Week Ten

Cusco, Peru

Casa Mantay is a home for teen mothers and their children that I am volunteering at in Cusco. The mothers are between the ages of 12 to 18 and the children range in age from newborns to 6 years old.

The home is in the San Jeronimo neighborhood outside of downtown Cusco. In order to get there, I take a  comby, which is a local bus. Some days I am lucky and get a seat. But it’s usually jam-packed. Most of the other riders look at me like I’m an alien. To get off the bus, you need to scream “BAJA!” and hope the driver hears you.

The ride to San Jeronimo from downtown Cusco is just a straight shot down the Avenida del Cultura for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on how many BAJAS! we have. It’s kinda difficult to tell where your stop is because it all pretty much looks the same and there aren’t many distinct landmarks. It makes the commute exciting.

Casa Mantay is on a calle tierra a.k.a. a dirt road. The first day I came here, I took a cab because I didn’t know how to navigate the local buses yet. My cab driver and I got completely lost as I used a mix of charades and Spanglish to direct him around dirt roads with no signs.

The driver had to get out of the car and remove a few huge rocks from the middle of the calle tierras. At one point, we had to ask an old man and his flock of sheep for directions. This experience was both terrifying and hilarious at the same time. Luckily, we eventually spotted Mantay’s purple gate.

The facilities are muy, muy bueno at Casa Mantay. Raquel is the owner and she lives on the grounds. It is basically one large house that Raquel and her family share with 15 mothers and their children. There is a large kitchen and eating area, a TV Room, two classrooms, a huge laundry area, a sewing room for the girls, one grande bathroom, and a nursery.

Spanish is solely spoken in the Casa, so I am improving on a muy rapido basis. Except for the other day when I ran out of soap in the kitchen. I ran around the house  asking everyone “Donde es mas sopa??” while using hand motions to simulate washing dishes. No one would answer me so I just kept going from room to room asking around. Finally, another volunteer overheard me and let me know that sopa means soup, not soap. Whoops!

I work with the newborn to toddler group so I spend most of my time in the nursery. There is a playroom, access to the outdoors, a changing room, and a bedroom for the babies. With 12 children under the age of 3, the space is perfect. Not too grande and not too pequeno.

As a volunteer, we basically provide an open-door daycare for the children all day so the moms can help with other tasks around the house, meet with a tutor, study, etc. In comparison to the orphanage, volunteering here is a piece of cake. I am there as a supplement and to allow the mothers some free time to work on other things for themselves.

The rule of thumb here is “Get the Mom.” So if a child is crying, hungry, cranky, or has a dirty diaper, I always try to find the mom first. Only if she is unavailable do I step in and feed or soothe or change the bebe. My main role is to play and ensure everyone is happy.

Casa Mantay runs like a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows their place and what is expected of them. There is a set schedule, a cleaning rotation and everyone helps each other. The children have a structured, daily routine that moves like clockwork. They wake up, change, eat, play, eat, change, nap, change, play, eat, play, eat, bed. There’s music and games and activities during play time. They get outside every morning. The mothers are on a rotation, so at least one to two of them are helping out in the nursery along with the volunteers. It really is amazing how well-organized this place is.

One in four mothers in Peru is under the age of 18. These girls are at Casa Mantay because they don’t have the support they need at home. Some of the girls fell in love and then the baby daddy headed for the hills once he heard the exciting news. Another volunteer told me that, sadly, the majority of these girls have been victims of sexual abuse, sometimes within their own family. They end up here because their family either can’t help them or kicks them out.

The youngest mother is 12 years old. She is currently 9 months pregnant and due this week. Most of the mamacitas are 14- 15 years old. At 18, the girls move out of the home and find work. However, it is not like Mantay just kicks them to the curb on their 18th birthday. They spend the months, sometimes years prior, honing the girl’s skills, helping them find work and a place to live.

I have only been here for two weeks so I feel like the girls are just starting to warm up to me. A few have that sassy teenage attitude, but the majority of them are very humble and kind. One of the girls really wants to learn English, so I write lists of words for her everyday.

There is one who has really taken a liking to me. Luisa is 15 years old and she calls me “Señorita.” She likes to walk around the house and hold my hand. She has a fairly severe mental disability and was a victim of abuse.

Her son’s name is Franco. She is one of the most doting mothers in the house and Franco is very attached to her. She is always coming around to check on him and is very loving towards him. Luisa hasn’t been dealt the best cards in life, but she always has a smile on her face. I am just in awe of her. Meeting Luisa has been one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

Although many of the girls come from sad circumstances, Casa Mantay is an amazing place for them to be. It provides such a loving, supportive environment that these madres really couldn’t find elsewhere. They have a safe, clean place to live with all their basic needs and more met. It provides them the opportunity to finish growing up while their kids start to. I can honestly say that the daily comby ride is well worth it and I always look forward to coming here.