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Reflections from El Arenal, VII

By Sarah Luke

Amidst the buses and the taxis that can quickly turn any back road into a busy street of estrangement, I’ve started to pick out my kids in the crowd as they make their way to El Arenal. Ducking beneath construction sites they are, dodging moving tires and awaiting their turn to cross. Sometimes when I’m walking home from the foundation I feel a small hand slip into mine. That is a gesture of the fierce desire to be loved.

On Thursday, we finally made our way to the library. If the children were not quiet they were not allowed to stay. All of the children were quiet. All of the children curled up against the cushions, their toes tucked into the little green booties the director sewed for them so they don’t make the carpet too dirty. One child saw his name on a book for the first time: La Luna de Juan. After ten tries of sounding out the words, the letters finally began to make a name. “It’s hot in here,” he said. “It’s like being at the beach,” I said. We turned on the floor fan to make a breeze. He asked me to call out words to him in English.

After the children exhausted the meager set of children’s books, they picked up books on human sexuality. It was the type of thing I would have wished for their parents to help them understand, but sitting underneath the butterfly-covered walls with their hands clutching those definitions in child’s language, there didn’t seem to be a better way. Some of the younger boys hide the books behind pillows, as if they are reading something bad. I tell them it’s okay, good even, to learn about these things in the right way. One of the older girls who is never quiet, who never sits still long enough to do a math problem, has a worn Spanish version of The Hunger Games tucked into a pillow to read. She stays that way in the corner, slowly turning pages, for over an hour.

Sometimes in the park the children say to me, “Déme la vuelta,” and I swing them around and around above the grass. They ask, “Cuándo se va, señorita?” and when I tell them they nod, like they are all too familiar with this procession of friends that stays not forever. My hope is that some neighborhood friends will step in to be the friends of these little people. Perhaps you will start to see those little friends playing in la calle, slipping their hands through yours, one finger at a time.

Sarah Luke is a Hearts of Gold Intern and Volunteer at the El Arenal Foundation. Sarah is a visiting scholar from Furman University in South Carolina where she studies Spanish and Poverty Studies. Read more of Sarah’s series on El Arenal here.

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