The Not-So-Holy Cross of the Women and Children of Santa Cruz
By: Alfonso Wieland - Paz y Esperanza International, Santa Cruz, May 1, 2010
I am here to visit a neighborhood near the fifth ring of the Bolivian City of Santa Cruz. It is 11 am on a Wednesday, and what stands out most to me are the young people packed into precarious arcade venues to play games on ancient computers. There is no police station here and only one school. A Brazilian pastor ministering in this neighborhood asks us to visit Blanca and her three young kids. She and her children emerge from a dilapidated shack.
Santa Cruz (Holy Cross) is a booming Bolivian city, with its population of nearly 2 million surpassing La Paz and El Alto. As recently as 1976 the population was only approaching 325 thousand. Migrants from different parts of Bolivia have come in search of land, but especially with hopes of benefiting from the economic boom caused by the oil extraction, construction and agro industry. Due to this growth, the majority of Santa Cruz´s population works in tertiary sector; informal employment reaches nearly 60%. Santa Cruz brings together people of diverse origins: those of Spanish descent, Guarani, Quechua, Aymara people, etc. but also migrants from other parts of the world: Germans, Italians, Yugoslavs, Brazilians, Japanese, Chinese, Lebanese and Palestinians.
As is the case of many South American cities, Santa Cruz embodies the contrasts between wealth and poverty, with large concentrations of wealth in the hands of a few and a large number of poor people barely surviving on their meager incomes.
Designed in rings that divide the city into six zones, Santa Cruz is surprising in its contrasts, with tall buildings located within walking distance of slums. These contrasts are mirrored in vulnerability, especially that of children and women living in poverty.
Blanca is a 32-year-old woman with a distant gaze and broken speech. Angie, her oldest daughter, is just 12 years old. The other children appear to be between 10 and 7 years old. The pastor asks Blanca to tell her story. “I got married when I was in love, impressed by how he spoke, by his way of helping others, his apparent concern for suffering families.” She went on with a pained voice, “But one day I realized he was cheating on me with another woman. I confronted him, telling him that the Bible says: “No one can serve two masters’ therefore you cannot serve two women either.” But he ignored me. He told me he was a servant of the Lord and that the other woman made him happy, but I did not." He physically and verbally abused her from that point on. She asked him to leave, to let her be, told him that all she needed from him was help to supporting the children. Later on, she found out that he had not had only one relationship, but several with different women, all of them from the church where he served as associate pastor. Worn out, Blanca decided to talk. She asked for an appointment with the leaders of the evangelical church and told them her story. Their response was: “You should be patient, reconcile with your husband, he has a ministry think of.”
As she talks, her legs begin to tremble, and her eyes drop further. Angie, the child, says in a firm voice: "Don’t worry, mom. Relax. That man will never put a hand on you again. I am taking care of you.”
Then, Angie continues the conversation. One day the man came home furious, irritated at everything and everyone. He tried to abuse her brothers and Blanca stopped him. Out of control, he grabbed an iron and hit her several times over the head, knocking her out. Angie just remembers going to ask her neighbours for help. They took her mother to the hospital. Despite having no money, she was able to escape death with help from the neighbours, but the consequences were permanent. Her husband fled. Blanca only knows that he still has ties to a church. Blanca nearly lost her sanity in the following days and months. She walked the streets half naked, eating excrement and sometimes sleeping in abandoned cars. Her weight dropped to 42 kilograms. When Angie finally found her, she literally had to drag her home. On one occasion, one church member found her in the street and thought that the best way to help her would be to exorcize. They took her to the church and amid shouting and striking her face and knocking her down into the mud, trying in vain to expel the demons that apparently controlled her. Eventually Angie was able to get her out of this strange place of vain religious practices.
Months later, the Brazilian pastor arrived in the neighbourhood. He truly cared for the people in the community. He formed a Bible study group where he met Blanca and Angie as well as other families and abandoned children. He was able to find medical and other assistance for Blanca. Her situation opened his eyes, helping him to see how important it is that the gospel brings justice for women like Blanca.
“Angie, you are a strong person. Do you still believe in God?” I ask her, a bit embarrassed. Smiling, she tells me that she does. But she reiterates, “That man will never touch my mother again. He is bad. He even sold one of my brothers to an aunt that could not have children.” I look at her and I know that the circumstances of this child’s life have forced her to become an adult, to be mother to her mother, a mother to her siblings, and mother to herself. Some researchers mention that the peak age of emotional development is between 7 and 14. Girls like Angie have had to skip stages, to be strong, minimizing their feelings, facing responsibilities that should not be theirs. It is the death of a childhood at the hands of the adults who abandon them. We all know boys and girls who have been forced prematurely into adulthood. They live all around us. They survive.
Santa Cruz bears witness to how women and children have to carry heavy crosses each and every day, crosses of pain and fear. According to official statistics, of every 100 couples, 14 women have suffered serious injuries (wounds and fractures) at the hands of their husband or male partner. The department of Santa Cruz reports the highest rate of sexual violence against boys and girls in Bolivia.
The media tends to highlight news items related to the violence of common delinquency, wars or terrorism. Today we know that domestic violence is the cause of more human deaths than those caused by armed conflicts and civil wars. This violence, which occurs behind closed doors and at home is a crime against humanity and should be of public interest. Political and social sectors, as well as the church, can no longer turn their backs on this reality. The struggle has been fought for decades almost exclusively by people and groups of the feminist sector, intellectual progressives and religious minorities; it should no longer be this limited. It should be a large-scale, direct, and effective struggle.
We should no longer tolerate the actions justified by misinterpreted Biblical texts and used to uphold the physical, psychological and sexual abuse against women. This abuse of power against women and girls is an injustice that God detests. Those who identify as Christians cannot tolerate stories like those of Blanca and Angie. No more heavy crosses for them. No more.