Lay missioner Annemarie Barrett reflects on what she’s learned about solidarity in the past few months of serving in Bolivia. 

I once heard solidarity defined as, “When my story and your story becomes our story.”

That definition touched my very core. It resonated with my experiences of accompanying families in El Salvador and my time spent in high school accompanying people experiencing homelessness.

And it continues to capture my experience of accompanying women in the community of Santa Rosa here in Cochabamba.

These past few months, I have spent each Thursday baking with the women in Santa Rosa. We are usually six to eight women total, seated inside a small kitchen in the home of one of the women in the community. We often are sitting on small stools or stacked bricks or the floor, sometimes a chair.

When I arrive in their community, the women are often working, washing, cleaning, or cooking. We often share lunch together before we bake.

And as we bake we talk. When the women talk amongst themselves, they speak in Quechua and I enjoy the gift of listening to the sounds of that beautiful language, the expressions and the emotions that help me to at the least understand the tone of the stories they are sharing.

But I also often get time to talk one to one with the women, or in smaller groups when they communicate with me in Spanish.

And what they share in those conversations helps me piece together more of each of their unique stories.

And throughout their stories run common threads.

A few of the women have shared about their history with physical abuse, how their husbands or past husbands have hit them.

A few women have explained why they stopped going to school when they were young, explaining indirectly why reading and writing are such a struggle for them.

A few have shared that they had worked as domestic employees, cooking and cleaning and caring for the children of families in the city. They started that work very young, one at the age of ten.

When they started that work, they lived in those homes. And some of those families that they worked for treated them well, but others did not. One woman shared with me that it was like torture living and working as a young teenage girl in a home where she was left alone with her boss’ husband and teenage son. She did not elaborate on what she meant when she said they “bothered” her, but if her story is like so many other young girls and women in similar situations, I could imagine what she might have meant.

And as we sit together, listening to each other’s stories, I wonder if they have shared them before, I wonder how often they have had the opportunity for their voices to be heard by other women.

I wonder if as a young teenage girl working in someone else’s home she had the opportunity to tell someone what was happening to her. I wonder how long she has carried these stories on her own.

And while I know I cannot change what has happened to these women throughout their lives, I do know that we can listen to them, we can be witnesses to what they have experienced and where they have been.

When we share spaces together, while baking or gardening, we create community together as women. We share our stories; we allow her story and your story and my story to become our shared story.

And I have seen this transformation in the community we share. When the same women share about issues they are having today with their husbands, the emotional or economic abuse, the confusion, fear and grief, I have heard the other women in the community express care and concern. We have communicated to one another that despite what has happened in the past, today, we are not alone, we have each other.

In short, we have expressed that we are living in solidarity together.

As Francis so prophetically taught us, I am coming to know these women as my sisters.