Category Archives: The Women of Kolonbyè

Modeline Pierre 7

Modeline is waiting. She’ll give birth to her second child any day. So, her husband is doing most of the work and most of the running around for the couple these days.

For example, he has been attending Village Savings and Loan Association meetings for her, purchasing shares for the couple every week. They also took out a 3000-goud loan – a little less than $50 – for them to invest in his business plan. He purchased several trees of avocados before harvest. It was a good opportunity for someone willing to work hard. He would have to climb into the trees and pick the fruit just before they were ripe. He’d put them in sacks, and then carry the sacks, one-by-one down the mountain to the roadside to get them to trucks that would haul them for sale in Mirebalais, Lascahobas, or Port au Prince.

But Hurricane Irma’s winds took most of the avocados off the trees before they were ready. He only harvested six sacks full that could be sold. And the bad luck didn’t end there. The truck he loaded the sacks onto broke down on its way to market, leaving his avocados to rot. It was a total loss. He’ll have to work hard, farming for neighbors, to earn the cash to repay the loan.

He has also been doing most of the care for their livestock. Their pig continues to grow, and three of their four goats are pregnant.

Modeline is worried about one of the goats, however. “It’s been really sick. It couldn’t even stand up to eat.” As its condition worsened, it was also attacked by external parasites. These often flourish as a goat sickens, making its condition even worse. But Modeline fed the goat by hand and began giving it regular baths to fight the parasites. She says that she started finding them dead in its fur. The goat has started to stand up and move around a little. It’s too early to say whether she’s been able to save it, but it’s better off than it was.

Her house is almost finished. It still needs doors and windows, but all the lumber is ready. Modeline is just waiting for the builder to get around to the job.

She chose have the house built right next to her mother’s house, and initially that made a lot of sense. Her stepfather had always been kind to her. He helped is mother raise her after the two left Kwafè, where she was born. And he continued to help support her even as he and her mother had a number of young children. Modeline eventually met her husband, but he lived mainly in the Dominican Republic, where he could find work to support her and their little girl. Staying close to her mother meant Modeline had adults nearby to help her and it also enabled her to babysit for her young siblings, which freed her mother and stepfather to work in their fields. It worked for everyone.

The resources that CLM made available to the family eventually convinced Modeline and her husband that he could do well staying at home, farming his mother’s land and taking care of Modeline’s livestock, and initially this led to conflict. Modeline and her husband suddenly found her stepfather troublesome. The older man seemed to resent the younger man’s desire to work independently for his wife and child. He too was trying to make money by buying and selling avocados, and he expected the younger man to work for him.

But Modeline says that the conflict has passed. The two men are now friends “de men nan kou.” That means that they have their hands around each other’s neck. It might sound like choking, but it really means that they are embracing. Modeline couldn’t be happier about it.

Now Modeline has a very simple ambition. She wants to be able to use her livestock to buy a cow, and then use the cow to buy land. The land that she and her husband work right now belongs to her mother-in-law. “Buying our own land is our dream.”

Rosana Mitil 7

Rosana wasn’t feeling well as we talked. She’s been plagued by a cold that she can’t seem to shake, and has had a toothache for the last few days as well. The toothache makes it hard to sleep, which only makes it more difficult to get over the cold. But the primary dental option in Fon Desanm and elsewhere in Kolonbye are tooth-pullers, rural practitioners who will extract a troublesome tooth cheaply. But cheaply is not free-of-charge, and Rosana has been resisting the expense for the time being.

One of her kids is sick with a feverish cold, too. It doesn’t seem serious enough to go to a clinic, so for now she’s trying to wait it out, hoping it will pass. But with her eight kids and her grandchild all crowded into the small, two-room house with Rosana and her husband, it is rare for only one child to be sick. The children pass their colds and fevers around. For Rosana, that’s just part of having her big family.

She’s unhappy these days that her small commerce disappeared again. This version was created with money she borrowed from her Village Savings and Loan Association. She took out a loan for 7500 gourds – about $120 – and invested 4000 in her business. The other 3500 went into her farming. But the 4000 gourds in her business were not able to generate enough profit for her to repay a 7500-gourd loan, especially while she was using some of her sales to help with household expenses as well. So, with each reimbursement, the business got smaller. The final repayment cleaned it out entirely.

