A home for Sofia: A single mother's struggle in Caracas

Four generations of women struggle to build a better future in the slums of Venezuela.


    Caracas, Venezuela - Carla's dreams evaporate with the rising of the sun, as rays of pink push past a flimsy curtain and illuminate a room barely large enough for a bed and armoire. A television hangs on the wall, the end credits of the Disney film Frozen fixed on the screen. With slow, cautious movements, she climbs from the bed and sidesteps a doll that has been abandoned on the floor. These 10 quiet minutes, in which she will wash and dress, will be the only she'll have to herself all day.

    "Sofia, princess of my heart, wake up," she whispers to the small bulge beneath the blanket. The three-year-old doesn't move. Then her mummy utters the magic words: "Rapunzel's dress."

    It is Carnival Friday in Caracas and Sofia's daycare centre is holding a fancy dress party to celebrate. Sofia will be Rapunzel, replete with a long, blonde wig and a shiny lilac dress.

    The slum

    The Libertador municipality is in the west of the capital city. Within it is the 23rd of January barrio, the slum that is home to Carla and her daughter, as it was to Carla's mother and grandmother before her.

    Constructed during the 1950s, it was originally named December 2, after the date the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez came to power. When he was overthrown in a coup in 1958, residents renamed their area to commemorate the date of his downfall.

    Today, this largely residential enclave nestled in a series of hills, is considered a bastion of Chavismo, and it is here where the remains of the late president, Hugo Chavez, rest, in a 115-year-old structure called the Cuartel de la Montana, or the Mountain Barracks. Chavez directed the failed 1992 coup from the fort, delivering the speech that made him famous and helped inspire the movement that eventually brought him to power.

    Carla and Sofia live in La Piedrita (The Pebble), an area of the slum under the control of a long-established and well-known armed urban collective that goes by the same name. It is a place that the police do not enter. With the consent of the government, La Piedrita is in control here.

    Carla's grandparents moved to the slum in 1976, building the house where her mother was raised and she was born 29 years ago.

    "As a child, I played on the street," she recalls. "I remember boys my age playing ball. I loved to go outside."

    But Carla hasn't always lived here. For a while, she shared a nice apartment with her boyfriend in one of Caracas' satellite cities. It had a pool and gardens, and Carla set about furnishing it with pieces she planned to keep long into the future. They enjoyed a wonderful relationship with their landlady and life seemed good for the couple.

    Then Carla found out she was pregnant - even though doctors had told her a medical condition made such a thing impossible. She transformed one of the rooms into a nursery with a pink crib, pink walls and a pink rug she'd found for a reasonable price at the mall.

    A short while after she'd given birth to Sofia, they met their landlady. "She changed her attitude completely," Carla explains. "She told us she needed the house immediately and that we should move out. I asked her for a few months to find somewhere else to live, but that was impossible."

    A new law prohibiting the eviction of tenants with children had recently been introduced, leading many property owners to refuse to rent to families. So Carla's boyfriend moved back in with his mother, and Carla returned with her daughter to her grandmother's house in the 23rd of January barrio. Her much-loved furniture is now in her sister's half-finished apartment.

    "Every so often, I go down to clean the furniture," Carla says. "I gaze at my things sadly. Sofia's pink carpet is on the floor, filled with dust."

    Her relationship with Sofia's father didn't survive the separation, and they split up soon after.

    The dream

    Carla would normally make Sofia a breakfast of arepa, a type of flatbread made of ground maize dough or cooked flour, and juice, but today she'll eat at the daycare instead. So, she paints her daughter's eyelids, coats her lashes in mascara, applies her lipstick and adjusts her wig, and the two embark on the hour-long journey to the daycare centre.

    Carla applies make-up to her daughter, Sofia, who is attending a fancy dress party as Rapunzel [Santi Donaire/Al Jazeera] 

    They traverse the steep streets hand-in-hand, navigating down multiple steps, while Sofia endeavours not to dirty her dress on the ground.

    As they pass the place where members of La Piedrita gather, Carla says that her daughter is no longer scared of the men with guns. Even the rabbit-sized rat that crosses their path doesn't seem to bother her.

    Carla doesn't feel the same way. "It's something normal," she says. "But I can't get used to it. A few days ago, some kids beat one to death with sticks. Sofia called me to watch the 'dead' rat. I don't want her to get used to it."

    Mother and daughter navigate the slum where they live on their way to daycare for Sofia and work for Carla [Santi Donaire/Al Jazeera] 

    They climb into a 16-seat van that, seven minutes later, drops them off at the Agua Salud metro station. But they don't take the subway.

