The Cross of my Childhood
Mountains lush with trees through which the sun breaks at dawn surround a green field. Swallows and other birds trill and the pigeons fly in flocks around a small cabin with a thatched hay roof and walls of thin, round eucalyptus. Oak posts are spaced so that rays of sun pass through, as does the cold.
It was in such a nook that I was born in the month of May in the 1950s in a little place called Tacamache, in the district of Chugur, province of Hualgayoc, state of Cajamarca in Peru. My parents, Marcial Zamora and Gricelida Fernández, were very nervous in my first days on earth because only days after I was born, I became very ill. Obviously, I won that battle and infirmity and death did not accomplish their objectives. Thanks to the natural herbs of the country that God provided, my condition stabilized and my body was healed. With God’s help, I was victorious for the first time over illness.
My parents were a couple of young, poor country kids, with little formal learning or culture. They had very little money, clothing or furniture in the house. My mother had suffered for several years with a chronic illness. My father worried and seemed always to be searching for some medicine to cure her. He resorted to witchdoctors, healers, charmers, doctors, surgeons and naturalists. They finally took her to the Medical Center of Bambamarca, an almost 12-hour horseback ride. The doctors didn’t hold out any hope of her survival.
When they arrived home again, we all thought she would die soon. In desperation, my father visited the Roman Catholic Church to pray. As he entered, he rushed toward a statue and fell to his knees to plead for my mother’s recovery.
During this time, for several years in a row, my parents visited the Virgin of Remedies in a place called Liscan. My older sister, Gumercinda, my brother Rocel and I would stay at home for an entire week while my parents were gone to ask the Virgin to cure my mother.
They began to lose hope as Mother’s health remained unchanged. As a last resort, we gathered herbs from the countryside. My sister ground them on a very large rock and mixed them with boiled water and a coarse brown sugar. We gave this to my mother every morning and afternoon. After being on this regimen for a while, thank God, she began to improve and continued to take the herbs until she was cured.
• When I was seven years old I started elementary school – it was the 1960s. We didn’t wear uniforms because it was a country school and the children were too poor. Despite our daily hardships, I always tried to arrive early to my classes. My brother Rocel and I took off running every morning from our house toward the school. It was a 20-minute barefoot walk. In the afternoon, when school let out, I liked to play soccer.
Later, we worked in the fields with my father. On Sundays, my father would sell potatoes, beans, dried peas and other produce in the city. He would mount up 80 kilos of produce on his mule and travel to the city of Lajas or Yauyucan. With the money he made he bought kerosene, detergent, salt, matches and some cookies. He would always arrive home drunk.
When he went out to a party or festival, he might stay out all night. Often he took my mother with him and, faithful companion that she was, she never left him passed out in the road. She was always at his side.
Sometimes my father would get drunk when we went out as a family, and then about midnight we would head out toward home. It didn’t matter if we were a two hour’s walk from home, we had to walk in the pitch black on rocky roads that were also often muddy. My recollection of those nights was of being scared to death, cold and crying as I walked behind my drunken father – who wasn’t feeling a thing.
• Peru is as relatively undeveloped today as it was in my youth. However, even by standards of an underdeveloped country my family was poor. We had no luxuries and lacked even some of the basics of a Peruvian household of the time. For instance, I never tasted white sugar or coffee until I was about 12 years old. We never had white sugar at home because it was so expensive. And instead of the morning coffee that is a custom in Spanish-speaking countries, my parents would give us warm soup (which may be more nutritious but was an indicator of our poverty).
We wore plain cotton pants and tank tops and ran around without shoes. In winter months, there was frost on the ground and our feet would crack open and bleed. What an excruciating pain – sometimes I just couldn’t take it. When we had to travel to Perlamayo to work, we walked in the frosted fields. When the farmers would make a cow get up to go and be milked, Rocel and I would run over to stand in the spot where the cow had been lying because that spot would be warm. I never knew what a jacket or a sweater was but my mother made wool ponchos for us to use against the cold. Our toys were corn cobs, though we hardly ever had time to play with them because we always seemed to be working in the fields or taking care of our sheep.
When school was out for vacation, we spent our time farming vegetables – greens, potatoes, corn. (All this we had planted for our own food. We sold only a little of it.) While still a child, I learned to use a hoe, spade and machete. We didn’t do much else on vacation – just three months of work, work, work.
I always used to wonder why there are so many people who suffered. I wondered why people had to spend their whole lives working and still they didn’t have enough to eat at times. And then they died.
The better part of my life’s story has poverty as a theme. Since knowing Jesus, I have taken hope in his words recorded in Luke 4:18, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” I believe it’s the will of God that we serve him despite our poverty – and not let that be an obstacle for serving Jesus.
• When I finished junior high school, my parents decided that I should continue in school despite the precarious conditions in which we lived, that is, in poverty. We didn’t have enough money to buy salt but they wanted me to continue my education. It was a very risky decision as they had seven more sons! My older sister was the only one who stayed at home after elementary school so that she could help my parents working in the home.
My first year of secondary school marked the first time in my life that I wore shoes – made of plastic or jebe. My parents sold their only cow to pay for my uniform, books and supplies.
In 1970 and 1971, I studied at El Señor de los Milagros (The Lord of Miracles) in Ninabamba, a school out in the country. My mother would wake up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare a hot vegetable broth for our breakfast and cook potatoes for me to take to school for lunch. Sometimes my sister Gumer woke up early to help Mother.
Rocel and I sat next to Mother as she served us the very hot soup. While we ate, Mother put the potatoes in a plate and covered them with another plate and wrapped them up in a white cloth. We put the lunch in our pack and we were ready to go.
We left for school at 6:30 a.m. because it took us one hour on foot to make the journey to school. There was a stream near the school where we would stop and wash our faces and feet, which were muddy by the time we arrived. Very near the school was a room which we had paid a fee to use to keep our school uniforms. We would change into them just before we went to school.
The school had 500 students. At noon, we would get out of class to eat, and we didn’t resume classes until 2:00 p.m., taking the long break for the customary siesta. At 5:00 p.m., we headed back home and would arrive at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. My mother always had our dinner piping hot, ready and waiting in a big, three-legged clay pot that sat on top of an open fire. After we ate, we lit a kerosene lantern so we could do all our chores and homework. We stayed up studying until 11:00 each night.
For four years my mother sacrificed to get up early every morning to make our lunch.