We found Norma watering flowers at the foot of a long wall of niches. She was wearing a worn blue smock over a cotton skirt and a pair of practical running shoes. “Sure,” she got it right away, “I know what you want, and yes, there are lots of stories here, some already well-known, others not.”
“Of course I’ll pay you for your stories,” I was anxious to convince her. “Do you think you can come to my place for lunch?”
“Can I bring two friends? Caretakers, like myself.” She made it clear she wouldn’t come alone.
A week later, three freelance cemetery caretakers (two Normas and one Alicia) showed up at my door. The stories unfolded one after the other, so fast it was hard to keep up. They told me a few ghost stories, some of which were standard fare but, they assured me, “Our version is the truth and it’s better.” They described the doing and undoing of curses and told me how they had heard scratching on coffins from people who had been being buried alive. They related how they had once been trapped in the cemetery after curfew during Pinochet’s rule and how they had seen soldiers dump bodies into a common grave. They told me how spirits followed them to the gates at the end of the day to protect them from vandals and how playful ghosts played jokes on co-workers. The Normas and Alicia stayed and talked for hours.
What cut me the deepest was the reality of their own lives, the fact that they were so desparately poor and at the mercy of their ‘patrones,’ whose family tombs they cleaned and groomed. Santiago General Cemetery has more than 400 freelance cemetery caretakers, most of them women. The work is informal, the patrons paying according to their conscience. Basically the caretakers work for tips. But they hope to earn between $7 and $10 per month per patron. Often the patrons forgot to stop by or they’re months late or maybe they deliberately avoid paying. In spite of that, the caretakers continue with the work in consideration of their muertitos (little dead ones). And because, well, what else can they do?
The two Normas and Alicia all inherited their Patios from their mothers who were caretakers before them. Like most other positions in Chile, it’s who you know. The striking thing was that they didn’t seem to consider any other options; it was as though their prescribed lot in life was to follow in their mothers’ footsteps and they considered themselves lucky to inherit the jobs.
Anyway, during lunch and without warning, tears started rolling down Norma’s cheeks. She said, “I’m so grateful. The day I ran into you at the cemetery I was begging my muertitos for a miracle. I promised to do anything if they would bring me some money. I was willing to crawl up onto the roofs and do a proper cleaning… anything. I had no money for tea or even for rice. My power was cut off too, and I had no gas for my stove. Then you showed up and made me this offer. My muertitos saw to it. They didn’t let me suffer long.”
As far as I know, Norma still works in the same Patio; her days are long and full of empty promises but then there’s the occasional miracle. Norma was the inspiration for ‘Hard Bed Hotel.’