Quarantine in the dark

Wara Vargas Lara


I closed my eyes and tried to enter his world. I walked locating myself by sounds and smells, but I couldn't help but be a seer among them. How does the dark feel, not seeing the world? How does this new world feel, if you don't see the people with chinstraps, the empty streets, the closed stalls?

Those were some of the questions I asked myself that morning at the end of March of this year before entering the Alfredo Tarifa Sánchez house, an old tenement that houses 17 families, all with one or more members who cannot see.

It was the second week of rigid quarantine in Bolivia, because on March 11 the first two cases of the Covid-19 virus pandemic were confirmed. The total confinement stopped all activities in the country, both formal and informal.

The thousands of families who worked on the streets in informal commerce were affected by the economic consequences of stopping everything. For this reason, many found themselves at a crossroads: protecting their lives from the presence of the virus or dying of hunger because they did not work on the streets.

That was the big question in a country where informal trade generates profits for a good percentage of its population. According to data from the National Institute of Statistics (INE), more than 60% of the economically active population worked informally until last year. But, after the pandemic, informality would reach up to 80% of Bolivians, due to layoffs and business closures, according to projections from the Center for Studies for Labor and Agrarian Development (Cedla).

A part of the street workers in the city of La Paz is made up of blind people. A group of these lives in the Alfredo Tarifa Sánchez house, located in the north, very close to the center, where they carry out their activities.

Before the pandemic, his life was spent in the different streets of La Paz. They offered songs or sweets on the corners. Some of the blind even came to the General Cemetery, in the popular Max Paredes area, to offer prayers to the mourners who buried their dead. This is how they supported their families.

But the initial rigid quarantine forced them to change their routine. Suddenly, their world that was translated into the sounds of cars and people was changed by the confinement of their homes, which measure four by four meters.

The house has 17 main rooms. Each of these makes, at the same time, a room, a living room and a kitchen. In the whole house there is only one bathroom and one shower for the 35 inhabitants.

In that place, blind people lived through a period of anguish and uncertainty during almost three months of total confinement. During that time the silence and the frightened voices of those who can see showed them the changes that the city of La Paz experienced.

These are some of the photographs that I took during that time that I accompanied this community. The second part of this project will show the life of the blind singers who return to the streets and their activities.

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  • I closed my eyes and tried to enter his world. I walked locating myself by sounds and smells, but I couldn't help but be a seer among them. How does the dark feel, not seeing the world? How does this new world feel, if you don't see the people with chinstraps, the empty streets, the closed stalls?

  • Viviana Ortiz uses her cane in the yard. She is new to the community and is just recognizing the spaces. The Alfredo Tarifa Sánchez house is now their home and living together among blind people has many challenges, but nothing surpasses this new stage of their lives due to quarantine.

    “We are not different from the rest of society, we just can't see and I think that makes us invisible. I am afraid to go out because I cannot see what is happening, but I am afraid to hear what people are saying. I have heart problems and I prefer to stay home and survive with what I have, ”he says.

  • Light, an element that helps to see the world, enters through the door illuminating the room of Agustín Rocha, who at 74 years old lives alone.

    Your room is small and has everything you need to live in peace. His world is this safe space, where everything is well organized so that he can find all his things.

  • Susana Salamanca was born premature and for a few brief moments she surely saw the blurred image of her mother. Her first months in the world was in an incubator. Doctors later realized that the light from this device had slowly blinded her. The light of the world dazzled Susi, as she likes to be called.

    "I'm a rebel because the world made me like this ...", Susi sings, with a big smile. She is a street artist, like many of the members of the house.

  • Viviana Ortiz spends her quarantine listening to the news. She lost her sight very young and did not have the opportunity to study and have a university career. In Bolivia, the rights of people with disabilities are not addressed, and even less the right to study.

    For this reason, Viviana dedicated herself to selling sweets on the street. At first she sold small packages and over time, after much work, she set up her small outpatient stand.

    Due to the danger of contagion on the street, now she only sells to her neighbors in the house.

  • "We are no different, we can do everything that the people who see us do," says Efraín Soria, my guide since I started visiting the house.

    He knows this space by heart and guides me to see and feel how they live. Today there is a soccer game, which is vital to keep busy in quarantine.

    Silence is important in this meeting. The players are guided by the sounds to feel the proximity of the ball. The goals break the silence and phrases such as: "why didn't you see the ball?" Are heard. Everyone laughs and enjoys the game.

  • Efraín Iriondo, Susi's husband, sunbathing in the courtyard of the house. Before he was forty, he accompanied Susi's songs on Calle Comercio with percussion. He passed away on September 2, 2020.

  • Germán Merva is a master of music and this is demonstrated by his skill with his wind and percussion instruments.

    He lives in the house with his great love: Victoria Illaquita. Germán and Vicky get very nervous when asked how they fell in love. Doña Vicky even covers her face while laughing, only she knows what memories come to her at that moment.

  • Sonia Apaza prepares food in the darkness of her small kitchen, which is on the patio. She and her husband Humberto worked on the street singing love songs for passersby. With this work they fed their three daughters. The rigid quarantine days are difficult for them, because they cannot work and live on the donations that come to the house.

  • "Uncle Ricardo" is what his friends at home call this man over 70 years old. Before the quarantine he was dedicated to selling all kinds of products on the street. Now he just hopes the pandemic passes soon to go out to work.
    "This is my home, my colleagues are now my family, I only have them," says Ricardo, while showing the small space where he lives.

  • Agustín Rocha tells Efraín Soria that when he was a child he lived an epidemic that killed many people he knew. Both, fearful of the COVID-19 pandemic, talk about how it is no longer heard in the city as if the entire city had been silent.

  • Teresa Pinedo lost her sight when she was young due to a disease that her pet gave her. It was difficult for her to accept that she could no longer see. What she misses the most is seeing the landscapes of the trips to Coroico, her homeland, which now only keeps them in her mind.

    She has two sighted children and struggles to educate them so they have a better future. She is a singer and has a recorded album, but she did not have the support to achieve her dream: to be a great song star.

  • All the children in the house are seers and they turned their parents' eyes. But, like their parents, they grow up with a lack of support and without the privileges of sighted families, who have greater possibilities of accessing better jobs, education, food or other fundamental rights.

  • Agustín Rocha is dedicated to praying for the souls of the dead in the General Cemetery. This way he earns some money for his food. Paradoxically now due to the pandemic there are many souls to pray for, but unfortunately those souls cannot be fired in some cases or by their family.

    Cemeteries are closed and only a few family members can enter. "You no longer listen to the people, the city sounds like a town," he says.