Meet Edison López from Paraguay – and Chuck Fitzsimmons, the Christian Brother in his life. Though this story is individual, it is also typical, and it contains many of the elements to which the Brothers’ ministry responds in that country.
Edison López, 18, is from a very poor family who live in several small shacks in Bañado Tacumbú in the capital city of Asunción. A ‘bañado’ is a flood plain next to the River Paraguay where the poor build their precarious houses – and develop neighbourhoods over time – because the sand/land is unoccupied and free. Edison’s family is typical of many families throughout Latin America who have come from the farmlands to the city looking for work and for a better life.
The farmlands of Paraguay, which are easily 80% of the country, are very poor and simple for the farm-worker families. Education is meager, and quite a few children leave school after 3rd or 4th grade to help their families search for food and work. For many rural families in Paraguay education is not highly understood nor valued.
Edison left school after sixth grade. Then he got into trouble. I went with Edison to his criminal hearing in which the judge gave him probation, with conditions. He must do community service, enter night classes, and a few other good ideas – like not hanging around with the bad guys.
Edison works with me two or three mornings a week, along with five or six other youth, cleaning the public areas of the Bañado. Here no one cuts the grass or cleans the one street that comes into the barrio. So, with donations from the Callan Fund (contributions to the Latin American Region for special projects), I hire these young people for four hours of work in the morning. It gets them out of the house, doing something for the community and at the same time earning a little cash. It also gets me contact time with them, to talk things over, to see how they’re doing, to sense if there are problems. And there are problems – one of our workers fled from home the other day and no one has seen him since.
I also invited Edison to come with me to a weekend session of building houses for the poor in other bañados of Asunción, in a program called A Roof For My Country (‘Un Techo Para Mi País’). In this program university students work a weekend in squads of four to six students, each squad putting together a pre-fabricated house in those two days. The house is a simple one-room structure, but it’s a real step forward for families who live beneath plywood and plastic bags.
In A Roof For My Country, the youth work hard and get terribly dirty and fatigued. I figured Edison could handle the work, and he did. But what about his relating to Paraguayan university students? Edison is Paraguayan, but he’s as far from the sophistication of the university as one could get. But Edison did all right: not only because he’s got a spark of life in him that had him mixing with the ‘universitarios’, but also because he proved a vital link with the poor family receiving the house. Because Edison is poor like they are, he prefers to speak Guarani, like they do. Not too many of the university students speak the humble Guarani, but Edison speaks both Guarani and Spanish.
Later Edison volunteered to go on a marathon eight-day construction with the Roof program, building four houses in that time. I was proud of him. Edison is hoping to be first in line for his own house when the Roof program comes to our own bañado.
Here in Paraguay we begin the school year in late February, after a very hot December and January. By court order Edison had to enrol in the night classes that enable youth and adults to get their grade-school certificate in one or two years of classes. But to get into class he needed a spiral notebook. Like many children and youth in the Bañado, Edison does not have money for a spiral notebook. How could a kid be that poor?! But that’s the reality of Bañado Tacumbú. In the Santa Ana corner of Bañado Tacumbú, the neighborhood organization found 20 children who had not enrolled in school, five of them because their family couldn’t afford the simple materials and public school uniform.
Edison also needed a white shirt, blue pants, sneakers (as opposed to the flip-flops that everyone in Bañado Tacumbú wears), and a pen and pencil. Edison has none of these materials and his family can’t afford them. We figured that all that stuff would cost about 80,000 Guaranis (about US$ 18), so I gave Edison money from the Callan Fund, with the idea that he would pay back half of it in the work he does in our program. Edison was able to enter the night classes, dressed appropriately and armed with his spiral notebook and pen!
I host a 90-minute radio program on the community radio station we have in Bañado Tacumbú. The program focuses on youth and young adults, their victories and obstacles. My first interview was with Sonia Morinago, 21, from the Bañado, who is the administrator of the community organization here, a responsible position, and who studies accounting at the university in the evenings. Sonia is a good example of the many young people in the Bañado who are progressing well. This local community organization recently offered five positions for the youth I work with, for a month or two of fighting the terrible mosquito problem we have here. Edison will be one of those workers who will receive 600,000 Guaranis for a month’s work (US$ 150). It is his first real job.
Is there hope for Edison? He has responded to the new possibilities in his life and shows some initiative. Our goal will be to complete the conditions of the court for the next year, finish his first year of night classes, attend the Roof program once again, and keep him safe and on the right road. Caution is always needed. Four years ago Edison’s older brother was killed in a fight, aged 20. His story stands as a warning as Edison’s own story unfolds.
Christian Brother Chuck Fitzsimmons