Juan Carlos Liendo

Septiembre 2021

When it's not raining, Mérida is a perfect city for walking. Those who inhabit it know that hardly anything will be so far away as to not be able to reach it on foot and that the effort will depend on the desire to arrive, as well as the desire to return home. That was the reason that prevailed in Martín's decision, to deceive his feelings the day he decided to sell his car.

Despite not knowing anything about cars, Martín understood that his thing with the old gray Fiat Palio was attachment; somehow he was clinging to the only possession that survived the gradual scrapping that his life had become, built under what he usually calls the great tree of Merida: the University. Put to think about it, Martín is attached to the University in an almost sickly way, as much as most of the people who live in that city. Selling the car meant, then, breaking with another of the ties that tied him to that attachment. Attachment, just the word that he skipped around every corner as he thought about the next steps he would take in his life.

In a few months he would become a father for the first time. At 41 years of age.

Due to a funny event her mother liked to tell over and over again, she was born in Cúcuta, (Colombia) more or less in the middle of the border crossing, one day in October 1980. Being her mother from Merida and her father from Tachira, they had the custom (normal in most of the people of those parts of Venezuela) of "crossing to the other side" to shopping, at the time when the Bolívar was a healthy and robust currency that moved the economy of the first Colombian city that a Venezuelan meets when traveling to Colombia trough the Andean side. His parents left for a weekend to finish equipping the upcoming baby first needs, not knowing that the account for that pregnancy was wrongly drawn.

- It is that I hardly had a belly - said Martín's mother as a justification for the absurdity

They were at the LEY Supermarket in Parque Santander when the woman broke waters. She had had a bad night due to certain pains that she could not identify, although she considered them normal, and ignored. Then, she went to the main supermarket -with that discomfort- to continue the shopping marathon. There, in one of the corridors, she almost gave birth to Martín. She had just enough time to be transferred to the University Hospital where she delivered shamelessly in the rush of a midday that she remembers as unbearably hot.

Maybe, Martin thought, that event defined his life. Increasingly, as he approached 40, he thought about it as he pushed out of his mind what he calls the debris of his country. That giddy birth had always haunted him like unpaid penance. Especially now. Sobre todo ahora.

He was terrified. The thought that something similar could happen to his first son filled him with panic, especially since as a full professor at the Faculty of Forest Engineering of the Universidad de los Andes, he had few options to pay for private insurance or to count with other aids when it comes to covering the expenses that the delivery would entail. Delivery that means the birth of a child that had filled her heart with anxiety and fear.

- I would like to say the opposite: but in my current conditions, announcing that we are pregnant is not good news, even if I have to share it with you.

That was the brief message that she wrote on her Facebook wall when Maria Nieves announced they had had an oversight as a result of which, she had recently realized a pregnancy, so prosperous and well formed, that interrupting it would be impossible. They were going to be parents.

Martín heard the news in the darkness of the dining room that they used to light with a candle because the light failed, irremediably, 

every time they imitated the ritual of family dinner out of a nod to custom. In front of him, on a plate, a banana cut into slices as well as the slices of an orange accompanying three sweet cookies, reminded him of dinner time. Maria Nieves finished telling the news with her voice broken by emotion, the same emotion that smashed her wishes against the plate of food, the memory of the noon salad and the certainty of the empty refrigerator. She began to cry inconsolably with her head sunk between her legs. Martín was silent for a long time, he thinks it took about 10 or 15 minutes before he gathered the strength to get up, hug the woman he loved and cry with her.

-My grandmother used to say that every child is born with the arepa under her arm - was all she dared to say. – fue todo lo que se atrevió a decir.

Neither of them was able to eat that night. The only one in which the cause of the wakefulness was due to something other than having nothing to put on the table.

At 34 years of age, María Nieves considers herself a “child prodigy” after being told that so much. She is the only one of three sisters to get a college degree and she is the only one working since she learned how to do it, although she has no manual skills of any kind and she hates cooking. She is a brainier and exactly what her family calls “a book eater,” she graduated with all possible honors from a BA in History, and she has researched and written so much in her short life that she can't help feeling old. She believed that she was prepared for everything in life -except to understand poverty- seven years ago, when she met Martín in the presentation of the results of research on the historical evolution of certain endemic plant spices of the Venezuelan Andes. It was a crush that hit his intellect more than his heart, like everything good that has happened in her life.

