“Nothing could have prepared me for the town of La Chureca. We rode through the tumble of makeshift homes constructed from bits of cardboard boxes, beer cans, barbed wire, and draped with pieces of misshapen metal sheath for roofing. Instead of colored paint, the outsides of the tiny houses were collaged with faded advertisements for Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Sony Electronics and countless others. Our tires rumbled on toward the only building not based in garbage, the school. It’s white cinder blocks glow[ed] in the dusty air. The van came to a stop, and the door slid open. A wave of sour air crashed over us that, before the days end, overpowered a few of my friends, leaving them retching into the dirt. The people of La Chureca live in a landfill,” writes Freyja Heimberger, a member of 2010′s Globetrotter summer adventure for teens to Nicaragua.
La Chureca is a 4-square-mile landfill in Managua that is home to more than 1,500 Nicaraguans. The Spanish slang word for “dump,” La Chureca is exactly that- the municipal dump, which boomed in 1972 with rubble from the Managuan earthquake and has been steadily growing since. In addition to rubble, the earthquake left more than 700 Managuans unemployed. Now stricken with poverty, these people found refuge in the smoky walled “Trash City” of La Chureca, building their houses from the trash they found there. Churequeros, or people from La Chureca, have made their livelihoods in this dump. They work longs days collecting reusable trash to sell for profit, and repairing their rubble-based homes. It is Central America’s largest open-air landfill, and even houses a school with six classrooms.
“Battling our fears and our stomachs into submission, we slipped past the school gate and peeked into the first classroom, we were greeted by screams of excitement. Children stood beaming up at us. A young girl whose name I later learned was Maritza, grabbed my hand, and tugged me across room to a pile of picture books she had collected from a skeletal shelf that rested crookedly in the corner of the room. I sat down on the floor beside her; she picked up a book, closed the distance between us without a word. She snuggled herself in my lap and leaned her head against my chin, opening the first page of a donated copy of a translated Clifford the Big Red Dog. I was taken aback, I had worked myself into a panic the night before, wondering: What if they don’t like me? What if my Spanish sounds stupid? What if I can’t talk to them? In that moment I learned that connection transcends English, Spanish, or the words of any language. Maritza wanted me to read to her, to be there for her. We had the next two hours and we were going to make the best of it. She spoke to me in rapid Spanish and though I did not catch every word, I understood enough to ask questions, and she was eager to answer. Maritza told me about her brothers, and the tricks she liked to play on them, she spoke excitedly of her beautiful mother and her father, who she did not see as often but, from the light in her eyes when she spoke of him, vehemently admired.”
“When it was time to leave, she clutched a fold in my pants until her teacher pulled her away from me and toward the table where lunch was served. Martiza smiled her one-toothed smile and waved energetically at me. I waved back, both of us delighted by the afternoon of friendship.”
It is thought that more than fifty percent of Churequeros are under the age of 18. Prostitution starts at age 9. Lack of a secondary school on grounds means that after elementary school Churequero children sell their bodies, join their parents rummaging through trash, or if they’re lucky take an hour bus ride out of the community to attend high school. These kids face harsh discrimination in high school for where they live.
Volunteers like Freyja have brought hope into the City of Trash. Projects such as the building of the school have given Churequeros a few more resources than they otherwise would’ve had. María Teresa Fernández de la Vega (the Vice President of Spain) has begun a €30 million project that intends to shut down the landfill, initiate an alternative recycling program for Managua, and find housing for los Churequeros. Fernández de la Vega hopes to bring dignity back to the Managuans who live in La Chureca. Many Churequeros are resistant to this project because shutting down the landfill also means cutting off their only means of income.
Volunteers can support the community by helping at the local school. A hand-up approach to sustainable development in the area lends the community assistance while the members of the community develop sustainable solutions. To find out how you can travel on Al Campo International’s adult and teen summer programs abroad and help the children of La Chureca, click here.
Al Campo International would like to thank Freyja Heimberger for allowing the use of their essay in this blog post.
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