Manuel de Jesus, El salvador

As I was hanging out in the heart of San Salvador the other week I noticed many people resting around the plaza. Some were enjoying a little rest from the intense heat while others were selling food or coffee, and so on and so forth. I briefly spoke to a man who told me that he used to live in Mexico. He loved it there and said that Mexico offered many more opportunities than over here. He is now planning to go back there to improve his life since El salvador is quite unsafe and hardly any opportunities exist. Another man selling coffee told me that he is married to a Mexican lady from Atlacomulco. Both men shared the opinion that Mexico is a place with more chances to succeed and they will both be migrating to Mexico quite soon.

After my quick chat with both of them I noticed another man further down. He was a religious devotee, passionately reading chapters from the bible and explaining them to passersby, etc.

I stuck around to listen and try and understand where he was coming from with his beliefs. I wished to understand this man’s passion. I had to admire the strength and devotion he had when spelling out each sentence in defence of God’s actions. I got the impression that Manuel truly believed in what he was sharing with everyone around the plaza who literally seemed to be ignoring him.

Later on, I approached him and introduced myself. I told him my name and praised him for his hard work under the intense sun. I eventually asked him if he felt disillusioned at the fact that nobody seemed to be paying attention to him. He responded that although it might look that way, people were subconsciously listening, the word of God is seeping into their minds without a doubt he said…
Manuel explained his reasons on why he started to share the word of God with people. He told me that he was close to dying at least 10 times throughout his life. Thanks to the respect he has for God is that he is still standing straight. Although this is not a job he gets paid to do, he is very happy to spare a few hours of his time on the weekends etc… to making this world a better place.

Apart from being a dedicated religious devotee, he works as a bricklayer most days for a living and to provide food for his family. As we kept speaking, my nose perceived the fresh and pleasant perfume aroma he was wearing. Subsequently that projected a perception to me that Manuel is a person that cares about himself and likes to feel proud of who he is.

Without wanting to manipulated any uncomfortable topics, he touches on the feeling of insecurity in this country. Manuel recalls an episode when used to travel to a community in the outskirts of the city without permission of the gang that operates there. One day, the gang approached him and warned him not to come back as he was unwelcome. A gang warning in any area of this country could mean that if you break the rule the chances of being killed are very high. 

Regardless of the waring, he decided to return to the community since he had a mission with god and he could not let him down. Manuel was inside a house when a sudden knock on the door occurred. Some members of the gang group had located him and were interested in finding out more about who Manuel was. They were basically investigating him in order to either grant him full permission to the community or something else…

Finally, the gang was able to check on Manuel’s legitimacy regarding his relationship towards God so they let him come back.

After that anecdote I could notice how Manuel’s eyes drifted in different directions. I identified that he was getting a little anxious or nervous. A man who was sat behind me was looking in Manuel direction. Such man was taking pictures with his phone and I immediately felt a little uneasy with the situation. It must be mentioned that a common thing for gangs in various parts of the city is to have ‘postes’ (informants) placed in areas in order to notify them of any strange activity. The level of fear and paranoia that exists in this country as a result of the violence makes many people feel this way and I don’t blame them at all.

Manuel decided to say goodbye to me and walked off… 

Nadia from Tegucigalpa, Honduras

I met up with Nadia in Tegucigalpa a few days ago to hang out and discover unseen places in the city.

Nadia lives with her Dad. She graduated with a degree in Psychology and conducted further studies in Psychodrama in Argentina where she lived for about 5 years. She currently works for various NGO’s as a freelance consultant, providing support and assistance to disabled migrants who return to Honduras. She opted to work freelance as there aren’t many stable job opportunities and salaries for the most part are pretty low which makes it very difficult to get by. Having said that, she says that she cannot complain as she receives love and support from her Dad who is always there to assist her if needed.

During her time living in Argentina she felt pretty safe unlike here in Honduras where she thinks that people here are sadly kidnapped in their own country.

After being away for quite a long time, Nadia decided to return to Honduras to reunite with her family and support them after her Mom sadly passed away. This tragic episode in Nadia’s life was due to medical negligence at the hospital, since the illness slowly intensified, hence an adequate treatment wasn’t provided in time to improve her health and save her life.   