She had turned her three goats into six, but she’s back to five, and soon expects to have just four. She sold a small buck, one of her original goats’ first offspring, to help with school fees. And her boys recently came across one of her adult nanny goats lying with a foot broken where they had left it tied to graze. To all appearances, it had been struck by a thrown rock. The nanny had been pregnant, and miscarried. Rosana thinks it will eventually die since it can’t get around to feed. Her two other adult females are pregnant, and they should have their litters soon.

All this leaves her worried about graduating, but it doesn’t leave any question in her mind about her progress. She has livestock now, and a house with a solid roof. So, when it rains, “I only know it because I hear it.”

In the meantime, she and her husband are focused on their farming. A good crop might be enough to make a big difference.

Altagrace Brevil 7

Altagrace is having a hard time. “Things aren’t working. Pa gen aktivite.” That means, literally, that there’s no activity, but it’s often used by someone to say that she has no business, no economic activity. Altagrace borrowed 7000 gourds – about $112 – from her Village Savings and Loan Association, ostensibly to create a small commerce. But she hasn’t been able to pay it back. She felt so embarrassed that she stopped going to the weekly meetings. She has had to send her children to school without uniforms because she needs to focus on repayment.

She used 3000 of the 7000 gourds to repay a previous debt, having borrowed that money from her mother-in-law to rent a small plot of land to farm. She used another 2000 gourds to buy a bed, the first one that she and her husband have ever had. That left her too little left to start anything substantial enough to enable her to repay the loan.

She thought of investing the rest of it in produce that she could send for sale in Port au Prince, but she’s watched recently as neighbors have lost their investment because the old trucks used to take produce from the countryside into the city break down frequently, leaving produce to spoil. It seemed too risky.

But she finally decided that she needs to return to her Association, facing whatever criticism the other members throw her way. So, she borrowed 2500 gourds from her brother-in-law, who is a coffin maker. That will be enough to pay the late payment fees and take a big first step towards reimbursing the loan itself, but it will still leave a large balance. She’ll be able to chip away at it by selling plantains from her garden, but won’t be able to fully pay the debt until she and her husband bring in the harvest from the rented land. And it is poor land, so they couldn’t plant a high-revenue crop like black beans. They planted pigeon peas and manioc instead. And catching up with her payments is important to her because Altagrace likes the Association. “It’s useful. I’ve already taken out two loans,” she explains.

Her husband returned recently after spending a few weeks in the Dominican Republic, looking for work. “He couldn’t get far because he didn’t have much money.” He stayed near the border, but wasn’t able to find anything. There’s plenty for them to do in their fields right now. It’s time for weeding, which is a lot of work. And he can find day jobs in others’ fields, too. The latter is important because the cash it brings in is still a large part of what keeps the family fed.

Meanwhile, her livestock is increasing in value slowly. What were two goats are now four, and one is pregnant. And her hog is growing and getting fat. Even so, she thinks of her fields as her most important activity. “My hope is my garden.”

Solène Louis 7

Solène feels as though she’s made a lot of progress since she first joined the CLM program. She talks about her house and her livestock. She talks about her new-found ability to save. And she summarizes her list of changes with encouraging words, “Now I have hope.”

Her children started school the year before she joined CLM. Their education is important to her. But she didn’t have the money to finish paying the fees, so they weren’t able to complete the year. The school principal eventually sent them home.

Her first year in CLM, then, was the first schoolyear her kids were able to complete. But Solène made an interesting decision. Both of the children passed their exams to enter second grade, but she decided she wanted them to repeat first grade nonetheless. “I just didn’t feel as though they’d learned enough.” She made the decision knowing that it means one more year of school she’ll have to pay for each child. Unlike many of the other CLM members, she had several years of schooling herself, so she feels competent to judge. In fact, she sometimes earns a little money on the side by tutoring some of her neighbors’ children.

Life is cheerful now in her lakou, the small yard on the top of a little hill where she built her house. The land belongs to her father-in-law, and he lives with her, her husband, and the kids. Solène says that he is as happy as she is about the house they have been able to build. They made the extra investment necessary to build four rooms, three more than the CLM program demands and two more than most families build. “My father-in-law’s in the house with us, and the kids will start to get big and I’ll want them out of my bedroom,” Solène explains. So, it took more time and more money than it had to take, but the family no longer worries about rain. The house still lacks some finishing touches: the shutters and the galatan, which is the ceiling that closes off the part of the roof that hangs over the front porch. And Solène still owes the builder 500 gourds – a little more than $8 – but she plans to hold on to the money until he does the rest of the work.

