It occurs in the metro or in minivans, the most widely used forms of public transportation in Caracas. Your standing up in the aisle or sitting and suddenly you hear a voice behind you saying, “Before anything else, good afternoon.”
It’s always the same phrase, the same cadence. What comes next is essentially the same thing: someone asking for money. The methods, however, vary according to the individual.
What I’ve run into most are young guys with nasal voices quoting verses from the Old or New Testament. They hand out printed cards with typical Christian images to commuters, and after their short exhortations they return to collect money that is requested in exchange for those cards.
These youths sometimes proclaim themselves to have been saved from drugs by a certain church, and that they have devoted themselves to collecting money so they can continue supporting the project that saved their lives, and in this way be able to save others.
A few days ago I was returning from an area known as the Cemetery when two young women got in the minivan. They apologized and requested our attention for what they were going to do, which they said made them feel demeaned. What had happened, though, was that this same morning their five-year-old niece had died. Her name was Yumilca, they said.
“She died of a brain hemorrhage, and the truth is, kind people, we don’t have enough money to bury her,” they explained, with the same cadence of those who spoke about the kindness of the Lord. “We will thank you for your cooperation for whatever you can offer us,” they plead. They collected what they could and then got off at the next stop.
I’ve heard a lot of stories. There was one man who needed money for an operation on his hand, which was left disabled after he was electrocuted by a 220 volt line when trying to connect some wires so that his children wouldn’t have to remain in the dark. Another poor woman was homeless and unable to work because they always asked her for an address; nonetheless, she still had a two year-old girl to feed.
Others are less downcast in their pitches; they go out into the street with a CD player or a guitar and sing better than Luis Miguel or Daddy Yankee.
The latest one I ran into called herself “Grandmother Cindi Rapper.” She explained that Cindi was short for cin dientes (without teeth). Rapping in rhymes, complete with her own background music, she explains why she has no teeth and why she needs help from people on the metro.
Many of these people I find quite moving, though I know that if even one of those stories is true it would be a miracle. Beyond that certainty, there’s one other reality: they haven’t learned how to do anything else (except for those who sing and play instruments), or they haven’t been able to find work (though at many workplaces it’s common to find help-wanted signs).
A friend, who like me, had been emotionally moved by the stories, pointed out a woman who was carrying a two-year-old girl near a pharmacy. The woman had a medical prescription in her hand and was asking earnestly for help to buy the girl urgently needed medicine.
“Do you want me to tell you what I know about her?” my friend told me. “For six months she’s been there with the same infant…with the same prescription.”
As it turned out, the baby belongs to a neighbor who rents her for the whole day for that purpose. The prescription is older than the child herself, who has been healthy up to now.
It seems that Venezuelans, like us Cubans, invent anything from funerals to sick babies in order to bring in money for their daily sustenance. But the truth is that none of them are going to get rich that way. Each hustle is hard work in its own right.
It’s the other ones —those who wear designer suits and drive the latest model cars— who silently wrest much more money from the pockets of those who labor long backbreaking days. Yet few people looks at them with disgust.
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