When tragedy struck Edith’s life, it felt like the end of the world. She disconnected from everything that gave her joy. But then, almost by accident, she found her way back, out of that dark place — through a screen.
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Translation by Patrick Moseley
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
In the 80s, Edith lived in Lima, Peru with her husband, Víctor, and her 3 children. She was a public school teacher. Víctor was a photographer.
Edith had golden hair which she wore in a braid. She didn’t wear makeup.
And her daughter Vanadis remembers that one day, when Edith was about to turn 40, her mom asked Víctor…
[Vanadis Phumpiu]: “When do you think I should start wearing makeup?” And my dad said: “When I think you need to start wearing makeup, I’ll let you know.”
[Daniel]: Vanadis remembers that moment perfectly, most of all because of what happened next.
[Vanadis]: And mom started wearing making up from the next day on.
[Daniel]: Edith just couldn’t stand the idea that one day her husband would tell her it was time to wear makeup. That she had gotten old.
And she still does now?
[Vanadis]: And she still does now. My mom never goes out without putting on makeup and earrings. Brooches, necklaces.
[Daniel]: Vanadis says that her mom isn’t vain. So, let’s say she takes care of herself. She pays attention to her appearance. Always.
[Vanadis]: One time we were walking down the street and she shouted “Ahhh!” And she grabbed her head and I thought she was finally getting sick or something. It was about time, honestly [laughs]. And I said, “What’s wrong?” “I’m not wearing earings!”
[Daniel]: As you can probably tell, Edith worries about her age. Birthdays, for example: ouff, it’s a whole thing. Even before she started wearing makeup.
[Vanadis]: She was always upset the week of her birthday, the whole month, you know, the week before and the week after. I don’t remember ever celebrating her birthday as a child.
[Eriván Phumpiu]: Until very recently I…I didn’t know how old my mom was, I think that I erased it from my mind because she didn’t like to say it. I didn’t even want to do the math, to avoid any problems with…with…with her, you know?
[Daniel]: That’s Eriván, Vanadis’ younger brother. We spoke over the phone because he’s in Germany where he lives with his wife and two children.
According to Vanadis and Erivan, Edith’s fear of getting old hasn’t allowed her to enjoy life to the fullest. She doesn’t realize what life is giving her at every stage…every decade.
[Vanadis]: Because she has always been thinking about how she’s getting older and how she’s going to look older. Being old.
[Eriván]: Sometimes I think that she should leave it to the side a little in order to be able to continue enjoying the life that she still has, you know, with her grandkids and with her kids. Well, also, she shouldn’t worry about how time is moving forward, as it does for everyone else too, you know?
[Daniel]: But Víctor loved her just the way she was. They couldn’t have been more different. Víctor was from the city, adventurous, daring. Edit was from a village in northern Peru, sort of shy. She even describes herself as small. And when you hear her, you get the impression that she’s not just referring to her size. This is Edith.
[Edith Cuba Villavicencio]: I was the smallest girl in the class. Even now I don’t know if I’m still the smallest person in the world, I think I am. [Laughs]
[Daniel]: And Víctor…
[Eriván]: My dad, well, he’s a real gentleman…like… really, from a different time, you know? I mean, he did so much to win over my mom that…Well…
[Daniel]: It was a long courtship. There were letters and unexpected visits. One day, Víctor went to the village on horseback to purpose to Edith and ask his future mother-in-law’s blessing. A heroic ask considering he had never ridden a horse in his life.
Víctor and Edith were in love. And they were happy.
[Edith]: He was the sweetest person with me. Like I said, every morning he would say: “Monita, I love you so much.”
[Eriván]: I’ve never seen my dad, for example, call out my mom or say anything mean to her.
[Vanadis]: My dad treated her like a queen.
[Daniel]: Edith’s idiosyncrasies, her worries about getting older, aren’t out of the ordinary. Quite the opposite. Some way or another, we’re all affected by it at some point in our lives.
I’m 41 years old and I feel like the past 20 years flew by in an instant. I imagine the next 20 will go by just as fast. I think back on moments in my life, really important moments in when I was happy and surrounded by people I love and then I realize that, in some cases, I haven’t seen those friends in a decade. Or more.
And my people, my generation, hasn’t even started dying yet.
Víctor. Photographer, father of 3, Edith’s husband, died young. He was only 48.
[Vanadis]: Eh, my dad never put salt on his food because he had high blood pressure. He just rode his bike. He never smoked.
