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Introducing Eli


Editor’s Note: Missioner Catherine Sullivan shares how a trip to the marketplace in Cochabamba, Bolivia, turned into an experience of solidarity and deeper integration into the culture.

I have been working at Manos con Libertad three to four days a week for three months now. Manos con Libertad is a co-operative of inmates from San Sebastian Women’s prison and those who are on probation outside the prison. Most of the women of Manos are trapped by terrible poverty and a cycle of ever-increasing debt and for reasons related to this are, or were, imprisoned. Manos empowers these women to have  a fresh start in life and  helps them to earn honest and fair wages.

Among other things, the women run a bakery that specializes in high quality cakes and desserts. A woman named Eli manages that bakery. Every day, Eli makes cakes, donuts, pies, and other pastries to sell. Some days she even makes up to 100 pies on her own for separate catered events. She is talented, hard-working, and has learned and mastered her baking trade since being released from San Sebastian.

Eli and her two children

Eli and her two children

Yesterday afternoon, I went in to help at Manos for my usual Tuesday afternoon time slot. I usually help Yrene in the kitchen but yesterday, Eli asked if I would go with her to the Cancha (the huge marketplace in the city) to help her buy baking supplies. Eli does not ask for help often and so I was very excited to accompany her.

The Cancha is unlike any place I have ever been. It is one of the biggest marketplaces in Latin America where you can find anything from fruits and vegetables to flat screen TVs and the most recent computer models.

The Cancha is made up of over 100,000 market stalls. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Well, to most Bolivians, and all Cochabambans, the Cancha is just a normal part of life. But for me, watching Eli wind her way through colorful stalls of everything from streamers to coffee filters to skinned rat meat, to find the exact stall that she knows sells the cheapest cinnamon and dehydrated peaches, was a beautiful and magical performance.

I spent an hour and a half meandering through sights and smells, trying to keep up with Eli and not be too distracted as we passed entire rows of wedding cakes, laundry detergents, or kitchen appliances. We were on a mission. Every so often, Eli would take me on detours to point out stalls that sell and mend polleras (the traditional Andean skirts still worn by indigenous populations), stalls that sell supplies for different Quechua rituals, or stalls of newly-carved musical instruments.

I couldn’t hide my excitement, and it clearly made Eli proud and overjoyed to show me just how well she knew the marketplace, and to introduce me to different aspects of her culture.

As Eli and I chatted and laughed, enjoying the afternoon and the general buzz of the marketplace, I began to realize that this was it–this was what mission is all about for me–this was the version of solidarity that I had been hoping to live.

Eli had no real need for me to accompany her that day- yes, I helped her carry bags, but other than that, I served no visible purpose. However,  I have never seen Eli so happy, so relaxed, or so sure of herself. This shopping is something that she does on her own every week, in the same place, and it has become something ‘ordinary.’

I saw that going with her, giving her the opportunity to recognize how extraordinary her ‘ordinary’ days are, and getting to know her while checking things off of her to-do list was my invisible purpose. That was living solidarity.

From now on, every Tuesday afternoon, I will be going to the Cancha with Eli: taking in the wonders, helping Eli to see her ‘ordinary’ as extraordinary, and getting to know her better and better each time.

Reflection Question: How can you help others see their ordinary as extraordinary?

Featured image: adaptation of photo by Flickr user Patrick Furlong – labeled for reuse

Catherine Hope Sullivan is the youngest of five children raised by a sassy Italian and a historian of world religions. Thanks to them, her younger years were filled with new and interesting people from every walk of life. Forever a Belle, Catherine graduated from the all-women’s Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN, with degrees in English writing and Italian (and an unofficial degree in female empowerment). Catherine has a serious passion for world travel because of the amazing people and traditions one encounters in every part of the world. She chose overseas mission to serve and learn from every person she meets. She has been in Cochabamba, Bolivia, since January 2016.