By Manolo Berjón and Miguel Ángel Cadenas*
It is April 18, 2017, when our phone rings and the caller says, “A woman needs you to come pray.” Our parish is in Punchana, a district of the city of Iquitos. The caller explains briefly what has happened. We stop what we are doing and go to visit the woman.
Five blocks before our destination, two Jehova’s Witnesses are waiting at the door of a house. In the same block, three teenagers are drinking beer and a group of men is playing cards. In the next block, an open sewer spews waste into an open area in the neighborhood—the city’s shit, literally. That sewer also channels waste from the municipal slaughterhouse. A little farther along, we find ourselves behind the government-run Essalud hospital. They also dump waste into this open sewer, and in the afternoon they incinerate medical waste. The Essalud sewer is the most hazardous.
The river has risen, and we make our way along improvised raised walkways built of wooden planks. We reach the home of the woman who contacted us. She is eating breakfast. She leaves her breakfast and accompanies us to the house of the woman who is sick. Along the way, she gives us some information. “She is possessed by a demon.” The women we are going to visit had a C-section a month ago. They say that “her cut” bleeds. That she roams at night and wails.
We continue walking and reach our destination. To enter the house, we have to step carefully along a dangerous plank. The house is tiny, three meters by four meters. It consists of a single room: a bed (bedroom), living room and kitchen, all together. The roof is tin, and the garden is completely inundated. There is a man standing, a woman sitting on a bed, and another man in a hammock. We greet them. The woman says something unintelligible. The floorboards are under water, because the river has risen and this is a flood plain.
The only things not in the water are the bed, a table on which there are three pots, and the hammock, where there is a small board on which there is a bucket of water for drinking. Absolute poverty. At night, the three (husband, wife and the woman’s brother) slept under the same mosquito net. There is nowhere else in the house where they could sleep. They offer us the only chair in the house. One of us sits and the other remains standing. We are “cooling our feet” in the sewer water. We have the feeling that the floorboards could sink at any moment.
The woman sees a tall man in her dreams. She speaks of evil spirits, of the devil. They have asked us to come and pray. A dialogue begins, in which we try to understand who they are. The women’s last name is Canelo, she is 27 and has four children. The last, a baby, died. They are from the upper Napo River. The man who is standing, and who greeted us, is the woman’s brother. We assume that the other, in the hammock, is the woman’s partner. We say we assume it, because the woman’s brother ignores him. The brother tells us that his sister’s four children are up the Napo River with her mother. The woman guards the motorcycles parked at the food market. The brother doesn’t have a partner now. His wife left him six months ago. Life is terribly hard for this family. The woman wants to see her children, but won’t return to the Napo until December.
We pray. We read a Scripture passage. We bless water and sprinkle it around the house. We lay hands and the Bible on the woman’s head. Our reflection revolves around “strength.” Jesus is strong, and when he is present, evil spirits and demons withdraw. One must be strong. We must continue to work, because the sewer weakens the people who live here. But with Jesus, we can do anything. We recommend that they see a doctor at the hospital. We are aware of the cultural problems related to health and health care.
At around the same time, a boy found his father hanging himself. Fortunately, they were able to save the man’s life. Another woman “became possessed” at about the same time, in the same neighborhood. Nearly a year has passed since those events. Everything is the same. Living conditions have not improved, and the occurrences of demonic possession and other problematic situations continue.
Canelo: an indigenous group that inhabits the upper parts of the Napo and Pastaza rivers in both Peru and Ecuador. They were converted to Christianity by the Dominicans in the 16th century. The Canelo are the integration of several indigenous groups that adopted Quechua as their language. Their original language probably belonged to the Zaparoan family. The Spanish word for cinnamon is “canela,” and there were many canela trees in this people’s territory.
The family’s indigenous origins hint at an animist cosmology: a multitude of spirits. Some are evil. When a person weakens, he or she can be easily attacked. With Christianity, many of these subaltern spirits became known as demons.
