Christopher Rivera
The body of boxer Christopher Rivera is propped up on a staged boxing ring during his wake. Photo: AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo

When 23-year old Christopher Rivera Amaro was shot and killed on January 26, 2014, it didn’t take long for his family to decide that they wanted a unique wake.

Five days later, when mourners came to pay their respects at a community center in the Manuel A. Peréz housing projects, they were surprised to find Rivera standing.

Rivera, a professional boxer, was dressed in black and gold boxing silks with “Gracias a Díos” embroidered in white thread. His hands were fitted into blue boxing gloves. He wore black sunglasses, ready for the glare of camera flashes. A five-o-clock shadow of a mustache was visible above his top lip, and his expression was one of contented cool, the look of a man accustomed to some degree of notoriety.

Standing in the corner of a red-carpeted ring, red and white bunting draped on the walls behind him, everything was picture perfect. So picture perfect, in fact, that family members posed for pictures with Rivera.

Dressed casually, they stood next to him like adoring fans, which they were, pointing at him just as you would if you met a minor celebrity on the street and you convinced him to take a selfie with you. All the while, a video of Rivera’s boxing matches played on a loop, projected onto a large screen set up next to the ring.

The scene was so bizarre it went viral. Reported by the Associated Press, who had a photographer shooting pictures at the wake, the story got picked up around the world, from FOX, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, to name only a few, to the Telegraph in the U.K. and China Daily.

Rivera had enjoyed local fame in life, but in death, he gained international renown. Journalists, bloggers, and online commenters all seemed to be intrigued by Rivera’s wake, unsure whether to label it absurdly macabre or elaborately entertaining. Maybe it was a bit of both.

What most everyone missed, though, was that Rivera’s wake wasn’t even the first of its kind in Puerto Rico. The Marín Funeral Home of San Juan, the same funeraría that staged Rivera’s final appearance in the ring, had been fielding and fulfilling similar “as in life, so in death” requests for more than five years. From a man posed on his motorcycle to an elaborate scene that involved placing a dead man who owned an ambulance company at the wheel of one of his vehicles, the Marín Funeral Home had been developing something of a specialty for a while. In fact, their practice of posing dead people in diorama-type tableaus had become so popular it had even inspired a debate about its constitutionality in the legislature.

It had also picked up a name: the muerto para’o, or “dead man standing.” The term emerged around 2008, when the Marín Funeral Home prepared the body of 24-year old Ángel Pedrito Pantoja Medina for his wake. Dressed in popular street-style clothes, accessorized with a Yankees ball cap, glasses, and a large crucifix on a chain hanging down nearly to his navel, Pantoja was propped up — standing — in his mother’s living room. No one would have guessed that he had been shot 11 times and thrown off a bridge in his underwear.

And that’s just the way Pantoja wanted it. His father had been killed when Pantoja was a kid, and seeing his dad in the coffin prompted him to make a promise to himself: When his time was up, he wouldn’t go lying down. He’d be a “muerto para’o.”

Artistic origins

Even Pantoja’s wake had a precedent, though few people made the connection.

More than a century before Pantoja was para’o in his mother’s living room, Francisco Oller, a Puerto Rican artist, painted his most famous work, “El Velorio” (“The Wake”). In it, a group of more than a dozen people fill a room in the midst of a raucous, indulgent celebration. A child and a dog run happily toward the foreground while a smiling man hoists a stick up toward a suckling pig hanging from the rafters. The wine is flowing and so is the rum; over in the left corner, a man playing the cuatro, a Puerto Rican guitar, sips the island’s favorite spirit, accompanied by a man playing the güiro and a woman playing a maraca. And to their left, things are really getting randy, as a couple locked in a drunken-looking embrace are getting their heads doused with moonshine, poured out of a bottle by a man who looks like he’s going to be shaking off a bad hangover tomorrow morning.

Almost everyone seems to be oblivious to the fact that on the dining room table, laid out on a lacy white cloth, is the body of a dead child. Her head, crowned with flowers, rests on a pillow on one side of the table. Her feet and blue shoes nearly hang off the the other end.

The artwork, painted around 1893, is one of the most famous in Puerto Rico’s history. Everyone knows “El Velorio.” The painting is so famous, in fact, that it has been reinterpreted repeatedly; in 1991, artist Rafael Trelles made a Technicolor, mixed media version of “El Velorio,” and other Puerto Rican artists have riffed on the work too. A version of “El Velorio” was even hanging in the lobby of the iconic Caribe Hilton Hotel last December, right near the elevators that take guests up to their rooms.

“The wake is a party, a carnival that disguises the pain of life,” wrote art historian Luís Alfredo López Rojas in his explication of Oller’s painting. “Death and pain intersect with life and happiness, and give the poor person a necessary touch of hope.”

