Hugging Her Daughter’s Ragdoll
On the night of March 9, 2019, in the middle of the national blackout that had begun two days earlier, outside the Hospital Central de Valencia, the journalist Heberlizeth González bumped into a women carrying her dead daughter in her arms. She posted an interview with the woman on her social networks, which quickly went viral. This meant that Gitsy received help to bury Gitverlis, her little girl.
On the night of Saturday March 9, 2019, the country has been in darkness for two days. And paralyzed. Those 48 hours felt like many more. The general blackout that began on Thursday March 7 continued. In the midst of uncertainty, I couldn’t stay at home. I’m a journalist and I had to report on what was happening. Around 7pm, I put two pastries in a lunch bag, filled a thermos with water and asked my husband, Carlos, to go for a drive.
After charging my phone, I saw posts circulating on social networks that shocked me. That so many people had died at the Caracas University Hospital, so many others at the Manuel Núñez Tovar Hospital in Maturín. All because of the blackout. That’s why I told Carlos to take Avenida Lisandro Alvarado towards Ciudad Hospitalaria Dr. Enrique Tejera—the central hospital in Valencia, and the biggest in the center of the country—to find out the situation there.
We arrived. No one had died. Everything surrounding the hospital was dark, but inside the generator was working. I stayed there until 10pm, and as we were getting ready to go home, the headlights lit up a woman walking in the darkness.
I saw that she had something in her arms, but couldn’t make out what it was. It seemed like a child, a girl. Or maybe a teenager? Carlos pulled over when we neared the woman. I leaned out of the window and asked her:
“Where are you going, señora? What’s in your arms? Is it a girl?”
“I’m taking her to the morgue. She’s my daughter. She’s dead.”
In that moment, with those words, our story began: lifeless Gitverlis carried in the arms of her mother, Gitsy.
Gitsy’s arms were already used to carrying the 10 kilos that her adult daughter weighed. Four days earlier, she had turned 19, but she was as small and fragile as a child. “My girl, my girl,” Gitverlis called her. She was born on March 5, 2000. On that day too, Gitsy had had to walk a long way with her daughter, not in her arms but in her womb, alive. After walking many kilometers, she arrived at the Hospital Central de Valencia, where, for nearly two decades, she would continue to bring her, as her life diminished. She was having labor pains and the baby was about to come out. A doctor inserted a cloth into Gitsy’s vagina to prevent the birth until someone could attend to her. Hours later, the child was born. Her skin, nails and lips were purple. The delayed birth would forever mark the course of her life. After a year, she was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, as they explained to Gitsy, caused by the “mala praxis” during the birth. Then the treatments and therapies began, trying to give her a better quality of life.
Some of the therapies took place in the Integral Diagnostic Center (IDC) close to her house. When she was 12, during one of these procedures, an inexperienced Cuban doctor broke her hip. They didn’t go back there again.
Because of her condition, Gitverlis needed a special diet, with lots of vitamins, protein and supplements. But Gitsy couldn’t afford them anymore. By 2016, she had already stopped buying PediaSure nutrient drinks and could only giver her lentils for protein. Recently, they could only fill the yellow trashcan that they used as a cupboard with the products they received—delayed—from the Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción [Local Committee for Supply and Production]. It was increasingly difficult to maintain a balanced diet. Because it wasn’t just Gitverlis. Gitsy had other children: a 17 year old girl, and two boys, aged 16 and 14.
On the night of March 8, 2019, Gitsy walked through the dark streets of Valencia with the girl in her arms and the youngest of her teenage children. They walked aimlessly, in the midst of the darkness that had already begun, trying to find something to eat. At one point of the walk, a young man gave them a hot dog. That street snack was the family’s dinner: each one took a bite. Gitverlis was hungry. At 10pm, Gitsy gave her a banana that she had been given earlier at a fruit shop. Perhaps it was the combination of the cabbage on the hot dog and the banana, in a stomach that had been empty for a long time, which gave the young woman indigestion. That night, Gitverlis took a turn for the worse. Her abdomen was distended. She belched, vomited. She looked into her mother's eyes as if asking for help. Gitsy, who knew her so well and had dedicated herself to looking after her, knew something was wrong.
