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Santiago's Children

[ Biography/Memoir ]

Santiago's Children

What I Learned about Life at an Orphanage in Chile

By Steve Reifenberg

A beautifully written memoir about life among the most vulnerable, yet resilient residents of Latin America—its poor children.

2008

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 250 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-71742-8

Unclear about his future career path, Steve Reifenberg found himself in the early 1980s working at a small orphanage in a poor neighborhood in Santiago, Chile, where a determined single woman was trying to create a stable home for a dozen or so children who had been abandoned or abused. With little more than good intentions and very limited Spanish, the 23-year-old Reifenberg plunged into the life of the Hogar Domingo Savio, becoming a foster father to kids who stretched his capacities for compassion and understanding in ways he never could have imagined back in the United States.

In this beautifully written memoir, Reifenberg recalls his two years at the Hogar Domingo Savio. His vivid descriptions create indelible portraits of a dozen remarkable kids—mature-beyond-her-years Verónica; sullen, unresponsive Marcelo; and irrepressible toddler Andrés, among them. As Reifenberg learns more about the children's circumstances, he begins to see the bigger picture of life in Chile at a crucial moment in its history.

The early 1980s were a time of economic crisis and political uprising against the brutal military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Reifenberg skillfully interweaves the story of the orphanage with the broader national and international forces that dramatically impact the lives of the kids. By the end of Santiago's Children, Reifenberg has told an engrossing story not only of his own coming-of-age, but also of the courage and resilience of the poorest and most vulnerable residents of Latin America.

  • Foreword by Paul Farmer
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Visions of a Family Farm
  • Chapter 2. The Arrival
  • Chapter 3. Spanish Lessons
  • Chapter 4. Olga and the Hogar
  • Chapter 5. Not as Imagined
  • Chapter 6. Summer
  • Chapter 7. More Spanish and Other Lessons about Chile
  • Chapter 8. Politics
  • Chapter 9. The Pacific Coast
  • Chapter 10. The End of Summer
  • Chapter 11. A New School Year
  • Chapter 12. Professional Conversations
  • Chapter 13. On Being a Teacher
  • Chapter 14. Noisy and Complicated
  • Chapter 15. The Farm Revisited
  • Chapter 16. Donors, Demons, and Dentists
  • Chapter 17. Marcelo
  • Chapter 18. An Unexpected Journey
  • Chapter 19. A Home on Tupungato Street
  • Chapter 20. Catholics, Mormons, and Evangelicals
  • Chapter 21. Boys, Babies, and Biters
  • Chapter 22. The University
  • Chapter 23. Winter in a New Neighborhood
  • Chapter 24. Sebastián
  • Chapter 25. Explaining a Few Things
  • Chapter 26. You're Going to Do What?
  • Chapter 27. Groping in the Dark
  • Chapter 28. God Will See Us Through
  • Chapter 29. The End of the Road
  • Chapter 30. The Days of Waiting
  • Chapter 31. The Visit of the Gringos
  • Chapter 32. Searching for Something
  • Chapter 33. Taking Leave
  • Epilogue

"Geraldo is vomiting green paint," eight-year-old Carlos announced to everyone in the house. It was the first time I learned the goat had a name.

We found Geraldo panting on his side behind the orphanage's toolshed, his stomach bloated and his whole body shaking. A half dozen children stood around silently in a semicircle. His goat beard was covered with green bile.

Even before taken ill, this goat was no spectacular specimen. A mangy creature with big bald spots on his back, he'd regularly twist his head around in strange ways to chew. And he chewed most anything he could get his mouth around and gnawed off the green paint from one side of the toolshed. The goat regularly munched clothing hanging on the line to dry, having a particular affinity for mine. As I was down to just a few pairs of briefs, I had taken to hanging my underwear to dry on a tree branch, presumably out of reach of Geraldo's insatiable appetite.

"Somebody ate a pair of Tío Esteve's underwear," Carlos yelled across the dinner table one evening. Carlos's voice could always be heard above those of the other twelve children living at the orphanage. He was laughing so hard he could barely get the words out, his voice cracking, milk dribbling out of the side of his mouth: "Guess who ate it?"

The goat's body shook violently. Out came more green vomit, followed by tattered pieces of white cloth. Then the goat was still. From between his clenched teeth hung the shredded remains of my underwear, identifiable by its red elastic band. Carlos looked at me knowingly. Surprisingly, he remained silent.