[Eriván]: And well, that’s how it was: he’s admitted to the hospital on Friday and by Monday it’s his wake. I mean, from one moment to the next. It was a situation that no one saw coming.
[Vanadis]: There are things you can’t explain to yourself — with so much care and exercise, and— then that can happen to you.
[Daniel]: It was a stroke. Vanadis was barely 18, Eriván was 16. Her older sister, Varinia, was 22.
[Edith]: When he died, I said: “He got tired. He left me with 3 children”. It was… It was…
[Vanadis]: Mom, even about that… you’re too radical.
[Edith]: Yes, that’s how I felt. He abandoned me. He got tired and left me with 3 kids and left. And that feeling of abandonment felt like…felt like…it…my cousins actually got divorced.
[Vanadis]: That’s abandonment!
[Edith]: Listen, just listen. So I felt like it was an egg that was thrown from high up and splattered on the ground.
[Vanadis]: But by you or by him?
[Edith]: I was saying, the abandonment felt very, very intense. No one…no one could explain how someone who said he loved me could abandon me like that.
[Eriván]: And when dad dies, it’s like everything…shuts off for mom.
[Vanadis]: My mom wouldn’t eat. She wouldn’t talk. She dressed in black.
[Eriván]: She didn’t have the initiative to, I don’t know, go to a movie, or go anywhere or invite someone over for dinner. She didn’t have the initiative to those things, you know.
[Edith]: He passed away and I blocked everything out…that beautiful thing that connect me, you know, to the world.
We listened to the radio a lot. We loved it…it was…there was always something: RPP news. And we woke up to that, with it, you know?
Víctor died and I forgot.
I completely forgot.
I never turned the radio on in the morning again.
[Eriván]: Sometimes I would try, uh, to get her active, you know? I tell her… Because my mom would always tell me “Ah, I want to go a movie”, and all that. Sometimes we did take her to a movie. But it didn’t matter, she had no initiative. I don’t know, I would say to her: “But why not, if you want to go a movie, why don’t you go?”
I think she stopped enjoying those…those moments in which being by yourself is pleasant, you know, completely.
[Daniel]: And in moments like that, what do you do? When you go from hearing “monita, I love you” every morning for decades to waking up alone. In a cold room. In absolute silence…
[Edith]: I’ll never find a man like Víctor. An amazing person. It’s like everything had died. My companion, my lover, my confidant, everything, absolutely everything.
[Daniel]: After Víctor died, Edith sold a few of his things —editing equipment that wasn’t going to be used anymore —and with that money, Edith opened a store where she sold natural products.
[Eriván]: We were lucky that we were able to get that store off the ground because it helped mom a lot too, I mean, it kept her occupied. And more than being occupied, she had contact with a lot of people. It was interesting, because it wasn’t just the customers we were in contact with, but also the people in the neighborhood were very…very weird.
[Daniel]: I know the area well. Even though it’s changed a lot, it still has its share of characters. Eriván remembers several. A really tall man who came dancing into the store. A boy who wouldn’t go anywhere without his Rottweiler. A couple —a bodybuilder and a girl who always went around on rollerblades—Eriván remembers them all fondly and how fun it was to be there in the afternoons after school. Those were good times for him.
But what he remembers most is the relief he felt knowing that his mom was back in touch with the world…
But something was missing. Some spark, some joy.
One birthday, about 10 years after Víctor’s death, Edith asked for a computer. And so… They gave her one. She didn’t have any idea how to use it, or even what to do with it. But she wanted it.
After a while, Eriván went to live out of the country and as a good, very patient son, he got her set up with an email address. So they could write each other.
Edith took a beginner’s course in computers where they taught her the basics: The web browser, how to use programs like Word and PowerPoint…
[Eriván]: And at some point, of course, she does what a mom does when she has an email account. She’s going to send a bunch of PowerPoints, right?
[Daniel]: I get those too.
I should clarify: I don’t get them from my parents, but all the same, let’s just say I know what he’s talking about. I’m sure you do too. Twenty pictures of ocean sunsets with inspirational quotes in italics. Maybe we’ve seen the same PowerPoint or gotten the same chain letter….
But believe it on not, those were Edith’s first steps toward new life.
One day, she said she’d heard of something called Facebook. It seems like her friends and sisters were using it.
[Eriván]: But she didn’t understand it, she didn’t…know what it was.
[Daniel]: Eriván explained what it was about. That it was a network for sharing things: pictures, news, but most of all it was about connecting with friends and telling people what’s going on in your life. And of course, Edith wanted an account.