    Without letting go of each other's hand, they climb down another 30 steps to get to Sucre Avenue, one of the noisiest and most rundown parts of the city.

    "I'd rather sit on the bus because on the subway nobody is careful with me or my daughter," Carla explains. "When I wasn't a mother and I had to go to work dressed in business attire, everything was different."

    Carla prefers to take the bus with Sofia because, she says, they often get pushed around on the metro [Santi Donaire/Al Jazeera] 

    "Having Sofia is like having one point less in everything," she reflects. "At work, somebody could show up with my exact credentials, but if she doesn't have a daughter, I lose. They think I'll miss more days, but Sofia never gets sick, thank God. Hiring a woman, companies think, is a waste because they'll get pregnant and sick days must be paid - [along with] mother's insurance, daycare, the temporary replacement. They don't take chances."

    Carla had wanted to study history or languages so that she could become a teacher, but instead settled upon gaining industrial management qualifications. For four years, she has worked at Procter & Gamble. "I wore heels, skirts, fancy purses … People smiled at me, gave way, gave me their seat," she explains. "Now, I wear flat shoes and they squash me. I've carried the girl for over half-an-hour. People look at me differently. Being a mother makes people less likely to be nice to you."

    Now, Carla works as an administrator, earning a salary of 8,000 bolivars per month. But the Venezuelan government imposed controls on currency exchange in 2003 in order to limit capital flight and to control the prices of food staples.

    That meant that the government set a fixed rate at which the dollar could be bought. The official rate that applies to medication and foodstuff is 6.3 bolivars for every dollar, meaning Carla's salary amounts to $1,269. However, that rate only applies to the government and specific items of medication and food. Another system, called the Marginal Currency System, or Simadi, applies in all other regards, and with an exchange rate of around 170 to 174 bolivars per dollar, the value of Carla's salary is actually reduced to around $42. And that doesn't stretch far at all.

    Before having Sofia, Carla had a good job at Proctor & Gamble and felt that people respected her. She now works as an administrator and, although this job doesn't pay benefits or social security, her employer is more understanding when she occasionally needs to bring her daughter into work with her [Santi Donaire/Al Jazeera] 

    Sofia's father pays for her daycare, which, at a cost of 4,200 bolivars, is more than half of Carla's salary. But that still leaves the single mother struggling to get by.

    When extra expenses arise, she must use her credit card and then spend the next few months treading water.

    "The Rapunzel costume cost me 2,200 bolivars," she explains. "That same week, I had to go to the dentist. The consultation plus the treatment and the medicines were over 2,000 bolivars."

    It's an hour-long journey to daycare for Carla and Sofia, after which Carla must make her way to work [Santi Donaire/Al Jazeera] 

    Carla doesn't receive benefits or social security where she works, but says: "My boss is very nice to me. She's flexible and understanding when it comes to my daughter. I can go out a little earlier to pick her up. If she finishes daycare early, like today, I can bring her to work. Where else could I do that?"

    But Sofia won't be at daycare for too much longer, and Carla must now find her a school place, which isn't easy. It involves parents lining up outside a school for hours on end in the hope of securing a number that will allow them to complete the form required just to apply for admission. And that must be done at five different schools to stand a chance of being accepted by one.

    Carla describes one such occasion: "I left early in the morning and went to downtown where I want my daughter to study. There, I lined up so I could get a number to apply for admission. They only gave out 100 numbers. Even though I arrived during the night, I got number 93. If you want your child to go to a good school, you have to do this."

    It is now time to wait and hope that one of the schools accepts Sofia.

    Close to Carla's work, there is a supermarket and pharmacy. Most days, she must get in line there on the off chance that she can buy some basic necessities, like toilet paper, vegetable oil, milk or corn flour. "I ask what's in today," she explains. "If there are compotes, I get in line and get a box for Sofia. Luckily, she doesn't use diapers any more because it's impossible to get them."

    If, after work, Carla learns that the shop has stock, she runs there as quickly as she can. "Sometimes I'm lucky, and when I get there, there's still something," she says. "Other times, I have to go back with nothing under my arm."

    Despite such hardships, Carla hasn't given up dreaming of a better future. Her face brightens as she describes what that would be: "To have a small house for my daughter and me, to have some privacy, to have a quiet place with security where Sofia can play."

    But the first question she is asked when looking for properties to rent is whether she is a mother. When she answers in the affirmative, the knock back is instant, even for those places that are overpriced.

    Her eyes fill with tears as she concludes: "I just hope that the fourth generation of my family doesn't grow up in the 23rd of January."

    This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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