Social Garbageman / Iván García

Lithograph on paper, 1999, by Bezier, Cuban artist

Yamil, 22 years old, earns his living by rummaging through dumpsters. For him, a good day means filling three sacks to the brim with empty, flattened-out beer and soda cans, which he earns by walking 30 kilometers (about 18 miles) daily.

He gathers the sacks in a corner of his shack made of wood planks and cardboard. When he has 15 or 20 bundles, he puts them on a rustic wheelbarrow and takes them to a local junkyard where he exchanges them for packs of cookies, candy, chocolates, and plastic soda bottles.

The transaction ends once he manages to sell all the knickknacks. His earnings come to about 1,000 pesos (45 dollars). Half of this money doesn’t reach his poor home. On the way, he stops at a market to buy pork, vegetables, beans, and rice. At the black market he gets oil and soap, which his family uses for bathing as well as washing their hair and doing laundry.

Now I present to you his family. The mom sleeps ten hours a day on a dirty cot surrounded by cockroaches and mosquitoes. She spends the rest of her time drunk, drinking a rum so rough it’s scary. Once drunk she falls unconscious on her cot.

Because of this, Yamil is in charge of the house. He has four siblings: three girls, 7, 9, and 12 years old, and an older brother of 25, professional pickpocket serving 15 years in jail for forced robbery of an occupied home. “Thank God he’s in jail. When my brother Oscar was home, the fights were endless. He would hit my sisters and eat all the food.”

Yamil dreams of making money to be able to build a brick house. “For that I need to get together six or seven thousand pesos (250 or 300 dollars) and besides collecting junk material, start buying it wholesale. Then, I would gain 200 dollars in the exchange for candy. If I saved up half of that, in two years I would have 200 dollars. With that money I could start putting in the foundation for the new house.”

His 12-year old sister wants to help out; leave school and start turning tricks on the National Highway. But Yamil would rather wait until she’s older. “When she’s 15 she could start hustling. She’s not ugly and has a nice figure. That’s why I try to keep her and my other two sisters eating well, so their bodies will develop well. They are essential for building this house and having a better life in the future.”

Yamil barely managed to finish sixth grade. Life has made him tough. His latest struggle is against the government, which wants to have junk collectors pay taxes. “It’s abuse. If I pay taxes, I’ll barely have money to maintain my family.”

In his shack of cardboard and wet rotted wood, surrounded by thick shrubbery, with a single light bulb, without a radio, fridge, or TV, the mother wakes up and looks around. Without a word she takes a large gulp of homemade rum; “As you can see, she can’t be counted on to change our luck.”

February 26 2011