Our next-door neighbor, Don Alvaro, a three-hundred-pound baker, was deemed the right person to consult on what to do. Wearing his flour-covered white apron, he leaned over and put his nose close to the goat's. Then, standing up, he gave a swift kick to the goat's belly. The goat didn't react. Don Alvaro bowed his head for a moment, confirming our worst fears, and went back to baking bread.

We dragged Geraldo to the farthest corner of the property, dug a deep hole, and rolled him into the grave. He hit the bottom with a thump, legs sticking up. Each of the six girls from the orphanage arrived with little bouquets of dandelions and wild daisies.

"Drop the flowers in the grave," one of the older girls instructed the mourners. The flowers fell on Geraldo's stomach, a few sticking to the green paste around his mouth.

"Now, throw a handful of dirt on top," she said.

Four-year-old Karen, who rarely uttered a word, threw her dirt and muttered, "Cabra estúpida" (Stupid goat) as she walked away.

The next morning the burial had to be repeated, this time without ceremony. During the night, Jackie, the German shepherd watchdog, left her litter of puppies and dug up Geraldo. She gnawed off a piece of calf and hoof that the next morning she carried proudly in her mouth. Twelve-year-old Sebastián chased Jackie around the field until he could grab her. Jackie's jaws were wrapped so tightly around the goat's leg that every time Sebastián pulled it, her milk-heavy tits would shake. A tug of war ensued. Finally, with a mighty pull that landed him on his back, Sebastián wrenched the goat leg free. We reburied the leg with the body and, with that, said our final goodbye to Geraldo.

***

I was full of ideas even before I met the thirteen children who lived at the orphanage Domingo Savio in Santiago, Chile, where I worked for more than two years in the early 1980s. I would teach the younger kids how to make potato prints and paint watercolors, the older ones calligraphy and woodworking (not that I knew anything about calligraphy or woodworking). There would be storybooks and history books and a copy of The Little Prince in Spanish. I would teach them how to play volleyball, and I would teach them English. If there was any land, even a small plot, we could have a garden.

And land there was. Behind the small three-bedroom adobe structure that housed the orphanage, there was an acre of rich Chilean soil in a plot long and narrow like a skinny football field. Beans and corn had once grown there, but weeds had now taken over.

I imagined bushy rows of peas and beans, ripe red tomatoes, yellow squash, striped cucumbers, and silky green stalks of corn climbing to the sky. This was coupled with my vision of the orphanage as a family farm where all the children, even the youngest, would work the land together, planting the seeds that would become the vegetables they harvested, learning how things grow and how to be self-reliant.

There was a single plum tree that produced only small, sour fruit. I debated planting more fruit trees, but that seemed, even to me, a little long-term given the orphanage's month-to-month lease. The goat's demise did not deter me from this vision of a family farm, nor did the fact that Chile was suffering one of its worst economic crises of the twentieth century.

The thirteen children living at Domingo Savio were all from situaciones irregulares, or "irregular situations." Most came from extremely unstable families, often related to parents who had problems with alcohol or drugs. A few of the children had been completely abandoned. Many had endured some type of abuse. All were poor. Without exception, this was the first time they had ever lived with a gringo.

I explained my ideas about the family farm to them in my broken Spanish.

"Everybody's going to help in the garden for half an hour a day," I instructed them one warm November afternoon a few weeks after I had arrived to work at the hogar, and only days after Geraldo's passing.

"It gets real hot here in the summer," Carlos said. "This is still spring, not even summer, and you've never been here in the summer. I don't know if this is such a good idea."

"We'll worry about that when it gets hot. Then you can work early in the morning or in the evening."

"Great, Tío, I can't wait," Carlos said. Tío literally means "uncle" but is an all-purpose Spanish word used to address adults.

I directed the troops, aged two to twelve, into the field and explained how to prepare the soil for planting. There were only two hoes. I gave one to Sebastián, who at twelve was the oldest, and I took the other.

"Where's my hoe?" Carlos asked.

"To start with, you'll just have to help by pulling up the weeds with your hands."

"Tío, these weeds have thorns," said Carlos about thirty seconds later, and then, "Sebastián is trying to chop off my hand with the hoe!" he cried.

"¡Mentiroso! Liar! I'm not trying to chop it off," Sebastián responded indignantly. "I'm just trying to see how close I can get without hitting it."

Carlos tugged at a big weed. It didn't come up. He stopped pulling.

"Is our time up?" he asked, after three minutes.

