The voices of the gravediggers
In his latest book, Peruvian writer Joseph Zárate follows the workers of a Lima funeral home -many of them Venezuelans-during the first months of the pandemic
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When Peru reached the highest death rate from covid-19 in the world, Peruvian journalist Joseph Zarate decided to accompany the owners and workers of a funeral home -many of them Venezuelan immigrants- who are overwhelmed by the dead left by the pandemic.
Together with these people of the "last line" of resistance against the scourge of the virus -as opposed to the medical personnel who occupied the front line -the author traveled through houses, streets, hospitals, funeral parlors, crematories and cemeteries in Lima to show the harrowing experience of those who made possible the final journey of the dead amidst a scenario of fear, grief and uncertainty.
The result of that experience is 'Algo nuestro sobre la tierra' (Literature Random House, 2021), a book that gathers these testimonies and merges them into a communal song of loss and desolation. A chorus that emerges from the bowels of a country devastated by the plague and the abandonment of its institutions. Its pages remind us of the fragile bond with life and the desire that, in the words of its author, "when we look back, we meditate on what we must do today, those of us who are still alive".
The voices of the gravediggers are the protagonists of this book - "Once there was a fat paw, a parapsychologist who said he could see ghosts. There are dogs that have fleas and can't sleep. And he told me: look at how the dog is annoyed, it's because of the souls" - writes Zárate in the words of one of the gravediggers, the real protagonists of this book.
As Mexican writer Emiliano Monge observes in his review of the book for El País, while recounting the Venezuelan migration, Zarate, "whose writing is a scalpel" - "you look at the ashes and you can't tell if that person had successes or failures, if he was Venezuelan or Peruvian, if he had children or if he killed someone. We are all the same when we are dust. That's what I learned at the crematorium" -, "presents the exhausting workdays of the corpse gatherers and those in charge of the ovens, as well as the endless labors of the gravediggers of the second largest cemetery in South America".
The Carmen Alto cemetery in Comas, Lima, is precisely the book's cover image.
"As reporters, we are like historians of the present. We try to give an account of what is happening around us," Zárate explained to the newspaper La República shortly after presenting his book. But in this particular case, in the context of the pandemic, there was something that pushed him even more to go out into the street, to tell what was happening and it has to do with a certain sense of duty. "To think of journalism not only as a vehicle to tell what is happening in reality but also as a kind of tool for people to realize or question what was going on. There were many, like now, who didn't believe in the pandemic. That's what pushed me, but also in the newsroom where I worked, I was one of the few who were healthy enough to go out on the street," explained the author.
On the other hand, he also wanted to highlight the suffering of Venezuelan migration during the pandemic. "In our continent, it is the political card that candidates use, the xenophobic card, especially in election times. They appear stigmatized, like when Peruvians went to Chile to look for work. In that part of the book, more than vindicating, I wanted to give a voice to the other", he added.
Joseph Zárate is a journalist and editor. He was deputy editor of the magazines Etiqueta Negra and Etiqueta Verde. He received the 2016 Ortega y Gasset Award for Best Story or Investigative Journalism. He has published chronicles and profiles for magazines and media such as The New York Times en Español, Ballena Blanca (Spain), Mundo Dinners (Ecuador), Buensalvaje (Colombia), Internazionale (Italy), and in journalism portals such as Ojo Público, Convoca, Gkillcity (Ecuador), Pointzine (Chile), International Boulevard and Univision (United States).