Sonia Marmolejos, beyond the front page.
Enriquillo, Barahona. – She’s not a politician, a government official or an artist, but nonetheless, a few days after the January 12th earthquake in Haiti this modest woman made the front pages of the newspapers, and became the “star” of national and international news shows. A photo of her breastfeeding a little baby was published all over the world and her smile filled many Dominicans with satisfaction and a sense of pride at the sight of her altruistic contribution to the welfare of Haitian children.
Following the excitement of the 15 minutes of fame that everyone is supposed to enjoy, this mother of five young children has gone back to her everyday routine, to her small house by the sea, on this road that leads to Pedernales. We went there to meet Sonia, far from the flashes of the cameras and the press. We wanted to find out who she was, what she does, how she makes a living… we really wanted to write down what she thought, so that it won’t be forgotten and so that it may serve to motivate other mothers.
As we enter her home we see, together with a photo of the President of the Dominican Republic, a plaque where she is awarded the title of “Nature’s Wet Nurse”, in recognition of her contribution to the children who were victims of the earthquake that occurred in Haiti on January 12th this year. (available only in Spanish) We sit down and start talking.
Holding her baby girl, who is just a few months old, she tells us that she has always breastfed her sons and daughters. “It’s a tradition, my mother also breastfed all her children, and I’ve done the same thing with mine. I breastfed my six-year old until the age of two. When you breastfeed children they are healthier and what’s more, it’s cheaper”, she stressed. (Link to breastfeeding)
Sonia, who is 28, comes from a family of four brothers and sisters. One lives in Higuey and three in Pedermales. She only studied till the 8th grade of primary school and she works as a health promoter at a Primary Healthcare Unit (UNAP) based in Enriquillo. “I take part in health campaigns, recently there was one about dengue, I fill in the family forms and the cards when it’s about vaccination”, she tells us.
As she describes it, many people recognise her as “the one who came out in the papers”, but today we want to hear a bit more about these experiences. What were you doing in Santo Domingo two days after the earthquake? What motivated you to go all the way to the Darío Contreras Hospital?
“I have a daughter who has been receiving treatment for one of her legs since she was born, and I always take her to the Darío”, she says. “In January I left my youngest, almost newborn, with her dad and went to the hospital. That’s where I was when a two-and-a-half month old baby arrived with his dad; his mum was in Dajabón”.
The moment of this boy’s arrival is alive in Sonia’s memory. “He was a little baby boy, tiny, with a yellow t-shirt, he was crying, they were going to give him emergency surgery, and I, who had my breasts full, decided to give him my milk. I don’t speak Creole, I didn’t speak directly to the father, but when the baby fell asleep, he said, “may the Lord multiply your good deeds”.
She continues to relive the experience with enthusiasm. “The milk was weighing heavily in my breasts. I took care of the baby for six and a half days – night and day – as if he were my own. He was desperately hungry”, she said, with an open and spontaneous smile.
Back in her modest home, several weeks after this gesture of solidarity with a Haitian baby that made the news, Sonia says “one has to be human, the same as if it had been my daughter, of another colour, but the same blood”. Listening to her made us realise that she didn’t grasp the magnitude what she had done. She hadn’t even seen the newspapers with her photo!
But at the same time, she acknowledges that lots of people “place a great value on what I did. It has opened lots of doors for me”, she stresses, mentioning awards, the small house where she lives in Villa Progreso, the television and DVD player and other items that she has received after this experience.
Yuneidy doesn’t know why her mother had to make so many trips to Santo Domingo and why she was at the Darío Contreras Hospital on January 14th, just as dozens of Haitians were arriving to seek medical treatment. Sonia is hoping that she will receive support for taking Yuneidy to the United States for a graft that will enable her to recover mobility. She says she cannot imagine the day when her daughter’s leg is healed.
Listening to Sonia speak about the contrasts of her life is a story that can hardly be believed. Now that she lives in a small house donated by the Government, she has to pay for transport to take her two older children Soneyl and Junior, who are in the 2nd and 3rd grades to school, but she barely receives RD$1,200 per month (a little over US$30) and her husband has been out of work since January.
Nonetheless, she keeps insisting that the most important thing for her has been to breastfeed her children: “It’s the best, they don’t get sick, I don’t need to boil milk or prepare a bottle, no need to buy it, it’s very healthy and nutritious and (the children) develop better”, she says.