Her family called her Chispita (little spark), but to us she was Yocelin.
The first time we met her, she sat huddled over a chair, her tongue pointed in concentration as she frantically coloured a sheet of paper. What she produced with that fierce effort was heartbreaking – a toddler scrawl without definition or plan. She wasn’t trying to draw a thing, just filling the page with a single colour. I wondered if maybe it was the first time she’d ever held a crayon. As the months passed and we got to know her a little better, I became certain that it had been. Her’s was a life without chances. She hadn’t spent her childhood singing pre-school songs and watching Sesame Street. For Yocelin, the simple act of holding a crayon was foreign and complicated, and she proudly displayed her scrawl to each of us at the end of a long colouring session.
We’ve known and loved Yocelin’s sister, another Y, for several year. She was a challenge to win, refusing our offers of coffee and cookies with a determined shake of the head. But when she finally accepted, after a year of gentle persuasion, we knew that something big had happened. From that point on, Y became our firm friend and advocate. Then, one day, she showed up with a whole pile of family in tow – her mother and a couple of her sisters wanted to colour as well! And that was the first time we met Yocelin.
She had been a regular on La Linea for many years but was hidden in the back rooms where girls are rarely seen by non-customers. But then tragedy struck. One of Yocelin’s three tiny children died in her care and the others were removed by the state. She was told she’d never get them back if she continued to work in prostitution, so for a while she left. But for a girl with no education and no hope, it was inevitable that she’d end up back on La Linea. For the most broken of these women, they have nowhere else to go, and know no other way of earning the money they need to survive.
She’d visit La Puerta with her sister. “Yocelin, how old are you?” She had no idea. “Okay, sweetie, how about you tell us what month you were born in?” We like to celebrate the ladies’ birthdays with a cake and a lot of fuss. Celebrating the uncelebrated is a thing at Tamar’s Hope. But she couldn’t even narrow down her birth to a particular month. She wasn’t being difficult. She had no idea.
How little do you matter, do you think, to yourself or to others, if you don’t even know when you were born? It was a small indication of a desolate life.
At the end of 2017 Yocelin had another baby. She was terrified the authorities would find out and remove her remaining child, but she managed to keep the secret pretty well, although, in reality, it would only be a matter of time.
On Friday last the staff of Tamar’s Hope celebrated the women of La Linea with a Mother’s Day party. I missed all the fun, but I saw the photos and loved seeing the laughter on their faces as they played games and ate good food. Our dear friend, Carolina, a former prostitute, returned to share her story with the ladies. There is such power in a former working girl telling her sisters what it’s like to be free…and that freedom really is possible. Yocelin sat beside Carolina as she spoke.
Like everyone else, Yocelin left with a full tummy and a gift. Gifts are good, and it had been a good day. She had been loved and told that she mattered by people who really meant it. Sometimes, even in the life of a prostitute, good things happen. They just don’t last very long. A few hours later, as she stood outside a local pharmacy, a man approached her and fired a single shot through her heart.
She was only twenty years old, the mother of four, and she had known nothing but suffering and loss for her entire life.
Yesterday we sat with her family and friends as they wept over her coffin. What do you say to a mother or a sister in a situation like this? Actually, nothing. Once again there are no words. The simple box that held her broken body sat in La Puerta for a little while as her family wept and her co-workers passed through to pay their respects. It was a bleak scene as we mourned a wasted life surrounded by others who live in daily dread of the same fate.
Her mother was just about the last to leave La Puerta, helpless with grief. We all know it, but it bears saying again. No mother, no parent, should ever have to walk behind her child’s coffin.
Our friends placed her coffin into their minivan (yes, really) and drove her to the cemetery. The poor are buried in layers – like a wall of oversized shoe boxes covered in faded plastic flowers. It’s a pitiful place. The family gets to watch as their loved one’s coffin is bricked in and sealed with cement. But it’s not over at that point. If they fail to pay the annual fee, the authorities will remover her body and toss it into the garbage dump that adjoins the wall of tombs. Death in Guatemala is a particularly brutal business.
So that’s it. Yocelin, like so many of her working sisters, is gone. She lived a life without joy or hope and we are left mourning one we couldn’t pull out of the misery of prostitution.