Gods of Dog

A reciclador paws through the trash as he scavenges for valuable material in a residential neighborhood, Bogotá

Gods of Dog

June 20th, 2012

The word dirty is graffiti-ed onto the side of the cart in purple letters. It is written in English, as if a silent scream – a message that wants to be heard by more than just passive eyes.

Inside the cart there is a mess of used appliances, black bags concealing used auto parts, pieces of wood, plastic, beer bottles, and coils of wire coated in rust. The cart is stopped on the side of Avenida Caracas, one of Bogotá’s main commercial avenues. It’s raining. Tied up and wet, a dog jumps out of the cart and onto one of the planks of wood. Tugging against the weight of the cart, the dog points its head toward the sky and howls.

I can hear it, just barely, from inside the eerie confines of my clean, modern bus, which roars down the road, past the cart, away from the ugliness.

At first I think that the dog and the cart are abandoned. In fact, this is how the recicladores’ (recyclers) carts usually appear: like lost piles of junk. But then, further down the road, I spot three bodies huddled together. All of the storefronts on Avenida Caracas are closed and the streets are deserted. At night, the Caracas is where the homeless live and work while their dogs scrape and paw and pull on their chains and howl.

 These bodies, these Gods of Dog are the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless, the destitute of Bogotá. In the most dignified case, they are hustling, hard-working recicladores who scavenge the city streets by night and day using horse-drawn carriages for materials that can be sold to one of several bodegas sprinkled along the Caracas where someone promises to buy their loot in exchange for barely enough pesos to scrape by until the next day. In the most tragic of cases, the reciclador is a bent man standing in the middle of the road causing buses to swerve and honk, huffing a worn out black bag most likely containing some sort of aerosol. He is drugged and delirious and stumbling.

Bogotá, a city of 8.9 million people, is bulging at the seams in large part due to a massive wave of internal migration where land-holding people have been ousted by guerrilla and paramilitary groups and therefore have been forced to find refuge in Bogotá. Some, like the three I see huddled together on the street, have evidently resorted to scavenging recyclable material in order to make ends meet. An estimated 70 thousand families claim life of a reciclador. Those who choose it make roughly $1 to $10 per day.

A recent act introduced by Juan Manuel Santos called the Victims and Land Restitution Act promises to compensate roughly 4 million victims who have suffered forced displacement from Colombia’s conflict and to a lesser extent environmental degradation, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Until then, Bogotá’s displaced will have to settle for being recicladores. At least they can be Gods of Dog.

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