Some people’s lives are marked by their concern for others. That is the case for my friend Janet Brof, whom I have known for many years. She is the equivalent of any heroine from old times. In her, there is an ingrained love for those less favoured in life, an unbending urge for justice and an unparalleled generosity.
We met through mutual friends in the 1970s, when both of us were trying to understand and bring a sense of fairness to the wars then ravaging Central America. I remember one of the projects to which she gave all her enthusiasm: to teach poetry writing to adult Spanish speakers who immigrated to New York from Latin America.
Most of her students at the school in the Upper West Side neighbourhood where the classes were taking place had only the most basic education, and some had never formally attended school. However, that did not deter Janet from putting all her energy into the project. If anything, it encouraged her even more.
At one of her classes I met Olga Rodriguez, a charismatic 65-year-old woman from the Dominican Republic, who never attended school and who learned how to write through informal classes with friends.
Olga had lived in her country until her late 20s, and then moved to New York where she worked in a factory to earn a living and help her family. Only recently did she have the time to study English. When she decided to take Janet’s poetry workshop she never missed a class.
Although her written Spanish frequently has spelling errors, it does not matter. She is keen to express herself through poetry. When I met her she told me: “With these classes I am living the kind of experience I want to live. This is like therapy for me. I feel comforted, happy, isolated from problems of everyday life. Now, out of anything I can write a poem. I feel that this belongs to me.”
The following is one of her poems, translated by Janet Brof, entitled “My old age”.
What will become of me in my old age?
says the palm tree that blooms at the edge of the beach.
I am young.
All the world comes to me and embraces me.
Oh how good I feel
surrounded by so many lovely people and trees! What greenery!
Oh warm sand, you comfort me with your going and coming.
I am young.
Time goes by.
Already I no longer have so much greenery
And I don’t give shade anymore.
What will happen to me in my old age?
Oh brilliant sun, with your silvery rays
Oh breeze, you no longer sustain me as before.
You move me around at will
I can only await
Some time after receiving this poem, Janet and I visited Olga, who had just returned from Jerusalem. She had invited us to her house to tell us about her trip. As she spoke, the twilight filtered through the window and illuminated her face and the excitement in her story seemed to have given new energy to her life. Listening to her, I realised that Olga Rodriguez was no longer the same person who had written that sad poem about her old age.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a writer on human rights issues and is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.