It is a community, whose own existence has emerged out of the ashes like a phoenix flying tirelessly forever through the heavens of integral development.
This quote from Hipolito Martinez exemplifies the incredible and almost Cinderella-like story of Cienfuegos, un barrio in Santiago de los Caballeros whose own name clings tightly to its fiery origins. From the ashes that destroyed one hundred homes, through the late 20th century issues of corruption and violence, and now currently to an industrial hub of north-central Dominican Republic, Cienfuegos truly embodies the title ‘underdog’.
From the first glance, our eyes saw many traditional Dominican sights of the neighborhood that most people told us was ‘rotting’ and ‘decaying from violence’. There were obviously the colorful colmados, bustling with smiling faces whose value of time puts the conversation first and the business second. A baseball field with young aspiring jugadores dressed in matching blue-grey uniforms was situated next to an empanada stand, giving off the fantastic smell of fried dough and melted cheese-covered chicken. The roads, with the ever-constant speed bumps tapping at your muffler were packed with commerce and energy as the men, women and children of Cienfuegos resumed their daily duties. In fact, this neighborhood seemed pretty awesome – a great example of semi-urban Dominican life. Had I not heard of the story behind such a place before our exploration of Cienfuegos, I would never have imagined the history and incredible obstacles faced by this hustling little district.
Pedro Almonte, a Catholic deacon and inspirational game-changer in the Cienfuegos neighborhood, reassured us that the Cienfuegos that was humming with energy in front of us in the year 2014 was a starkly dimmer and dangerous area just a few decades before. As we sat in the first-floor apartment, whose humble cinder-blocked walls were decorated with colorful paintings of Dominican rural life, Almonte treated us with the story of One Hundred Fires - the phoenix of Santiago de los Caballeros. In the summer of 1975, a fire destroyed one hundred residential homes in an area outside of Santiago called El Ejido. The name Cienfuegos comes from that original inferno, meaning One Hundred Fires – a reminder of the ashes that gave birth to its existence. The families of this inferno were relocated to an uninhabited area where they endured extraordinarily difficult conditions, our modern day Cienfuegos. The tin and cardboard houses lacked water, sanitation, sewage systems, electricity and even adequate roads for inter-connection. However, a hope was born alongside these shanties. Something as simple as a church and a crude structure that substituted as a school sprouting out of the ashes proved overtime that investment in the public infrastructure could literally turn cardboard into cinderblock (the picture below shows the incredible progress, especially with paved roads, that has developed in Cienfuegos). Yet, the setbacks were severe.
The threat, and many more that followed, eventually revamped the society that ran Cienfuegos. Soon, the cardboard houses took the form of cement walls. Social organizations and schools became commonplace, each with electricity and running water. Industrial zones have brought in jobs for migrant rural workers and expanded the population into an income-receiving body of workers. The trash dump required its pickers (individuals who make a living by sorting through material and recycling what they find valuable) to even register and self-identify as ‘workers’ to effectively utilize every facet – even the ones filled with trash – for the betterment of the society.
I do not, however, want to ignore some chronic issues that still afflict Cienfuegos. There is no doubt that poverty ensues with an enduring distress in the area. The picture above shows a district of Cienfuegos in which infrastructure and development is crucially needed. Many still live without electricity, roads, or potable running water. The landfill causes nightmares in terms of health and safety – a hazard that looms over the neighborhood. Furthermore, the value of education, from the eyes of current Encuentro students Shayna Bartow and Erin Kurvers, is absent. Shayna and Erin, who spend two mornings out of the week teaching English at a public school in Cienfuegos, assured me that the most obvious issue that they can see is the lack of educational sincerity. The children, who are often violent and ill mannered, regularly display a disinterest to learning. With that, there are a disappointingly small number of students with educational materials – pens, books, and pencils. While the Cienfuegos that I saw showed a side of hope and success, the setbacks are still extremely evident.
A connection can then be made between these areas of poverty and the crime and lack of education that still plagues Cienfuegos. The poor farmers who have moved toward the city have brought more than just their scarce belongings; they have brought their poverty. Urbanized destitution then colors the darker side of Cienfuegos. Why are children disinterested in schooling? Perhaps their parents do not have the sufficient income to purchase the necessary educational materials. What is the result of this? These children find themselves already behind their classmates. With a lack of education and guidance, prolonged for years, crime and violence will surely follow. Those are the major issues facing Cienfuegos today – something that I perhaps overlooked as I was awed by the obvious progress the neighborhood had made.
What did I take away from our tour of Cienfuegos and the history that was shared? The ability to overcome obstacles and situations of strife are subject to the individuals who endure the madness of it all. Deacon Almonte is one such individual. His work in Cienfuegos for over 20 years has culminated with soup kitchens, education programs and neighborhood groups whose soul purpose is to protect the citizens and eliminate crime. While the dump will forever cast an ever-smoldering shadow on this neighborhood, reminding its citizens of the fire that once engulfed the meager houses of El Ejido, individuals like Deacon Almonte will continue to mold the ashy ruins into the baseball fields, colmados and smiling faces that we happily see today. There is something to be said about the ‘Phoenix of Santiago’. Yes, there are still some very real, ugly, and urgent problems facing the area. Yet, if the world is willing to look past the misconceptions and categorizations, address the issues without fear or hesitation, then one can see how truly amazing and how vibrant the story of Cienfuegos, and districts around the globe whose names perhaps strike visions of violence (Harlem, Washington Heights, North Omaha, East St. Louis, South Chicago, Oakland, Baltimore – just to name a few) truly is. Rising from the ashes, Cienfuegos is the phoenix of potential – a potential whose very existence began with the ash water and splintered lives of poverty.