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Poetry of Dignity

In March 2009, we brought the story of La Encantada and the Center for Development with Dignity to the stage at Macalester College for a fundraising concert titled "Building Dignity: An Evening of Spoken Word, Music, Dance, and Civic Engagement." The centerpiece of the show was a spoken word theater piece written and directed by Paul Dosh that integrated music by Martin Dosh, photography by James Lerager, modern dance by Laura Grant and Amy Hill, and poetry performed by Emily Hedin, Shailja Patel, and Caitlin Wells. The show raised $13,300, allowing us to break ground and begin construction in La Encantada just three weeks later.

A highlight of the show was the poem "The Story of Jesús Valencia," performed by Caitlin Wells, Martin Dosh, and Paul Dosh.

Click to enlarge image

Paul Dosh and Laura Grant perform the spoken word-modern dance duet "What Am I Doing, in Perú?!"

Actress Caitlin Wells brings the role of Jesús Valencia to life on stage at Macalester College.

The cast of the 2009 Building Dignity concert: Martin Dosh, Emily Hedin, Shailja Patel, Amy Hill, Caitlin Wells, Paul Dosh, and Laura Grant.

The Story of Jesús Valencia
by Paul Dosh and Jesús Valencia

weak from hunger
sick from the stench of shit
uncertain if tomorrow would bring gunshots
and eviction by hired thugs
I did not feel like a leader

it was 1996
and I wondered
if my wife and I had made a terrible mistake
casting our lot with 900 families
seizing a patch of barren desert
building a shantytown in a single night

sitting at a meeting
I listen to my neighbors:
¡tengo hambre!
they burned down my home!
my children are sick!
¡necesitamos agua!
why won’t City Hall give us water?
they have guns
we are afraid

we named our neighborhood “La Encantada”
“the Enchanted Place”

it did not feel enchanted

sitting at that meeting
weak from hunger
sick from the stench
if you had told me that in just 10 years
I would rise up
to lead these people
that I would bring running water to 55,000 Peruvians
if you had told me that I would be such a leader
I would have called you
every day

I would have called you every day
because I was in the market
for a dreamer
another dreamer

let me tell you my story

me llamo Jesús Miguel Valencia Silva
nací en el departamento de Piura al Norte del Perú
soy hijo de un obrero muy humilde de clase pobre

I was born in the province of Piura / in the North
I’m the son of workers / humble workers

we lived in the farming village of Tablazo Norte
where even the chickens go hungry
I had to get out

Tablazo Norte has seven thousand people / Lima: seven million
and thousands migrate to the city to beg for work
but I was different
I dream of textbooks / pages weighed down with promise
I dream of struggle / to show my family another path
I heard of the human rights battles in Lima
so I took the first chance I got

in 1988 / age 18
I depart Tablazo Norte
with bus fare and a phone number
in search of a plot
to plant a new family tree

arriving in Lima
during the days of rifles and bombs
changes everything
I stride to the epicenter of state and guerrilla violence: Villa El Salvador

Villa: what a place!
born of an unrelenting ache
for dignity

venga / come and see

look! down there
at the perfect grid of the streets
laid out in 1971 when 25,000 homeless migrants
seized an empty desert
and founded Villa El Salvador in a single night

38 years later
Villa has consumed the desert
transforming it into a city
that stretches from the Alameda to the ruins of Pachacamac
from the Industrial Park to the Pacific shore

400,000 pobladores / settlers / all of them poor
and the entire city
created block by block
by midnight land invasions
followed by years of labor
to build each neighborhood up

in the 1990s
Villa mentored me with movements
nourished me with networks
I eat bread and dirt
but I love this city

when I’m not in class
I track the footsteps of community leaders
studying their tactics like I’m cramming for finals

and more and more
I dash through sandy hills where there are no footprints
and I discover that when you break a fresh trail
travel its length / week after week
one day you notice footprints of different sizes
you learn you are a leader

as a leader
I wake up each morning
surrounded by children in need
but 364 days a year
these niños’ tear ducts fail to function
so accustomed to being forgotten
they no longer know that neglect is supposed to hurt

but every December 25
these saline faucets resume their drip
because no matter how many times Father Eugenio says
Christmas is about love
Christmas is about the birth of a champion
there’s no telling a child weaned on crap television
that she shouldn’t expect a clean shirt / a jigsaw puzzle / a doll / a slice of sweet bread

and on Christmas Day
there’s no hiding from the facts
you live in a dump
your home is trash
you count for less than the garbage that you eat

I haven’t eaten
in a day and a half
but on Christmas morning
all I want is a bar of chocolate
to wipe dry a wet cheek
but I can’t afford it

and it makes me

on May 10, 1996
anger finds an outlet
fed up with banishment to the shadows
exceeding our daily recommended allowance of indignation
nine hundred families
underfed children on our shoulders
march brashly out of the night
each intent on claiming
a thousand square feet of sand
as our birthright

we throw up our shacks
and dig in for the tear gas and clubs
City Hall shouts that the Agrosilves Livestock Corporation
needs this wasteland
that their pigs count for more than our children
and they will fight / for the rights / of their pigs

the battle stretches for four horrific months
makeshift walls torched by arson
our sons breathing the waste of swine
skin infected by fleas
water so dirty even the cockroaches won’t drink it

but persistent P.R.
tenacious tactics
and our lawyer
you gotta have a lawyer
our lawyer’s invitation to the Department of Environmental Health
pays off when the health inspection makes the front page:
“We find the Agrosilves Corporation in flagrant violation
of virtually all regulations
posing serious health risks to the children of La Encantada
the farm must be relocated

I relish the shouts of triumph
but I prefer
the nods of satisfaction

a victory, yes
but alone all it means is we can starve in peace
but it’s a beginning
we can stay
we can build
we can stay
we can grow / we can stay
we can stay