We saw the exhibition ‘Discarded People’ in Antigua, Guatemala, on 9th May. Purely by chance…I have not stopped thinking about it since.
It is a photojournalistic exhibition by Marc Espin.
Those words – discarded people – those words simply do not belong together.
Discarded is a term we use for objects we no longer have a use for.
But to use the word discarded in relation to people?
Well, that really was an affront to my senses.
We read the first sign explaining the background to the exhibition.
Then we turned the corner and walked into the room devoted to the photographs.
I was…aghast. I looked at the first image and read the text.
I was moved, disturbed, and humbled by the images.
To say I found the exhibition troubling was an understatement.
Two days later the images were still forefront in my mind. I decided to contact Marc Espin and ask his permission to use his photos and text in a blog devoted purely to his exhibition and work. Marc responded quickly.
Marc also said: ‘We need to spread out the intolerable reality of elderly in El Salvador and the whole Central America.’ He suggested I share the exhibition on social media using the hashtag #DescartadosElSalvador – I do not use Twitter, Instagram etc and feel confident he would be happy for anyone to share the exhibition using this hashtag
What follows are his photographs and text. For clarity, Marc’s text is in italics.
I leave you to ponder these remarkable images.
The reality of people’s lived experiences.
And the political background behind these conditions.
Discarded People documents the abandonment of the elderly in rural areas of El Salvador. The photographic exhibition is based on the book of the same name written by the journalist Marc Espin, born in Barcelona. It is composed of fifteen intimate portraits and brief life stories organised in five dimensions that express the main causes of deprivation of Salvadorans over 60: income, health, habitat, education and gender.
To carry out this research, in 2016 and 2017 the author visited more than fifty homes in 15 rural communities of the municipality of Tecoluca (San Vicente), in the Salvadoran region of the Lower Lempa River. After dozens of interviews and thousands of photographs, he collected in this work the most representative stories of poverty and social exclusion suffered by hundreds of thousands of people in Central America.
As part of an international non-profit international cooperation project, the work seeks to make visible the needs of older adults and motivate actions that contribute to improving their lives. In accordance with this goal, the author himself has promoted a pilot project of sponsorship that already provides income to nine elderly people living in extreme poverty.
Marc Espin (1979) is a journalist and professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has a Master’s Degree in Economics and International Affairs. Among his main concerns are inequality and Central America, a region in which he has lived for nearly a decade. Discarded People is his first professional photojournalistic work.
There are three sources of income for elderly in rural areas of El Salvador: family, work, and pensions. Families assume, usually with serious economic difficulties, most of the living expenses. The work in the field is scarce, informal, unstable, and poorly paid, and there is no age limit for retirement. The pension system covers one out of every four people over 60.
Most Salvadorians who are over 60 years old die from cardiovascular diseases, pneumonia, kidney failure and diabetes. Life expectancy is 72.75 years – 77.44 for women and 68.3 for men. Advanced age is the leading cause of disability and it is a stage in which the quality of life reduces drastically. The poorest older people often do not receive diagnosis or medical treatments. Access to health services is conditioned by the long distances to health centres, staff shortages, excessive waiting lists, poor and non specialised care, lack of medicines and difficulties in obtaining time off work to see the doctor.
Half of Salvadorian families do not own the space they inhabit and about 150,000 are permitted to stay in properties free of charge but without any guarantee of permanence. More than 400,000 of the country’s housing properties lack essential living conditions and 67% of these houses are located in rural areas, often remote and inaccessible. One in three rural households is crowded. In a hostile environment, poor elderly people are especially vulnerable.
One in three people over 60 are illiterate. The 10.14% illiteracy rate in the country is doubled in rural areas, and government efforts to reduce it among older populations have not been effective. This is due to, at least, four reasons: underinvestment, lack of qualified literacy teachers, discontinuous programs and absence of a teaching strategy that takes into consideration the learning difficulties of the eldest.
Women suffer the problems of the elderly more severely; the number of women receiving the pension is lower; their pensions and wages are also lower; they face more obstacles in accessing health services; they have unequal rights in property in comparison compared to men; their rate of illiteracy is higher. In addition, elder women suffer gender discrimination in even more ways: marital abandonment, abandonment from sons and daughters, physical and psychological violence or lack of support in responsibilities relating to home care and family.
Above: Isabel Santiago Sanchez (84, Puerto Nuevo) photograph 2466.
For years he made a good living repairing boats like the one on his porch but, due to his age, he is rarely hired nowadays. He lives alone and receives no pension. His neighbour is actually one of his grandsons and he helps him with the food. His children also bring him rice, beans and vegetables whenever they visit him. That’s how he manages.
