Giving a Voice to the Voiceless
Alum’s photos illustrate plight of Nicaraguans who work, live in municipal dump
— Story and photography by Stephanie Burchett
This is how a 16-year-old who lives in poverty survives in 2011.
She works at La Chureca, a municipal trash dump in Managua, Nicaragua. Three times a week, she sifts through refuse, collecting recyclables to sell so that she will have enough money to buy food to feed her 4-month-old son.
I first met Joseling two years ago at the Acahualinca public elementary school in Managua. She was dressed in an oversized white shirt and pleated blue skirt, the typical Nicaraguan school uniform. Her hair was neatly pinned up, betrayed only by a single strand that had come loose during the day. She smiled from ear to ear as she posed for a photo with the founder of the Fabretto Center in Managua, which serves families and students who live and work in La Chureca and the surrounding areas.
At the time, I was conducting research for my master’s thesis on social documentary photography.
I first heard about Fabretto through friend and fellow UNC alum Brian Gonzales (MM-06). Brian had spent five years developing a choir program at the Fabretto Center in San José de Cusmapa. Collaborating with Fabretto allowed me to gain access to La Chureca but bestowed on me an uncomfortable sense of unearned credibility.
La Chureca, roughly translated as “the scavengers,” spans more than 150 acres with roads cutting through walls of refuse that tower above those who live and work inside. The “churequeros” sift through the more than 1,200 tons of trash received daily that smolder in the hot Managua sun and emit fumes of spoiled food and fetid water. Thousands of people compete for the best pieces of garbage to sell as a source of income.
The first time I entered La Chureca I was overcome with grief. I thought I had stepped into hell as only described in Inferno. My eyes burned from the smoke rising from fires and sudden eruptions of the trash, my stomach churned at the smell and my skin baked in the hot Managua sun. In the coming days, I visited the homes of the people who lived inside the cesspool of garbage. Their homes were made of metals, tarps, sticks and other found objects. The houses had no electricity and the only source of water was nearby Xolotán Lake, which has been contaminated by the garbage.
During my first days working in the dump, uncertainty set in. I was unsure if I was going to be able to complete my goal of telling their stories. I had seen where these people lived and worked and was told stories about the struggles in their lives. The sense of obligation I had to tell their stories weighed heavily, reminding me of my first trip to Nicaragua in 2007 when I was 24. Back then, I didn’t have an understanding of the developing world or those who were born into a life with less opportunity than myself. Once I realized the time, effort and education it took to move cultures forward, I felt helpless. It was the unique, kind and gentle hearts of the Nicaraguan people who taught me about humility. The people in the community loved me and treated me like family, even though I couldn’t speak the language and was homesick — now realizing that water and electricity were a luxury. I had gone to contribute to improving their world, to make their lives better. In the end, they gave me more than I could have ever given them.
I experienced this once again in 2009 while working in La Chureca with the relationship I built with my bodyguard, Louis, an imposing figure who always wore the same yellow jersey and red sports hat. He had a scruffy beard and his unkempt hair would always hang out of the back of his hat. I was told that he was someone who “no one messed with,” and I would be safe walking around the trash dump with him.
Louis would often pick me up in the morning at Fabretto. I would grab my camera and we would start the trek to La Chureca. As we hustled through the bustling streets of Managua, my trust for Louis grew. He and I would walk into the dump, through fires and dodge the incoming trash trucks. He was my tour guide, my only ally in a place where, once again, a gringa had shown up with a camera to exploit the plight of the churequeros. In a sense, the companionship Louis and I had was evident as we walked into the dump instead of driving. This allowed me to relate to those who worked inside and, in turn, they saw the trust I had for someone from their community. I was truly there to learn and experience their lifestyle in the best way I knew how.
Each day, the severity of poverty became more evident. Walking through the rubbish that included medical waste and witnessing people eating from the mountains of trash they were digging through provided a window into
the latent issues — disease, prostitution and drug abuse. Tragedy does not discriminate against the people in this community.
Joseling is a product of this environment. For eight years, she lived in La Chureca with her family. Last year, her father was killed in a car accident. In January, her mother died from AIDS, leaving her and her six siblings to fend for themselves. Shortly after her mother passed, Joseling and her siblings moved out of the dump.
Currently, she works part time, creating jewelry at Fabretto, making around $16 a week. She and her brother continue to work in the dump three days a week to supplement her weekly income with an extra $13.
I visited the country in August to find out what was going on in the dump today. I sat down and spoke with Joseling at the center. It was amazing to me that the girl in the school uniform two years ago has now become a woman with maturity beyond her years.
She told me about her mother dying and explained the toll the loss has taken on her and her family. She said that her mother’s death inspires and motivates her because her mom used to say that one day they would go to the center together to make jewelry. When she’s there, making jewelry, she feels that she is somewhat closer to her mother.
Again, I was humbled that Joseling would share the joy she receives from creating jewelry coupled with the sorrow and pain of losing her mother. Her story is only one example of the resilience of the churequeros.
Over the years, well-intentioned aid organizations have poured millions of dollars into the La Chureca community with dubious results. In August, Spain’s agency for foreign international aid (AECID) began converting the dump into a recycling plant. As the project progresses, the churequeros will be relocated. Ten miles away, new homes are being built for the residents, removing them from the life and community they have always known. In a country where more than 75 percent of the population is unemployed, closing the dump risks contributing to that percentage. I still hold out hope that this move by AECID is a step forward for the people. I understand that some of the workers will be offered jobs at the new recycling plant.
I’m often asked why I spend my vacations and do my research in Nicaragua. I always come to the same conclusion: My work and my photographs advocate for the people. I’m not the first to tell their stories, but their stories are worth being told to as many people as possible. Photography is a universal language that allows stories to be told truthfully, allowing an audience to recognize our common humanity. Often, we share the same values, we have the same needs and all seem to be searching for a common goal: to be accepted, to be valued and to be loved. Only when these common needs are recognized can we move forward as a global community to make the world more peaceful. NV
—Stephanie Burchett (BA-05, MA-11) is a freelance photographer currently based in northern Colorado. She completed her Master of Arts degree in Art & Design in December 2010. Her research focused on Social Documentary Photography. More of Burchett’s work can be found at www.burchettphotography.com.