Solène and her husband continue to focus on their farming. She borrowed 8000 gourds from her Village Savings and Loan Association to plant beans, and the couple should see their harvest in a couple of months. She has fallen behind in her repayments, though. The Association’s rules require monthly payment of part of the capital along with some interest. But she has resigned herself to the penalty she’ll have to pay because she’ll wait until she sells her beans to repay the whole sum.

She could have started paying already, but she came across another opportunity. She found someone willing to sell her a calf in its mother’s womb. Because it’s still unborn, it will cost her only 6000 gourds, which is several thousand less than she would probably have to pay otherwise. The calf should be born in April, and she’ll have until then to come up with the 2000 gourds she still owes. She made a down payment of 4000 already.

Her other assets are increasing in value slowly. She had three goats, but one died. The other two, however, are getting big. Both are healthy and pregnant, and they should produce litters in December. She was able to sell meat from the one that died for 3000 gourds, but rural Haitians who buy meat from a deceased animal do so on credit. Her buyers won’t pay her until November, when she expects to use the money to replace the lost goat. She did better with her pig. She took care of the one we gave her, fattened it up and sold it. She used most of the money to rent farmland, but she also replaced the larger pig with a smaller one.

She continues to manages her small commerce, which she sees as an important investment. She had 2500 gourds in it, but school-related expenses at the beginning of the year ate into the total, and it’s down to only 1000 gourds. “I won’t let it getting any smaller, though. I need to buy shares in the Savings and Loan Association every week,” she explains.

The Association meets weekly, and each week its members can buy from one to five shares at a price the group determined together when it was established. The share price for her group is fifty gourds, and she counts on her commerce to provide at least that much each week, in addition to the contribution it makes towards managing her household. Solène values membership in the Association because it has enabled her to save about 5000 gourds already, though, as she says, “The poor don’t save.”

Marie Yolène Théus 7

Yolène is starting to worry about graduation, although it is still about four months away. At the last three-day training workshop, which she attended with the other CLM members of her cohort, CLM field staff discussed the results of the twelve-month evaluation for each of the women. That evaluation is done with the same survey we use to evaluate them for graduation. And the team also held their first detailed discussion of evaluation criteria.

She knows she has to complete her home repair to graduate, and she’s not concerned about that. Her new house is finished except for its windows, and she already has the wood that she’ll need for that job. She still needs to pay for the wood, though. She bought it on credit. But she should be able to find the money she needs.

She’s more concerned about the value of her assets. Our criterion for asset value is designed to show whether a member has been able to increase what we have given her through her own efforts. Yolène has focused almost entirely on livestock, and her animals haven’t yet increased as much as she would have liked. So, she’s afraid that it won’t be enough.

She certainly hasn’t had much luck. Each of her two goats had two kids, but none of the four survived, so she still has only two goats. They are pregnant again, and they’ve grown significantly since she first received them, but they haven’t gained enough value to make a big difference in her total. Her pig had five piglets, but only two survived.

But although the piglets are still small, they are starting to grow, and the sow is pregnant again. With a couple of months ahead of her during which they should continue to gain value, and her continued savings through her Village Savings and Loan Association, Yolène should have enough to graduate, but she doesn’t have much confidence about it. And graduation is very much on her mind.

She has an objective for her livestock, one that many CLM members share. She’d like to buy a cow. Ownership of a cow confers status on a Haitian in the countryside, status that is importance both psychologically and practically. The poorest families can’t afford such a large or such a long-term investment. They have to focus their meager resources on immediate needs. Owning a cow puts someone in a different category in their own and their neighbors’ eyes. A cow could take a couple of years to provide a significant return, but owning one also puts you on an unwritten list in your community. If someone in the neighborhood has a piece of land they want to sell, they’ll consider you as a possible buyer. And for people like Yolène and her husband, who have been forced to work as sharecroppers and day laborers all their adult lives because they’ve never had their own land to farm, taking a step towards buying farmland is a top priority.

She has been talking about her plan with her case manager, Martinière, and has discovered that they don’t agree about the next step to take. Martinière, she says, doesn’t really believe in her sow. The two small piglets that survive are too little production. He’s advised her to fatten and sell the sow and then focus her attention on raising one or both of the piglets, which are also females.