Three months later they decided to move in together and put everything they had for each one in the same pot; that is, the salary of university professors and some of the benefits they still had. It was 2013 and Venezuela still seemed to resist. Put to say it, neither of them can assure that they saw the future coming, until she reached them nested in the womb of María Nieves.

The day Martín posted on her wall the notification of her newly acquired pregnancy, he was almost stoned in a public square. He knew that this way of saying things would not be well received in a social network in which everyone believes they are owners of the truth and even so, she could not help it: he and his wife were starving. As unusual as it may seem, both being university professors, at the time when they were faced with the news of the birth of their first child, their combined monthly income did not reach 30 dollars in a city in which, like the entire country, the economy It is an incomprehensible creature with two heads: a Bolivar that nobody knows well what it is for and the Dollar, the omnipotent currency in which all prices are marked and it is traded from food to the most exquisite luxuries.

- Yes, one can pay in bolivars, making the equivalent to the price of the dollar of the day, that is, change the bill with which you pay, but not the value - Martín tried in vain to explain to a former graduate student resident in Barcelona.

Buying food was increasingly difficult if they did not receive some kind of help. Both were trying to find some jobs online that were always as scarce as they were poorly paid because at some point they had been able to equip themselves relatively well in technological matters and, although both computers and smartphones were beginning to show signs of obsolescence, they served to be some kind of a helping hand.

It was very difficult, anyway; both were academics and if they received offers to correct theses, be jurors of a contest or write an article, the payment they offered was miserable. They never said no to something, since everything they received they used to buy food, the only item of expenses that occupied their budget.

At first they became vegetarians, which Martin found it difficult to accept because he loved a good steak, then they began to abuse carbohydrates. Without saying it, the two felt that by eating flour they filled up faster and spent less so, bread became the star food.

One day other things began to be lacking. They substituted cheese for some vegetable or they began to work miracles to cut the possible thinnest slices. Although she never became a cook, she put creativity to the thing of making sandwiches and salads and to surrendering to the impossible what they had in the fridge. Then, other problems began.

That is how she called Martin to everything that crossed the path of daily meals. One day the building began to lack gas for more than a day, then the electricity became a memory, later the man from the corner supply store, with whom he had made a wonderful friendship based on the credit that he gave, in his obsession to pay and in a certain compassion, closed the business and left for Ecuador and thus, one day he discovered the family that he had formed at the age when most of his friends show two or three children, was plunged in poverty.

The night that María Nieves confessed her pregnancy, they both went to bed with a common concern: the problem was not taking care of "the belly" in the way that having a healthy child demands, the problem was keeping that child healthy, if it is that nothing twisted the way. They were terrified. Both had seen enough pictures of malnourished children, both knew enough stories of children dying of decline in hospitals, both had experienced at least a couple of cases of children given to uncles or godparents with better luck than its parents, in exchange for being fed.

They both felt fear eating at their entrails. That is why Martín decided to start by giving up her most precious possession and María spent the night awake considering the idea of interrupting the pregnancy therapeutically and waiting for better times to fulfill her desire to be a mother.

Each one, sheltered in his loneliness and fears, spent the whole night crying.

At dawn, he got ready to leave, had some loving gestures with the woman who was now going to make him a father, assured her that everything would be fine, and left. He was convinced of finding a way to resolve the pregnancy issue. Neither he nor his wife ate three times a day. If they did, it was because they had discovered a way to stretch the diminished portions of breakfast and dinner; under those conditions he considered it irresponsible to bring a child into the world. Did he want it? Perhaps the truth is that he had never set out to be a father.

He wandered around the city, visited some acquaintances, managed to get a college classmate to buy him a snack and a juice in a bakery and finally, he dared to talk with a doctor friend. It was that family doctor who actually made him a father. Very against everything that he had always considered an inalienable principle, Martín, that day, accepted to live on the charity of strangers. Before doing so, he posted the famous message on Facebook and returned home empty-handed and convinced that they had to sell what little they had left, starting with the Fiat Palio.

Over the next few weeks, both began a frenzied pace of survival, halted only when the doctor who had taken care of Nieves' pregnancy raised alarm flags about the nutritional status of the mother to be. It was impossible to give birth to a healthy child in these physical conditions, so she had to be extremely careful: since both were determined to be parents "as God intended", a sick child did not fit into the plans. Once again, the doctor's efforts worked miracles: thanks to his contacts with certain working friends of human rights organizations dedicated to making less serious the Complex Humanitarian Emergency that Venezuela is experiencing, Maria Nieves got nutritional supplements, some clothes, items for the baby and food. Every two weeks, a volunteer from an organization would knock on her door to deliver a box of goods.

