We Stopped to Look at the Stars

Note: I have been asked to include the story of how the Los Quinchos orphanages got started in Nicaragua so here is a story I edited and adapted for my elementary students. Each year my students help to raise over $2000 for this program. - Brad WE STOPPED TO LOOK AT THE STARS

The story of how the Los Quinchos orphanages got started in Nicaragua as told in her own words by Zelinda Roccia, the founder. Translated into English from Italian. Edited and adapted for Elementary Students by Brad Flickinger. Original interview by Francesca Caminoli for “Una città”

I have seen los niños de la calle in Mexico and Guatemala, countries where the problem of street children had already existed for years. However, in Nicaragua, this had hardly existed at all. The Sandinista Government had taken charge of education, health care and of giving a minimum food rations, “la canasta basica”. Only a few children could be seen in the streets, almost all of which were war orphans.

But then governments changed and things started to get worse, especially for the children. The new government had ordered the campesinos to give the old land-owners back their land that had been confiscated and redistributed back to poor farmers. So now the large landowners who had fled to Miami were coming back and taking their land back. When the police couldn’t manage to send the farmers away, the landowners would arrive with their armed gangs and force them to leave. So the homeless farmers fled to Managua and formed the asentamientos , where people live in miserable shacks, built with a few pieces of sheet metal put together with black plastic sheets.

Families would go the city and find nothing. There were very few men (all compas or contras). They had died, or ran away, or disappeared into the frontier, the majority of women were left on their own. They would go around the streets all day long searching for a job, leaving the children alone in these shacks. But more and more children were starting to leave these shacks to live on the streets in hopes of finding more to eat.

So what struck me weren’t all the children I saw on the living on the streets, but three particular children. They were very small and were sleeping in a truck tire. They were really no different from the other children; I didn’t speak with them or interact with them in any way, so I don’t know why those three children unchained a huge feeling of rage. Such an enormous rage, that in that precise moment I decided to quit everything and to do something to help these kinds of children. And the same anger still lives in me today, because since then the situation has gotten dreadfully worse in Nicaragua, and every day the most unheard of things continue to happen.

I returned to my life and job in Italy and for three years I struggled to obtain an early retirement. In the end I made it happen and I returned to Nicaragua in 1991. All alone and with no support and not knowing how to get organized, I started working in the most miserable barrios, such as the Dimitrof, where not even the police dare enter, and in the asentamientos. People were coming from all over Nicaragua with nowhere else to go. I was seeing the most brutal sides of post-Sandinista government.

“What am I going to do?” I kept asking myself.

I wrote many letters, a few friends started supporting me, but of course they couldn’t do much. The large government organizations didn’t know me and they were too busy repairing roads, running hospitals and trying to keep the water and sewer lines working. When I spoke to them of children they looked at me as though I were a bit crazy.

In those early days I lived on a pension. “I could open a comedor” I thought, “what these children need most is food”. They were under-fed, some of them at five or six years old were barely able to walk because of malnourishment. What could I do? They needed help immediately.

Amid these confused feelings I searched for a small house and found it in Ciudad Jardin, behind the Mercato Oriental. It was there that for the first time I became acquainted with the horrible things that street children would do to escape the feeling of hunger and fear. It was two children who made me discover it, Harling and Hormiga. They were six or seven years old, very small and thin.

This is what happened…

By my patio, on the side of the road, was a guayaba tree, a plant which gives fruits that are delicious when they are ripe. I saw them pick up the fallen fruits that had already spoiled. I moved close to them and asked why they were eating them. They told me they were hungry. So, I invited them inside and gave them some bread and butter. They told me they were le pega and lived in the Mercato Oriental, in the Chiesa del Calvario.

This is how the story of Los Quinchos began, with two kids that never were part of the project.

You see, the next day I went looking for them, but I couldn’t find them anywhere. So I started to work with any of the street children. At first it was terrible, they refused any contact with adults; they had ran away from violence in their families and found just as much violence from adults on the streets. They accepted me little by little, seeing how I would stay with them and most of all because of certain specific acts, such as having stood up for them when the police had tried to chase them away from an area with sticks. I never did find the original two boys that I met by my patio. I began speaking with the saleswomen in the market to get them to give them some food, but it began to be clear to me at this point, to really do something I needed a house.

So I met father Jesùs Arguete, the basque priest of the church of santo Domingo, who lent me a house belonging to the church. It was a wreck, with no running water or electricity, and I could only use it during the daytime to feed the children. Hundreds of them arrived but I could only feed thirty or forty of them; when that many had arrived, I had to close the door.

We would stay on the second floor of the house, which had huge windows with no glass. One day a pandilla arrived and started throwing stones at us. All the little ones were frightened and threw themselves into the middle of the room. Peeking from the window I guessed who the leader was: Piri, with his sidekick, Pichete, who wore a blond mohawk just like a Berlin punk. I went downstairs, walked outside and went up to Piri.

“You’re the leader”, I said to him. He swelled with pride.

“Why are you throwing stones at us?” I asked.

“Because we’re hungry!” was his reply.

“But I’ve got nothing left, come and see.”

Piri snapped his fingers and all the others stopped throwing stones; he and Pichete came upstairs and I showed them the empty rice pot.

“There’s food here.” he said pointing to the empty pot.

“What?” That’s how I learned the famous sentence “Aquì està la raspa”. “La raspa” is the crust on the bottom of the pot, a kind of mush. Piri scraped off the entire bottom.

“I’m taking it away”

“Are you going to share it with Pichete?”

“No, I’m going to share it with all the others. I’ll come back every day to take la raspa”

“All right, shake my hand, a jefe’s word says you won’t attack us anymore”

He would come back every day, silently, and go away just like a great chief.

We had shelter here, we could go on somehow, but it was becoming more and more urgent to find our own house.

At a certain point, the community of father Arguete’s church asked him to send us away, they said the kids had stolen the gas caps off the cars while they were at mass. There was a meeting and we were told that we had to go.

I was running out of option when I met an almost eighty-year-old Italian man who owned a pizzeria, he lend us a piece of land where we built a small house. Really tiny, but at least we could stay there to sleep too. I began to realize that the only way to get the children away from la pega and from the streets was to get them away from the city of Managua, to let them live freely, in a real home, without neighbors complaining every day.

During the Christmas holidays I went back to Italy and I went to Padre Balducci’s Community in Fiesole. We had already had contact by letters. Together with a group that had formed in the meantime in Cagliari, they were the first to give me some substantial money. When I got back, I bought half the Finca San Marcos. On February the 7th, 1993, on a radiant night, with all the kids crammed on a little jeep, we arrived at La Finca. I remember that before arriving, we stopped to look at the stars. We had five blankets the Red Cross had given us, our pots and that’s it.

And we’re still here.