Lunch, lessons, care at Los Martincitos

By Cristina Aguirre

With both of her palms stretched out slightly off her body, Zoyla Zevallos Leyva,67, begins to sing a song in Quechua, a Native American language spoken primarily in the Andes of South America. She sways back and forth in a blank stare singing in a beautiful high-pitched, but raspy voice. This is how she forgets her worries and problems she faces back home near Cusco when she comes to Los Martincitos ( Little Martins).

Zevallos is one of the more than 100 senior citizens or abuelitos that take part in the Los Martincitos program at Oscar Romero Center located in Villa El Salvador, one of the most impoverish areas outside of Lima. According to, more than half a million people in Peru are poor. The program is designed to help some of the most vulnerable people living in Villa by providing them with meals three times a week, physical activities, and medical care.

“I came here sick, but I feel good here. I am happy at the moment, it’s a good thing,” Zevallos said. “I like it here because I don’t feel the sadness that is my home.” 

Many of the abuelitos come to Martincitos after their family were unable to take care of them. Zevallos came to the program 10 years ago after becoming ill and was unable to sell pan (bread) on the streets. Her church notified her about the program, where Zevallos could get the care she needed.

“I have three daughters, the older one doesn’t come to visit…that hurts me,” Zevallos said. “My husband is dead..I came here myself since I always went to church…and one of the Mother’s recommended me to come here.”

Before coming to Los Martincitos, Zevallos’ daughter was sick and had no choice, but to find more help. Antonio Palomino Quispe, executive director and founder of Los Martincitos, received her. “He was a good person, and well..everyone here was good for me,” said Zevalla. “Everyone knows how to respect and care for each other in a noble way.”

Palomino said the program was started back in 1987 with his three friends, who saw the need of having a place dedicated to helping out poor senior citizens in Villa. There are around 112 grandparents in the program, but more than 80 abuelitos come to the program each week, while the rest are too delicate in their health to come. “We go out and check to see how they are doing. We always have to see what’s going on with them,” Palomino said.

To keep them healthy and moving, Volunteers take the abuelos to the park to do recreational activities, such as playing catch with each other or running. Marilyn Rude, a volunteer from Canada, is spending her vacation volunteering.

”The elderly are so friendly and very out going and outspoken. But I really enjoy all their personalities…their greeting is to hug and give a kiss on the cheek, it’s very touching.”

Determined to make it into the basket, Zevallos holds a soccer ball with both of her tiny, fragile hands and stops looking up at the rim. With the other abuelios watching her from the side, Zevallos makes it into the netless rim and starts to recruit other abuelos to join.

”¿A quién le toca, Dora?” said Zevallos who tries to lure in more abuelos, who at first look intimated. “¿Quién Sigue? Mario? Mario?” She grabs him as he joins her on the court. 

Zevallos favorite activities is playing basketball with the other abuelos and said that it keeps her going.

Activities like these are the reason why she doesn’t miss a day at Los Martincitos. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she comes in from 9 a.m to noon, sometimes earlier by bus. Always with a smile on her face, she anticipates all the recreational activities of the week.

“I love to particpate in everything. When there is an invitiation, I would always go,” said Zevallos. “It gets me happy for a while…like going to the beach. We are going in February!”

Martincitos has changed many of the abuelos lives by giving them a place to leave their worries. Zevallos with tears slowly forming on her eyes still hopes one day that her daughter will come to visit her, but for now she’ll continue to sing until that day comes. “It is how it is sometimes…but the others [abuelitos] are with me, no?”