It was Martín's students, scattered around the world, who did the rest, because the money obtained from the bad car business was enough to pay debts, medicines and make a small savings that was later seen as providential manna. One of those former students called everyone he could, among them they collected a pot that they divided to send the couple monthly aid payments while they were pregnant. With this they guaranteed both the mother's good nutrition (and Martín's occasional return to the consumption of animal protein) and the good condition of the growing baby, oblivious to what his presence had caused, in the mother's protected uterus . Remittances were enough to shovel the madness caused by the daily fluctuation of food prices and to start getting everything a baby requires to reach the world. Everything, bought in second-hand sales to couples who emigrated like someone fleeing the plague.

The university salary was barely enough to recharge the phones or some other trifle.

Bautista arrived in this world on March 20, 2020. Just 7 days after the COVID 19 pandemic was declared, a virus that in Mérida seemed like a story on its way during the first months. He was born at the Public Hospital (IAHULA) and was as well cared for as allowed by the goodwill of those on duty that day. Bautista was born, without difficulty, in perfect health and smiling.

- The child that I never knew how to understand as a blessing was born this morning, we have called him Bautista because we believe that with him we are born into a new life, all together. Included in that life are all those who made it possible. The mother and the baby are well, they have food and good spirits; it's up to the father to keep looking for jobs - That was the ad that Martín posted on Facebook next to a photograph taken minutes after the delivery; in the photo, it is only possible to distinguish happiness.

Shortly after the birth of his son, Martín went through a hard time facing the consequences of the long months in which he lived without enough food: a routine examination, for some cause associated with COVID screening, let it be known that he suffered from an old anemia. 

He spent three days with the test result in the pocket of the worn waterproof jacket that accompanied him everywhere.

On Sunday afternoon, while playing with his son on the dining room floor, waiting for the light to come, he felt the tenderness that always precedes the arrival of his wife. She sat down on the floor next to her, stroked his hair, and caressed the boy. He, without looking into her eyes, told her about her anemia, she accepted the news with disgust and, with the firm voice with which her great decisions are announced, she released what she had been wearing in her head for many months.

- Why don't we go, Martin?
-Where to?
- I don't know, you were born in Colombia, right?
- Yes, in Cúcuta.
- Let's go to Colombia and there we see what to do, no matter how bad that we go there, we will never be worse than here.

Martin was silent for a long, long time. He walked around with the boy on his shoulders and heard him laugh. María Nieves, silent, remained seated on the ground because she, at that moment, knew that he had already made that decision a long time ago. Neither of them spoke of the matter again until late at night, after they had put Bautista to bed, prepared a measured and frugal dinner for both of them, reviewed the remaining provisions, and sat down facing each other, gravely, in the dining room that had been saved from the sale. So they planned the trip in detail.

- I cannot allow your condition to worsen by continuing to be committed to Merida. Your former students' remittances are getting smaller and more isolated, which is logical because the baby is already 6 months old and this is not going to change; Martin, I don't want to go back to hunger.

María Nieves thus sentenced the future of the family. A month later, thanks to the small savings they had made in all those months and the crazy decision of Amanda, (Martin's mother) for which she gave birth in Cúcuta, the small family moved to Colombia. Once again, Facebook served to put ideas in order.

- For a week, thanks to the support of many people, María Nieves, Bautista and I, have been living in Medellín. So far, we have space in the nice little apartment of a former student who gives me hospitality. We still don't have a job; but we believe that something will arise soon despite the pandemic , which is taken very seriously here. There is a reason, a single reason with which I will justify having made a decision to which I have always been denied: We left Venezuela because we wanted to escape hunger.

Note: the names and other information that can identify the child's parents have been changed at the express request of them, who want to protect themselves from any incident that threatens their new life in Colombia. The boy's name is Bautista and they have wanted to leave him that way, as if "to give a clue." Both agreed to narrate his testimony on the condition that it serves as public recognition and a gesture of gratitude to the many people who helped them "out of hunger." 

"When they read it, they will know who they are," María Nieves, said.