Where is my sister?

I have been in charge of a mental health centre for four years and such I would like to let you know about Mrs. Juana.

Some of the Fourth World Movement volunteers in Peru already knew her and her son Miguel when they used to spend the night on the streets in the Marischal neighbourhood. The local children still remember that Miguel used to collect paper and pencils. They recall how he loved to draw and write during his free time just like other children, although two of his fingers were missing.

After many years of homelessness, Mrs. Juana was able to be admitted into our centre. Miguel, who then was 11 years old, managed to find employment as a caretaker. This job allowed him to have a roof over his head. To earn money for food, he washed cars. “My son Miguel always remained with me. He washed cars and I watched him washing cars. Afterwards, we would sell cheese sandwiches and we ate the unsold ones so that there was no waste."

Due to several setbacks in her small street business, Mrs. Juana lost her main means of survival. She had to resort to begging. “When I want to go street vending, I have to put on old clothes so at least people buy something out of pity for me.” She longs to secure a living for herself and her son.

I was helped to understand Mrs. Juana's situation when I read Fr. Joseph's writing especially in “The Poor are the Church”, which is a book I read and discussed in depth with friends of the Peruvian association ATD Fourth World. This book has always been and will remain a major resource. Father Joseph leads us on the way towards the poorest families of our community. He represents a most important hope for the poorest.

Nowadays, Mrs. Juana is showing me the way. “When I was working,” she told me, “I did not know where to leave my daughter Rosita to have her looked after. A friend of mine recommended a home for children where her own stayed. So I decided to let Rosita stay there too. I went to the home and asked the Mother Superior whether Rosita needed money or something. She answered, 'No, she only needs identity papers.' I was sad to have to leave her there. She entered the home when was only 6 years old. I used to go and visit her everyday. I used to bring her fruit and other food. The Superior told me, 'You should not come every day so that the girl gets used to the place. Visits are only allowed on Sundays.' So she forbade me to visit during the week.

I told her that I loved bringing Rosita fruit and all kind of things.... After that, I used to visit Rosita every Sunday and brought her the food that she enjoyed the most such as chicken broth which I used to prepare especially for her. She loved roast chicken too and chocolate sweets. I used to bring her all of this. Nowadays, she must be missing me; what would she say? She would probably think that I gave her up all of a sudden. How else could she explain that I do not come and visit her any longer? A year has gone by now since I last saw her. I heard that she has been moved to another home but nobody knows which one. I recently went to the magisterial office and inquired. I was told, 'We do not have her file.' So I asked them when I could come back to have an answer. They told me at the end of the week. I met my son Miguel when I was out the other day. He asked me about his sister, ' You must know where my sister is,' he said, 'so that I can go and visit her."

In the mental health centre, we often welcome people who have been picked up on the streets and brought in to us by the police. They all seem to be cut off from their family and excluded. They could remain like this forever if we were not convinced that they are worthwhile and that their daily efforts in fighting extreme poverty are also ways to build and keep social relationships. Referring to Father Joseph's life and thinking and using the personal experience of people like Mrs. Juana, we are able to truly learn from the life of the very poor. Thus we discover and better understand their hopes, but also their longing for support and brotherhood which we are compelled to give them.

W. C. Chavez Gonzales, Peru

Letter 39 - 1997