I decided to shift the topic in order not to touch on any more sad memories. I proceeded to asking her what the area where she lives is like to which she responded that it’s pretty safe and peaceful. It would be regarded by Hondurans as a ‘colonia fresa’ which in english translates kind of like a ’posh neighbourhood’.

I suddenly picture her area in my head to be surrounded by fenced up houses ‘decorated’ with barbed wire all around them. This is not an unusual picture of course though due to the Honduran context it resonates even more so.

I had promised to myself before meeting up with Nadia not to talk about violence or injustices for once but the topic was inevitable. Nadia was curious to know how I have been doing so far so she asks the following question:

How have you felt in Honduras so far?

I internally laughed for a few seconds and then exposed a quick smile. I then responded that so far I have been ok, that I had slowly been adjusting to the stress of living in a dangerous country like this one. Bit by bit I had learned to live around fear without feeling too anxious about the situation.

I should in fact add that I don’t consider myself as a fearful person but being that I am in a place with such a bad reputation for all the bad things that occur one needs to be extra cautious.

Since we are touching on insecurity I proceeded to asking her the obvious:

Have you ever been robbed in Honduras Nadia?

She responds that never outdoors but once in her previous house. 

What happened was that two individuals who were carrying guns broke into her home to steal expensive items like jewellery. They were very specific about what they were after and did not force physical violence against anybody, fortunately. However, what they did do was to tie Nadia’s hands up to stop her from moving around. She kept her composure tight all the way and was even able to keep her friends calm as they were pretty nervous.

After two hours the robbers left the house and life continued as ‘normal’ for her though such event has obviously tainted her life a great deal. She tends to bring this episode up in conversations every now and again in order to alleviate the weight it has over her shoulders.

Finally, she concludes by adding that during that tragic episode she did not have any fear of dying.

I drastically turn the page over to talk about love, relationships, etc…

Like in all relationships, one can share similar things and have discrepancies as well. Even though Nadia and her ex boyfriend loved each other, they had ideological differences. 

Nadia tells me that it is not difficult for her to fall in love, nonetheless it is hard to find the right person to fall in love with.

Switching gears once again, I am curious to know how free she feels about express her ideas in this country. She bravely tells me that she won’t allow anyone to strip her off of exercising that right, although she has had to be careful about her thoughts and beliefs during some periods such as when the coup d’état was imposed in 2009. 

Overall she feels that their is a limited amount of freedom of expression in this country due to the State’s repression over its citizens.

Before wrapping up our conversation she finally tells me that as part of her artistic and creative skills she is particularly interest in intervening the public space as a mechanism for self awareness.

She recently recreated a performative act in partnership with a friend with the main objective of opening people’s minds about the immense value of their ancestry, the diversity of ethnic groups, the four elements of the planet (air, fire, water and earth) and culture.

Nadia is a strong person with a great personality, passion and strength who seems fearless, an element that one certainly needs to have in order to live in a country with high levels of insecurity but where lovely caring and generous people coexist in peace too…

Ruth from Guatemala, living in Costa Rica

I arrived to Costa Rica a little over a week ago. I did not know what to expect but I was warned about how expensive it was. An ex colleague in London told me it was awfully expensive after her return last year but I thought to myself, Costa Rica? a tiny country in the Central American region which is insignificant to the entire world, expensive? I also associated it to Honduras or El salvador in terms of insecurity and violence but it turns out to be a very safe country over all. In fact, one of the safest countries in the American region and has performed economically quite well, having a zero percent inflation for the past three years or so.

So, I finally arrived to San Jose at night and the taxi which took me all the way to my friend’s house ripped 15 dollars off of me, ouch!! 

Anyways, this story is not about ranting on how expensive this place is or about the deficiency of the transport networks in the city. I have had a great time over all, especially as I was around awesome people who have treated me so well.

I met Ruth last year in the UK during a visit she did to see her daughter. The encounter there was very brief and I hardly had any time to speak to her but for the past week I have been learning so much about her experiences in life.

She is literally a living encyclopedia. The more experiences she shares, the more I wanted her to keep going. She is so vital and strong. As she is talking to me I suddenly distract myself and without making it too obvious I go into my head to think about how eloquent she is. Ruth has lived many episodes that in many respects have made her stronger and sensible towards human life.

