Elena is an unexpected heroine. When I first saw her, I had no idea this little woman with heavy mascara and tingling golden bracelets was about to share with me one of the most inspiring stories I had ever heard. As the kettle emptied, I was sure of one thing: The world needs to hear about Elena, her fight, and her love.
Elena’s story takes place in Latin America. The vagueness of this statement is intentional, for South American countries share an unfortunate culture of violence, injustice and corruption, and the characters I will mention have crossed many borders themselves. Hers is one of a million tales about endurance and one that, against all odds, ended up in victory. Although Elena confessed that even though she now knows exactly how strong she is, she could never fight a similar battle again. For those that have to, I decided to write one this down.
Act 1: Enters the Father
It’s around ten in the morning, but the sun is shooting its rays through the windows and the fan is already at full power. It’s December — a particularly hot summer,- the kitchen feels like a warm glass fish bowl and I’m convinced that if I leave an egg outside the fridge I will find it cooked by noon.
My mom is boiling water for some mate drinks, and we are threading hopes for the upcoming year. Elena mentions that all she wants is to rest a bit, mom nods and casually asks me if I have heard her friends’ story yet. I sip on the first mate shaking my head, and notice she is biting her lips. Elena takes the kettle from her hands and asks me if I want to hear it. I say yes, definitely yes.
It all begins with Elena’s daughter — unsurprisingly, as her story is one about fierce motherly love,- who tip-toes to her side as she watches a soap opera in bed. The woman is happy to receive her, the sixteen year-old girl has been spending an excessive amount of time in her next door neighbor’s house. “That’s not correct,” Elena says. “We can’t expect our neighbors to put up with visitors every day!”
She is thankful for the company as well, her husband has told her a few days ago that she is such a dumb, dumb woman. So dumb that she never noticed how her own sister Mabel had slept with him, many times, in exchange for a new cell phone. How her relatives all hate her, and talk behind her back, and how she is not more than a stupid farmer, and will never belong in this country. She knows it’s not possible, her husband has been unemployed for the last three years, all the money they have comes from the nine hours a day she works behind the deli counter in the Chinese supermarket. Mabel has refused it, too, and they say that of course they do like her and that he is telling lies. But what can she do? They all have just barely enough to feed themselves, Elena is the only one that made it a bit further, the one that has a real job. If she has to leave him, and the house, it would mean her kids will never finish school, they will never have the life for which she has sacrificed her own.
The girl is immobile except for the leaning of her head towards her mother’s shoulder. Elena can sense something’s up. “What’s wrong, baby?,” she asks, trying to sound casual. And after the longest silence the girl replies: “I’m scared that you are not going to believe me.” Elena’s heart stops. She is certain now of the darkness around her words. They are both immobile this time, the voices coming from the TV quickly fade in the background.
The daughter repeats the same words until Elena, her throat closed like a tight knot, manages to convince her she will always believe her, because she is her mom and also because she is her friend. “Dad asked me to watch porn with him,” she finally whispers.
And it’s much worse, already. The previous day, about an hour before Elena could leave the deli, the girl was boiling water in the kitchen. “What are you doing?,” he asked. “I’m about to take a bath,” she replied. Hot water and a large bowl were way easier to handle than all that plugging, loading and waiting for the tiny water heater to work.
She doesn’t like having him around, that’s why she prefers to spend time with the neighbors. As soon as she goes into the bathroom she locks the door.
A couple of minutes later, he knocks. “Let me in,” his voice resonates through the walls. And then, “Let’s bath together.” She refuses. Over and over again, she says no, that it’s not right, that he has to leave now. The girl spends the next hour trapped in the bathroom, praying her tiny hands are strong enough to hold the key in place as he tries to force the door handle. Elena gets home early and, after kissing her husband, goes to her room, where her daughter later timidly joins her.
Act 2: The Dumb Woman
Elena and her daughter face now quite a familiar conundrum. The woman knows the kind of response the police gives in these cases: Little to none. Does she want to put her kid through that?
And then comes the revenge. Crimes of passion, they call them. Stabbed with a kitchen knife, burnt alive with fuel and a cheap splintered match, shot dead with a .38. But this stupid little peasant who left the farm twenty years ago is certain of one thing, and one thing only: Nobody messes with her kids. She is used to sleeping very little. The next day, she has a plan.
There’s no point in trying to see the police or public offices before nine, they are usually empty or everyone is in too bad a mood. She only has a couple of hours until she has to take the bus to work. “They will have to do without me then,” she thinks, but still worries. It’s not like they don’t pay her less than minimum wage under the table, and she has been loyal to them for years, but losing her job… that, she cannot afford.
A policeman without any recognizable expression receives them. “The girl goes first,” he says, pointing at her and then at the door behind him. But first he asks Elena, three times, if she realizes she is about to lose her husband. “Are you sure?” he repeats. “Are you sure you want to lose him?” She has to be strong, for her. “I am,” she replies three times as well.