[Eriván]: Eh, I helped her…get an account. I asked her for her information, you know. And in the end it seems like she wasn’t going to give me her birth year, and I was like; “Well, ok, I’m going to put my birth year”, and I put 77, right?
[Edith]: Facebook still has me as being Eriván’s age because he set it up for me. Not me. I almost never say my…my age.
[Vanadis]: I mean, how old are you on Facebook? 39?
[Edith]: I’m, uh, Eriván’s age.
[Edith]: I’m turning 40! [Laughs]
[Eriván]: I remember my mom told me: “I don’t understand. I don’t understand. There’s a lot of information… I don’t know what to do”. And well, I thought: “That’s it, you know, it doesn’t come easy to everyone.”
But after some time…
[Vanadis]: My mom flew through the house to get on Facebook.
[Eriván]: I saw her start posting and posting and commenting and commenting.
[Vanadis]: She didn’t know log in on other computers.
[Eriván]: With Facebook, sending PowerPoints over email…that was a thing of past…
[Vanadis]: But my mom starting to suffer a kind of distancing.
[Eriván]: And well, I saw that she was hooked in a way, you know?
[Vanadis]: And uh…Facebook for her is…essential.
[Daniel]: Yeah, of course: for her and millions of other people. But, why?
[Eriván]: She got in touch with people she hadn’t seen in decades.
[Vanadis]: Friends of hers who live in other countries.
[Eriván]: Friends from…from childhood.
[Vanadis]: When they’ve asked her to have some kind of reunion, she’s had a reunion with people from her graduating class.
[Eriván]: She went to her village to meet with some of her students, and that somehow activated her, you know? It…it made her…have a social life that she didn’t have before, that she had lost.
[Daniel]: But it wasn’t just the reunions with people from her past, but also with herself.
[Vanadis]: First there were just pictures of her grandchildren. And then my mom started putting up pictures I had never seen in my life from when she was young, from when she was 15, 14, 16.
[Daniel]: Facebook was becoming a way of remembering who she had been before Víctor died. Rediscovering her past. A past that for years had felt distant.
And how, all of a sudden, wasn’t anymore.
[Eriván]: She also started having contact with things she used to like, music from her time. Some scenes from movies she likes, you know?
[Daniel]: And it wasn’t just good for Edith. Her children feek that, thanks to Facebook, they have recovered something…
[Eriván]: I notice that she has something more to tell me too, you know? Something else to say to me and…that’s what had been missing for a while, you know?
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break…
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
And here I have to make a confession.
I deactivated my Facebook account a few years ago. I don’t even remember doing it, honestly. Edith understands it better than me, no question, but I never liked it. I think that at some point I got up to like, I don’t know, 14 friends? And well, it already seemed overwhelming to me. There are people who have 500 or 1000 friends and I can’t even imagine how they do it.
And on top of that, I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of social networks. Of course, I’m on Twitter, but I don’t take it very seriously. I use it almost exclusively to make silly comments about football, a dumb hobby. But I read my timeline and I wonder if this constant flow of information helps or rather hurts the way we relate to each other.
It’s an important question, now more than ever. For many, Facebook has stopped being an inoffensive distraction and has become a nefarious tool to manipulate and distort democracy. Every day there are new reports about how the platform violates users’ privacy or spreads fake news.
Do you remember what life was like before Facebook? When you would lose touch with people? And pretty regularly, a name from your past would pop up and you would ask yourself “Oh, whatever happened to So-and-so?”
That doesn’t happen with Facebook, obviously. I mean, that uncertainty. Because you type “So-and-so” in the search bar and bam…
Ok, what I’m getting at is that that ability to disappear also represents an ability to reinvent yourself. In other words, I’m lucky Facebook didn’t exist when I was a teenager. Just thinking about it makes my head spin.
I can be a different version of myself without having to lug around that past, and every version of the person I have been with me. Forever.
Without Facebook, you can imagine who those people from your past are, who they’ve become. And it works for yourself: you can imagine who you’ll be without having to always be on display, putting out an idealized version of who you are.
On top of that— and this may be the main issue—, who has the time to keep up with all of the weddings, weekends, baby pictures and birthdays and everything else, with hundreds of friends and acquaintances that accumulate over the course of your life?
But ok. My complaints about Facebook are nothing new, and maybe they’re even pedantic. Fine. When I spoke with Edith, when she, Vanadis and Eriván told me about that change getting on Facebook represented for her I thought: “Oh, ok. So that’s what it can be about. That is what it can be good for.”
Let’s get back to Edith’s story. Because first it was the computer, then the email, then Facebook. But she was missing the next step: entering the cellphone age. The smartphone.
