Monday, March 9, 2009

Emilia's Meanwhile House

I visited Panama in October 2008 and met Emilia Sanchez, a domestic worker in a three-generational family in Panama City. With the guidance of Gabriela Valencia, a Panamanian and Fulbright student-scholar, I came to know some of the specifics of Emilia's life and visited the small architectures that are, today, her la casa mientras tanto -- Emilia's Meanwhile House.

Emilia's meanwhile house is half-way up the hill, just to the left of the path

To tell a story about Emilia . . . she was born in 1968 near Sona, in west-central Panama. She lived there, on her family's rural homestead, until 1979 when, at age eleven, she migrated to Panama City. Her first employment was as a domestic, a job found by her sister.

She lived in the Mananitas asentamiento espontaneo (informal settlement) or barriada (shantytown or slum) in San Miguelito, east of the Panama Canal. In 1984, at age sixteen and pregnant, Emilia moved in with the mother of the unborn baby's father. Emila moved again in 1985 to Panama Viejo, another asentamiento espontaneo built around the ruins of the Old City. Panama Viejo was and is an invasore, a place for invaders and for an invasor (an invader of land), and a World Heritage site where tourists and the local middle and upper classes are both unwelcome and uncomfortable.

Sixteen years later, in 2001, after conversations with the Housing Ministry, Emilia was able to buy a piece of land on which to build a house, in Valle de Urraca, San Miguelito. The Housing Ministry oversees Panama City's "48-hour rule": if a person comes to the housing office, as Emilia did, and asks for a property on which to settle, she is given a piece of government-owned land on which to build a temporary structure.

In 48 hours.

From the Ministry's perspective, if the settler meets the deadline, then it is clear that she needed a place to live; if the invasor is unable to build in that time, the land offer is withdrawn. (In Emilia's case, the deadline was extended because she did not own any building materials.)

With her "husband" (this is how the man who fathered her first child is referred to, even though he was married when they met, even though his wife died years ago, even though he refuses to live with Emilia today, even though they are not married), Emilia went to Cerro Patacon, Panama City's main dump, where they bought some very cheap reclaimed wood and corrugated metal sheets. There were used to build Emilia's "meanwhile house," half of which stands today, eight years later.
Among the features of the meanwhile house: a pit latrine (in a separate building just up the hill), an electric meter that evidences Emilia is "on the grid," a PVC line provides water (somewhat sporadically) throughout the day and night, no windows, and a small clothes washing machine that Emilia hides under blankets.

Here, with her thirteen-year-old daughter Yari, Emilia is a precarista, one living precariously, or to use a local translation, an invader that has built on the land.

A few years ago, a politician seeking votes contributed money to begin construction of a new permanent house for Emilia. The partial permanent house was constructed by a legitimate builder who lives across the path and down the hill from her (he too is a precarista). During the week this man works on construction sites in the city; he built the beginnings of Emilia's next house on weekends. This man is a skilled constructor in both the formal and informal economies; her house is being build by a skilled tradesman.
Its placement on the site, reflecting Emilia's future plans, meant that one-half of the meanwhile house would be demolished to make way for the new house. This further minimizes available living space for mother and daughter, who now live in a single room (without windows) more than half-filled by a double bed. In time, (i.e., one or two more election cycles), when the permanent house is completed, the meanwhile house will be torn down and the pit latrine will also be demolished and a new pit dug and building constructed closer to the new house.

Emilia's relationship with the housing authorities has its own complications, as does her interactions with neighbors. Her dealings with other women in the neighborhood is particularly interesting (and quite possibly beyond my understanding).

We started this conversation with Emilia's telling that she had grown two potted plants and nurtured them through the growing season, only to have someone take/steal the fruit. Also, one of two chickens she raised was taken as well. This led to discussions of the path that formerly passed between her meanwhile house and the pit latrine, where she placed a fence to force people to walk on the other side of the pit latrine, up a slight hillside, and her unwillingness to erect additional fences to enclose her garden plants and chickens.

It was explained to me that such a property line fence, or any questions with neighbors about who stole the fruits and chicken, might anger other women/mothers in the neighborhood, and that Emilia must be thoughtful in the battles she wages locally so as not to upset or anger other women, some who have sons involved in local drug gangs, some who might encourage a son to get revenge on Emilia for asking too many questions. A fence blocking a path = no problem. A fence on the property's perimeter = a potential big problem. So . . . fruit is missing, a chicken is gone, and no questions are asked.

Regarding the men's sphere . . . I was told that Emilia's dedication to her "husband" influences many decisions. He still "takes care" of Emilia and his "big decision" guided the design of her permanent house, in consultation with the builder. And Emilia's loyalty to him probably would cause her to take him any money given to her so that she could finish completion of the permanent house.

As progress is made on the permanent house, I will update this posting.

Related readings, which foreground the local worker-citizen within the localized process of settling, working, and building are the following: Garcetti's Iron: Erecting the Walt Disney Concert Hall; Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon; Risa Mickenberg's Taxi Driver Wisdom; Normark's Chavez Ravine, 1949: A Los Angeles Story; and Small Hands, Big Hands: Seven Profiles of Chicano Migrant Workers and Their Families by Sandra Weiner.

Several graduate students, in recent years and under my direction, completed master's theses that place a local person or persons at the center of their research and design endeavors. They include: