There was a time when a pregnant Elisabeth Brenes foraged around in a giant landfill to make a living for her child-to-be.
After arriving to Costa Rica as an illegal immigrant from Nicaragua, Brenes, now 43, left her low-paying job as a maid to try her hand as a buzo, or trash picker, at the Río Azul dump southeast of San José.
While she was working as long as 24-hour days to help support her children, her husband was shot dead in a bar fight. After four years of working as a buzo, she finally got her break in the form of a $200, beat-up pickup truck.
With the deal on her newfound set of wheels, the persevering mother of six put her entrepreneurial spirit into motion and began transporting the recyclable material other buzos salvaged from Río Azul directly to buyers in San José.
With her proceeds, she bought a bigger truck. And another. Then she invested in a giant warehouse near the foot of Río Azul, where she would set up her new family business.
Now the former buzo, who at one point endured an entire pregnancy picking through hazardous heaps of waste, owns her own business with seven employees and is putting her daughter through college.
Brenes not only went from rummaging through rubbish to relative riches, she also thumbed her nose at society when it plugged its nose at her presence, literally.
“We’re very marginalized.We go through it all. People used to do this when they walked by us,” she said, pinching her nose.
At Río Azul, Brenes and other buyers show up in the afternoon with empty trucks and wait in the shade beneath trash bags slung across wooden posts jutting out of the ground.
Carrying loads triple their size, buzos come heaving and hauling huge bags full of recyclable plastic and aluminum to buyers like Brenes. She pays them by the kilogram and uses a torn piece of cardboard as a calculator to tally up each worker’s tab.
“People work here because they can make some money, but all they think about is getting out of here,” said Brenes, looking like a queen ant standing in the shade as a worker hauled over two bags the size of giant leatherback turtles and plopped them in front of her.
Loaded to the brim with stuffed bags, Brenes’ truck then bumps and moans down Río Azul’s switchbacks and arrives at her warehouse outside the dump, where she and employees sort out the material to send to other buyers. That buyer, Brenes said, will likely grind up the recyclable material and resell it to companies such as Coca-Cola. Brenes said her next investment is a grinder.
It wasn’t always Brenes’ job to take out the trash.
When she arrived to Costa Rica 30 years ago, she started off working as a maid. But the pay wasn’t cutting it. She heard through a friend about the job as a recycler at Río Azul.
“At first I took the job out of necessity, but when I realized I was helping the environment, I loved it more,” she said.
Four years into her job as a trash picker, she realized she could make money as an intermediary. She bought her pickup truck and began hauling recyclables straight to her home to be sorted out in her living room.
“My house was my warehouse,” Brenes said, standing outside her new office wearing a light green blouse with a matching skirt –a stark difference in attire from trash pickers, most of whom wear soiled clothes they picked out of the dump.
Then she took out a Banco Nacional loan for small entrepreneurs for ¢60 million ($115,000) and bought the warehouse. She has since moved out of her home at the foot of the landfill to Colima, a barrio a bit farther from Río Azul, where there are fewer illegal immigrant settlements and more working-class residents.
Brenes has made enough money that her 25-year-old daughter Lady has become the first in her family to go to college. She is studying English at Universidad Latina in the eastern suburb of San Pedro.
Brenes’ children help out with the business, in addition to seven employees working at her warehouse.
“They treat me very well,” said 30-year-old Marta Corea, who illegally crossed the Nicaraguan border to live in Costa Rica 15 years ago.Not only does she work for Brenes, but Brenes also gave her a room at the warehouse in which to live with her two children after Brenes found out Corea had an abusive landlord.
As she waits for buyers to purchase her mounting kingdom of recyclables, Brenes’ nine-month-old warehouse is stuffed to the brim.
Though her lifestyle is much less dirty now, the vague smell of rot lingers, perhaps blowing in from Río Azul, just a few blocks away.
If it weren’t for the vague stench, it would be easy to forget that taciturn Brenes, who trots around in her warehouse with her princess-like blouse and skirt, was once a buzo.
But the unassuming Brenes hasn’t forgoten why she does what she does.
“I love working in recycling,” she said, traipsing through a 20-foot-high valley of trash bags buzzing with flies. “We’re helping out.”
Reporter’s Notebook: Rat Slayers
My interview with Elisabeth Brenes atop the Río Azul dump was abruptly interrupted by a shout. “It’s huge!” a voice blurted out from behind us.
I turned and saw Brenes’ 17-year-old son Wilfred galumphing around in the trash with a rock the size of a melon cocked above his head. The look on his face was intense.
It was something. Something moving.
That’s when a rat the size of a rabbit scurried out from the trash. With all his might, Brenes heaved the rock down on the colossal rodent, picked up the rock, lifted it above his head and slammed it on the rat again. He repeated this scene several times. The varmint’s pace was slowing noticeably.
Buzos nearby dropped the trash in their hands to watch the commotion. Brenes was grinning now, as were others nearby. It was the same playful mood as on crisp mornings when some of the younger buzos swing and throw fresh trash bags at each others’ dirty heads.
Then one of the buzos squared up, lunged forward and unloaded an Alonso Solís game-winning kick.
The rat went twirling over the edge of the hill, body stretching out in flight, rotating flatly like a helicopter blade.
The fun was over. The buzos carried on with their work, none stopping to even make a comment about the rat’s size.