Luís left his home in Chepén, Perú when he was 18, almost 15 years ago. He came from a farming community and a poor but happy family that liked dancing, telling jokes, and going to the beach. They lived on a chacra, a small plot of land that they worked with their neighbors and extended family. Luís was the fourth of seven children, but he had an extended family of around 220 cousins from the 31 aunts and uncles that were siblings of his two parents.
Together they managed the small farm. Families worked in teams and shared the chores. Some families were dedicated to cooking, others to farming. Some families daily walked the 300 meters to the well to bring back water in buckets. Other families went out to the hills to harvest crops, including squash, rice, and wheat. Everything was shared.
A day for Luís began at 6am. He and his siblings got up before the sun and went to the fields with their father. During the peak of the heat, they took a siesta, then returned to work till 8:00 in the evening. Throughout his childhood, Luís’s father owned a small food stand, a chiringuito, where he earned about five soles (around one euro) a day. These five euros were what he had to feed the battalion that was his family. The rest of them ate hard bread—“and I mean it was a rock,” Luís recalled—and drank water. Not potable water, either; the water they drank came straight from the ground.
Later, he began studying at the university like his older siblings, pursuing a degree in systems engineering. However, after three years his family could no longer support him, so he quit school, left home, and went to the capital to look for work. Not one of his siblings was able to complete a degree, and they returned to Chepén to continue working however they could. Nobody’s job looked toward any future.
Luís was 18 years old when he went to Lima. “It was horrible,” he recalled. “I had a really hard time, and it hurt my mother to know I was living this way.” He slept in the streets, on benches or beside ATMs; he found a piece of cardboard to lay down on the street and that was where he slept. He didn’t have work. He eventually found a job in the textile industry, where he learned to sew and spent several months making and mending clothes. He made enough money to eat and put a roof over his head, but he wasn’t making a life for himself. Scrimping, he saved 5 soles (about a euro) each month. “This was not enough to save or study or ever do anything fun,” he said.
So when some friends who had moved to Spain said they could find work for him there, he told them, “If you can arrange the papers, I’m there.” Eight months later, he moved to San Sebastián, Spain. He was 19 years old. He worked in a pasture with hundreds of sheep that only responded to calls in Euskera, the language of the Basque Country. “I’d go out to the field and see the backs of 200 grazing sheep. I just had to say, ‘Torneauks!’ and I’d see every head lift and answer, ‘Baaaa!’” He laughed with nostalgia. In the field is where he feels most at home. He was raised with animals; they listen to him, they let him lead them.
He was happy in this job, but there came the day when he came in from the fields and his boss told him, “Luís, I can’t afford to pay you anymore.” For Luís, this meant starting back from the beginning. He floated between many jobs. He worked construction for a year but he was always cold; the weather was cold, the people were cold, and he bundled up till he looked like one of his sheep but he still couldn’t shake the cold. He continued looking for work and then he accepted a job washing dishes “That was an accident,” he confessed. “I didn’t know marmitón meant dishwasher.” However, this mistake ended up sending him on his next path: after six months of 14-hour days in the kitchen, he borrowed a book from his boss, he took off two weeks, studied as hard as he could, and he returned a chef. He enjoyed cooking—preparing fish, meat, and all kinds of pastries—and he was earning a living, but not a life. The hours were too many. Once more he left. This time he set up a fruit shop until he found his current job, serving tables in a café, where he has worked for seven years.
“I’m happy here,” he said. The moderate hours and decent pay have led the way to a new life for Luís. He has friends. He has free time that he dedicates to swimming and surfing or riding his motorcycle through the streets. He has a business running in Perú and has made enough money to make it possible, this spring, for his brother to be the first in the family to graduate with a degree. “I wouldn’t change anything,” he said. It was hard but he learned to work, to value himself, and he has exceeded his dreams.