On the morning of March 9, the mother went to health centers asking for someone to attend to her daughter. She visited two IDCs and a walk-in clinic. The answer was always the same: “We can’t see her. There’s no electricity.”
The only hope was taking her to the Hospital Central de Valencia. But it would be difficult to get there. The streets of her working-class neighborhood were still barricaded; people were protesting about the blackout.
Perhaps through maternal instinct, Gitsy could sense that Gitverlis’s life was going out, like the lights around the country. But she couldn’t just stand there. She picked up her daughter and set off, on foot, to the Hospital Central, more than 9km away.
As she walked, along the side of the road, a woman pulled over and asked her where she was heading.
“My daughter is sick. I’m taking her to the doctor, to the Hospital Central. I’ve taken her to other centers, but they can’t see her because there’s no electricity.”
“Get in, señora. I’ll take you.”
It was already night when they arrived. The day had gone by too fast.
Her vital signs were faint, very faint. They tried to revive her on the floor in Adult Emergencies, but the device wouldn’t work, even though it was connected to the generator.
Gitverlis was dead.
They say that the brain takes time to absorb a loss. Perhaps that’s why Gitsy did not flinch with the news; she picked up her daughter from the floor and, as they instructed in Emergencies, took her to the hospital morgue, a few meters away. In the morgue, they would not take her because no doctor had certified the death, so she returned to Adult Emergencies with the body in her arms. For nothing. The solution suggested by a doctor was to take her to one of the IDCs she had been through before going to the hospital, so that they could “formalize the death” there.
“Walking? In this darkness? No, doctor, I can’t!”
“Then take her to the hospital morgue again,” the doctor replied, and went on his way.
Gitsy went back to the morgue, but they insisted that they could not accept the body without a death certificate. Not knowing what to do, she went to Children’s Emergencies. But there they told her that they could not take the body, because Gitverlis, at 19, could no longer be counted as child.
So she went back to the morgue for the third time.
That’s when I saw her.
I got out of the car and started filming her with my cell phone while I interviewed her. I felt strange. My legs were shaking. I looked at her through the camera and, from time to time, took my eyes off the cell phone to look at her directly. I was taken aback by the image of the woman, all skin and bones, carrying her dead daughter. Calm, not crying. She told me, among other things, that she lived in Block I of Trapichito, a neighborhood in the south of Valencia.
A worker noticed the scene and interrupted the interview: “Señora, come here, they’re going to take your daughter in.”
Gitsy rushed after him. Sure enough, she left her daughter’s body in the morgue.
I headed home. I made a stop at a strategic place, with some signal, and uploaded the video to my social networks. What came next was an avalanche that I had not expected: media from Colombia, Mexico, Peru, the United States, Panama, Germany, France and Israel, among other countries, reproduced the material. I received dozens of messages from news agencies, journalists and followers of my networks. There were too many questions, one after another: “Is it true?”, “Did you film it?”, “Can we publish it, giving you the credit?”, “Can we contact the woman to help her?” Many people, like me, were surprised at the woman’s strength during that horrific scene: “She’s not well,” “At some point she’ll need to drain,” “It’s too much.”
And there were some who assumed that the material was edited, fake news. I don’t blame them, because they really do seem like magical realist images. On my Instagram account alone, the video quickly reached over 50,000 views.
Since the interview went viral, I felt committed to this family. I knew that the mother could not afford the funeral expenses. That’s why on March 10, even during the blackout, I went to Trapichito. I didn’t know exactly where she lived, but I found her by asking neighbors. I was going to guide a group sent by a politician who, he told me, was willing to cover the funeral expenses, but I would later lose track of him. I talked with the woman for a long time. During that conversation, she confirmed that she could not afford the funeral or the burial. The Mayor's Office of Valencia could pay for the burial, but not a wake.
