(Lost Grove Squatters' Camp,
Lima, 1985)

Over white vinyl, Rosa sets silver
candlesticks (rented), tinplate crucifixes ---
five solder wounds --- son's coffin
trembling on crippled legs when an old truck
rumbles past these desert shacks,

cardboard & reed mats tied to sticks.
Daughter Rosita crosses herself the Spanish
way, kissing the thumb when done,
pins purple-cloth medals of El Niño Jesús
to burial gown sewn from sacking.

Mourners will come with egg-bread angels,
Our Lord of Sorrows' pudding --- purple corn ---
for the afterlife; most are live-out maids
like Rosa, the rest laundresses who twist shirts
until they surrender those last waterdrops

too precious for dirt, saved in oil drums
used to wash dishes & newborns. Dead from
hunger, Juancito is the third child she's lost
since coming from Ancash, highland province
in Mancha India, Perú's poorest.

They pose in Sunday's clothes, Rosa stoic,
dignified; in the background a road map
of Perú, one square clock that doesn't work.
Juancito's rubbery hands hold daisies,
shredded newspaper smelling of fish meal.
I take out a can from my bandoleer,

shoot from angles, cropping for dramatic
composition. Images freeze in silver; flash mummifies. "Third World people
are real," customers say

as they buy $1,000 prints --- poster size
Agfa sepia, Cibachrome color --- to be hung
beneath track lights, Bal Harbour & South Beach
condos. The last reel shot, I thank Rosa,
handing her rubber-banded soles she buries

inside a broken bottle of pisco
shaped like un huaco, Inca figurine.
"It's for her I struggle. Already she knows
how to read & write, do arithmetic."
Holding the sheet-metal door open,

Rosita rubs rheum off black eyes
like wilted grapes --- asks, "In your
country are there many poor like
here?" "Poverty is relative," I answer
stupidly, leaving her puzzled.

Girls hopscotch along hedgerows
of barbed wire, runts bark at garbage sparks.
I return to the hotel, the cab having waited two
hours. "These are the children God forgot,"
cabbie says, hissing away barefoot boys,

shoe-shine boxes strapped to their backs,
pockets bulging with rags that buff leather
into obsidian mirrors. Yelling gringo,
gringo, they run through a wake
of dust, the incense of cloudless skies.

--- Orlando Ricardo Menes
New Letters
©2001 The University of Missouri

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