I’d like to think that, as a kid, I would have been like the Parkland students leading the march for gun control in Washington, DC: passionate about justice, and empowered by truth. Probably not: it’s a high bar. Still, Mom and Dad raised my sister and me with the belief that people’s actions could make a difference. Here’s what happened in 1964, when I was in fifth grade in Bogota, Colombia.
There were lots of Colombian children wandering alone in the streets of Bogota. They called them cochinos, filthy pigs. I’d seen them from the bus on our way home from school as they begged at the windows of cars stuck in traffic, but rarely in our tree-lined residential neighborhood of Teusaquillo.
One Sunday, I was doing my homework in my room when I heard a clanging coming from the street. I pulled aside the sheer drapes covering my window and saw a small group of cochinos in front of the closed candy and newspaper store across the street going through the contents of some garbage cans. One of the older kids handed a piece of something to a very small boy who put it in his mouth and sat down against the building, slumping like an old man. Garbage for lunch.
No one should have garbage for lunch. Not today. I ran downstairs to look for Mom and found her reading in the living room.
I made my case. She listened, pressing her lips together, then took a deep breath. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s ask Rosanna to put some food together for these children.” She never called them cochinos.
Our cook, Rosanna, frowned and shook her head, but placed some leftover roasted lomito and yucca on one of our older plates.
“Y arequipe,” I said, reaching for the carmel syrup that we kept in the pantry. Rosanna pulled out a loaf of bread we’d started Friday night and sliced off three solid chunks. I poured a ribbon of carmel across each piece. “Y arequipe,” she said with a nod. I bet she was thinking “crazy Americans.”
I carried the plate down the hall to the front door and then down the driveway and through the iron gate, Mom following. As the gate clanged shut behind us, the children turned, ready to run.
“Ninos,” I said, extending the plate. “Comida.” Food.
The four children looked at each other for a moment; then, the older boy gave a small nod and the younger children ran across the street to where I was standing, their leader following. As they approached, I saw for the first time up close why cochino was the right word. Their clothes were ragged and caked with grime. Their shoes were cardboard wrapped with some old string. Their faces were lined with dirt, their hands and legs filthy. You could smell them.
I handed the plate to the older boy and our eyes met: he was the tiredest person I’d ever seen, deep circles under his eyes, his lips cracked and dry, his cheeks hollow. He was about my age. He lowered his eyes and took the plate, our hands only inches away from each other. He turned and sat on the sidewalk, the other three huddled around him. He handed out the food, starting with the littlest boy, who couldn’t have been more than five. His nose was runny, as were his eyes, and his belly was bloated by hunger, protruding above pants that were way too big for him, held together by a safety pin. There were cuts on his right cheek, as if he’d fallen.
I looked at my mother, who was standing against our wall, hands clasped in front of her. “Mommy, he’s hurt.”
“Yes, honey,” she said, nodding. “Let’s do what we can.”
She stepped toward our gate. The children’s heads turned as the hinges squealed, their eyes wary.
“Esperen,” she said to them, holding her hand up. Wait.
We brought out a basin of soapy water, an old washcloth, and band aids. The group was still there, but standing and looking nervous.
“Senora,” the oldest boy said, lowering his eyes as he handed our empty plate to her. Mom took the plate as if it were a gift from a visiting dignitary.
I knelt next to the water and motioned to the little one. He approached as if he were in a trance, his eyes empty. He barely registered the feel of the washcloth on his face as I wiped at the dirt, the washcloth coming back brown. I patted at the scratches on his face and lay a band aid across his hot dry cheek.
“Okay,” I said, standing.
The leader looked at me directly for the first time.
“Gracias,” he said.
I nodded. They wandered away down the sidewalk. I knew that we’d never see them again.
That night at dinner, Mom and I told Dad and Susie what had happened that afternoon while they were out: Susie, playing at an American friend’s house; and Dad, playing golf at the country club.
“I knew we needed to help,” I said, recounting how I’d wiped some of the dirt off the little boy’s face. “But I’m not even sure what difference it made.”
“Anything at all was a good thing to do,” Mom said, passing the mashed potatoes to Dad. “And you’re right: this tragic situation is somehow tolerated by society. I mean, that’s what the Y was all about in Winona: giving kids a place to belong, and that was important even when families were intact.”
“Making a difference is why we are here, after all,” Dad said, scooping potatoes onto his plate. He looked at us, the platter paused in mid-air. “No person is unimportant in a democracy.”
He nodded at his own pontification and lowered the potatoes into Susie’s waiting hand. Dad looked across the table toward me, but not quite at me. I followed his gaze and passed him the peas.
“Isn’t that what the Embassy wives are working on, Nancy?” Dad said, adding a slab of butter to his peas. They put lots of butter and cream and milk on everything in South Dakota.
“Well, sort of. We’re modeling volunteerism. There’s a great group of Colombian women that are picking up on it.” She chewed on a piece of ham. “The March of Dimes,” she said.
“Who?” I said.
“The March of Dimes, that’s who is helping kids all over the world get a better start in life, including here in Bogota. Mrs. Dearborn is on the Board. Maybe we can’t help every street child, but maybe we can help the organization make a difference to kids. Kids like Henry.” Francesca’s son came with her on ironing days, sitting on a chair with his braces unlocked. “His polio could have been prevented with better education and better health care. That’s what the March of Dimes is all about.”
“Polio?” Susie said, looking at Dad. “Didn’t he get the sugar cubes like you brought home?”
“You got those because you are a very fortunate American child,” Daddy said. “We are all very fortunate. And, yes, I think that supporting the March of Dimes would be a fine thing to do, Janie.”
The school week left us with little time, so it wasn’t until the following Friday that I announced the project to our best friends, the four Cardenas kids, when we met up on top of the cement wall that separated their property from ours. We had created a neighborhood play together. Now, we were going to raise money for children. As the two oldest kids, Luis and I planned out our approach.
The next day, we went down the block, door to door. Mom waited on the sidewalk while the six of us climbed up and down the stoops, smiling at the baffled maids that answered the door as they looked around us, trying to figure out our scheme: why was this group of well-to-do children begging like cochinos? They all shook their heads no.
We needed another way to get money. Luis came up with the idea.“Vendemos cosas viejas.” Sell our old things.
“Si!” I said. This was exactly the right thing, from what I’d read in American books: it was what Honey Bunch and Norman did when they helped the old farmer keep his farm. “A yard sale.”
“Un llard esale,” Luis repeated, looking pleased.
The following Saturday, the front wall of our house was covered with items for sale: Dad donated an old electric razor and drawing pencils; Mom sorted through the pots and pans to find a few we could do without, and she gave us several scarves and some old jewelry she said was ‘paste’; Susie and I put in toys we had outgrown and hand-me-down dresses to be handed down again; and even Julia, our housekeeper, joined in, giving us some little figurines that she’d collected. Luis and his siblings added books, some sweaters and other things, including the fake flowers Mrs. Cardenas gave us from their dining room.
It was a good thing that Mr. Cardenas was away on business that weekend, because he would never have approved his children selling their household items like some street vendors. I’m pretty sure proper Teusaquillo had never seen anything like it. Leave it to the Americans.
We raised $50, mostly in coins. I put it in a glass jar and proudly walked in into the March of Dimes office on Monday afternoon with Mom while Dad’s driver waited at the curb.
It was a good start in civic engagement.