump, causing a rain of plastics and electronics to fall from the several meters high the entire length of the main road through the community (a 1.2 km stretch, taking about 5 minutes by vehicle without traffic). As I mentioned before, there is a progression of trash quality and even social position on the trash route, which I only know of because the family of one of our computer technicians claims that pulling materials at the entrance to the community is inferior work to going to scout out junk at an undisclosed location near Channel 13, the news station at the other end of the land bridge connecting the community with the rest of the city by road. The Dios Padre/Bless Takers location is dirtier and will make you sick, they explained. Indeed, it looks like brutal, exhausting, dangerous work.

The environmental hazards do not stop with the garbage dump, but this is probably the environmental characteristic most closely linked with the economy of the community. The two rivers enclosing La Carpio feed into what later becomes the most polluted river in central america (Rio Tarcoles), by some accounts. A confidential wikileak document notes that rivers and water treatment in Costa Rica is basically non-existent (less than 3% of wastewater is treated before being dumped in the rivers and ocean). La Carpio is near the end of these rivers’ route through the city, which is part of the reason a water treatment plant is scheduled to be constructed there in 2015. At the entrance to the community while I lived there, two signs were put up protesting the installation of the water treatment plant. One of the rivers is dammed at the far end of La Carpio to generate hydroelectric electricity, which travels into the city via high-voltage towers passing over the community.

And here I will enter into a short imaginative exercise that has no scientific basis, but is interesting to consider. First of all, if we consider the total OUTPUT of work, power, and resources that flow outward from La Carpio, and compare that to the amount of resourcing INPUT from the city, I would estimate there is a considerable amount of imbalance. Most of what comes IN is pollution from the rivers, garbage from the city, discrimination and insults from the media and general public, and police force. The tally of what goes OUT is countless jiggawatts of hydroelectric power, recycled raw materials, busloads of workers in the morning taking jobs no one else is willing to do, and sand from the cement quarry. In summary, you’ve got a lot of garbage and waste heaped into the community from the outside, while simultaneously the country is extracting every natural and human resource it can possibly take. This is a dangerous, exploitative relationship.

Watch/listen to an original presentation I wrote about environmental justice issues in La Carpio

First morning

June 10, 2012: 6:05 A.M.

The first alarm I hear and rustle of activity in the home awoke me at 4:50 A.M. The half-dozen nail holes in the corrugated steel wall become pinpricks of gray. There is no direct sunlight yet, but the sky is gray and the light coming through the nail holes forms an interesting constellation on the street-side of my bedroom.

The cocks on the other side of the tin wall have been crowing since 3:30 A.M. It sounds as if they are in the room with me, along with the shuffle of feet passing by in the street outside. I later learn that they are fighting cocks for the gallera (cockfighting ring) that draws a rowdy crowd to the ring by our home the first Saturday of every month.

The light to the kitchen is on (it is never turned off), and its light spreads throughout the house over the rafters made of wood scraps and draped with spider webs. Our rooms are separated by wooden partitions about 10 feet high… above that is an open space so light and sound travels between everyone’s bedrooms quite easily. Nanci’s wailing and Coyol’s persistent moaning ensure that sleeping in will not be an option. Nanci will be turning 1 year old in a few months, and Coyol will be getting a customized wheelchair to begin holding his contorted body in place. Gramma Vicki yells from her room over to her daughter’s to give the wailing child a pacifier.

Someone has begun bathing, and I strive to hear how many buckets of water they toss over themselves so I don’t use too much. Water enters the home through two spigots, neither of them in the bathrooms or kitchen. From those two locations, one of which is right next to the grounding wire that enters the home diagonally from the power-pole outside, the water is routed to other parts of the home by hoses that are connected and disconnected throughout the day. We only receive water for certain periods of time during the day, so one of the most important morning tasks is to fill the 50-gallon blue plastic drums for use during the day. There is no running water in the “bathroom”, a 6-foot square section of the house that is perpetually dark, dank, and wet. The bathroom contains one of the two 50-gallon drums that is used to dump skillfully into the toilet to flush it. It is also used to toss over oneself to bathe in the morning. I hear about 15-20 bowl-fulls. No one will explain to me how to do obvious things like take a shower or turn off the water spigot, so I have to observe even the most simple things to figure out how things are done. It isn’t until 5 months later that I finally learn why the handle of the spigot is always tied shut with a shoestring.