Elena pauses. She is looking at me, her large black eyes fixed on mine. I have been holding the mate in my hand for so long it has gotten cold. I hand it back to her, she makes me a new one and continues.
“They made her go first, and then they called me,” she says. “They wanted to make sure we were not lying. I don’t lie. That’s my weapon, I never have to remember what I said before.” I like that, a lot. “When the police saw that our stories matched, and that we were going though with it, they marked the paper slip as URGENT.”
It would still take them four days to produce a restraining order.
Intermezzo: The Den Opens
Elena’s phone finally rang on a Friday afternoon. It was the police. “He will be back at six,” she told them. “We will be there around seven,” they replied, and then paused and added, “or Madam, why don’t you call us when he gets home?”
In the meantime Elena, as representative of an underage child, has had to do several visits to the public defender’s office, where she waits long hours to be noticed, always surrounded by desperate people who know very little of their rights.
“He won’t see you today, he’s too busy, come back tomorrow,” they tell her after she misses a day of work. “I can wait,” she replies, and sits on the old wooden benches, her hands crossed on her lap, her back straight. She is asked a dozen more times if she is sure she wants to go through with it. My mom, she tells me, accompanies her to a few of those failed appointments. She’s the one that had suggested the public defender after they had visited the women’s rights offices, which are well intentioned, but knowingly underfunded and offer very little support.
During those four days, mother, daughter and son — who fortunately believes what his sister had said,- have to pretend in front of their father that nothing has happened. “He walked around like he owned us, smiling, confident, his chest broadened. He didn’t suspect a thing,” Elena tells us.
On day four, she leaves work at around four, and does two things when she gets home: First, she packs his bag. I almost spit what was about my tenth mate when she says: “I folded his stupid underwear, his stupid t-shirts, I gathered his documents and left the big fat bag on top of the bed.” I can’t read her face as she says this. Second, she goes outside, to the back of the garden where her brothers and sisters in-law like to spent time sipping warm beer under the trees — they have also not worked a single day in their lives. They are laughing about how much Elena does, as if commuting three hours and spending her life behind the deli counter so her children do not starve is something to be ashamed of.
“Your brother is now going to live with you,” she tells one of the women sitting in the back. “Why would that happen?” the woman replies, all arrogance. “Because I have packed his bags and he’s leaving today.” Then, she goes back inside, closes the front door and sits on the living-room to stare at the TV with her daughter. Their eyes are fixed somewhere behind the old screen.
At half past six, the women hear the father’s voice, as well as his sisters’, outside. A few moments later, he unlocks the door, walks in and sits on the living-room in complete silence. Nobody breaks it, and he looks at them for a good ten minutes. They don’t look back.
As soon as he leaves his seat, again smiling — he thinks Elena is definitely not going through with it,- he heads for the bathroom. Elena runs to the phone. The house soon turns blue with the powerful lights from the police cars that are coming through the windows.
As excellent a story-teller as Elena is, the account of the following events feels sloppy and disconnected. That’s what usually happens when one is filled with fear and adrenaline, you don’t really remember, you re-live things in pieces. My mom attempts to take over the mates, which have stopped, but changes her mind. We wait for her to continue.
“There was a big police-man, he stood at the door and kept the relatives from the back from going in,” she says. All the time, before, we had been throwing jokes. Nobody is laughing now.
“All the barrio was looking, they thought someone had died, so many do around there. There were also two police-women, one was really tall, the other one was kind of small…” I bet she could tell us if their shirts were wrinkled or not, but she cannot remember for sure what they had said or how long the whole deal had lasted. “When he saw them, he went to the bed and lied down. He didn’t want to move, they were shouting, I think he said he was tired, they kept shouting, the policeman was talking about the value of family,” she says.
“What about the kids?” I ask. “My son was at school, my daughter was hiding in the living-room, shaking.” I put my mate down and notice my mom’s eyes on me. The reason Elena trusts my mom is because we both know exactly what that feels like.
The police finally takes him outside. He doesn’t need handcuffs, he is only asked to leave the house and required to stay over 300 meters away from it or them. The small family is happy, they are finally free from him, but the story is far from over. For his family — who, without exception, defend his innocence,- is now determined to make Elena and her children pay for the offence.
Act 4: Monsters in the Garden
For a year, Elena and her kids hear nothing of the father. The older brother in-law, though, makes sure his rants and threats reach everyone who’s living in the front house. The husband’s family is constantly there, drinking and partying until the morning, throwing trash and trying to get them to leave out of sheer frustration or authentic fear. Since Elena is still legally married to the man — divorce takes a long time here,- the house belongs to the both of them. But the grandmother is living in the back, where there is a small house made of old bricks, a house that seems rooted in the earth, forever. And, as long as she is there, the husband’s relatives can’t be evicted.
