San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Teen Laborer Makes New Home for Mom

With dreams of knocking down the aluminum shack his family lived in and building a new home, teenager Jorge Vargas quit school and headed out into the giant dump near his house to scratch up some dough.

“When the wind came, we thought the roof would blow off,” said Vargas, now 21, of his home in Tirrases, a slum at the foot of the sprawling Río Azul dump southeast of San José. When it rained, water would seep in through cracks in the roof and walls and soak the floors.

A stocky, taciturn boy who wears surf shorts he found in the trash but who never had the money to get a surf board let alone get to the beach, Vargas left school to work and save up money to help his mom, María Salas, 55, who had labored as a house maid for a low wage most of her adult life so she could support her three kids.

His stepfather first took him to Río Azul. As a young boy, he was attracted to the stinking place with a breathtaking view of the Central Valley where coworkers who worked side-by-side every day were more like family.

“I thought it was nice. I liked all the happy people here,” he said, standing amid heaps of trash. He became a child laborer in a job rife with health hazards. But that wasn’t what was on his mind.

Rooting around in the trash for unwanted things with value, an idea popped into his head.

“I found a piece of copper and thought: this is how I can get a new house,” Vargas said.

For two years, Vargas lugged all the salvaged copper he could carry home from the dump each day and stockpiled it in his room. The floor of his room was covered with copper scraps. After a year, the pile was as high as his waist. And after two years, he had hoarded more than 1,000 kilograms. By that time, the price of copper had tripled, and he had $6,000 worth of scrap sitting on his floor.

He sold the copper and used the money to overhaul his home. He and his younger brother Gustavo, 14, knocked down walls and built new ones with dry wall, covered the dirt floors with cement and added a new façade with a glass pane window and new roof.

“I just wanted to see my mom happy,” Vargas said.

He’s now working at the landfill again after a short stint working at a San José hotel as a storage room attendant.


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