But for Yolène, the fact that the sow had a litter already makes it a proven thing, even if its production thus far has been meager. She wants to hold on to the sow and sell the piglets instead. Since she won’t sell either until December, she has some time to talk further with Martinière and to make her decision. What is encouraging is that she is clearly listening closely to his advice while also confident in her sense that the decision is hers.

While we were chatting, Yolène was hard at work. She had just finished talking with Martinière, and he had given her homework. He had written her name in block letters across the top of a page in a student’s notebook, and she was copying it, letter-by-letter. She says that learning to write her name is important. And she explained: “When I went to get an ID card, they asked me to sign my name, and I couldn’t. I had to make a little cross instead. That really hurt.”

Monise Imosiane 7

Monise says that she’s begun to make progress.

She hasn’t been able to put the finishing touches on her house. It still needs a door and a galatan. The latter is a ceiling that covers the portion of a house’s roof that extends beyond its front room to cover the porch. Without one, the house is never really closed because someone could always climb in between the top of the wall and the roof. Monise couldn’t finish the work because she didn’t have the lumber. In fact, she had already borrowed lumber from two other members just to get as far as she has gotten, so she needed enough to both pay back the other members and finish repair of her own home.

She went to St. Juste, a member of the CLM Village Assistance Committee in her area, Fon Desanm, and a leader of the community, and she asked him what she should do. This was a new experience for Monise. “I never thought there was anyone in the community I could go to.” St. Juste was able to find her a tree that someone was willing to sell. She’d have to pay to have it cut down and then made into boards, but she found the money she needed to do so, and was excited to finally have the completion of her home within sight.

A last-minute change in plans made things easier. Talking with St. Juste and her case manager, Martinière, made it clear that she could buy enough planks already prepared. She wouldn’t have to cut down the tree after all, nor find skilled workers she would to prepare the lumber.

Her goats are healthy. Both of her older ones are pregnant. They should have their second litters of kids in December. Her female kid will be also ready to start reproducing soon. She hopes to sell the male in December so she can buy a small pig. Rearing pigs has become the centerpiece of her economic activities. Her first hog will be ready for sale to a butcher in December, and she plans to use the money to buy a cow. She’s already purchased a piglet from her mother even before the piglet is born. Between it and the one she’ll buy by selling her goat, she expects to have a boar to fatten and a sow to raise for the piglets it should provide.

On one hand, it’s nice to see her wealth grow, especially because it seems to follow a clear plan to continue her progress. On the other, it is a little concerning to see her depend so fully on livestock alone. She has no daily income. All of hers comes in lumps.

But she herself is not concerned. She explains that she and her mother are on really good terms. “Sometimes I have something and she doesn’t, and then I cook for both of us. Sometimes it’s the other way around. But we get by together.” Martinière paints a less rosy picture, though. “I’ve been speaking to the mother, because she’s too inclined to do everything for Monise. Monise has to learn to do things herself.” That’s something for her and Martinière to work on.

But that is just where Monise thinks she’s made the most progress. “I’ve learned to struggle on my own,” she explains. When she first joined the program, she depended on the fathers of her four children for almost everything. That’s where her hopes rested. She was waiting at the time for the youngest child’s father to return from the Dominican Republic with money for her and his child.

She’s learned, however, that she cannot depend on him or on any of the others. She has a new boyfriend, a cousin’s friend, and he’s the one who gave her the money for the wood to complete her home, but she’s taking a cautious attitude. She doesn’t think she should depend on him too much. She’s started to buy chickens as a way to cover the small expenses she occasionally needs to incur. So even here, she has a plan of her own.

Rosana Mitil 6

Rosana was initially reluctant to have her picture taken during our most recent conversation. “Jodi a m two lèd.” She had rushed from her home to the last day of the three-day refresher training she was attending, and she felt that she hadn’t given herself a chance to look good enough for a picture. A couple of the other women, however, encouraged her, and she eventually agreed. She put her foot down, though, about looking towards the camera.

Otherwise, she was in a good mood. She’s happy in her new house. From the program’s perspective, it’s finished. She herself, however, sees a couple of additional things she’d like to do. She wants to install a door between its two rooms, and she wants to paint it. She’s already chosen the colors: blue and chocolate-brown. The two rooms may seem very small. She and her husband have eight children and a grandchild living in it with her. But they spread somewhat into the one-room extension that they added to their goat shed as a temporary residence while the new house was going up in the old one’s place, and they make do.