She invited me over for breakfast one morning. During our conversation she told me that her and her husband were strong admirers of formed Chilean president Salvador Allende. She also said that she felt very sad after Allende’s murder, backed by the US government which opposed his leadership at all cost and wished to get rid of him by any means necessary. The US feared that Allende would spread socialism and go against the American ideals of capitalism and democracy. 

Through a military intervention on behalf of chilean forces Allende was cornered right inside the presidential palace, known as Palacio de la Moneda in the capital city.

Ruth said that at the time she felt very resentful about that tragic episode. The chance of having a leader with a different view towards the world was suddenly eliminated by the US once again. What hope was there to view the world in a different way?

After two weeks of tears and sadness, Ruth’s husband asked her to be strong and keep going, that one needed to recover from such acts as life goes on, it’s unstoppable.

Another experience that she shared with me was when she met up with Francois Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle.

The encounter was set after Ruth exposed her case in France about a series of very harsh personal injustices she suffered from within her family. The former First Lady made a petition to meet with her to talk behind closed doors about her case and to propose a few educational programs to strengthen awareness about injustices.

I sense that Ruth’s life was always surrounded by strength and a strong eagerness to learn, to not give up even when times are turbulent. She has won many battles and has seen the results of her efforts through the lovely creative and talented family she brought up.

I feel very happy to have been a part of her life for a little over a week and I thank her and the rest of her family for allowing me to enter their inspirational life.

Enrique from Mexico living in Panama City

I finally left Caracas after spending 10 short days to try and understand the differences between that place and Mexico thought unfortunately I left with more questions in my head and wanting to return.

I arrived in Panama without a clear plan on what to do. My original idea was to visit Caracas, San Pedro Sula/Tegucigalpa, San Salvador and Guatemala City though I have visited a few extra places where I have had some great experiences and learned so much.

So, I met up with Enrique, a friend of Juan, an old mate of mine from Mexico City.

Enrique has been living with his wife in Panama City for the past 6 months. It has been a little hard for him to adapt to the place and find a job within  the animation industry but he is trying and will eventually find it, I’m sure about that…

As soon as we met up at his nice apartment located along the luxurious coastline of Panama City we immediately connected. 

It was easy to chat with him as I felt that he was, in many ways, similar to me in many aspects. He seems a simple person with no pretensions. 

As our conversation went deeper, he told me that he did not feel that happy living in Panama at the moment, that it has been a little hard to interact with the people, they don’t seem as friendly as he expected. He misses Mexican food, his friends and life in the city. I completely understand that as I felt pretty much like that on my last few years living in the UK.

Our chat moved on to talking about Mexico for obvious reasons. He is very interested in investigating on the drugs trade in Mexico and has read several books on the topic. He has also got a few tragic stories to tell, like many Mexicans have unfortunately. 

One of them involved a friend’s relative who was driving a van with a colleague of his in Durango, as Enrique recalls. 

So the two guys pulled into a parking lot to buy some stuff in a shop although the way in which they drove out of the parking area was identical to how the narcos in that state drive, it’s kind of like a unique mark that warns anyone who they are. They did not have a clue about this until a few weeks later when they were informed…

So, they drove off and minutes later they were intercepted by a pick up truck. The narcos road blocked them at gunpoint and forced them off of the van. Locked both of them in the car boot and took them to an unknown location. The narcos interrogated them for about 2 weeks about their gang affiliation but they obviously did not have anything to do with that. 

After some time, they were luckily freed by the criminals but before they were allowed to go they warned them not to turn their heads back or else they would be shot dead…

Weeks later, they were notified by the police in the area that the reason they were stopped and abducted was due to the peculiar way in which they reversed, being that that is the narco style. They were extremely lucky to be let off without suffering any physical abuse.

Enrique knows that the situation in Mexico is not as easy as many think. We keep chatting until I gently turn round to observe the flamboyant city scape that surround his apartment at night. Flashy lights and tall high-rise buildings disguise the city from its truth. Behind the long wealthy strip a different picture can be observed. One can decide which direction to turn to, whether to look towards the small wealthy touristy radius or to view the real Panama inhabited by ‘real people’.

