Monday, December 7, 2015

Love for Lica.

So I'm sharing this here because this year my aunt Miriam has set her sights on raising money for an amazing young woman that I have had the pleasure of knowing through my time volunteering in Brazil. Lica is a young mother to three children and is in desperate need of a real little house to replace the one room her family currently lives in. I can personally vouch for Lica's strong work ethic, her undying determination, her ability to overcome adversity and above all else her unrelenting optimism and hope. The story below is my aunt's experience with Lica and it was Miriam who wrote it in order to pass the word along and gather support for the creation of a safe home for Lica and her children. Please give it a read. And if you are feeling generous this holiday season please contact me through the comments section or privately to donate or for more information.

LICA AND ME (Miriam)

I met Lica in 1997 when I arrived unannounced at her ramshackle home.  By then I’d already been volunteering in Bahia for a decade and had seen lots of grim stuff.  But I was shocked to come upon an enraged, drunken woman beating two very little girls. The older one, Lica, then just 7, was curled around a toddler, trying to shield her from the blows.  

Perhaps it was that protective gesture that stapled Lica to my heart. Or maybe it was just that I had the chance to watch this lovely child grow up under burdens and losses so dark they would have done most of us in. Who knows really why the heart lurches in the directions it does?   

All I can say for sure is that this kid captured me and during the two decades since, not that much has changed for the poor on the NE coast of Brazil. The descendents of African slaves and the aboriginal peoples still live at the ugly end of exploitation, corruption and violence.  The social service agencies are still under-resourced, overwhelmed and mired in a moribund byzantine bureaucracy. And Lica is now a young mother trying to protect her own three children from life’s harshest blows and I’m still asking my friends to help me help her.


Lica’s grandmother owned the house. She’d had a steady job cooking in a restaurant 12 hours a day for 20 years and managed to buy a modest two-room house in a low-income neighbourhood.  Poverty,  overcrowding and gross neglect had reduced the place to a disgusting shambles: the dirt yard was filled with rubbish; the roof and walls leaked; the floors turned to mud in the rain;  the furnishings were broken cast-offs; closets were plastic bags nailed to brick walls; and the security system, two gaunt snarling dogs, crapped everywhere. Three adult women and six kids were living in these two rooms.            


Ana was addicted to cacha├ža, a local brew the abuse of which causes brain damage. She was already visibly impaired by the time I met her.  Lica has dim memories of a kinder Ana before she became a violent, confirmed alcoholic. But all I ever saw was Ana, even when sober, cursing and threatening the children, forcing them to do the chores she never did.  And when drunk, she would beat them with anything she could grab hold of.   


My old shrink used to say it only took one good parent to raise a healthy child. Lica had neither. The men in her family had spawned and gone.  Lica made several disappointed attempts to connect with her father, who lives in a neighbouring slum.  But he never came through with any support at all.   


Cristiane was 22 when I met her. She had taken the brunt of Ana’s abuse until she grew big and hard enough to punch her mother out. Unfortunately, Cristiane did not extend her protection to her younger sisters or her own children.  Only intermittently interested in them, she mostly left her kids behind with Ana while she hung out with sequential boyfriends.  


Lica was an unusually alert and responsive child with a robust survival instinct. She latched onto me and enchanted me with her mile-wide smile  and resilient spirit. She did me much good over the years. There were many times when I felt so exhausted by the unending obstacles we faced that I just wanted to quit. But then I would see Lica bent over a cracked plastic dishpan singing while she scrubbed the family’s dirty laundry.  I know it sounds corny: Lady Bountiful meets Baby Aunt Jemima, but Lica’s innate capacity for joy lifted my spirits and stiffened my spine. If this kid could cope, surely I could.


Despite the lack of a responsible adult in this home or any help from local agencies, with the financial support provided by Susan Adams and my sister Katherine Owen back in Vancouver, and the emotional support provided by the local leaders of Street Angels,  the kids in this family were eating better and  attending school.  But life in this impoverished, abusive family was always hard.


When Lica was 10, her other sister, Vivienne, 14, went out one evening with a girlfriend and didn’t return. The friend was killed and Vivi was shot five times and left for dead. Somehow she regained consciousness and managed to crawl out of bushes onto a highway. Surgeons saved her life but they were unable to remove a bullet lodged behind her eyes. 

Vivi was left permanently blind and suffering from severe PTSD.  She refused to identify the assailants or leave the house. She was terrified that the killers would return if they learned she had survived.  Ana’s response to this tragedy was to be angry at Vivienne for having brought the attention of the police to her door. Lica was afraid to leave the side of her helpless sister because, “Someone has to stand guard over Vivienne”. Indeed, little mother, but it shouldn’t have to be you.