She’s already registered three of the school-age children for the coming school year. She’d like to do more, but some of the younger ones, she thinks, can wait. They’ll have to.

The size of her household also makes her success at small commerce surprising. She took out a four-month loan of 7500 gourds, or about $120, from her Village Savings and Loan Association to get started.

She chose the sort of business our team might have been least likely to suggest. She sells basic groceries – rice, sugar, oil, and the like – out of her home. Such businesses are always hard to sustain in rural Haiti, even under the best circumstances, because the women who run them are under so much pressure to sell to their neighbors on credit. The women need to find ways to make sure they get paid without alienating potential customers, who can expect or even need special consideration. For CLM members, things can be even tougher, because they start with little respect from their neighbors, who can also tend to look at anything they have as a gift that they don’t really deserve. And it is also that much harder with a husband and nine children to feed. A household of eleven, with nine of eleven growing fast, can probably never have enough food. The tendency will always be to reach into the merchandise any time the kids seem a little hungry. Rosana must show great discipline to keep enough merchandise in the business itself.

She seems to understand the issues she’s facing very well, and continues to believe she can make it work, even though her goal for the business is limited. “There’s no profit in this. The profit is the food we eat.” She even knows that the business couldn’t and doesn’t stand up on its own. Her husband contributes to it regularly from his income selling day-labor to help keep the capital from drying up. But it enables her to keep her children fed while she looks to other areas to begin to build up her family’s wealth.

Her livestock is doing well. We gave her three goats, and she now has six, each of the original ones having produced a litter of one. Only one of the young is a buck, so within months she could have five reproducing nanny-goats. And she has a plan to add a small sow as soon as she harvests her fall crop of beans.

The crop will be critical for her. She has consistently attributed the hardships that she and her family have faced since entering the program to bad harvests. Two consecutive years of millet lost to disease, combined with the loss of last year’s crop of beans to high winds and heavy rains, have made it hard to keep her children minimally fed, let alone to make any progress. But the success of her small commerce enabled her to set aside the money she needed to prepare the family’s farmland to plant about eleven cans of beans, and she’s been able to buy eight cans of beans as seeds already. Fall crops tend to be more reliable than spring ones – though last year’s didn’t work out – so she seems hopeful, maybe for the first time since I met her.

Modeline Pierre 6

Modeline’s baby has been sick with diarrhea, but she’s been taking good care of her. She received oral rehydration fluid from the Haitian government’s child vaccination agent at his last visit, and she’s been making sure the baby drinks it. She was also pleased to learn that she can use coconut water, because there are plenty of coconuts where she lives.

Her livestock is increasing. She’s up to four goats from the two we gave her, and three of the four are pregnant. She worries some about her sow, though. It hasn’t gotten pregnant yet. She should probably sell it and buy another, but she can’t bring herself to do so. “It’s so tame! Even if it gets untied, it just strolls over and waits in the shade in front of my house.” She’s too happy with how easy the pig she got is to manage. This is something her case manager, Simon, will have to discuss with her, because if her sow doesn’t reproduce, there isn’t much use to having it.

Her house is almost finished, but a few final touches remain. Her husband has already prepared the palm planks they need to complete its last wall, and the hard lumber for its doors is ready too.

She says that her husband has been working really hard to get the work done. “L ap pase anpil mizè.” That means, “he’s suffering a lot,” and it’s indicative of the central change in Modeline’s life since she joined CLM. He used to spend most of his time working in the Dominican Republic. He was good about supporting her, but he wouldn’t stay around much because he couldn’t see how he could make a living at home.

But now he’s committed to staying at home with her, because the resources that CLM has made available to her enables him to work where they live. And both of them are much happier living this way. His mother was always willing to make land available for him to farm, but he never had the resources to take advantage of it. He now not only farms land she assigned to him, but he farms her land as a sharecropper, too. And they have a plan for further progress. One of the crops he planted is malanga, a starchy root. He and Modeline plan to use the proceeds from that crop to rent additional farmland. In the meantime, it’s avocado season, and the cash she’s been able to save allows him to buy avocadoes off their neighbors’ trees so he can lug them down for sale at the side of the road to passing produce trucks.

His increased presence had another consequence: their second child. But they are committed to family planning now. They have two children now, and two is enough. “If you’re always having children, you’re bound to move backwards.” She says she’s talked about this her husband, and he’s in full agreement. “He had to agree.”

