HENRY MUNGUÍA is wiry and tall, taller than most Nicaraguans. He walks with a loose swagger that’s con dent but not exaggerated, as if he has learned over time to feel at home in his body.
For years, he worked as a waste picker, using his long arms to snag recyclables from unloading dump trucks. In dawn’s dusky glow, he would stride over the marshland behind his one-room sheet-metal house, past a shallow pond spotted with white egrets and hook-billed ibises, then up through a shanty-town of about fifty shacks perched over a fetid lagoon of runoff and floating trash. On the other side of the lagoon stretched a plateau of uncovered garbage: Managua’s notorious dump, La Chureca.
In the Amer-Indian language Nahuatl, La Chureca means “old rag.” When Henry started working there, the dump was about the size of fifty soccer fields and received approximately seven hundred tons of waste a day—roughly the weight of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. On top of this heap, more than a thousand waste pickers wrested a living, part of an estimated 15 million people worldwide who recycle and generate profits from trash where governments fail to do so.
From Henry’s house a mile away, La Chureca looked like a bare, slumping ridge with ants crawling over it all day long. These ants were the waste pickers—churequeros in local slang—accompanied by their two-wheeled carts, horses, and donkeys. Smoke from burning tires and mattresses and the spontaneous combustion of chemicals billowed over them. During the dry season, dust clouds thickened the smoke.
In the haze, black vultures formed a living blanket over the waste. Occasionally, one of them uttered up like an overgrown butterfly. Flocks of white egrets looked ridiculously pure in the piles of plastic and rotting food. Methane and hydrogen sulfide filled the air with the scent of rotten eggs mixed with diesel fumes. A symphony of sounds reverberated across the dump: men kissing at horses and jangling harness chains, wild dogs snarling, feet crunching on plastic, flies buzzing, wind fluttering through shopping bags, workers whistling at one another.
Henry would arrive at La Chureca with a gunny sack strapped over his shoulder and a long, wood-handled, forked tool for spearing recyclables. Sometimes he wore pants, sometimes he wore shorts. He tied his shoes tightly to avoid losing them in the mud and ever-shifting garbage. When trucks drove onto the mounds or one of Managua’s periodic minor earthquakes struck, the trash would tremble and tumble into Lake Managua below.
When a truck careened into La Chureca and dumped its load, the churequeros swarmed it and climbed on the back. Hovering gulls fell from the sky in a whirl of wings. A frenzy of recyclable-snatching ensued. But the dump was a community of equals where people knew each other and their roles. Rarely did conflicts erupt in violence.
Henry quickly grew adept at spotting cans, cardboard, plastic bottles, shoes, and metal in the morass. He was sometimes accompanied by his partner, Yadira, for whom the worst part of working in the dump was sifting through the bloody rags and syringes from hospitals to find the good stuff. But she soon learned how not to be disgusted by anything. She wasn’t ashamed of what they had to do to survive. Nor was Henry, though his fingers began to get tender and enflamed from digging through the trash. He started wearing elbow-length gloves to work.
After lugging the recyclables back home, Yadira and Henry would separate them and take the uppers off the shoes to make a pile of recyclable soles to be sold to middlemen. Once a week, Henry would sell everything they had collected in the dump. His profit of twenty to twenty-five dollars was more than he could make in other kinds of self-employment, and wage-paying jobs were almost non-existent. Henry felt proud of providing for his family in an economy that didn’t provide for them. At the same time, he and the other churequeros were remaking the city’s waste into useable materials.
Often, La Chureca would provide waste pickers’ meals, too. Supermarket trucks brought loads of expired vegetables, eggs, bouillon cubes, and more. Trucks from slaughterhouses and seafood processing plants dumped beef bones and frozen fish heads and spines. Henry would gather the bones, heads, and spines to make soup, a valuable source of protein in a diet with almost no meat. Yadira called the soup she made with the dump scraps Henry’s “gasoline.”
This fuel could be deadly, though. Once, Yadira and her neighbor Tona were cooking fish soup, and they smelled something strange and acrid. They were going to feed Yadira’s daughter Wendy and Tona’s son Leonardo first, but because of the smell they fed two of their dogs first. The dogs soon got sick and died. Wendy and Leonardo were spared a fate many children of waste pickers suffered. Eating food from the dump was a gamble, because sometimes people doused it with Pine-Sol or other poisons. As a longtime churequero once told American geographer Christopher Hartmann, “The city trash trucks pass through all of this barrio and through all of the city, and there are different kinds of people: some have a good heart and others have a bad heart.”
Except for this one day, Henry and Yadira always managed to find food from people with good hearts.