Dignity in a Shoelace (Elena Huegel, Chile)

In a little beauty parlor on the corner where the pungent smells of hair products assail my senses as much as the whirring of hairdryers, I listened to her story. The testimony began like that of thousands of others who take up the painful journey from the county to the city in search of work and new opportunities.  As I looked at her now, I imagine that at some crossroads or stop along the way, her life twisted unexpectedly onto a different path. I want to know how she became the successful owner of her own small business, escaping poverty and beating seemingly insurmountable odds.  She continued her story speaking with the same gentle rhythm as the clicking of her scissors.

“My life dawned slowly like the winter sun on the volcanoes that dip their skirts into the cold water of the southern lakes of Chile.  My mother died a few days after my birth, and my father left me with an aunt.  I never saw him again.

I grew up with the slap of the icy mountain wind on my face and shaped by the lack of care; my dreams fell like seeds on rocky soil where they died before sprouting.  The sun was the only shawl I had to wrap myself in when I would go out to explore the fields. I hugged the trees to imagine myself loved, and nature was my only childhood comfort.  The lambs born in the spring kissed me, and the birds sang to lift my spirits.  In my own quiet way, I basked in the afternoon painting in pinks and violets of the sky, snow and water. 

In that very rural part of the country, the only opportunity available to a teenage orphan was to marry and have children.  My two oldest daughters were born in the lonely sheepherder’s hut where I went to live with my husband, without any medical or family care, but we survived.  It was the blizzard, called a “white earthquake” that nearly killed us; gone were the lambs, and with them, our future. My husband and I took the girls, and we traveled to the city. He sought work while I searched for hope. 

We arrived at an illegal land grab, called a “toma,” on a large vacant lot outside the limits of the capital, and we made ourselves a shelter out of cardboard and plastic sheets we found in a dump.  I walked the streets swallowing saliva and shame, hunting for bread for my daughters.  Pride would not let me beg; hunger would not let me sleep.

One day, as I was crossing the traffic-choked main avenue of the city, called the ‘alameda’, with my four year old daughter hanging from one hand and the two year old from the other, both with dirty faces lined with tears, I felt the despair eating me alive.  I was eight months pregnant, my belly bulging under my oil-speckled apron. There on the sidewalk, an older gentleman with graying hair, a nice suit and tie, and a leather briefcase, approached me.  At first, I ignored him, my head down covering my suspicious eyes, but he came directly towards me and I became fearful.

‘Excuse me,’ he said in a softly refined voice, ‘your shoelace is untied.’  I hadn’t noticed because, at this point in my pregnancy, I couldn’t even see my own feet.  ‘You might trip,’ he continued.  ‘Allow me.’  Then the gentleman knelt down before me, smiled at my daughters, and firmly tied my shoelace.  Then he stood and took his leave by saying, ‘I hope you have a good day, madam.’

I raised my head and stood up tall.  I was no longer an insignificant dot in the mass of humanity traveling the streets of the city.  This small gesture refocused my vision of myself.  Never before had anyone shown me such respect and esteem. Never before had I felt such honor.  As that man kneeled before me and tied my shoelace on the sidewalk of the ‘alameda,’ I knew for the first time in my life that I was valuable and worthy of care and concern. 

The hairdresser looked at me through the reflection of the mirror as she touched up my bangs, and with conviction she concluded her story. ‘This is my dream for my country:  that all women be treated with dignity; that even the poorest women might discover, as I did when a rich man tied my shoes, that each one of us is worthy of respect and honor.’

Elena Huegel, a member of Iglesia Cristiana Ebenezer, Los Fresnos, Texas, serves the Pentecostal Church of Chile (IPC). She is an environmental and Christian education specialist.