Sebastián and Patricio continued working, sharing one hoe. "Tío, they're just little kids," said Patricio, Carlos's ten-year-old brother. "You can't expect much out of them."

I'd often get up early, retrieve the hoe from the shed, and go out into the field alone while the ground was still damp, the morning cool. I liked the smell of freshly turned soil and the way the fog clung low to the ground as the sun climbed from behind the Andes mountains.

We bought one bag of white bean seeds, one bag of yellow corn seeds, and one bag of tiny white onion bulbs. Don Alvaro, the neighbor who spent his days baking little loaves of bread called marraquetas that pull apart into four fist-sized pieces, gave us thirty tiny tomato seedlings.

"Carlos, do you want to help me plant these tomatoes?" I asked.

"Do I have to?" he said. "I still have to do my homework."

Gradually I abandoned the idea of having all the kids become involved in the garden. With the help of the oldest two boys, Sebastián and Patricio, I planted five rows of onions, ten rows of beans, and twenty rows of corn. We planted the seedling tomatoes and a few squash and pumpkin seeds. Sebastián and Patricio became my faithful field hands in the late afternoon. They taught me Chilean songs, intentionally picking ones with lots of rolled "rrr's" so they could laugh at my pronunciation. But in other ways they emulated me. They would spit when I spat, knock the dirt off their shoes when I did, and wipe their brows when I wiped mine.

"You little kids just don't know how to work," Patricio told his younger brother Carlos.

Some of the little kids, though, liked to work in the fields. Two-year-old Andrés dug up and reburied half the tomato plants, leaves and all, under the plum tree.

"The tomatoes were getting hot in the sun," Andrés explained. When not burying tomatoes or digging holes and filling them with dog manure, Andrés stood in the field and asked questions.

"Tío, why do plants grow up and not down?" Without waiting for a response, he asked, "Where do seeds come from?"

"Is there a button we can push to turn that kid off?" Patricio asked.

"Tío, why did the goat eat your underwear?" Andrés was indefatigable.

"Andrés, we're going to irrigate the field right now, so you have to go back to the house," I told him.

"Will the goat get wet?" Andrés asked.

The back edge of our field, near Geraldo's final resting place, was bordered by an irrigation canal. Twice a week, Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon, we were allowed to open the canal gate to our field. The water gushed through the gullies between the rows of plants, making the soil dark and rich. The older boys and I stood in the canal and pushed the water with pieces of plywood down the rows. The sun, reflecting off the water, made the garden a lush green.

By mid-January that summer, we ate our first plate of green beans from the garden. They tasted wonderful. Then one Tuesday in late January, the hottest days of the summer, there was no water in the irrigation ditch. I talked with Don Alvaro, who had difficulty understanding my Spanish, and I his. But about the irrigation problems he was clear.

"No plata, no agua. No money, no water."

The farmers and families whose property backed up to the irrigation canal hadn't been paying their water bills to the local water authority. There was no water that Friday or the next Tuesday. The sun beat down, and there was no rain. The soil hardened and then cracked. We salvaged some tomatoes by carrying out buckets of water from the house. The corn stalks dried up. The beans shriveled.

"We worked really hard, didn't we," Patricio commented one afternoon in late summer as we stood looking at the dried remains of the garden. I wasn't sure if it was a question or a statement. By the end of the summer, the only things alive were the weeds and the plum tree with its sour fruit. The kids organized races down the empty irrigation ditch and played hide and seek among the dried corn stalks.

Steve Reifenberg lives in Santiago, Chile, where he is the Director of the Regional Office of Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. He has worked on international education and international conflict resolution for nearly two decades.

"It's hard to imagine someone who finds himself an outsider in one of the tougher neighborhoods of Latin America or Africa or other 'foreign' parts of the world—or someone interested in learning about one of those places—who would not find this book immensely instructive and moving."

—Paul Farmer, from the foreword

"This book is a gem and offers a wonderful roadmap for students of any age who are thinking about engaging in a complicated world. It should make its way to every university career counseling office across the country."

—Abraham F. Lowenthal, Professor of International Relations, University of Southern California

"Urgent and moving . . . The narrative fairly leaps from the pages when the political struggle comes into view. . . . The tale is amazingly hopeful, in spite of, or because of, the struggles in question. . . . This is a story of Chile we will not forget."

—Martín Espada, author of The Republic of Poetry and other award-winning volumes of poetry

Bronze Medal, Independent Publishers Book Awards
Memoir/Autobiography Category