One of the most heart-wrenching manifestations of inequality I’ve observed is when the lives of people I know from the barrios turn out just as one might predict. While there are multiple exceptions, many young men have ended up jailed or dead and young women have had to rely on their own ingenuity to provide a meager sustenance for their children. One such person is my friend Cao.
During my first visits to La Yagüita, I immediately took to Cao. She had a quiet, reflective aspect of her personality that leant itself to being photographed. Over almost twenty years, I have compiled photographs of her at various stages of her life which depict that sensibility.
When I look at these two pictures, I feel as if the young Cao on the right is imagining her life as the older version of herself, and the older Cao on the left is remembering her childhood as she braids the hair of her daughter. (In fact Cao has told me that when I take pictures of her she thinks about all of the years we have collaborated.) In both cases, her expression seems to be more of resignation than hope or nostalgia.
Cao lives in the same house where she grew up. Instead of the throng of children (siblings and cousins) who were once her playmates and rivals in the home, she is now the mother of three new children who are growing up much the way that she did. She continues to live with her disabled brother and sometimes other siblings who sporadically show up (according to rumor, when they are on the run). Her grandfather and grandmother died in the house some years ago, and her mother died there just two weeks ago.
As much as I’d like to point to the unity of her family as exemplary, it often appears to be more of a survival mechanism driven by necessity than a situation born of warmth. With scarcely a plate of rice to be eaten, Cao’s story is one that decimates any possibility of romanticizing the lives of the impoverished.