It’s 4:30 in the morning on a Wednesday in April 2012 when I arrive in Tejarcillos de Alejuelita. As I come through La Verbena, I am greeted with a sight that makes me happy and one that has stayed in my mind ever since. Before my eyes, there are various groups of people walking down the hill on their way to work – I can see Elías’ dad on his way to the printers, Doña Ana on the way to her 12 hour cleaning job and several others that I recognise in the twilight, even though it’s dark. I get to Don Omar’s shop where 14 nervous boys are waiting for me – we are going to INA where they are going to start their Electrician Apprenticeships. Not all of them will make it all the way through to the end, but they are giving it a go. When we have made our way up to San Felipe, the queue for the bus is already quite long, with some people reading the morning paper while others chat. The working day has begun and although it will be very long and badly paid, the most important thing is that these people actually have work. By 5am, the boys have arrived at INA and are in a line, waiting for the form that will be the gateway allowing them to study there.
Today, Alejuelita was put in last place on the Human Development Index, below even Talamanca and Los Chiles. This is upsetting because the people that live in this area do not deserve this label – people that work hard to get through each day, people that study hard and send their children to the local schools and colleges. This week, hundreds of children will be given their diploma for Sixth Grade, while others will receive their certificate of Secondary Education. These are just two of the success stories showing the fight that is taking place in this community and the effort that the residents are putting in to change the reality in which they live. It is for this reason that I do not share the, almost pejorative, ideas expressed by Mayor Víctor Hugo Chavarría in La Nación on Tuesday 11 December where he says:
“We are producing delinquents. The shanty towns are not the only ones that are going to suffer the consequences because they are not an island.” So does that mean that from now on only bad come of this place? The statistics show us a reality in percentage terms based on a defined period of time in a community, but this does not and never will, reflect the character of the people there. To say that Alajuelita produces delinquents merely shuts doors on and takes away opportunities from the thousands of young people and adults, that now cannot work nor study. Imagine completing a job application and having to fill in your address as “Alajuelita”, the place where the mayor himself said that the residents are all “delinquents”.
And not only this, but it also threatens the other neighbours saying that they are going to suffer the consequences… “Thank you Sir, we will be in touch”…
For some, it is easy to say that people don’t work or study simply because they don’t want to, but the reality is that even though in some cases this is true, for the majority of families in Alajuelita, they worry and do the most that they can so that this will not happen. After all, what kind of person with any common sense would want their children not to work or study? The solutions for these problems in the shanty towns are often found within the families themselves, in each boy and girl that goes to school and in each teenager that goes to college… How can you tell them that there are no opportunites for them when they live a couple of kilometres from the capital city and areas that do offer employment and opportunity? You cannot doubt that things such as the health service need to be improved and that vocational centres and youth mentors are in high demand. In a similar way, there needs to be more education for parents among other things, but these things shouldn’t define the future of a person.
In a couple of days, my friend Carlos who is only 20 years old, will start his job as an accountant at a private hospital. Similarly, Michael will be opening his workshop up due to popular demand where he is going to be giving taekwondo classes. Yesterday, he woke up late and all the children in the area of Los Pinos in the shanty town were worried that he wasn’t there. Michael, who is 24 and also grew up in Los Pinos, says he does it because the believes that learning a sport will give them a better chance of not being dragged into the vices that are so common in the shanty town. Doña Tina gets up extra early so that her daughter can go to college. She is proud that she is already in her fourth year. Don Mauricio buys leather so he can make shoes in his workshop. Mariela, Flor, Luis Felipe and Katerin have enrolled in a course at INA and “cannot arrive late or they will be chucked out”. Mary has a grocery and her son goes to college. Josué, Milton, Diana and Asdrubal are also in his class… Delinquents? Really? I’ll let you be the judge…
I wasn’t born in Alajuelita but I have worked there for the last 15 years and the words of the Mayor bother me a lot. They bother me because I have seen boys and girls grow up and get over the obstacles that face them. It’s not all positive however because I have also been to the funerals of good friends that did not manage to get out of the vicious cycle of drug addiction, but I also know former addicts that are now getting up every morning to go to work without the help of a substance. I know some beautiful people that even though they have had no easy “opportunities”, they have come out the other side. Today, I can say in total certainty that Alajuelita produces hard workers who are good people, even though they have to face terrible situations on a daily basis. They are the invisible heros that the facts and figures do not recognise.
Juan Carlos Ramírez Álvarez
Administrador de Asoc. Educación Plus
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