The corrugated steel walls of the house are completely light-proof, and there are no windows. The only light that peeps into my room in the early morning is the bright golden circles of light irregularly pocking the wall furthest from the street. These perfectly circular bubbles of light are created by the morning sunlight piercing through the nailholes in the patchwork of steel sheets making up my wall. I lay awake in the mornings sometimes, fascinated by these bright spots of light dappling my wall. Part of my fascination is the thin sliver of light the sunbeam forms through the glittering fibers of dust in the air. Each pinprick of light where a removed nail has left a hole leaks an unnaturally straight beam of sunlight across my room to form small yellow bubbles of light on the far wall, about two inches in diameter.

Someone has gotten up and turned on the TV on low. Two of the kids have school at 7:30 A.M. They are back before the other group leaves at 10:00 A.M. And the final school session is at about 2:00 P.M. There are 8 school-aged kids in this household, and it will take me months and dozens of pages of notes before I finally figure out how their school schedule and attendance works. I finally decide to interview one of the mothers each day for a month in order to figure out who goes to school and when. There are three “jornadas” or “sessions” of about 3 1/2 hours, each day, in order to service the huge population of kids in La Carpio. At exactly the time when I finally get all the children’s schedules figured out, they will completely rearrange it the next week.

There are 19 people in this home, which is divided into two family living sections, each section on either side of the “carport”, which includes the bathroom. There are 8 people in Daniella’s family on the other side of the carport, divided between two rooms. Each room is some 16 feet squared, roughly. Our section of the home has 11 people, four in the room next to me, three in the other room next to me, two girls in a space just large enough for their bunkbed, and me with a room to myself.

I entertain myself by counting how many fragments of wood and metal make up my room. I count 34 panels/sections on the floor and walls, not counting the corrugated roof panels or rafters. One of the inner walls is a complete section, held up by a supporting beam which I realize is the vertical shard of a door. The hole for the knob contains some treasure that one of the kids who used to live in here left.

This “rancho” (shack?) will be my home for the next six months. Last night when I planned to move in, with a duffel-bag, knapsack, and box of books, I received a text message before I left my office that said “ud tiene cama” (you have bed). I thought that was very hospitable of them to let know I had a place to sleep. Turns out, the message was a question… “you have a bed?”. A few days ago I had visited the home and they had not yet constructed the room for me to live in. Rooms are modular, however, and they can be torn down and reconfigured in less than an hour. However, I had to ask around to find a bed contraption to sleep on. The one I was given was about 6 inches off the floor, which they allowed me to use but looked at disapprovingly. I would later discover small reasons with many legs and sometimes sharp teeth that convinced me that being so close to the floor was not a good idea. Before I had too many problems, though, they had already gotten me a higher bed that was quite cozy and high enough to keep the little animalitos beneath me most nights.

What seemed like a good idea in my head had now become a reality for the next six months. I had moved my stuff out of the other house I was living in. And now I would get a small taste of what life is like in La Cueva del Sapo, La Carpio, Costa Rica.

Where I lived, and what I lived for

I went into the slums because I wanted to live deliberately, to front what for me is one of the most disturbing essential facts of life, the drastically increasing gap between the rich and the poor. I wanted to see if I could learn what they had to teach me, and not, when I kneel before God in prayer, discover that religion and spirituality had nothing to speak into this reality. I am no longer satisfied to live the unexamined life that accepts inequality blindly, nor do I wish to practise resignation, except as a method of deferring to the teaching authority of those that will guide me. I am no longer satisfied, nor have ever been, with what feels to be a shallow level of superficial concession of religion and culture in general to this problem of exploitation and injustice. I want them to meet it head on, not just in theology or social gospel but in flesh and blood, not just by me in this temporary immersion, but by all people in body and spirit and mind. I go into the slums, as an act of deliberate decision to force all the Western training and tools and religious thought to confront this problem head-on, and to see if in actuality we are able to equip ourselves for true social mobility. I wish to put that expertise and training at the service of the slums and the people there, to test these tools in the context of poverty and informality, and to see where their arrogance and self-ascribed authority needs reshaping and refinement by reality.

I want to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, but especially not just those aspects of life brought to me simply and freely, but drive the comfortable life into the niche where it belongs, and experience the grand scale of life as it exists today, and, if it proves to mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; if it be sublime, to know it by experience, and give a true testimony of it as best I can when I emerge. For most people, it seems to me, have far too hastily concluded that the chief end of man is to glorify God with a false sense of security and comfort, without any authenticity or concern for their fellow neighbor, and enjoy him forever while being completely isolated from the beautiful and somewhat terrifying complexity and multiplicity of the world he has created.

I go to learn, I go to ask what the good news of Jesus Christ means in this new context, one so close geographically but so far socioeconomically. I seek reconciliation.

Remixed from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden”, Ch. 2

(I move in the next day, on the 9th).