SEMANA, November 17, 2020


(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Camilo Ernesto Pirela Soto, 50 years old, told Semana how he had been able to survive the effects of the pandemic, and about his daily struggle to maintain his family, begging for expired food at the supermarkets.

Neiler Camilo will be two years old this December 15, but he looks like a baby no more than one year old. His bottles, instead of milk, contain a preparation of liquefied rice, or boiled pasta with water, sugar, or panela (unrefined sugar). With great difficulty, his father, Camilo Pirela, is able to obtain that and something or other for the only meal of the day. That’s how he and his wife Amelis, and little Camilo get to the end of the day.

The next day is the same. Battling hunger requires long treks asking for spoiling vegetables or begging for bags of expired rice, pasta, or flour. In the La Reforma Baja neighborhood, in Usme, they know him now and the workers in the stores and the supermarkets keep food that is starting to spoil or anything in bags that broke open in storage. Those donations are joy in a package.

The day that we eat twice, we feel that we have abundance. Sometimes we just have lunch, even though dinner would be preferable, because going to bed with nothing in your stomach means that you won’t be able to sleep,” says this man with silver hair who says he has lost more than 50 kilos in the two years he has been living in Colombia.

It wasn’t always like this. In San Francisco, in the province of Zulia (Venezuela), before coming to this country, Camilo was elected to the City Council twice by the opposition party, and he managed a hotel and a gas station. He also learned social service, running food market programs and health care programs in vulnerable communities. Paradoxically, now, in the Colombian capital, he is one of the 17 million poor that are struggling for ways to subsist every day.

He doesn’t like to talk about that. Much less about the hunger that he and his family are suffering. When that happens, he smiles and starts to tell the same story. About the time, a few months ago, when he was walking with his wife and the baby and he found a 200-peso coin. They thought that this good luck was trying to tell them something, and they both went to a casino and put the coin into a machine. That day they won 20,000 pesos and they ran to buy a roast chicken with potatoes, arepas, and soda pop. Then they bought two liters of milk for the baby. That night they were in glory.

Camilo is 50 years old and he also has two daughters, 10 and 14 years old. They don’t live with him. He can’t provide food for them. “I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve looked for a job in a restaurant or in retail. All I did was open my mouth and they turned me down, for my Venezuelan accent or else for my age.” He sold frozen empanadas on the Transmilenio buses, and just about anything in the street. His situation became harder when the pandemic started. Then the confinement was total and his cupboard was bare.

In moments of desperation he has thought of going back to Venezuela. But that dream died when he considered the cold reality of the dangers on the road back with his children. He didn’t want them to be exposed to the Covid-19 virus or by any other illness in the isolation tents spread on the frontier by the Nicolás Maduro government.

With just the baby at home he worried a little less but the misery wasn’t any less. He occasionally worked washing cars and in cleaning the stores that sold green vegetables, where he could earn maybe 8,000 pesos in a day. He pays 300,000 pesos for rent and he is four months behind. “Imagine how tough it’s been for us. In my house in Venezuela I could eat whatever I wanted, just as if I were in a restaurant looking at the menu,” said the immigrant who came from a comfortable life that was slowly eroded by hyperinflation and the complicated humanitarian crisis that has forced more than five million Venezuelans to flee their country in the last five years.

He was not accustomed to asking the neighbors for a helping hand. Even though he doesn’t like to ask for food, he has had to do it for his children. That has taken away the embarrassment that used to show on his face. “If I have to ask for a boiled potato to eat, I do it. It’s preferable to say that you’re hungry than to rob or steal”, he says in the tiny kitchen in his house, while he’s preparing the baby’s bottle.

Afternoon has almost turned into evening. Camilo is thinking about the next day, and also about Christmas. “How can I buy clothes for my children? Can it be that they don’t deserve a Christmas dinner and a present? . . That’s why I’m going to work early tomorrow, to search for that quality of life that was taken away from me in Venezuela.”

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