Photos by Karla and Ivan
Text by Ivan Kashinsky
At four in the morning the unbearable cold of the Santiago winter begins to eat through your skin and penetrate your bones. The cargadores, who haul gigantic carts filled with produce, huddle around a trash can, their arms outstretched. They take in the heat from a seven foot high fire. To battle the cold and their throbbing muscular pain the workers light up joints, spike their coffee with moonshine, or drink Navegado, a sweet mixture of wine, orange juice, lemon and sugar. Soon, the mood becomes lighter, jokes fly through the air with ease, and one can see that the market La Vega Central is one big family.
Ricky is a 68 year old man who has been working in La Vega since the age of five, when he used to help his pops sell rabbits and chickens. When his father passed he took over, and when he dies his children will continue the family biz. With a husky voice he shouts at people passing by, advertising his low prices. In between shouts he mutters, “There are good times and bad times here at La Vega, but you can always survive”. Even though his spot has burned down three times, the only shadow from the past that looms over him is Pinochet. His wrinkled face changes, and his eyes widen, when he begins to talk about the dictator. “It was a very dark time”, he tells me. “You couldn’t say anything bad about the government. There were people walking around listening, and if they heard you, the military would come and take you away.”
The people of the market love Allende and the Socialist movement. Jorge Ahumada has been selling parsley for 40 years. He remembers when Castro came to visit. “I shook his hand”, he boasts. “He was like a big bear. Now he’s skinny and old”. Every morning of his life Jorge wakes up at 1 am to make the hour drive to La Vega and be one of the first ones to arrive. “Sometimes we take Wednesdays off”, he admits.
Immigrants from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador work side by side with Chileans. Although La Vega is family-like, competition exists, and racist comments slip out with ease. One man refers to Peruvians as a plague that has taken over the market.
The Ecuadorians sell plantains and in their free-time organize games of ecua-volley. A large Brazilian man with an over-sized curly mullet befriends me. He makes 40 lukas in one day, equivalent to 80 dollars, which is good money. He is eager to tell me about his five beautiful children. Then he begins to brag about the five women he has on the side.
Cats are sprawled out over mile-high piles of garlic or hidden in the shadows of the rooftops above the fish salesmen. They play an integral part in La Vega life. At night the cats slip into the storage rooms and sink their teeth into the juicy rats hidden in the bowels of the market place. But the felines of La Vega play a part well beyond their practical function. For lonely souls like Rafael Merchant, the cats are all he has to hold on to. In the dark passage ways of the market, where the only light shoots through holes in the tin roof, he nurses sick cats back to life. He cleans their shaking legs and creates warm places where the cats curl up for the night. The furry creatures do more for Rafael than he does for them. They give him a place to project his gentle love, a reason to get up each morning and come to the marketplace.
There is a dark side to the market. Conveniently located on the fringes of La Vega you can find little bars where every dollar earned is quickly spent on remedies for pain. I sit in one of these joints, called “La Chica Patti,” with a cargador who is nicknamed Chuck Norris, because he is a perfect double for the actor. As Chuck lights his tenth cigarette and pours another glass of dark brew, I say, “Smoking kills you know.” He quickly responds, “But women are more dangerous.” It is only eleven in the morning on Tuesday and the workers slowly but surely drink themselves into oblivion. The man at the table next to us passes out cold. Chuck looks over at me. “Nothing will happen to him. We are all looking out for him. We are all a big family. He is safe”, Chuck assures me. “In a little while, he’ll wake up and walk out of here.”
And he does.