[Vanadis]: And she said: “No, I don’t understand smartphones. I mean what are they for?”
[Daniel]: But they explained to her that she could use it to get on Facebook, whenever, wherever she was. So she said yes. Alright. Let’s try it out.
[Edith]: And then I was trapped by the…the device.
[Daniel]: The cellphone. She was looking at her screen more and more. And according to Vanadis, she was more absent from her life. She could even tell in family photos…
[Vanadis]: I’m taking a picture of the kids and she’s in the background with her phone.
[Eriván]: I think if she were a teenager you would say: “Come on, you need to spend more time with people in the real world.” But if you’re in this case, at a distance, your social circle is all over, in her case…it’s a necessary way to connect with…with all of them.
[Daniel]: And maybe the difference in perspective between Vanadis and Eriván is due to the fact that Eriván lives far away. Vanadis, who sees her mom all the time, is bothered by her mom’s cellphone obsession. While Eriván, who’s in Germany, thousands of miles from Lima, thinks it’s cool that Edith can feel so close.
[Vanadis]: Tell Dani. I was in the forest— or Argentina, I don’t remember— and I called and you told me: “Here, well, I’m disconnected in Chocaya.” And I said “But if we’re talking on the phone, how are you not connected?” “I don’t have Facebook!” [Laughs]
[Edith]: I’m leaving, I can’t watch a video. I…I can’t watch…anything! I can’t send a message. Nothing!
[Vanadis]: She’s bad when she doesn’t have service. She gets frustrated. It…it causes her anxiety. If her battery runs out, or something like that. She gets bored. She wants to leave.
[Daniel]: She takes her device everywhere. Well…not everywhere.
[Edith]: I don’t go to the bathroom with my phone. [Laughs]
[Daniel]: If what she’s saying is true, Edith is in a very small minority of smartphone users in the world.
But anyway, if Facebook represents the final stage in a long process of recovering from grief, it’s a process that up to now had occurred behind screens.
There’s still a step further…
[Vanadis]: Have you received any indecent proposals?
[Edith]: Indecent? No, they were decent.
[Vanadis]: Did you accept?
[Edith]: Yeah [Laughs] No, really, I did.
[Vanadis]: Oh yeah?
[Daniel]: Even though Edith doesn’t think so, she looks very young. She looks really good.
[Eriván]: My mom doesn’t have a single white hair. And a lot of people think she dyes her hair and everything. There are more wrinkles, things my mom doesn’t even want to, uh, comment on, but…but in general, I mean, I don’t know…It’s like looking at Mick Jagger from far away. You can’t quite tell how old he is, well, that’s how it seems to me. [Laughs]
[Daniel]: Edith. The Mick Jagger of Cajabamba. The woman who never changes. I’m not going to say how old she is, firstly, because she hasn’t told me, but secondly: out of respect. It also doesn’t matter. She’s a beautiful woman. And funny.
And it seems like more than one guy on Facebook has noticed. It’s hard for Edith to believe it.
[Vanadis]: And I remember you would tell me they wanted to see you and you didn’t want them to see you like that. And all I said to you was that times goes by the same for everyone, what are you afraid of?
[Daniel]: The same thing we’re all afraid of, I suppose. That we don’t live up to the idealized image that we project on Facebook.
But you have to overcome those fears. And Edith is in the thick of it.
When I interviewed Vanadis and Edith in Lima, I didn’t think that this part of the story would be so important. Because I didn’t know that her return to life was no longer metaphorical, that it had gone from the virtual world into the real world.
But later I realized what that represent. How vital it was to include this part, because it encapsulates Edith’s true rebirth.
And well, it turns out she has a suitor. A man from her village, Cajabamba, who looked her up after many years.
So I decided to interview her again. I was in New York and Edith was in Lima. So we decided to do it remotely. As you can imagine, the only way Edith answers the phone is over Facebook. I reactivated my account just to talk to her…
And I have to admit, it was one of the most fun interviews of my life.
Ok, let’s get back to the suitor, the man from Cajabamba.
Edith hadn’t seen him since she was teenager, but she still remembers him.
[Edith]: He was always ready to help. And if you asked him to do something, he would do it right away. And he was well-known in Cajabamba, really well-known.
He was the first person to bring over, it think it was, the mambo. He started dancing the mambo. He used to dance. He was a dancer. He had a partner who he took the the dance club.
