Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Capote

Today, Wednesday December 23rd was Christmas in Capote. Tomorrow and the next day it will be back to normal. There won’t be ‘presents under the tree’ on the 25th because people here can’t afford trees or presents. Instead they’ll make do with eating dinner at midnight on Christmas Eve, which is the custom all over Peru.

Capote is just another one of the very poor desert villages scattered across the north of Peru. It has a small medical clinic, school and modest athletic field but that’s about it. There is no asphalt in sight and if it has a main street I haven’t found it. It lacks the usual principal park. And surrounding Capote are six even poorer villages. Today 300 kids, 200 mothers and a few dads from Capote and the other 6 towns gathered at Capote’s ‘meeting place’ for Christmas.

Christmas began this morning in Chiclayo at the home of Juan and Jessica. Jessica had previously been the doctor at the medical clinic in Capote and is the driving force for the Christmas celebration. From now on to make it simple I’ll be referring to “we”, which includes Jessica and the people working with her. We contracted this custer to transport us, the gifts, and sound system to Capote.

Capote’s meeting place is an ancient adobe structure with a thatch roof. In the photo on the left are the items transported on the custer. The gifts included balls, teddy bears, dolls, toy trucks and guns and a variety of other things. Last year we ran out of balls – the most popular toy with small boys, so made sure it didn’t happen again this year. This is what the area looked like before the crowd arrived.

Jessica had hired a clown and Santa to lead the kids in games and to distribute some of the gifts as prizes. I absolutely love to hear those kids screaming and laughing. The mothers weren’t immune to getting into the spirit either.

After the prizes were awarded and the clown had finished his routine, chocolate milk and paneton were distributed to everyone. Paneton to me is a cross between cake and bread. It’s semi-sweet and depending on the brand has bits of fruit in it. It’s not possible to over emphasis the role of paneton in people’s lives – especially during Christmas. In the north it surpasses King Kong (another cake-type product) as the national snack. I noticed most of the kids drank their milk but saw many mothers saving the paneton. I’m guessing it will be part of tomorrow night’s Christmas meal.

Things got a little out of control briefly after the milk had been drunk and the gifts were being handed out. The crowd kept surging forward…perhaps worried there were not enough gifts. Jessica and Maribel had to get a bit forceful in asking folks to step back and wait their turn. Actually there were enough gifts so that each child received two items and a second slice of paneton. Jessica is upper left with the white blouse and sun glasses. Maribel is in the red blouse and sunglasses.

Ruth (left) and Esmeralda are Chiclayanas now living in Spain. They and their husbands were visiting Jessica for the holidays. They played a large role in this year’s celebration by donating many of the gifts, providing physical labor, and also bringing cash donations from several Peruvians living in Spain.

An example of the types of presents given to the girls. The two boys are drinking chocolate milk.

These boys seem to be enjoying their toys. I don’t want to sound maudlin, but I can’t help but contrast this scene to Christmas in the States, where the kids get so many gifts they unwrap one and rush to the next. And in many cases the value of just one of those gifts exceeds the value of all the gifts given today in Capote. Let’s look at the financial end of today’s event. We rented a vehicle and sound system. We hired a Santa and clown. We distributed 600 gifts, 200 balls, plus I don’t know how many cases of milk, paneton and other snacks. The total cost was $450 US. Divided among all the donors the money is not even noticeable, yet look at the impact it had on these people.

It’s over. The crowd is gone and already the benches and chairs have been moved to wherever they came from. The empty boxes have been stacked and the ‘crew’ takes a moment to unwind. Jessica, Maribel, Ruth and Esmeralda were moving non-stop throughout the entire morning. All I did was take photos, but I notice a slight soreness in my right index finger. Riding back to Chiclayo on the custer we talked about how we’ll do it next year.



  1. I am Chiclayo Gringo's sister in the U.S. I've been to Chiclayo and will visit in a few months. Love the people, the warmth and kindness. My beautiful sister-in-law and her family treat me as part of them. My heart is heavy every time I read Tom's blog. Love Peru!

  2. This is what Christmas is really about. It is very touching to see people working so hard to help others.

  3. What a great Christmas experience! Tom and Maribel and all of you who helped to make this a reality for so many kids in rock! Karma baby, you will get back many returns! What a good fuzzy feeling! Take care.