Siete de Julio

January 27, 2015 • Encounters, Online Content • Views: 1143

By Micaela Bullard

On the seventh of July of 2000, Bernaldina Palomino Quispe sat on a hill that did not belong to her and refused to move. She was twenty-two years old then, a squat woman with black hair who had already lost her front teeth. The hill she sat on was in the district of San Juan de Miraflores, on the southeast of the Peruvian capital of Lima, where the coast crumples into the beginning of the Andes. Bernaldina had travelled there from the dirt-poor province of Huancavelica, where she was born. With her sat seventeen stubborn families, clutching bundles of clothes, reed mats and plastic tarps. They were waiting for 24 hours to elapse, after which Peruvian law would recognize the hill under them as an informal home. When the day ended the families took the plastic tarps and the reed mats and put up the shelters that would be their claim to the land. From the hill Bernaldina could see the surrounding pigsties of San Juan, but she could also see the city in its entirety, with its skyscrapers promising better things to come. She had just helped create one of the hundreds of shantytowns in Lima, one they would call, in honor of that day, Siete de Julio.

Courtesy of Techno-Peru

Courtesy of Techo-Peru

Although she did not know it yet, Bernaldina had built her home on a geological anomaly, a dune blown into the side of one of the hundreds of rocky hillsides of Pamplona Alta, the poorest area within the poorest district of the city. There is no granite in the foundations of Siete de Julio, none of that impenetrable material that is found everywhere else in the district. The locals call this granite piedra azul, blue rock. It is so hard that it bends the metal chucks of drills and curls the spines of those who spend their entire lives carving their homes out of it, so that the men of Pamplona have backs as tight as twisted strands of rope.

But in Siete de Julio there is no blue rock. There is only sand. Fourteen years after Bernaldina braved the restraints of property, Siete de Julio has grown into a crippled hope. A cement staircase cuts the shantytown in half. The sand around the sides of the stairs has run down, so that one can stretch an arm beneath the structure and touch its underside. The dogs crawl into the gapping holes below the staircase to nap at noon. The twenty-or-so shacks that make up the remaining infrastructure of the slum all balance precariously over the slope of the dune. The children of Siete de Julio sled down on pieces of cardboard. The adults have stacked a number of canvass bags filled with yet more sand, forming walls that struggle to contain the descent of the dune. It is as if Siete de Julio is crumbling down onto itself.

Courtesy of Techo-Peru

Courtesy of Techo-Peru

The seventeen families of Siete de Julio now live in land plots that are carefully demarcated by a number of labeled red stakes. Siete de Julio draws the red stakes onto plans and gives them to the municipality in the hopes of formalizing their property; the plans are normally lost in someone’s cluttered desk. The red stakes are the only evidence of a faraway government, except for every five years, when the winds of political change carry in an army of dark SUVs with even darker windowpanes, to blast propaganda off of megaphones, litter the slum with billboards, and offer empty promises and free haircuts.

Up the staircase and to the right is block A, plot 3, where Bernaldina Palomino Quispe has built her home. She is thirty-six years old now, still squat with black hair, although she has now lost more teeth. Generally, she wears fleece pants and ojotas, sandals fashioned from pieces of discarded tire. Her hands smell of garlic and cheap detergent. Since she sat on the hill, searching for the life that Siete de Julio is unable to give her, she has married a taxi driver, had three children and took in two of her orphaned nieces. The family adopted five dogs after a burglar broke in through the wall to steal their black-and-white TV. One is a mangy Rottweiler with a prominent limp that growls at anyone who approaches.

Bernaldina’s house now has plywood walls, which her family set on top of a cement floor about two inches thick that, like everything else in Siete de Julio, is crumbling away from beneath. The inside of the shack smells like stale vegetable. There are a number of beds and couches. When one sits down the dust is visible in the rays of light filtered through the plywood cracks.

Bernaldina’s house has no windows, but walking outside onto the staircase one can see the pigsties. Almost everyone in Pamplona earns their living through either of two things: recycling garbage to feed pigs, or breeding pigs. The pigsties are the financial heart of Siete de Julio.

The pigsties are built out of scraps that the shacks of Pamplona regurgitate onto the dumps: rotten wood and corrugated rust form walls, old bathtubs and petrol containers are fashioned into feeding cribs. The pigsties cling to the hillsides like mold, submerging the area into a slow unsanitary death.[1] The pigs are enormous mounds of grey flesh, taller than the hip of a man. Like their human counterparts in Siete de Julio, they are cramped into spaces that are too small for them, forced to grovel in their filth. Pamplona feeds them garbage, and then the pigs feed Pamplona. Every hour or so, Siete de Julio is pierced by a shrilling squeal, and a line of red runs down the crags.

Siete de Julio has always belonged to the pigs. They were there before the arrival of Bernaldina and of the tens of thousands of others who, like her, balance their homes on the geography of San Juan de Miraflores. The district was given to the pigs almost sixty years ago, when the government declared the land unfit for anything other than the breeding of animals.[2] Such urban planning proved far too optimistic. Bernaldina and the other humans who were not supposed to live in Pamplona trickled down from provinces plagued by violence and need, settling down in any land that they could find, even that belonging to the filthiest of animals. The pigsties have become a reminder that Siete de Julio, as it stands now, should never have existed.

The pigs make Siete de Julio and uninhabitable home, but so does the air. Siete de Julio is a climatic enigma with minimal rain and claustrophobic levels of humidity. There are only two seasons. During the three months of summer the heat is enough to burn the hands of children when they touch the corrugated metal of their walls, and to bake chickens to death in their wire cages. The following nine months of winter turn everything into mud. The cold seeps through the cracks on the walls to corrode the lungs of the elderly. The humid saturation of the air is present year-round. In the vapor the smells are more pungent, the overcrowding becomes deadly, and the flies seem slow in flight. Siete de Julio is a desert that suffocates in water.

Courtesy of Techno-Peru

Courtesy of Techo-Peru

Fourteen years have passed since seventeen families sat down on the hill and refused to move, but the hill still does not belong to them. The ownership of the dune has changed hands three times, from individual to individual. Every time, Siete de Julio has new deals to strike, new red stakes to put down, and new plans to be lost on cluttered desks. The shantytown sells its pigs to get cash to purchase the land. Fourteen years later, Siete de Julio is still trying to buy itself back.

The saddest view from Siete de Julio, however, is not the adjacent slum. The saddest view lies further away. When one turns west, the entire city of Lima sprawls like a miniature model of urbanity. On clear days, the horizon shows the light blue line of the Pacific. The city seems grey when dusk falls, a gigantic conglomerate of growth where corporate buildings are distinctly visible. The business district is a clear stack of skyscrapers. Siete de Julio can see the skyscrapers, but the skyscrapers can’t see Siete de Julio, because, like the pigsties, the children with burned hands, and the sifting of the sand, Siete de Julio is condemned to be forgotten.

Micaela Bullard ’18 is a tentative Latin American Studies major in Calhoun College. You can contact her at micaela.bullard@yale.edu

[1] “San Juan de Miraflores: Emergencia Sanitaria en Zona de Pamplona Alta” Peru 21. 24 May 2014. 17 Sep. 2014. < http://peru21.pe/actualidad/san-juan-miraflores-declaran-emergencia-sanitaria-zona-pamplona-alta-2184738>

[2] Berckholtz Salinas, Pablo. Barrios marginales: aberración social. Lima. Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, 1963. Print, p. 56.

 

 

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