Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Julia the banana seller: Putting a face to Honduras' poor

Julia Pérez Alvarado and part of her large family

On a good day, Julia Pérez Alvarado makes about $6 selling bananas in Tegucigalpa neighbourhoods. Not much for a single mom with eight children.
But pretty typical for the way many, or most, Hondurans scratch out a subsistence living. In fact, Alvarado’s take on good days is pretty typical wage for a laborer or household worker. 
La Tribuna has been doing regular stories on poor people around the city.
For me, they’re great. It feels pushy to start grilling strangers about their lives in bad Spanish. 
But I’ve been curious about the women who sell bananas outside the market in Copan, crouching on the sidewalk.
Statistics are important. This week, the Honduran national statistic’s agency reported 69 per cent of Hondurans live in poverty. About 24 per cent survive on less than $1 a day.
People’s stories are important too.
More children? 'Only God knows'
Alvarado’s business model is simple, according to the paper. She leaves her house - a shack really - at 5 a.m. each morning and walks an hour to a largish market. She buys 200 minimos - a variety of small bananas - for about $4, or two cents each. Then she walks kilometres selling them door-to-door in neighbourhoods for five cents each. (Which is the same as I pay at the market.)
Is she sells out, she makes $6. If she doesn’t sell at least 80 bananas, she loses money.
At 41, she has eight children, the oldest 23. She left her husband because he was jealous and beat here, she told La Tribuna, and a second man in her life turned out to be a louse.
“Men today don’t work, they go into the streets and find other women,” she said. “They stay for a while then they rush away  and don’t help me in anyway.”
Based on conversations with Hondurans, that seem a problem. About 34 per cent of households are headed by a single woman. That’s much greater than in Canada (about 13 per cent), and there is no structure for child support or safety net. 
You can survive on $6 a day, even with a family. The print edition of La Tribuna showed Alvarado’s house, which was two rooms, cobbled together out of sticks and corrugated tin, likely squatting on the land. So her housing is free
 Food, even for all those kids, would be manageable, at least in terms of enough calories (though not remotely adequate for nutrition). Tortillas are cheap - about five cents each - and filling. Beans are 30 cents a pound and rice about 60 cents. (Beans, corn tortillas and rice make up about 60 per cent of the calories consumed in a typical Honduran diet.) 
The problem is that people living that way are always on the edge of disaster. If Alvarado wrenches her knee and can’t walk to the market, or someone robs their house or the school demands kids pay fees, then things fall apart. (Alvarado told La Tribuna all her children in school, some at night and some in the day. That doesn’t actually guarantee they’re learning much.)
There is an obvious question. Why would anyone have eight children without any ability to provide for them? The online comments on the article included some pretty forceful expressions of the same question.
Religion, partly. The interviewer asked Alvarado if she was going to have more children. “I don’t know,” she said. “Only God knows that.” (Though she added “je, je, je,” which often means a person is joking.)
About half the population say they are Roman Catholic. That church says members can’t use any birth control measure except abstinence when women are most likely to conceive. That’s the equivalent of no effective birth control for poor people with little education. 
Religion aside,  there are issues of access and education. About one-quarter of births are to women under 18, a rate 26 per cent higher than the average for the region. A 2008 HDR report on Honduras found 46 per cent of first-time teen mothers had no education.
But even with no children, for many - maybe most - Hondurans, poverty is just reality, and disaster just one piece of bad luck away.

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