Paisa Power is a new series we’re launching together with Medellín Buzz to build social awareness. Every month we will do a story and request donations for a hardworking, low-income entrepreneur in/around Medellín. Our purpose is to empower these business owners by helping them overcome personal hardships, and boosting their business in any way we can. This first story originally appeared on Medellín Buzz August 19, 2014.
At midday after teaching English in El Centro, I walk back home and I buy bananas from an elderly gentleman, Justo Manuel, at Parque San Ignacio.
I usually buy 10 bananas from him. At 200 pesos each, it comes to 2,000 pesos total. Justo is always super happy to see me; smiling, he always says, “May God go with you, or may the holy virgin be with you.”
Even on the days that I do not buy bananas he’s always so thankful and nice. After a month of buying from Justo, and forming a small friendship, I started to talk to him about his business and his personal life.
I told him that I have a blog and that I would like to write a blog post about him and his business. Of course he obliged.
- Me: Where do you live?
- Justo: I live in Santo Domingo.
- Me: What time do you leave Santo Domingo to get to downtown to start working?
- Justo: I leave around 4:30 a.m.
- Me: So…you take the Metro Cable Car down? Or a bus?
- Justo: No, I walk down from Santo Domingo to La Paz street, behind Parque Bolívar, to pick up my wheelbarrow and bananas.
- Me: Why do you have to walk down?
- Justo: Because on average I make around 6,000 pesos ($3.15) a day, a bus ride costs me 1,700 pesos ($0.90). I cannot walk up so on the way up I take a bus. I would be spending 3,400 pesos ($1.80) each day if I took the bus down.
- Me: How long does it take you to get down?
- Justo: About two hours.
- Me: So once you get your bananas at La Paz you haul them…roughly 2.5 kilometers to here, San Ignacio park?
- Justo: Yes.
- Me: I would like to meet you in Santo Domingo and walk down with you.
- Justo: Sure, meet me at 4:30 a.m. at the Santo Domingo metro cable car station.
- Me: Deal.
4:30 a.m., Friday, Aug. 1, 2014
My brother (Francisco), my best friend (Joel Duncan), and I met up with Justo Manuel at 4:30 a.m. at the station in Santo Domingo.
I have heard and read a lot of stories about Santo Domingo. About how dangerous it used to be, and how it is still considered a pretty sketchy neighborhood.
Regardless of all of that negativity, we did not feel unsafe the whole two-hour walk.
As we walked down the mountain I got a chance to talk to Justo Manuel about his life.
- Me: Where did you get the wheelbarrow that you use? It looks old and heavy.
- Justo: I worked construction for most of my life, at my last job, 5 years ago, before “el jefe” let me go he let me have the wheelbarrow.
- Me: What about your house, tell me about it.
- Justo: It’s small, but it’s mine, I pay $18,000 ($9.50). I have no electricity, but that’s fine, I use candles.
- Me: Whom do you live with? Your family?
- Justo: I live alone. I have 4 children but they scarcely talk to me, my wife left me and took the kids when they were very young.
- Me: How old are you?
- Justo (with a proud grin): I’m only 73!
I was floored. I could not imagine any 73-year-old person working as hard as he does every day.
A person his age should be enjoying his grand-kids, kicking back on an easy chair, hanging out at bingo halls, not walking two hours to sell bananas.
I got a grip and I focused on the positives: Justo owns the house he lives in. If we found a way for him to double his sales per day he could take a couple of days off per week. If we got him a better wheelbarrow it work could be easier.
We arrived at the small location that sells bananas by the crate. Justo pays 1,000 pesos a day to store his wheelbarrow there and a crate of bananas (100) costs 9,000 pesos. Justo loaded his wheelbarrow with fresh bananas and we were off.
We walked up to Oriental Avenue and walked towards Ayacucho. I asked Justo to let me take the wheelbarrow. It was pretty heavy and not easy to maneuver.
After a few minutes I passed it off to my brother, who also struggled, due to the fact that he’s 6-foot-4, and had to bend down even further than I did. My brother then passed it off to Joel, who also admitted it to be tiresome.
We finally arrived at his usual post near San Ignacio Park.
We had sold a few bananas on the way up. Namely people were curious as to why three big, young dudes were pushing a banana cart around. We even got one cyclist to buy 10 bananas. A few clients later we decided to go have breakfast.
As we sat and ate I asked Justo a couple questions.
- Me: What are your greatest challenges in your business?
- Justo: Well…I don’t have a street vendor license, so I constantly get hassled by the public space workers. I know it’s their job, but obtaining that license is costly and time consuming. I don’t have neither the time nor the money to get it.
- Me: What would you do if you had 200,000 pesos (about $120) right now?
- Justo: I would go to the doctor to see about my ears. I’ve got something wrong with them and I can’t hear very well and it affects my business sometimes. I would also fill up the gas tank in my house for cooking.
Paisa Power – No Pity
Marriam-Webster Dictionary defines “hero” as a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.
I admire Justo Manuel for his work ethic, for his humility, for his resolve, and for his honest hard work. For me Justo Manuel is a true hero!
Justo does not want your pity, nor does he know that we are raising money to help him. This Paisa Power segment is meant to empower hard working people, and help them get ahead.
All money donated will be used to pay for Justo’s medical bills, his gas tank, and the rest will be invested into his business.
If you feel this is a worthy cause and would like to help, here’s what you can do:
- Join us for the next Medellín Buzz Spanish/English Conversation Club Cocktail Party this Saturday in Poblado. Additional info: Conversation Club Cocktail Party (click here for details).
- Transfer or deposit your donation for Justo Manuel into my Bancolombia account. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for the details.
- Donate via PayPal. Click the button below.