Second installment of a series on the trash pickers at the Río Azul dump southeast of San José.
It’s no wonder Angela Cano cried when she stumbled upon a dead baby in the trash. “She had no clothes. She was fresh, wet, suavecito,” Cano said.
When she and other buzos, or trash scavengers, found the tiny body in a bag a few years ago and called the police, it was truly lost potential.
“But what a beautiful baby it was,” she said, holding her arms as if cradling the infantile corpse.
Cano, 52, is in the business of finding potential in what others have deemed useless. Every day at Río Azul, she hunts through piles and piles of stuff people rid their lives of, scanning for what could be reused. Not only is she looking for recyclable material she can sell to buyers who come to the landfill, but she is also looking for lunch, dinner, furniture, paintings, clothes and, well, just about anything she could put to use.
When Cano found a giant soiled stuffed bunny while rooting through the trash one morning, she couldn’t wait to take it home to her granddaughter.
“I told her, ‘Look what I found!’” Cano said, her eyes, vanishing as her rubbery face pinched together in a tight smile.
She pulled out the bunny and propped it on her knee, all white and fluffy, as big as her granddaughter. She had to wash both the outside and the stuffing in soapy laundry water, then douse them with chlorine, then disinfectant, to rid it of its stench.
“Must be worth $40,” she said. “We find so many beautiful things, like very gorgeous clothing.”
Cano has made a habit of rounding up old garments from the dump, washing them and filling trash bags with them as gifts for friends and neighbors. She also gives them to
the nearby church and even recently sent some to the impoverished indigenous community of Bribrí on the southern Caribbean coast.
“People with money throw (these items) out because they think they have no purpose. But a trash worker sees in them something pretty,” she said, sitting in the house she and her husband built with wood from the dump. Mirrors, paintings, TVs, sheets and the furniture in the house all came from the dump as well.
Before the sun rises, Cano is up drinking her coffee and strapping on her polkadot work visor. She slips on her rubber boots and stuffs the shirts and gloves she’ll need for picking through trash into her Winnie the Pooh backpack. As the sun breaks over the cluster of tin roofs she heads for the towering mountain before her shantytown fills with the constant rickety rhythm of reggeatón.
Her husband and coworker Máximo Castillón hasn’t returned to work at the landfill since February, when he slipped and fell in his bathroom and injured a rib. He has since found occasional work as a night guard at the nearby recycling business of Elisabeth Brenes, a former buzo herself. Castillón would like to return to work with his wife, but his health won’t let him.
“I don’t know what to do. I go to the clinic and they just give me an injection, “said Castillón, 56, the wrinkly bags under his eyes sagging almost low enough to rest on his salt-and-pepper mustache.
So this morning, Cano walks alone up the face of the landfill.
She is one of six workers who recently had to be attended to by Red Cross workers after they were exposed to an unknown chemical that made them nauseous and dizzy.
Honestly, this grandmother says she is tired of rooting through people’s trash everyday.
But she doesn’t know what else to do.
She is her own boss, and she can skip work or come in as she pleases. But she doesn’t have any insurance or retirement pension and isn’t eligible for loans, she says. Nor does she get an aguinaldo (end-of-the-year bonus given to all Costa Rican employees).
The sun rises overhead, and sweat breaks on Cano’s brow as dump trucks make their morning deliveries. She drags around a clear plastic bag in her fist, searching for something good in the waste.
It may be a tough job sometimes, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the life she once led, picking cotton near León, Nicaragua.
“That’s why we weren’t educated,” Cano said of her cotton-picking childhood.
Castillón worked at a ranch in Nicaragua, and the two illegally crossed the border into Costa Rica 10 years ago.
There’s been talk for 15 years that Río Azul would close. The couple has no idea what they’ll do if that happens as scheduled July 31. Cano said she would like to develop other skills, but finds it difficult to navigate the Costa Rican system.
The dump administrator’s spokeswoman Lucrecia Zúñiga said there are plans to create a recycling plant that could employ many of the trash workers when the plant closes, but the Health Ministry, which owns the land, has yet to approve the proposal to build the recycling plant. She said the administration has also been encouraging female buzos like Cano to develop their vocational skills at a community organization nearby that offers free training in hairstyling, cooking, reading, writing and sewing.
Cano, like others, is unaware of the program, and Zúñiga admits many women have dropped out of that program.
Cano hopes that one day, she’ll muster up the courage to pursue her and her husband’s dream of opening their own soda, or restaurant.
But in the meantime, she scavenges alone, in the trash.