We scoured the city for a residential school for the blind and found nothing available for the poor.  Street Angels’ donors paid for a private facility.  After a year, Vivi was recovered enough to want to go home to visit her sisters. Within a few days of being home, Vivi contracted an intestinal infection.  Blind and disoriented with fever, she lost control of her bowels and soiled the bed.  Ana set to beating her with a broom handle. Lica ran to a neighbour for help. The police arrived too late. Ana’s blows dislodged the bullet and Vivienne died in her bed.     

There were no official consequences to the killing of Vivi. Since the  State neither removed Ana nor provided a safe place for the children, we built two add-on rooms, the larger one for Cristiane’s children and the smaller room (about 7’ x 10’) for Lica. We furnished both with separate entrances, lockable doors, a sink and a toilet so the kids could attend to basics without running the risk of disturbing Ana. And they could lock themselves in when she went on a rampage.


Amazingly Lica continued to flourish. She developed into a strikingly beautiful adolescent.  She kept herself and her room carefully groomed. A diligent and ambitious student, she took, and did well in, every after-school training program we offered.  By 14, she’d set her sights on becoming a policewoman because as she explained: “I love their uniforms. And I’d be one of the good cops because I know what makes kids become thieves. And nobody messes with a policewoman.”  

By now, Ana had taken to screaming insults all night and wandering the streets semi-naked by day, obsessively cursing her thankless daughters.  Having a debased version of King Lear for a mother was a constant source of humiliation for Lica.  Faced with a daily gauntlet of local louts’ tormenting with lewd jibes, few teenagers could hold their heads as high or work as hard at improving their situation, as Lica did.              

But this girl did more than tough it out.  She often expressed genuine concern for her mum, especially when Ana’s physical health began failing. Lica was no Goody Two Shoes.  She could laugh with wicked delight when I mock--prayed for her demented mother’s demise. But the reality underneath our banter was that Lica longed for a kind, sober mum.  I’d often seen her patiently washing and feeding the blunted sot. And I knew she was doggedly searching for a free rehab centre in the enduring hope that Ana could be made sober and kind.  I was less optimistic but loved Lica for her tenacity, initiative and heart.      

One day Ana woke saying she had dreamt she was on a date with Zico, a soccer celebrity.  Lica got an idea.  Acting on her own, she contacted the producers of a popular reality TV show in which a poor person’s dreams come true (sort of a cross between Jerry Springer and The Wish Foundation).  Lica described her mother’s alcoholism and failing health (but not her violence) and suggested that Ana might be enticed into a treatment centre if a date with Zico could be arranged and that would make a super good double-dreams-come-true episode.    

To my surprise, Lica’s pitch was chosen for airing.  And there we all were, watching our enterprising Lica on TV cheerfully showing the blowhard host around the wretched family home while he badgered Ana into accepting the deal: 30 days in a recovery centre for a date with Zico. (The soccer hero was spared the date because Ana bolted and defaulted to booze after a week in rehab).


Of course, underneath Lica’s pride and resourcefulness, was an abused child hungry for love.  The first cute boy who kissed her hit pay dirt. At 14 she fell in love and happily flung herself into Eros Heaven. I’d been boring all the girls in our project for years with safe sex talk and we gave out condoms like Chiclets.  But often our prophylactic efforts proved to be straws in the wind of teenage passion.  Lica’s stay in paradise was unusually brutal and short.  


The cute boy, 15, had left school and was hanging around with the wrong crowd.  He was picked up by the police.  Fearing that all-too-common consequence of arrest for black kids - death-while-in-police-custody, Lica defied a big taboo. She raced to the police station to vouch for her boyfriend’s character. No one in the favelas trusts or turns to the police.  Even our enlightened local project managers were furious with Lica for involving herself (and, indirectly, them) with the police.  The police bullied Lica and slapped her around and locked her in jail for two days.  But eventually both kids were released.  A few days later, the undaunted, terminally-foolish boy tried to shoplift some candy from a drugstore. The owner chased him out firing a gun.  The boy was dead in the street before his 16th birthday.


And within a month, Lica, still devastated by the loss of her first love, discovered she was pregnant.  Lica was more afraid of Ana and an abortion than of having a baby.  Being a teenage mother is normal in the favelas; while abortions are illegal, dangerous and a deadly sin.  The birth was easy, the baby healthy and Lica a super conscientious mother at 15.

She missed a year of school and carried baby Andre with her everywhere as she struggled to feed and clothe herself and him on her bursaries which totaled less than $100 a month.  To make ends meet, she did daily domestic work whenever she could find it. But still hoping to become a policewoman, she returned to night school determined to satisfy the eligibility requirements for the police academy.

