What’s in a name? | A visit to the ‘Poor and Happy’ community in the Peruvian Amazon

Meet Marlita and her family of nine, who live in the community of Pobre y Alegre (‘Poor and Happy’) in the Peruvian Amazon.

By Elysia Cook

‘Poor and happy.’ The pairing, literally translated from ‘Pobre y Alegre,’ innately piques interest and curiosity. Rather than suggest something complementary, like a shirt and tie, the phrase begs juxtaposition, more along the lines of ‘black and white’ or ‘sun and rain.’

In this remote village on the banks of a tangential river that flows from the Amazon, where houses are open to the elements and exposure to disease and illness is high, the name ‘poor and happy’ seems inaptly designated – insensitive, even. Yet, it was the village’s own inhabitants that bestowed this name “at least forty years ago”, according to Marlita Manihuari Rios, a mother of nine who currently resides in the community. When the village was publicly recognized by the Peruvian government, Marlita shared, the residents congregated and had to pick a name for themselves. ‘Pobre y Alegre’ was selected with practical and literal intentions, but “I’m happy the name has withstood time,” she said. “The name still applies.”

She’s not wrong. The community, characterized by a ring of homes that encapsulate a grassy knoll, boasts little more, at first glance, than a small schoolhouse and a couple of solar panels. Set a short, muddy walk back from the water, it could easily be overlooked by anyone traveling down river. Its inhabitants have little of monetary value. Children and adults alike wear stained, worn clothing, that is hand-washed in the river – one of the many tasks undertaken by women each day, while the men hunt, fish, and work in the fields for income. The work for both men and women is taxing, but an improvement from how it was only five years ago. “They [the men] used to have to travel far to sell [their goods],” Marlita said, “but now boats from the larger town bring ice blocks by boat and buy from the locals.”

The limitations of travel extend beyond one’s livelihood as well. Readily available medical care requires a trip to the nearest clinic, which is a two-hour boat ride away; the cost of gasoline for the trip alone can be debilitating, and the only medicines at the clinic treat general pain, fever, and diarrhea. Conditions that are more severe necessitate a trip all the way to Iquitos, the port city, which clocks in at 4+ hours one way. But this is still an improvement, Marlita asserted; there used to be no source of medical help in the vicinity at all, and only wealthier people used to have access to healthcare.

It is this vast distance, the physical divide between the city and the canopies of the jungle, that also separates families. Very few people from Pobre y Alegre make it to secondary school in the city (3-5% at most, according to Marlita), but those who do are beckoned by the educational and professional opportunities it offers. She was proud to share that her three oldest children are among the minute percentage that work in the city, but the cost of doing so weighs on her heart. Due to the demands of time and money to visit, her children visit infrequently and briefly – for only a few hours, or a day, if they’re fortunate. Even so, Marlita treasures the moments she spends with them, and tucks them into her memory as the happiest times of her life.

For every comment she shared that resonated with sadness or frustration, Marlita was quick to add how things have changed for the better in her community. Her village’s namesake was not lost on her; if anything, she epitomized it. Although she isn’t naïve to the need for a greater quality of life in Pobre y Alegre, she chooses to focus on the positive changes that have occurred in the 22 years she’s lived here – particularly in regard to vitamins and medical care.

When asked if there have been differences in the community’s children since vitamins were introduced, she responded with an adamant nod of her head as she leaned forward in her handmade hammock. The children are “more healthy, stronger,” she stated; the vitamins have notably helped reduce the frequency of diarrhea, vomiting, parasites, and colds, which she claimed are the most commonly reported ailments among children in the area.

As knowledge of the power of vitamins continues to spread, she’s noticed a difference in how the adults of the community perceive them as well. To support the cause, she diligently tells others about upcoming vitamin distributions, and is insistent that parents give their children vitamins on a daily basis. Her urging comes from personal experience – she took prenatal vitamins during her pregnancies, and her children have received vitamins since birth.

“ In this remote village on the banks of a tangential river that flows from the Amazon, where houses are open to the elements and exposure to disease and illness is high, the name ‘poor and happy’ seems inaptly designated – insensitive, even. Yet, it was the village’s own inhabitants that bestowed this name “at least forty years ago...” ”

Sitting with Marlita in her palm-thatched home as rain pelted the roof and thunder murmured in the distance, the effects of the vitamins showed in her active, eager brood. Her two twin boys swung from the rafters – “they’re my two monkeys,” she affectionately quipped – and her other children chased each other around, as one watched the rain pensively, her pet monkey clinging to the back of her shirt.

“I know they’re happy when they’re making noise and playing,” Marlita said, “just being active. [So] I don’t mind the noise.” It is that collective appreciation for the simple ingredients in life, like childhood chatter and good health, that defines this unique community, regardless of its official name.

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