The migration of indigenous people to the city has various consequences: families break down (the woman lives in her brother’s house, but her children remain with her mother on the Napo River; this is a generational rupture), they inhabit the most dangerous places in the city, and they work in low-paying jobs (watching over motorcycles in the market). Access to government services is very limited: they have neither water nor sewer service, there are no schools in the area (except one evangelical school, which floods in years of extremely high water), health care is conspicuous by its absence, and many families are not affiliated with the governmental Integral Health Insurance program known as SIS.
According to the woman who called us: most people who live in this area migrated from communities along rivers in the region. Many speak their native language, but deny doing so. This situation must change if we want people to feel strong and to be independent and free.
Language: Naming the situation is crucial. Calling the pipe a “drain” is a euphemism. It isn’t part of a drain system; it is an open sewer. People in the city prefer to talk about a system of drains, but this obscures the reality. And those who live here also call it a drain, in an effort to avoid discrimination and ridicule: Who wants to live in a sewer? Naming the situation implies an interpretation of it.
Three years ago, with the Human Rights Commission of the Apostolic Vicariate of Iquitos and the Lima-based Legal Defense Institute (Instituto de Defensa Legal, IDL), we took the case to Peru’s Constitutional Court, demanding social rights for the people in that neighborhood (safe drinking water, a sewer system …). In February 2017, the court finally agreed to consider the case, but it has been dormant ever since.
Why take a case to the Constitutional Court to demand social rights for people living in a seasonally inundated flood plain? Wouldn’t it be better to move the people to higher ground in another part of the city? Instead of deflecting the question, we will try to answer it. To the Western mind, these lands “are not suitable for habitation.” Many families, however, prefer to live here. There are various reasons. First, they are close to the port of Iquitos, which gives them access to commerce; second, many families prefer to be close to the water. The way the families view it, if they acquired those social rights, this would be a good place to live. We should note that the large majority of the population in these areas are indigenous people; many settle on seasonally flooded lands because culturally, that is the way they settle. This raises an underlying question: Who decides which are the habitable places in the city, and on what grounds? This is a clear case of coloniality of knowledge.
One major challenge is that only the most active members of the Christian community are involved in human rights. Most Christians keep their distance; it is not their problem. Beyond charity, parishes distance themselves from many social issues, because the problems are so complex. By doing so, the church makes itself insignificant. Parishes continue to be a place for services for those who request assistance, which generally has to do with sacraments. Christian communities do not respond to these levels of oppression; as Pope Francis says, we pretend not to see. The complexity of the situations keeps many people from seeing the dense web of political, economic and cultural issues underlying them. This is an obstacle to serious action and accompaniment.
The lack of space, overcrowding and lack of places for recreation, among other things, create a stifling atmosphere. We are the “Body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12-27). And we wonder what we are doing for the most vulnerable parts of this “Body of Christ.” We would add that the way in which indigenous cultures understand the body is one of the most important issues in the Amazon.
People possessed by demons have an important place in Jesus’ miracle working. Many exegetes and theologians don’t know what to do with those stories. A contextual explanation offers insights for understanding the space where these cases occur and the oppressive situations in which they develop. Jesus’ activity cannot be understood without the casting out of demons. We would do well to study this issue from an Amazonian standpoint.
POSTSCRIPT: We are indebted. We thank journalist Barbara Fraser for translating these essays into English. She was also the one who encouraged us to put some of our ideas into writing. The essays appeared in Spanish sometimes and in English at other times. We also thank Leonardo Tello, who was our link for placing these essays on the pages of REPAM, SIGNIS ALC and CAAAP. Many thanks to all of them. Although there are still many important issues to address, this is the last in the series entitled, “SOME CHALLENGES FOR THE CHURCH FROM INDIGENOUS PEOPLES.”
*Manolo Berjón and Miguel Ángel Cadenas are Augustinian missionaries in Iquitos.
Traduced by Barbara Fraser