The psychological toll of extreme poverty is relentless.  There was never enough money to pay for the beans and the propane gas to cook them and the hydro bill. Their hydro was cut off. She worried constantly about baby Andre being left in her room in the dark with only a candle and a 12 year-old niece to keep him safe from Ana whose alcoholic storms continued unabated.   

At 17 she found Manuel to help her. He’s a decent, quiet motherly sort of young man, who offered her emotional support, kept Ana at bay, and patiently babysat Andre while Lica went to night school.  She, Manuel and Andre were now living together in her little 7’ x 10’ room.  She equipped herself with an IUD and for a year it looked like she might yet make it to graduation and the police academy. 


Unfortunately Lica developed a pelvic infection and the IUD had to be removed.  In the month between its removal and the arrival of the free birth control pills in the public health clinic, Lica conceived again.  She didn’t want another baby but Manuel didn’t want her to have an abortion.  Eventually Lica decided she couldn’t risk losing Manuel and it wasn’t fair of her to ask him to look after her child while she “murdered” his. Besides, who was she to defy God’s plan?   

Baby Matias was born with badly bowed legs – probably a result of Lica’s deficient diet during gestation.  He required special medical treatment and leg braces which meant Lica had to trudge for weeks through the complex labyrinth of the public medical system trying to find help for him. Worried and exhausted, she lost track of the fact that conception can occur while still nursing an infant. Lica was pregnant again before Matias was 3 months old.  And this time, grim reality overcame all scruples. She wasn’t yet 20, had two children to support, no regular income and so she tried desperately to terminate this third pregnancy.    

Affluent Brazilian women of course have access to licensed doctors who for a fat fee perform safe abortions in private offices.  But poor girls like Lica rely on cheaper methods: handfuls of morning-after pills, toxic chemical brews, back-alley knitting needles.  Lica tried everything and nothing worked and now she was terrified the baby would be born deformed.  By the time I found out what was happening and a professional friend located a cooperative physician, he refused to perform the D & C because Lica had passed the first-trimester cut off date.  We all held our breath until Tisiane, a beautiful normal girl baby, arrived. 

Thanks primarily to Lica’s capacity for hard work and love, five years later, Lica’s three kids, now aged 5 to 10,  are healthy, lively and in school.  Unfortunately, Manuel, the father of the youngest two, has turned out to be almost as much a liability as asset.  He has a learning disability, left school in Grade 3, is illiterate and has no family to help them at all. In a region of widespread unemployment and fierce competition, only men with extraordinary determination and physical strength can keep up the daily hustle required to find, and do the hard dirty work of unskilled day labour.  And that’s just not Manuel.  

Manuel is passive and slow – both mentally and physically.  He would drive me crazy. But I can totally understand why Lica needs him. He’s non-threatening, affectionate, patient with the children and helps her  by running errands and babysitting while she hustles whatever work she can find – cooking, cleaning, taking in laundry.  His passivity gets on her nerves; her bossiness on his. But I’m not sure that she or the children would be better off without him.  

Ana and her dogs still occupy the main part of the house.  Lica’s  7’ x 10’ room is now insanely crowded with five living in it. Lica keeps it as clean and neat as anyone could.  But it’s so small the children must eat, sleep, play, do their homework, watch TV and fight on their bunk beds. Lica and Manuel have no privacy at all. Their bed is an old single foamy kept rolled up under the bunk beds during the day. When unfurled at night, it fills the entire remaining floor space of the room.  Living like this produces endless tensions and conflicts from which there is no escape except to the dangerous streets.

Lica has the birth control situation in hand and impatiently waits for the day she will be deemed legally old enough to qualify for a tubal ligation. In a machismo patriarchal society, a woman’s reproductive organs are not her own to command.   

(A couple of years ago the Church refused to grant permission to hospital physicians who applied to abort a 9 year-old girl who was carrying twins after having been raped by her step-father.  The doctors won the battle of public opinion but the whole ugly process made it clear that biology is still destiny for poor women in Brazil).

I know Lica has enough smarts and gumption to manage the daily grind but she will never produce enough to be able to provide her family with a modest 2-bedroom home.  In a similar low-income neighbourhood close to the city’s resources, you’d be lucky to find one for $CDN30,000. I planned to leave her a bequest in my will. But my parents lived to their mid-90’s. So I have decided to try and raise the funds while they still might do Andre, Matias, & Tisiane some good.  

The streets beckon seductively to kids forced to live like this.  Even good parents lose them every day to drugs, disease and death. I lost count after 55 lads were murdered by gang warfare in the small favela where we were based.  It’ll probably take me some time and numerous parties and garage sales to raise enough to get Lica and her kids a decent home. But I intend to keep at it.   And in the meantime, I just hope that she can continue to hold things together until I  can, with a little bit of help from my friends, do my part.  I’ll let you know how things turn out.  And thank you for making the time to read this too-long history.           

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