Maria Elena teaches in a Catholic school, but she’s a sinner, she laughs.
I’m not married, and here they are, she says, pointing at her daughters. And they have different last names.
“Imaginense if they found out at the school,” she laughs and Javier re-fills her glass. He is Jennifer’s boyfriend and he’s being a good sport, being the only guy at the table, because this is the Rincon de las Amazonas, the Amazon’s lair.
Maria Elena teaches in a Catholic school, but she believes in the Pachamama. She still has the bag of red Paraguayan earth that Jennifer, the intern before me, brought her 6 years ago.
Her first daughter is named Inti, the Quechua name for the god of the sun. Her second daughter, who explodes with a good joke before going silent for another hour, is named Maite. Google shows me it’s a Basque name that means loved one, but I had remembered Mari telling me it meant goddess of the Volcano.
Maria Elena teaches in a Catholic school now, but she started teaching in the barrios in Quilmes where she grew up, and that’s where she wants to go back. She prefers the neighborhoods, she says. She is of the neighborhoods where the garbage gets burned in the streets and ten year old kids bring their four year old brothers to after school programs just so they have something to do in the afternoon.
The one time I saw Mari teach in one of those centers, she was doing a unit on the indigenous people of Argentina. She had the kids bend branches into dream catchers, like the Mapuche in Patagonia make, and write three dreams to hang from them.
She built her house herself. Inti’s dad was gone. Maite’s dad was in the picture, but Mari laid the bricks herself and made most of the money to pay for them. She taught at these state-supported after school centers and cleaned toilets at a campsite in the summers. The last time I saw it, the house was simple, unfinished brick on the inside. The plants she kept in soda bottles gave the kitchen a spring green tint, like the inside of an aquarium.
I don’t think the plants were there, this time, but the trees she planted around their yard have grown tall to shelter and hide the house from the dirt road.The walls are finished, now, and painted white on the inside. She, Inti, Maite, and her new partner, Ubaldo, spent the summer painting the outside bright blue with green and red trim.
Now, they are one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. At dusk, we walked along the dirt roads to buy packets of empanada dough and Inti, who just started university for zoology (que emocion, Mari said, I was all in tears when I accompanied her) told me about a government loan program for building houses in neighborhoods like theirs. Progreso, it’s called. The metal struts of these houses stuck up into the sky on the way to the store, and the lightening bugs clustered in dusty bushes. I'd like to study them, Inti said. How they light up!