Fifteen Pesos – An Essay by Elina Boncheva

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Fifteen pesos – the cost of the hour-and-a-half public bus ride to the bleak edges of Montevideo’s slums.  Drops of sweat fueled by both fear and the Southern Hemisphere’s February afternoon sun trickled down my long sleeved shirt. The less skin showing the better, I had been advised. No purse, no brands, no jewelry. Heart palpitations with each inquisitive stare from the people elbowing by. The door opened.

Twelve fresh faces tainted by a life of false promises, torn clothes, scarred families. An eager silence dawned upon us. The stranger by my side nudged me to action.

‘Hola, soy Elina, tu nueva profesora de artes.’ Hesitant giggles, nervous smiles of expectation. Then the questions. From where? For how long? What will we do…?

Six months – the length of my volunteer contract with the school, Colegio San José. The only guideline that the principal had given me was to expose the children, ages eight through thirteen, to art. Art, I thought, how vital to this community, what limitless possibilities. A continent away from the structure of university courses, my crisscrossed ideas spilled over my notebook pages. One winked at me: photography. With two years of photography courses under my belt, I began detailing the forty-two lesson plans. An all nighter later, engulfed by crumpled papers, I had conjured an outline for my first few classes.

At first I was ignored. My comical Spanish garnered quizzical stares. My explanation of camera how-to’s, exposure contrasts and flash nuances faded in the cacophony of young voices. Quizzical stares at my chalk descriptions left me digging for a solution. My students had seized my emotions, but I was achieving zilch. The undivided attention came when the equipment appeared. When the words I was saying became tangible, they warmed to me. Only then did each session truly inspire art. Barriers were broken as Gastón animatedly directed us into positions for his imagined action shot, and as Julia zoomed in to explore her passion for portraits. I guided them, I cried, laughed with them, met their families. I entrusted my cameras to them day and night to expand their portfolio’s breadth. From two distinct worlds, we united. Economic perceptions faded; human nature shone through.

On parting, each student received a color calendar with each month showcasing one of their original photographs next to a personalized description and signature. The happiness and pride that splashed across their faces when they saw their work captured in print was touching beyond words. Art, technology, and a good amount of effort on both sides had meaningfully (even if momentarily) bridged what had seemed to be a large socio-economic chasm between us. In the end, we were able to share values in what turned out to be a truly valuable experience.

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