Nine of the ten farm workers killed in a tragic automobile accident near Hampstead, Ontario on February 6 came from Comas, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima. They, and three others who survived crash, were in Canada as migrant farm workers because there is little chance in Comas of providing the necessities of life for their families. The 38-year-old Canadian driver of the truck that collided with the 15-passenger van carrying the Peruvians was also killed.
Peru in 1979
I spent nine months traveling in Latin America in 1978-79. I was in Peru for several weeks and spent some of that time with a small group of Canadians from Scarboro Missions. They were working in one of the poor communities stretched along about 25 kilometres of highway outside of Lima. Comas was one of them, built into the hills, which are dusty, parched and brown. These co-called barrios jovenes (young towns) were desperately poor and in many ways overwhelmingly depressing places. On the other hand, there was a great deal community spirit and a sense of solidarity among the people. I remember, in particular, being there for Mother’s Day in 1979 and experiencing the outpouring of emotion and respect that men expressed for their wives and mothers. It is those wives and mothers who are now mourning the men lost to the tragic accident in Ontario.
Comas, which had a population of 465,000 in 2005, is one of the largest of the new towns. They were populated almost exclusively by peasant farmers who migrated from the countryside in search of opportunity and in more recent years to escape revolutionary violence and counter-insurgency in the countryside.
No doubt much has changed in Comas since I was there in 1979. But it seems from the reports of Canadian journalists who have gone there following the accident in Ontario that much has also remains the same – the poverty and desperation, but also the solidarity.
Slow death in Peru
Here are the opening paragraphs from an article called Dying a Slow Death in Peru, which I wrote in June 1979. It was published at a time when the International Monetary Fund demanded a program of drastic cuts and austerity in return for allowing Peru to renegotiate its foreign debt.
‘Our situation as common people gets worse every day. Economic packages are forced on us and we are unfairly and mercilessly dismissed from jobs. We suffer from unemployment and its consequences such as malnutrition, sickness, nervous disorders, broken families, infant mortality and bodily weakness. Briefly, we are dying a slow death.‘
“These words are taken from a statement prepared earlier this year by Christian communities in a number of pueblos jovenes, the shanty towns that form a semi-circle around the land side of Lima.
“The people are desperate. That’s obvious even to a tourist who takes time to look around. In the few days I spent with Canadian religious and lay workers in one of the pueblos, I was startled by the number of people who died. Tuberculosis is one of the main killers, a result of the poor diets and crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
“On the 20-kilometre bus ride between downtown Lima and the last of the pueblos on one line, in the evenings I saw passengers, especially women, exhausted and trying to sleep in the crowded seats between stops.
“Many of the women work in town, selling everything imaginable in the streets: cigarettes, Chiclets, playing cards, clothing, pastry, even their own bodies. Others work as servants in the homes of the middle class and the wealthy. I heard of two women who travel from the pueblos to the far side of the city each day to work in homes. They earn 200 soles a day [90 cents American in 1979], pay most of that back for transport and spend two hours a day on the bus.
“Peru is in the depths of what seems like an impossible economic crisis, only partly of its own making. The situation is a case study of the price paid by the people of a country whose economy is controlled by the industrial nations of the Western world.”
Globalized migrant workers
I wrote this in 1979 when globalization as we know it today was in its early days. Today one of the remedies increasingly pursued for desperate situations such as these is for people to go abroad as migrant workers. Thousands of workers, such as the Peruvians killed and injured near Hampstead, come to Canada each year to perform seasonal labour, mainly in Ontario and British Columbia’s agriculture sector. Most come here under the federal government’s Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program and often send money back home. They have few rights in this country and when their work ends, or if they are injured on the job, they are sent away.
One of the men who died in the Hampstead crash was Jose Mercedes Valdiviezo Taboada, who had been working at MARC Poultry near Hampstead since 2008. He sent money home regularly but had been back to visit only once, in 2010. On February 3, his 24-year-old son Fernando was among the small group of men who flew from Lima to Canada to join the workforce at the poultry farm. Three days later both father and son died in the crash.
Another of the men who died was Enrique Arturo Arenaza Leon, a former soccer star with the Alliance Lima soccer club. His wife Patricia, who says she must now be both father and mother to their children, wonders if the family will receive any insurance as a result of his death. No one seems to know.
Family Support Fund
The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and the Agriculture Workers Alliance (AWA) have created a Migrant Workers Family Support Fund. All money collected will be donated to the families of the dead or injured workers, including that of the driver of the truck involved in the accident.
Donations can be made through most financial institutions by transferring a donation to the Fund’s account:
The Migrant Workers Family Support Fund
TD Canada Trust
Account # 5221618
Transit # 1864
A special memorial Facebook page has also been set up to commemorate the lives of these workers.
Dennis, I’ve forwarded this good blog to the Superior of Scarboro Missions, Jack Lynch. He served in El Progresso and you may have met he and Greg Chisholm there, then. Good memories, but sorry to have them come back at such a time of sadness for these farm workers who lost their lives here!