Moved, I promised her that Gitverlis—“Owl Eyes” as the neighbors called her—would have her wake.
I thought that through social networks I could get them help. I posted that the family needed money. And that same night, messages of solidarity towards the mother began to arrive; many were willing to collaborate.
Little by little, the pot is filled, I thought.
“God helps us all,” wrote Francisco, an ordinary Venezuelan, owner of a funeral home, to tell me that he would take care of everything.
By then, Gitverlis had spent almost 24 hours in the morgue. At home they prepared for legal proceedings the next day. It was 9pm. I was returning home with my husband. The south of Valencia was still fired up with street protests. On Avenida Aranzazu there were protests. We took the Sesquicentennial, and there they were protesting too.
It was then that I realized that two National Guard tanks and a marked Jeep were following us.
“We’re press, we’re press,” I shouted so the neighbors would hear. I thought that identifying myself with press credentials would keep me safe. But it was the opposite; being a journalist put me at risk. They dragged Carlos out of the car.
The first thing I did was hide my cell phone, where I had everything I had filmed about Gitverlis’s death.
“Hand over the phone or I’ll kill him,” said an officer pointing a gun at Carlos.
He hit him again and again.
The captain who led the squadron and hid his surname was very frank: “The order is to kill whoever necessary.”
I thought they would shoot us and I handed over my phone. Then a sergeant shouted at me, “Give me the Goddamn password!”
When they could access the files on my cell phone, they deleted all the recordings I had. They returned it to me, but they took another cell phone that we had in the car. Then they let us go.
That night it was hard for me to sleep. I felt fear, but at the same time a firm conviction to continue with my task of reporting. I rested a little and, the next day, I returned to Gitsy’s house, to tell her that Francisco was going to cover all the funeral expenses.
On March 13 I returned. At about noon, the white urn was in the living room. Francisco, along with his assistant, provided his services without charging anything. The coffin was adorned with flowers. Next to Gitsy were neighbors, friends and even some politicians. A neighbor arrived with a small bugle and played the theme from El Chavo del 8, Gitverlis’s favorite television series: “What a beautiful neighborhood. What a beautiful neighborhood. It is the neighborhood of Chavo. It’s not worth half a cent, but it really is pretty.”
The music moved Gitsy. Her calm evaporated and she collapsed in front of the urn, bursting into tears.
“My girl, my girl! Get up, get up!” she cried.
She told me later that from time to time those scenes come back to her mind. She remembers what she went through over and over again. Every night she sleeps hugging her daughter’s rag doll. She says she misses her a lot. For 19 years she was her priority. Now she doesn’t know what to do with so much free time. The absence of that fragile body she carried during all that time weighs on her.
Translated by Katie Brown
Originally published in Spanish by La vida de nos
Heberlizeth González graduated in Audiovisual Journalism from the Universidad Arturo Michelena (Valencia, Venezuela) in 2012. In 2016, this institution awarded her the medal of honor for outstanding graduates. She has worked for the Diario La Calle and El Carabobeño. She won the CICPC's "Criminal Investigator" prize in 2011. She has received recognitions from the mayor's office of Valencia and the police department of Carabobo. She currently works as a correspondent for the news sources Cactus24 of Falcón and Analitica.com of Caracas.
Katie Brown is a Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Exeter. She completed a PhD on "The Contested Values of Literature in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela" at King’s College London. With Tim Girven and Montague Kobbe, she co-edited the anthology Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela (Ragpicker Press, 2016), for which she translated stories by Rodrigo Blanco Calderón, Héctor Concari, Liliana Lara, Carolina Lozada, Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez and Slavko Zupcic.
In the eleventh issue of Latin American Literature Today, we highlight one of the essential voices of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, and we pay homage to the towering literary figure of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. We also highlight literary journalism from Venezuela and Mexico, indigenous literature in the Maya languages of Guatemala, poems by renowned Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, and exclusive previews of upcoming books in translation from Silvina Ocampo, Johanny Vázquez Paz, and Sergio Chejfec.