Turning trash into dreams
By Jorge Adorno
Throughout my life I have always been struck by how music, as a part of culture, is a white flag in many circumstances of life, especially in times of conflict. Even the Germans found time to attend concerts during war.
The other day I went to the education center in the Asuncion neighborhood of Cateura called Vy’a Renda, meaning Place of Joy in the Guaraní language, where I found youths building their future in a place of extreme poverty. It’s a school with curtains drawn over broken windows, but which houses diamonds in the rough in the form of children studying music and playing in an orchestra. Their instruments are built of material recycled from trash, giving the orchestra its name, the Orchestra of Recycled Instruments of Cateura.
The orchestra’s director, Favio Chavez, was an amateur musician apart from being an environmental engineer at the Cateura municipal garbage dump. In 2006 he decided to help the children of the dozens of garbage pickers by forming a music school with the five instruments he managed to acquire.
He soon had more students than instruments, until one of the pickers named Nicolas Gomez presented him with an instrument he had made from material recycled from the dump.
Mr. Gomez, 48, considers himself a self-taught musician. He has gray hair and worn clothes, and a great affection for animals and music. His favorite instrument is the cello. This man of great simplicity reveals that he feels proud each time he hears children and youths play the guitars, violins and cellos that he builds, and that his favorite sound is one that comes from those recycled instruments.
Vy’a Renda is in a place of extreme poverty but rich in education because the students receive a high level of musical and academic instruction. What caught my attention the most was Mr. Gomez himself, who I first met when he arrived unannounced as the orchestra was rehearsing.
I asked him, “Are you the Nicolas Gomez who makes these instruments?” When he said yes, I asked if I could photograph him at home and work, but the answer was no.
“I’m sorry but I’m going to the hospital now because I have dengue fever, “ he explained. “Maybe when I get better. My doctor has prohibited me from searching in the trash for now. My whole body aches.”
In the end, I was able to visit him the next day as he disobeyed his doctor by scouring the trash heaps where he recovers food and paint cans, gasoline drums and discarded wire.
After a brief trash tour, Mr. Gomez, a man of few words but a strong expression of humility and decency, took me to his home, one of extreme poverty indeed. He showed me his workshop where he makes the instruments. He lives there with his wife, Natividad Romero, their eight dogs, three cows, and 38 pigs, in an area about 15 yards across.
Natividad made her presence felt by saying, “Ah! Journalists again? They always come and leave nothing for us after publishing their stories.”
I answered her, “Ma’am, I only want to show how your husband recycles the instruments.”
Her response came in Guaraní. “Look, sir, we are very poor and this kind and talented man is so good that if he doesn’t go to hoe the garden, build a brick wall, search in the trash, or go sell one of our pigs, we won’t have anything to eat. His art is not useful for our daily sustenance. I’m also a big recycler. Look at these fabrics collected from the garbage and the clothes I make and sell from them. This is our life, so sad.”
While touring the workshop we found out there would be a ceremony at Vy’a Renda that afternoon, in which a philanthropist from the USA would donate 36 modern instruments to the orchestra. I talked Mr. Gomez into going, and when we arrived he was immediately recognized and embraced by renowned Paraguayan classical guitarist, Berta Rojas, who was attending the act.
The philanthropist was declared a “distinguished citizen” for her charity, something that was very positive, but left me troubled. I couldn’t stop feeling sad that through a monetary donation a person was honored, but Nicolas Gomez, who donates his time and talent to provide the orchestra with the tools necessary to perform, never received a mention.
Since that day I went to photograph Paraguay’s new president-elect, who much of the country hopes will bring about a good change to the country. In one of his speeches I heard him say, “My government will fight to reduce poverty.” I can only hope that it wasn’t just a political slogan, because even though there are many people rich on the outside but poor inside, there are even more who are the opposite.
Musicians will continue to bring us beautiful sounds on any type of instrument, and poverty will continue to bring sadness and pain in Paraguay, where more than 30 percent of the population lives in poverty.