WE must have just missed, at that time I was in Km 11 and you were at the Scarboro parish at Km 22 traveling along the Ave. Tupac Amaru. I was working in the Oblate parish but we were very close to the folks at Km 22 – originally a mission of the diocese of Edmonton and then taken over by Scarboro Foreign Missions. In the parish work a group of nuns from Kingston Ontario – Sisters of Providence. No better missionaries could be found anywhere – deeply integrated with the people and accompanying them all the way. Truly valiant women who have given more than 40 years of dedicated service to that parish.
A comment about Comas and this area called the northern cone of the diocese of Lima (now that sector is a separate diocese). In 1950 the population was around 3,000 peasant farmers working on a stretch of haciendas in the lower plain irrigated from the River Chillon. Then began a number of land invasions – mostly on the slopes of the barren mountains – so dry that even cactus did not grow on the slopes. These invaders were poor land peasants forced out of their traditional lands in the mountains by the economic policies of the governments who responded to IMF policies. Peru which is the home of the potatoe – where all potatoes originated – was importing potatoes from Europe and at the same time farmers were dumping their potatoes in the rivers because they couldn’t or were not allowed to sell them in Peruvian markets. Starved out of their own homelands people immigrated to the big cities with the hope that maybe their children could go to school and do better. They were beaten back by the army and the women persisted when the men were carted off to jail. Eventually the government relented and the people set out to build their own city – Comas is now half a million people while the northern cone is certainly over a million.
When you were there in 1989, Peru was in the ending phase of a military government that started out with some hope but ended up being as corrupt as any civilian government. It probably looked pretty poor and desperate – unfinished houses, dusty roads and garbage piles everywhere. Scarboro managed to get some used garbage trucks sent to Carabayllo to help out when Sara Jimenez was mayor. She is now one of the Peruvians who joined the Sisters of Providence.
Unemployment was high, there was a lot of violence – that comes with poverty and desperation. But the people were determined. Schools were built and the government provided teachers with state salaries. The parish started a clinic.
I returned to visit in 1999 and was amazed at the progress. It is after all called “El Progreso”. The streets are still dirty and dusty. There is high unemployment and perhaps even greater poverty. Peru has had a succession of “democratic” and extremely corrupt governments, and for a period had to deal with a fanatical terrorist group called Sendero Luminoso. This violence of a most bizarre group enabled the government to crack down on the people – a Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the majority of the violence and crimes against humanity were committed by the government and its armed forces who are deeply involved in the illegal cocaine trade.
The miracle is that the people continue day by day – somehow surviving mostly by working together. Hundreds of community soup kitchens were formed, with a lot of organizational support from the church and other NGO’s. If a bit of money was left over the family would buy another 50 bricks or more, sometimes even some metal rods for corners and houses were improved.
I saw the great improvements despite all odds – testimony of the determination of the people who receive very little from their government other than grief. Comas today is still poor, people are still struggling to make ends meet but there is improvement. Children are being educated but unfortunately many have looked to foreign nations as their way out of poverty.
One thing to note is that even back in 1979, Comas was not considered to be the bottom of the pile. There were internal slum areas in the heart of Lima and on the mountain San Cristobal where conditions were far worse and the poverty even more vicious. People in those areas dreamed of having a little bit more so they could move to Comas.
Back to the exodus of so much of Peru’s hope for the future. The workers who were killed in the accident in Ontario highlight the plight of so many thousands of workers – legal and illegal who come to Canada and especially to the USA – to do the work that our unemployed will not do. They work for minimum wage, often finding deductions that are questionable, they are given only temporary permits so that employers can get rid of them at their convenience and they are denied the same labour protections as all other Canadians. Still they come – the miserable wages they receive still enables them to come up and work long hours, live simply and send money back home to families who live on the edge of desperation. They do this because they have learned from their grandparents and parents, day by day – keep on working and maybe some day it will get better if not for them at least for the younger generation.
The tragic accident in Ontario that claimed the lives of 10 poor Latino migrant workers was just that – an accident. If only Canadians could understand how courageous and hard working these people are. They have so much to teach us about the real values in life. I am humbled by their generosity and good will towards others.
It was a privilege to work with the people of Comas. So much have I learned from them as they ministered to me with their patience and kindness.
Sure there are still many problems – my friends in Comas say “when you were here in the good times” and I think back and think “could it get any worse?” – teachers who used to be lower middle class are now poor class. Two teachers salaries cannot feed, clothe and shelter a family of four. Labourers live day by day, maybe hour by hour. There is violence – poor against poor. But somehow the people of Comas do move ahead. My heart goes out to the families of these workers killed in the accident – we have no idea what a tragedy this is for them. Not just the loss of a loved one – bad enough – but the remittances sent to Peru probably sustained a good many family members who had no one else to support them.
Dennis replies: Thanks so much Phil for your knowledgeable and loving portrait of the people from Comas. It is really more than a comment; it is a journalistic piece in itself. I am sure that others will be touched by reading it, just as I have been.
I am very touched also, and enlightened and saddened.
Hi was hoping to talk a little about the families of the Hampsted crash and connecting with them for the funds raised and the process of hope.