Blanca Cecilia Santana Cortés is a candidate to priesthood. She’s 50 years old and got married only few years ago with the love of her entire life, Quan, that is 64. They both worked as missionaries for more than 20 years in the poorest cities of Colombia and South America. They decided to not have children, because they wanted to dedicate their lives to serve everybody in need.
Blanca especially works with “mujeres de la prostitution”, sex-workers, and with afro-colombian women that live in extreme poverty. She doesn’t provide for them like a charity could do, she educates them to be free individual, to fight for their rights, to be feminists. She teach them how to work and provide for their families. She doesn’t teach them to be Christian, but to be like Christ, to follow the Gospel’s teachings. She reads with them the story of the Exodus in the Bible and explain that everything starts with courage and freedom.
She has a very strong personality, but wrapped in sweetness and joy. Blanca behave like a funny angel most of the times, but carry inside her such a fire! I wasn’t’ surprised when she told me this story: Because of her desire to become priest, she joined few years ago the Episcopal Seminar in Quito, Ecuador. She recalled a teacher that began his class saying “Now I’m going to shock you. Jesus never existed”, she quietly stood up in class and said “I am, and we are, women of experience and knowledge, adult women, and we are not shocked easily. Now you can go on with your hypothesis.” After 6 months they sent her away, without even a certificate.
Only a few months ago she and Quan were able to buy their first piece of land with all their savings. They built an octagonal construction (in bamboo and what seems to me just plasterboard) and a two stories building. They lived in the octagon without any modern comfort (in order to be ecological), and planned to invite two families that are very poor to live in the other house and work the fields with them using permaculture, with the condition only that they will not stop trying to improve their life. She never called it charity, but community life.
Sandra is 8 months pregnant of her third child. The father is a elderly man and customer. We met her in the studio where Blanca works and does manual lymphatic drainage. Sandra was excited that I was going to photograph her. She stands by the Coca plant that somebody planted in the middle of the building. I asked Blanca if Sandra is still working as sex worker and she answered me that she did until a month ago. Since she was very pregnant, she was able to ask more money to the customers. This thought horrified me, suddenly I stumbled against a candle and spilled hot wax all over Sandra’s belly. Blanca helped her remove the wax and gave her clothing for the baby that was going to be born soon. I took the photo in silence.
I met many of the women Blanca is helping and supporting. One was a drug addicted, another had her daughters removed from her, so many sad stories.
Every time Blanca spoke of them she never implied with words or in the tone of her voice that we were better than them. Not only, she never behaved like they were receiving something or were supposed to say thank you. Blanca was always happy and sharing joy in the two weeks I shadowed her, only one day she didn’t talk and I understood she was deeply sad.
Blanca agreed to bring me to Buenaventura, one of poorest cities in Colombia, where Olga and herself had been working for 10 years. Buenaventura is on the Pacific see and is a slum build around an harbor. Every day nature is waking up here completely indifferent to human lives: the daily tide brings trash in the streets, the temperature in February was around 90F and extremely humid, mosquitos and cockroaches were everywhere. One day we were in the San Francisco neighborhood, visiting all the people that she used to work with many years ago.
Doris Cachimbo was with us. While I was feeling lost in the white fog of early morning she rebuked me: "Pay attention. This is my people, this is my land, I want to introduce it to you".
Doris has been living here since 21st January 1989. When she moved here this was just a trash dump on the sea, with mangroves plants everywhere. A peace of land was sold to her for 6000 pesos, less than 3 American dollars. They put chips of Madeira wood on top of the trash dump, and build their house. There were no streets and no bridges. Now we could walk on gravel paying attention to avoid all the giant holes that were filled with salt and rain water. She brought us to visit more than twenty women. One of them was Kalymary Betancuru. She lives by the canal and by a factory that works Madeira wood. The sea here is a swamp. Even in the darkness of the stilt house, I realized there was something wrong with her skin. Skinny kittens were running among my feet and when she offered me her hand to shake I forced myself to hide my fear to touch her. Only later we could hear her story: she has skin cancer, everywhere on her body, and her only son has been paralyzed for one year. He was injured in the spine while he was working. She was fighting with the government for an invalidity pension that wasn’t arriving. There was something about her and her son that hit me painfully. There was a contradiction. This family, so poor and so unlucky and so sick, was extremely regal. There was something about the way they carry their body that was so full of presence and soul and elegance. Kalymary was like a princess restrained in the wrong cocoon.
“Do not cry in front of them Giulia, do not cry but be there be strong be nice be one of them. Touch her skin Don't be afraid Touch them... Touch the hand.... Walk with them down the hell”, this I repeated myself all the time I was there holding back my tears.
That evening Blanca couldn’t talk and couldn’t eat. She went to sleep in the bed in front of me, her back towards me. For hours I looked at the contours of her body, like a black onyx stone against the golden curtain reflecting the streets light. She never moved. Only the day after she shared with me how difficult is to see sometimes that you cannot do enough, that things don’t change.