I got the call notifying me of Wilmer's death early yesterday morning, from some students who had just arrived in Loma Pampa for their service work. I immediately notified the rest of the students, and as a group we headed to the barrio. We viewed the body, strangely doll-like in its wooden box, surrounded by candles and sobbing relatives, laid out in the same one-room adobe house where Wilmer spent his days. Eventually a hearse arrived - no small feat, there on the far fringes of the city - and a group of men carried the small white casket from the house to the
street. People piled into vehicles for the long, slow procession to the cemetery. There we gathered around the grave, as prayers were said, coca leaves were chewed, and alcohol was sprinkled on the ground. The casket was lowered in. People threw flowers into the grave as men shoveled dirt into the hole. It thudded heavily on the lid of the box. Important people made speeches. We watched as the day gradually faded away, and then retired to our vehicles to return home.
It is difficult to write in standard blog-speak about Wilmer's passing. The linearity of the narrative, reflecting the linear nature of the day, does not capture the experience. My mind was all over the place. I thought of Wilmer, two years ago and just five years old, making a nuisance of himself during the construction work in Loma Pampa. I thought of the future he would not have, and what it means for people to live in this kind of a situation. Most of all, I thought of the structural conditions that precipitated this tragedy. How alcoholism destroys families. How Wilmer's father would toss him out of the house at 5 AM to go sell popsicles. How Wilmer, cold and lonely in the darkness of the morning, would sleep on the street corner until the day brightened and he could head out to work. How a family of seven could share one room with no furniture. No furniture! And how Wilmer would always show up at the community center whenever our Rutgers students came around, finding there the friendship and affection he couldn't get elsewhere.
Should we cry over such things? I don't know whether to be sad or angry - probably both. Our students certainly were impacted by these events, beyond anything a book or a classroom might teach them. Going forward, I don't imagine any of them will ever forget the events of this day.