Soon, things go from bad to worse. The restraining order expires after a year. Without a real documented threat from the husband, they can’t renew it, so they now have to watch the man walk right outside their windows, joining their relatives in the never-ending binge of insults. They are malicious. Divorce happens, but it makes little difference for Elena. Even if the house is now officially hers, she is being pushed from it with all these people’s strengths.
She is still determined, though, to protect her kids. To give them a home and a future. And she still believes she has the upper hand, having never in her life done anything illegal or even immoral.
She had known nothing of the law before, but after spending so much time in the public defender’s office, she had learned one paramount thing: Evidence is key. And she knows she will get that evidence, even if nobody ever looks at it and she has to spend her remaining days under those invaders’ control.
With help from her son, she finally manages to take a few photos of the family in the back. She has to sneak behind the curtains to take them. They are simple photos that show for how long they had been occupying the lot, even though they couldn’t be made to leave.
When the grandmother dies, aged 90, it’s the sister that falls mysteriously ill. You can’t evict kids, older or ill people, no matter who owns the property. “They say she cannot move, but she looked pretty healthy to me,” she tells us.
The few photos Elena takes are followed by fewer — yet very real- audio recordings. They can’t be used, she knows that, and they can hardly be heard. But they keep her sane, they prove that everything that had happened and was happening was real.
When Elena saves enough to afford some used materials, she builds a small wall, all by herself. “I left a tiny passage for them to get to the back, they had to walk like crabs. The cheap thing won’t last more than five years, but I don’t need it to. It wasn’t made for lasting,” she laughs. Now she can hear them, but they cannot see her doing it. She keeps accumulating whatever she can photograph, film or remember.
The family discusses, day and night and out loud, how they will get her and her children out of there, how they will finally be out on the streets and they will be able to sell the cheap furniture and doors and windows, because some money could still be made out of them. They have no value, really, but she is sure they would tear her things apart anyway, for the sake of it. Fuel a barbecue with her tiny bedside table.
They have no idea Elena spends every free moment she has lurking behind her small wall, listening, trying to get ahead of them. That’s how she learns they are plotting to make false accusations. “If she can go to the police, so can we,” they say, and laugh. When her husband goes to the public office at ten the next day, she is already waiting for him, hidden behind the endless queues of people. Nobody notices the little farm girl, the dumb woman.
She sees him go into the defender’s office, just to walk out five minutes later. When she slips in — everyone who works there knows her, she has spent weeks, months waiting for a minute of the defender’s time, he tells her nobody believes the man. And even though they can’t do much, they still know who is who in that lot.
She can’t get the phone in time to record the uncle walking past her house swinging his gun and looking at them. The police won’t believe the many guests to her son’s birthday party, either, when they said they have been threatened too. The two officers who answer Elena’s panic button (they gave her one, only thing they could do) are from the same barrio, they have a chat with the men, then walk away. They will probably have a beer together later. The defender is now refusing to see her. No evidence, no defense. “Get out of here, Elena,” he says, growing tired.
Her son has had enough. He walks to the garden, with his nineteen years, and confronts the uncle. Inside his pocket, the phone records the same words the next door neighbor confirms, later, when he is called to the station as a witness: “You think you are the karate-kid. You think you can do anything against us. I want to see how brave you are with a bullet between your ribs. We will kick the whole lot of you out, in bags,” the uncle says.
It’s now or never.
Act 5: Release
Thanks to the neighbor’s account — you have to give credit to the man, it is not easy to take that sort of risk, they finally manage to get the restraining order reinstated, plus get another one for the uncle. A single person stands between Elena and full control of her life: The sister, who knows she cannot leave the house until the new orders expire too.
But three years had passed since that first police visit, and she gets sloppy. She underestimates the little woman, they should have figured it out by now.
The sister goes across the street to visit a neighbor, but it’s still morning. Elena is watching. She doesn’t hesitate. She has been keeping a lock next to her entrance, saving it for this occasion. As soon as the sister closes the gate, she walks out and locks in the chain. When the woman returns, a few minutes later, she finds she had lost access to the property.
“I will give you three minutes to go inside and get your stuff,” Elena calmly tells her from her front door. “Think very carefully about what you want to do.”
The sister, Elena says, does think about it for a few minutes. The son and daughter are now standing behind her. The woman nods, Elena opens the gate, the sister goes in, grabs her things, and walks out. It’s finally over. If she keeps paying her bills in time, the house will be hers in five years.
It takes Elena’s son fourteen days to tear down the small brick house in the back. The kids not only graduated school, but are now the first generation in her family to go to university.
Image source: Majo Pagoto, for TECHO Argentina. Creative Commons Licence.
Elena is not called Elena. Other than that, I have kept the story true to her sharing.