The one area of her life that has seen little progress so far is small, but important. After more than a year in the program, Modeline still can’t sign her name. She appears to have some dyslexia, and if she is to get past it in the coming months, she and her case manager will have to work hard.

Below is her attempt to copy her name from my example:

Monise Imosiane 6

Monise says, “Things aren’t really good yet, but they are on their way.” She is into her new house, even though there is still some work to be done. It needs windows and a new door. She bought the tree that will be used to cut the lumber for 750 gourds, or about $12, but she needs another 750 to pay the men who will cut down the tree and slice the trunk into planks, and she doesn’t have that money yet.

Her livestock is doing well, despite a recent setback. She started with just two goats, and got them up to five. One of the kids, the largest of the three, just got sick, however, contracting diarrhea. She and her mother treated it with the natural remedies they know, but the kid was dead within a day of the first symptoms. Now she’s looking at its mother, which never grew the way that Monise had hoped it would, and she’s thinking of selling it. She plans to add some money to whatever she can get for it, and then buying a bigger, healthier-looking nanny-goat.

Her pig has flourished. She initially chose to raise a male and fatten it up for sale, rather than having to deal with a sow and its litter of piglets. Her mother already had a healthy sow, and two sows producing piglets in the same yard seemed like it would be too much to handle. The pig has grown well, though, and should be ready for sale by the end of the year. If all goes well, she’ll get enough for it to buy a small cow.

We often encourage members, especially those relatively successful with a pig, to set aside some of the money from the sale to buy another small pig, but Monise wants to reserve all of the sale’s proceeds to buy the best cow she can. So, she made another plan. Her mother’s sow is pregnant, but the older women has said that she’ll sell it after it weans the current litter. It is, Monise said, getting old. But the two women like raising pigs, and they want to have a female in the yard, so Monise took 500 gourds and purchased a piglet from her mother even before the piglet is born. She plans to take a female. Buying the piglet so young will mean that Monise’s profit will be much farther down the road, but it also enabled her to get it for a quarter or even a fifth of what she would pay for a weaned female in the market, which was important because with the school year ready to start she’s short of cash.

She’s managed to buy uniforms for only two of her three school-age children so far, having finally faced up to the fact that she cannot count on the children’s fathers. But she’s not sure how she’ll pay for the third child. She’s still not back in small commerce, and won’t be able to start again until she can get her hands on some capital. She’d like to borrow it from her Village Savings and Loan Association, but she ended up paying late fees on the first loan that she took out, so the Association and her case manager, Martinière, with whom they consult closely, has been slow to agree to a second loan.

Altagrace Brevil 6

Things are going well for Altagrace. We originally gave her three goats, and now she has six. Hers haven’t really reproduced yet, but she’s created some opportunities for herself to buy the additional ones.

For one thing, she and her husband had a good bean harvest because they got their crop planted early spring. Families in the area who decided to plant in March this year were generally successful, while those who waited until April were not. She and her husband planted in late March, so while their crop was not great, it was good.

They planted 13 coffee cans of beans in two plantings. She used 2500 gourds of savings from her cash stipend for the first planting, and 2000 gourds that she borrowed from her Village Savings and Loan Association for the second one. They harvested 37 cans. She used 2850 gourds from her harvest to buy a large nanny goat and 1800 gourds to buy a smaller buck. “I bought the buck because we sometimes have trouble finding them to mount our females, but I’m going to sell him at the end of the summer to help send the kids to school.”

She bought another female with 2000 gourds that the CLM program gave her to replace money that she lost because she accepted counterfeit bills the first time she tried to set up a business. She’s like to start a business again, but the model that appeals to her won’t work without a horse, donkey, or mule. She wants to buy loads of produce from farmers along the hillsides on each side of the river that runs from eastern Savanette to Mirebalais, and bring it to market for sale. She’s hoping that she’ll be able to buy the horse she needs once she sells her fall harvest of beans.

One of the most striking things about my conversation with Altagrace, however, was how confident she’s grown of her own worth. When I first met her she was shy, happy to let her husband do most of the talking for her. And he seemed to want to do the talking for them, too. He spent a lot of that first conversation ridiculing Altagrace, making fun of her because she had to leave school pregnant when she was just 13. He spoke dismissively of her and of her mother, whom they live with, too.

When I reminded her of the episode now, she just laughed. “He was just joking. He knows very well what I’ve done for him.”