For 40 years, Elsa has lived in the same apartment, in the Parque Central neighborhood of Caracas. She bought it in 1976, with a 30-year loan obtained on a secretary’s salary. She had decided not to finish her political studies degree at the Central University of Venezuela, but instead to work full time until she could study her true passion: law.
Once a lawyer, she became passionate about teaching. As a university professor, she’s taught law to three generations of professionals, including legislators, businesspeople, prosecutors, judges and even Supreme Court magistrates. In parallel, she devoted 28 years to public service. At Inparques - the government institution that regulates Venezuela’s protected areas - she created summer camps in the national parks and helped adopt reforestation programs that have helped green Caracas’ El Avila mountain.
When I saw her this past weekend, I didn’t recognize her. In my mind, she’s still 30, a petite but strong woman. But at almost 70, her bones stick out from her skin, and her eyes pop out of her face. At home, her twenty-something child and his partner, and her two grandchildren, are still waiting for her to buy food and cook for them.
She’s always enjoyed cooking. One day, she told me she got up at 4:00 a.m. to stand in line at the now closed - for repairs - state supermarket Bicentenario to buy chicken. At noon, she finally walked out with the bird in hand. The story is often repeated with different products in different locations: beans, ground or shredded beef (her favorite) and even pasta, at markets and supermarkets around the city.
But lately, her grandchildren don’t get to taste her pabellón, a Venezuelan dish of rice, beans and shredded beef. They've always been the first to taste what comes out of her kitchen; just a bite. But there's no longer time for that. She has to wait in line. The afternoon coffee at the bakery? She had to give it up after the price went up.
Every time she calls me, she asks about what she can't get: milk, cornmeal, sugar. And coffee. She can't live without her morning cup of coffee, but she can no longer afford to pay for one just steps away from her home.
Tears run down my face when I see the photo in this article. She's wearing lipstick and a jacket, because she's a dignified woman, she says. She is. But no matter how much she tries to cover it up, she's not okay.
Elsa has worked for the past 53 years of her life and she can't retire with dignity because her university professor salary, her pension, and what her children provide isn't enough.
Although the National Assembly approved a food credit she would have benefitted from, the president refused to sign off on it, alleging a lack of resources. That was while he attended a millionaire's summit on Margarita Island.
She once left San José de Guaribe, a small village with less than 5,000 inhabitants, and moved to Caracas to become a professional, have a family and work for the rest of her life. But that’s still not enough to be able to spend the last years of her life at peace.
As much as I try, I can't hold back my tears. Elsa is my mom.