His description could just as well be applied to all of the modern day muertos para’o. While some Internet commenters decried the posing of Rivera in the ring — “[A]ppalling. Reminiscent of circus sideshows…. Why not bring him home and sleep with him one more time?” wrote one woman, while another urged his fellow boricuas “to get it together already!” — Elsie Rodriguez of the Marín Funeral Home doesn’t view the staged wakes as disrespectful, nor does she see them as an indicator of social decay. On the contrary, she sees the muerto para’os as a way to soften the suffering of families, and she and her colleagues have no plans to deny any requests they deem reasonable in the future.

The women of Creamos working on their crafts. Photo: Anna-Claire Bevan

Empty milk cartons, old newspapers and used soda cans may look like garbage to most people, but to a women’s collective in Guatemala, another person’s trash is their treasure.

Six years ago a group of abused women from an adult literacy program in Guatemala City learned how to make jewelry out of recycled materials — and they haven’t looked back since. The small crafts workshop quickly became a thriving independent business that now exports goods as far as the U.S.

Using old magazines and cardboard boxes, the 26 women, who used to make a living scavenging for materials in Central America’s largest garbage dump, have been able to start their lives over again and escape the extreme poverty of their past.

“On average, the women make 70 percent more than they did working at the garbage dump,” says project manager Ilusion Farias. “Before joining Creamos they had incredibly low self-esteem and depended heavily on their spouses for support. Now most of them have stopped working at the garbage dump.”

Building self-esteem, trust and business savvy

Creamos, which means “we believe” and “let’s create” in Spanish, is focused on sustainable entrepreneurship and consists of a group of mothers who are learning to read and write at Caminos Seguros (Safe Passage), an organization that works with Guatemala City’s garbage dump community.

The mothers, who all live close to the project, study there for two hours each day and then create their jewelry at home to provide flexibility in caring for their children. Once a week they come together for a group meeting where they turn in their work, conduct peer reviews and receive a payout from the previous week’s sales.

“I worked in the dump for 12 years, but I much prefer it here,” says Rosa Cristina Aguierre Marroquín. “I feel more confident, I can support my children better and I trust all the people I work with.”

Each unique piece of jewelry is made from recycled materials donated by local schools and businesses, or collected by the women themselves, and finished off with shop bought beads and clasps. The final products are then sold at events, in participating stores around the country and in Creamos’ own shop, which is staffed by members of the project.

With its emphasis on applied education, Creamos makes use of the math and literacy skills that the group learns in the classroom: each woman prices up her product, calculating materials used against individual labor costs.

The project also provides the women with free day care for their children, access to a medical clinic, two meals a day and classes on nutrition and financial planning.

Ana, one of the participants in Creamos, studying in class with her baby. Photo: Anna-Claire Bevan

Ana, one of the participants in Creamos, studying in class with her baby. Photo: Anna-Claire Bevan

Fighting the stereotypes

Predatory lending, combined with low adult literacy, is a major problem in Guatemala and people often sign contracts without understanding the content. Many of the women in Creamos have fallen victim to this fraudulent practice, often co-signing on a friend’s purchase on credit and then finding themselves responsible for paying it. A bad credit score mean it is difficult for them to open up bank accounts, so consequently it’s difficult for them to save. On payday, most of the members used to hide their wages in their houses, which regularly got broken in to, or spend it before neighboring gangs had the chance steal it.

“Because of the community they live in, gang violence and prostitution is common, and they tend to be stereotyped against for being from Zone 3,” says Farias, referring to the neighborhood that contains the garbage dump, where most of the families live. “Their lack of education and financial income has made them a target for big interest loans and large debts.”

To combat this problem, Creamos set up an internal savings scheme where members could deposit any amount of their paycheck and draw upon it when needed.

“One mother was able to save enough to buy bunk beds for her children so they could sleep in their own beds for the first time. Other mothers have been able to get themselves out of sticky situations when sales are low and one even saved enough to help pay to have her house built out of bricks instead of just laminates,” says Farias.

Offering more than just financial security, Creamos also supports personal development through peer reviews, in which the women evaluate each other’s work and implement the first round of quality control measures.

“I’m always learning things here,” says Annabelle Hernandez, a member of Creamos. “In the past, doors have closed on us, but now they are opening. I feel so happy, my self-esteem has increased and I don’t have to go back to the garbage dump anymore.”

From earrings to key rings, bracelets to bags and photo frames to wallets, the women are becoming experts at targeting their goods towards their clientele; while Guatemalan buyers like detail and want the items to look “mall-bought,” U.S. customers prefer to show off the recycled element of the designs.

Recently the program has expanded to include a sewing company, with more than 20 women who are training to make uniforms for the volunteers and students of Safe Passage, and a self-esteem group, which organizes activities and ad-hoc income-generating projects.

What started out as a fun crafts workshop has become a resource for entrepreneurship, enabling many women to escape the dangers of working in the garbage dump.

“We hope to continue to not only increase sales and the size of Creamos, but also to better equip the women of Creamos for a successful life,” says Farias. “We believe education is only the first step to breaking the cycle of poverty; what you do with that education and those skills is what matters most.”