[Daniel]: He started chatting with her over Facebook messenger. Let’s say he was insistent…
[Edith]: He told me: “I remember you. I have a picture of you.” I say to him: “Impossible. From where? how?” I had never given it to him. And he said: “You”… He told me things about my childhood and I told him “no, you’ve made a mistake.” Well…
[Daniel]: Why didn’t want to acknowledge that it was you? If you remembered him, he was from your village…
[Edith]: Because he would tell me he had been in love with me. And that…bothered me, I would say: “Why? No?” And that he wanted to see me again. And I didn’t…[Laughs] well I didn’t want that, I would think “what for,” you know? There was no need.
[Daniel]: Until one day he wrote her…
[Edith]: “I know it’s you.” And he told me “You used to have a bit of a limp.” So honestly, I couldn’t deny talking to him about who I was: Edith.
[Daniel]: The man wanted to see her. In real life. Off the internet. To give her that picture that he had kept for so many years.
And that was what finally convinced her.
That day, Edith put on a blue dress. They decided to meet in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary in the district of Lima called Magdalena del Mar. He showed up in a red Ford.
The man got out…
[Edith]: And it had a big impact on me because I was frozen there [Laughs]. I thought I was going to see a handsome young man, you know? And what I saw was, well, an older man.
[Daniel]: Like Eriván said: “Time goes by the same for everyone.” The suitor was attentive and kind. Edith says he was even romantic. They got in the car. And then…
[Edith]: He took the picture out of his wallet, so I could see he wasn’t lying, you know?
[Daniel]: It as a photo of Edith when she was about 17. She’s in the plaza of Cajabamba with two of her cousins. Edith thought it was a very nice picture.
[Edith]: I was flattered. I was, like I said, I must have forgotten a lot of things because I was… I was really, really, nervous. Super nervous, you know?…
[Daniel]: And the suitor told her that the photo was a gift for her. He confessed that he had a copy at his house, one that was blown up. And Edith…
[Edith]: I wasn’t expecting that, you know, least of all at my age, I couldn’t believe that someone would be in love with me. I didn’t…I didn’t have any situation like that in mind.
[Daniel]: They went to an ice-cream shop nearby. It was small and cute. It was picture perfect. They sat inside at a corner table. Facing one another…
They talked about their village, Cajabamba, and the lovely and peaceful childhood they had there.
[Edith]: And he asked me: “You never thought about me romantically?” I told him that honestly I hadn’t. I hadn’t ever thought about any boy.
[Daniel]: For Edith, it had always been Víctor. Only Víctor. But on Facebook, on that screen that many of us view with cynicism, with sadness –that screen for Edith meant a second chance.
To be there with that friend, feeling loved, the center of attention, something started to change. And I think that she realized something important: that somehow or another, we all deserve the opportunity to be happy.
[Edith]: Why not? You know? It doesn’t have to be the same kind of person, it would have to be a good person… Not necessarily the same a Víctor, you know?
I let go of that…that situation that there’s never going to be someone like Víctor, you know, I’m not going to get that.
[Daniel]: So it’s not about replacing Víctor. It’s about living.
[Edith]: I really lost time, because if I had been putting out good energy, you know, thinking about what things life was going to give me, I would have attracted similar kinds of people to me, you know?
[Daniel]: And there, in that ice-cream shop in Magdalena, with that friend, she was happy. Like in that picture in Cajabamba.
Have you seen the man with the photo again?
[Edith]: Yes, after that I’ve seen him several other times. [giggles]. Eh… [Laughs] And well…, hmmm… Oh, I don’t know. I’m embarrassed [Laughs] I’m embarrassed!
[Daniel]: Edith Cuba Villaviciencio lives in Lima…and on Facebook.
This story was produced by me with the help of Luis Fernando Vargas and edited by Camila Segura. Mixing and sound design are by Ryan Sweikert.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Andrés Azpiri, Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Moseley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
With this episode we are saying goodbye to our friend and colleague Ryan Sweikert. Ryan has done the sound design for several of our favorite stories in the past two seasons. The whole team would like to say thank you, Ryan. And I’m sure the listeners do too. Good luck in everything you do.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this episode on our website: radioambulante.org.
And join our Club de Podcasts, a private Facebook group were we talk about that week’s episode with other listeners and members of our team. Search for us under: Club de Podcast Radio Ambulante. Another way to communicate with us is through our Whatsapp list. Sent a message to the number +57 322 9502192 and stay in touch. I repeat: +57 322 9502192. Jorge assures me that there’s no spam, but we will keep up up to date with new episodes and you can record voice messages with comments, criticism, questions, complaints and greeting for the whole team.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.