Above: Lina Mercedes Espinoza (79, Rancho Grande) photograph 3295
Abandoned by her husband, she earned money by washing clothes and cleaning houses in order to support her children. They occupied for years a shack built with galvanised sheets. After hurricane Mitch (1998) hit the area, they got a concrete blockhouse thanks to an international cooperation project. Nowadays, she lives with her only remaining son, a 65 year old collier. He does not get a job and she has no strength to look for one. Without income, they just eat what a niece brings them.
Above: Maria Luz Gonzalez (63, El Porvenir) photograph 6335
She is illiterate. Her mother withdrew her from school because her classmates used to beat her, so her mom said: ”we will teach you how to work with the machete.” She worked, learnt, started a relationship and had nine children. Now she lives alone in a shack made of galvanised sheets. She still works in the field, but she hasn’t got much strength left. Sometimes she does not have a single cent to buy bread or even a bag of milk and her children do not help her. ”When there is food I eat, but if there’s not, I simply don’t ” she states.
Above: Maria Isabel Guardado (83, San Bartolo) photograph 5805
She lived alone until she broke her leg in a fall. Then, her eldest daughter decided to take her to her house to look after her. The pain is severe, but now there is no money for painkillers, so she has to endure it. Maria Isabel also suffers from kidney failure, and often feels dizzy. She is hard of hearing and blind in one eye.
Above: Luciano Huezo (85) and Margarita Martinez (76) (San Bartolo) photograph 6075
Luciano suffers from kidney failure and needs a pacemaker, but the waiting lists in the public system are endless and the cheapest operation costs US$1,500, more than what the couple earns in a year. Diseases already killed five of the seven children they had, three of them under ten.
Above: Gregoria Rivas (78) and Jose Roberto Mejia (60) (Santa Marta) photograph 3948
They got married last year after a seven year relationship. When Gregoria registered her house in her only living son’s name, he pushed her to move out with her husband. That is how they ended up living in this 6 m2 shack with plastic walls and a tin roof that was borrowed from an acquaintance. It is as hot as a sauna inside. Since they don’t have running water, they resort to using their neighbours’.
Above: Pilar Mendez (61, Rancho Grande) photograph 3624
She lives, with her daughter and six grandchildren, in this shack made of planks and rusted sheets which is in danger of collapsing. She need medical care, medicines, and income…but if she could choose, her priority would be to have a property to live decently with her family. The borrowed house in which they reside is crumbling. Even if it does not fall apart before, they will need to give it back in a year and find another place to stay.
Above: Concepcion Palacios (68, Las Areneras) photograph 5075
She never went to school. Now that she’s older, a granddaughter teaches her to read and write when she gets back from high school. After three weeks of taking classes, Concepcion only learnt to write her name. She blames herself for ”not being smart enough.” She has worked as a house cleaner her entire life, but she has had an ulcer on her leg that has prevented her from working in the last years, so she dedicates her time to look after her grandniece.
Above: Carlos Zavala (86, Nueva Concepcion) photograph 2282
He started work at the age of six, when his father died, so he had no childhood: neither games or school, just work. He broke his leg over a decade ago but it didn’t heal properly . Despite the limp, he continued to work the cornfields for a while, but he now has serious difficulties walking. Carlos comforts himself with his belief that ”life is not given, but borrowed;” therefore, sooner than later, when he returns it, he will stop suffering.
Above: Lucila Mendoza (75, Rancho Grande) photograph 3343
Her granddaughter, Jaquelin Marielos (17 years old) was a child when her mother emigrated to the United States after being abandoned by the father. From then on, they both depend on the mother’s remittance, which is barely enough for them to eat. A recent eye surgery and the scarce resources she has make it even more difficult for her to look after her teen granddaughter, who is disabled. However, she accepts the situation as a dead-end street; if her daughter decided to return and take care of them, ”how would we eat?’,” she wonders.
Above: Elena Marta Orellana (73, Primero de Mayo) photograph 4752
She takes care of her son, who has a mental disability. Another son lives next door with his family. He helps her as much as possible, but his job as a farmer only provides him with the essentials to live.
Above: Pastoria Arias (77, Santa Marta)
She is single and has no income. Pastoria lives in a house of 20 m2 only accompanied by a portrait of her husband, who died in the war.
Above: Jose Isabel Vasques ( 82, Ranchero Grande)
The field was my school.
Above: Felix Yanes (77, San Carlos)
Three years ago he had to stop working the cornfields because he had no strength. With a pension of only US$50 per month, which never arrives on time, he and his blind wife must rely on their children and grandchildren to get by.
Above: Faustina Bernabe ( 78, San Carlos)
Four rapes gave her four children she feels very proud of. She says she has made many mistakes in her life. One of them is not having told her children the truth.
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https://vickis.travel.blog in the May archives.