We carried on chatting about Mexico and its beauties, when Enrique shared with me another sad story that involved one of his ex girlfriend’s friends sister. 

This girl who suffered this tragic episode, who I will refer to as Maria was on her way to work early in the morning in the Estado de Mexico, a part of Mexico well known for the increase in violence, including violence against women were feminised and disappearances take place more than in any other States in Mexico according to some national statistics.

Maria was walking when suddenly she was intercepted by a taxi. The driver and passenger forced her into the car never to be seen again by the family.

Time went by and the family finally found out about her whereabouts and the reason for the abduction. Maria had been confused with another girl who was meant to be taken away and killed by the aggressors under the boyfriends orders. The boyfriend had payed some people to carry out the job due to issues they had in a love affair ,according to the police.

Maria was confused with another woman. She coincided with the description provided by the man. The aggressors saw that Maria looked like the girlfriend and took her away, retained her and killed her in a very barbaric way.

After a long conversation revolving around the tragic misfortunes of Mexico, we decided to shift our attention toward more positive ideas. I kept on thinking about the huge differences in Panama and how people can cope with seeing a small portion of wealth emerge whilst the majority are living a very unequal reality…

Alirio from Guadalupe, Colombia

The first question I need to ask myself is, what am I doing here? Once I figure that out I will be able to understand why I spoke and photographed Alirio.

Before I start typing this story, yesterday I was having a delicious meal in a nearby restaurant in the Comuna 13, a place with way too much history to spill in a few lines, I was chatting to my host, Sergio.

I suddenly said to him, - mate, you know? I am trying to figure out why I am traveling on this trip. 

Ok, I admit that I’m here to photograph places and people, exchange experiences with friends and strangers and figure out what Latin America is all about. Paint some messages of hope and truth etc. But the central reason is to try and figure out what the meaning of freedom is, ‘freedom’ and ‘love’ actually.

So, I had the opportunity to meet with Alirio a couple of days ago. I figured that the man loved to talk a lot, more than me in fact. He invited me into his house to get to meet his family and friends; a very generous gesture on his behalf I would say.

He does not actually live in Medellin but close by in a community in the north of the city.

With lots of pride, Alirio tells me that he has been serving a transnational company called Noel for over 32 years non stop and his job involves packing all sorts of biscuits for many hours a day.

As I ask him how is it that he has preserved the job for such a long time, he responds that he got the job and has maintained it thanks to the holy God’s will.

I dare to ask him what the conditions are like where he works and he responds that they get fed Mexican food on a designated day during the week and insists that he works for the best international company of the entire country.

The way he found the job was interesting and he attributes it to his one and only friend, that is Jesus Christ and nobody else.

He left his village in Guadalupe when he was 20 years of age in seek of better opportunities. 

When he arrived in Medellin, he did not know anyone and was forced to sleep on the streets. On one occasion he bumped into a man who was selling mangos. Alirio was very hungry and decided to approached him and asked him if he could collect the mango skin that was dumped around. The mango merchant agreed and he started to build a mountain of skin. 

He placed it all in a plate and prepared it with salt and lemon which was provided by the merchant. He kept coming back to ask the man for more mango skin for the next few weeks until the merchant got curious and asked him where he was from.

Alirio responded he was Guadalupe and that he was looking for a job. For a strange reason, the merchant and himself had relatives in common and Alirio ended up working for the man and living in the humble house the merchant and his wife had.

He loved going out and selling the prepared mangos to passersby etc. With a bit of more luck he finally was offered a job at the place he currently works. He is lucky because he has a contract but he says that many other colleagues are offered temporary contracts which means that as soon as it ends they don’t get rehired and are forced to look elsewhere.

Alirio insists that the holy god is his only friend and that there are no real friends around. He is a spiritual person and devotes much of his time thinking about god and praying for wellness.

He built the house we are in thanks to his strength and resilience. 

His wife is also a strong woman who tirelessly works on the home duties, takes care of her 4 sons and daughter but non of that is recognized by his husband or his family.

I stayed with them that night chatting and getting to know them more. They offered me Colombian food which I was happy to try and while I carried on listening to them I kept asking myself, what am I doing here?

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