My daughter Naomi phoned me in May and said “Daddy, take me to Peru!” I had been a part of the Oblate missions during the 1970’s, an experience that profoundly marked my persona. We agreed to a 5 week travel agenda, including some typical “tourist” spots and some visiting of friends with whom I still had contact. I mentioned to Fr. Nicanor Sarmiento OMI that I would be traveling to Peru and he insisted that I visit his hometown of Lares, a 4 hour trip outside of Cuzco. Fr. Nicanor is extremely proud of his Incan ancestry. His first language is Quechua, his second language is Spanish – the language of the conquerors. Then at the invitation of Bishop Doug Crosby OMI, Nicanor was chosen to be a missionary among the Innu people of Labrador, so English became his third language. Fr. Nicanor’s invitation to visit Lares was not a “perhaps” but a “you must”.
The first part of our Peruvian visit was a two week tour in the southern mountains. We were accompanied by the daughter of good friends from Comas. We traveled first to Arequipa, a beautiful city of white limestone that glistens in the sun, and is only 2,300 meters above sea level. This enabled us to slowly adjust to the higher altitudes to come. We then traveled to Puno, via the Colca Valley where the highway crossed at 4910 meters above sea level. Our lungs were definitely being tested. Then we headed for Cuzco, the Imperial city of the Inca.
Nicanor had informed his family that we were arriving. We had to leave by 4 am to catch a van traveling through the Sacred Valley to Calca, then we found another bus (van) going to Lares. We waited more than 30 minutes for enough passengers to arrive but when full we took off for Lares, and it was 1 ½ hours of climbing well over the 4000 meter level. Then the driver left the paved road as we headed into a different valley on a one lane dirt road that snaked its way from one side to the other side of the canyon. The trip took a little longer as the engine lost all electrical contact, but somehow power was restored and we made it to Lares by 9:30 am. Now August is a winter month in the mountains, and usually dry. However it was raining and we even ran into a snow blizzard on the return trip.
We arrived at the main plaza of Lares, and within minutes we were greeted by Eulalia,
Nicanor’s sister. She introduced us to Doña Rudisinda Yupanqui, their mother, who is usually found in the main plaza selling herbal teas. We were taken to a nearby hostal whereupon my daughter and friend promptly crawled into bed, because of the anxiety of the trip and the bitter cold. I left them and went to the parish looking for Eulalia, a short 5 minute walk. Eulalia was busy as she was about to feed 60 children!
The town of Lares has a public school K – 12. Many of the smaller communities nearby are too small to have their own school, or have small schools up to the 4th grade, so the only option for the children is to walk to Lares which for some is a 4 hour journey walking one way. Obviously walking this distance to school in Lares each day is not possible. Some children from the 13 communities near Lares are able to stay with relatives, or their parents can afford to pay room and board with another family. Many parents are poor subsistence farmers who cannot afford to pay room and board with a family in Lares. The parish provides a space for the children to sleep, eat and do their homework. The parish is a Salesian parish which receives some financial support from other Salesian parishes in Germany and Belgium. Eulalia and another woman Cleofe are the only two persons who take care of the children. The parish priest who is Italian considers this ministry to be most important and is often away begging for support to keep the “casita” (home) supplied.
The boys and girls have separate dormitories, small dark rooms with 4 – 5 bunkbeds in each room and each bed with heavy wool blankets. There were common sinks and bathrooms in a different area, definitely nothing such as warm showers. I met one young boy, perhaps 12 years old, washing his clothes with a scrub brush and soap in the stone sink. There was no laundry service, so the children would do their own wash, or take it home. The children walk down to Lares on Sunday afternoon, arriving for a mid-day meal and return to their villages on Friday afternoon after the mid-day meal. The school runs from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm Monday to Friday.
That day was most unusual because of the bitter cold and the rain. The children returned from school anxious to have their meal and then to begin their difficult walk to their villages. The children did not have shoes or socks. They used simple sandals called “yanquis”, which could be made of recycled tires. Their feet were reddish black from the cold. I entered the parish center and found Eulalia in the “kitchen” (open to the rain) with a fire burning on one stove and two large pots steaming. One pot was filled with white rice, the other one had a chopped vegetable mix with a lot of beets and carrots. On the stove was an extra-large frying pan with chopped potato fries. The children began to line up, surely some of the children were no more than 7 years old. They looked at me rather curiously, but they were more interested in their meal. There was no pushing or even noise coming from the children. Some of the older girls were helping serve the food. Each child got a good scoop of rice and vegetables and a portion of fried potato that was obviously cold because it was served by one of the girls as a “handful”. The children seemed to favor the fried potato as the extra “treat” with the meal.
Eulalia insisted that I share a plate with the children. I gratefully accepted this simple plate, feeling somewhat guilty as I thought of how well I was overfed each day with choice varieties of vegetables, fruits and meats. The children ate quickly and again some of the older girls helped Eulalia with some of the cleanup. Within ½ hour very few of the children were still in the complex. They were anxious to make it up the muddy trails to their home villages with the hope of arriving before dark. Some parents had walked down to Lares to accompany the children home.
Cleofe helps the children in the afternoons as the meal tables are turned into study tables, and the children begin to work on their homework assignments. She is also more involved in getting the children into bed. Because Peru is so close to the equator, sunrise is around 6 am and sunset is close to 6 pm., so the children do not stay up late. I saw no TV or other entertainment, so it was up to Eulalia and Cleofe to organize the children and tend to their needs.
The “casita” has existed now for 17 years, and some of its graduates are now college and university graduates, among them are two diocesan priests for the diocese of Cuzco. When visiting Lares, these graduates often bring gifts of food and refer to Eulalia as “mama”. One farmer yearly brings two large bundles of potatoes when he is harvesting his own crop. Another has brought meat from his own small herd, a supplement to the meagre diet of most days.
Two thoughts continue to bounce around in my head and heart, as perhaps I haven’t yet processed why I was there. First, I think of the children who are making this huge sacrifice to attend school. This is not a residential school such as existed in Canada. This is a huge but humble effort, made with great sacrifice, by parents and children knowing that an education is important to their future. Second, it is a huge effort by two women and a dedicated parish priest. Both women, who also have families to attend, care for 60 children with the scarcest of resources. This ministry is dependent on maintaining support from far away. What if either woman were to become ill, could the other one take on all the work? I don’t see how as it is already such a massive effort and such a great responsibility that falls on these two women.
The “Oblate spirit” filled this ministry, even if no Oblates were involved. I saw where Fr. Nicanor came from and that is reflected in the dedication his sister shows to this ministry for those who are truly “the least” and the poor. I took photos of Eulalia serving food but I refrained from taking other photos of the facilities or the children as I did not want to invade their space. Usually I am not shy about taking photos. So I am left with these photos of the children. Of the many places I visited, and the many people I met in 5 weeks of travel, this was the most impressionable (troubling, unsettling) experience. I worked for 26 years in public education in Toronto before retirement. What I saw in Lares was a heroic effort to provide education to 60 beautiful children who have so much working against them, but they have two women, Eulalia and Cleofe, on their side. That could be enough to make a big difference in their lives.
(Oblate note: Fr. Nicanor has recently been appointed pastor of Canadian Martyrs Parish in Ottawa and has also been named as the Ontario regional superior for the Lacombe province.)