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  Power of Words

Dirt-poor poet finds a champion in singer

By Jordan Levin, March 2005

They are both Colombian, but from two different worlds. Marķa Amparo Amaya is an orphan who ran away to live in the streets of Bogota, a grandmother who raised four children while scrabbling a living shining shoes. Soraya is an acclaimed singer-songwriter who lives in Miami and grew up in middle-class comfort in the United States.

But they share a passion for the power of words and a talent for using them, which, along with a stunning song, has brought them together in an unlikely friendship.

Amaya, known as Alma de la Calle (Soul of the Street), who scrounged books from the trash to feed her love of literature, won a national poetry prize in 2003 for work written on a computer in a public library. When Soraya read about Alma's saga in El Nuevo Herald a year ago, she wrote a song about her, then tracked her down and flew to Colombia to meet her. The song, Alma de la Calle, is at the heart of Soraya's just released album, el otro lado de mi (my other side), and Soraya is bringing attention to Alma and to her dream of opening a library for poor children in Bogota.

At the trendy Pawn Shop lounge in downtown Miami on Wednesday, Alma's tiny, rounded figure barely reaches the shoulders of the sleek, chattering crowd that has turned out for Soraya's record release party. But when she ascends a small stage, squares her shoulders and recites a poem into the mic, the crowd slowly grows quiet, then cheers her like a rock star.

THANKFUL

''I'm grateful for everything that [Soraya] has done for me, because in reality she's the only one who has paid attention to my story,'' Alma says, carefully shaping her words with a toothless mouth. ``I won a poetry prize, and things went on as if I hadn't won anything.''

She is on her first trip outside Colombia, and music shakes the walls of a cluttered office where strangers rush in and out. But she does not hesitate. Alma always has something to say, despite that in Colombia, as in most of Latin America, people at the bottom of the social ladder are often not considered worth listening to --even if they speak in passionate verse. "Because the lowest classes aren't worth anything. But we poor people are worth the same as everyone else.''

Her parents abandoned her as a newborn at an orphanage run by nuns, who gave her away when she was 8 to a woman who used her as a servant. She escaped to live in the streets of Bogota, stealing food and learning to shine shoes. In her 20s, she was raped by four men, one of whom fathered the oldest of her four daughters.

But she found an escape in reading and writing. The nuns ignited her passion for words by making her read the Bible. ''They said I had the devil inside,'' Alma says, smiling. ``He still hasn't left me.''

Now in her mid-50s, she shines shoes at the University of Bogota and at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which is where she learned of the poetry contest.

Soraya was so moved when she read Alma's story that a song poured out in 20 minutes. ''It was the first time I'd tried to represent someone's life, and it was so bold to think I could do that,'' she says.

The 30-something singer has had her own struggles; five years ago she found she had breast cancer, a disease that killed her mother and her aunt. Her successful struggle against cancer and her return to music -- last fall she won a Latin Grammy for Best Singer-Songwriter Album -- gave her greater empathy for Alma's struggle.

SORAYA'S TRAUMA

''When you go through something traumatic hopefully you come out stronger,'' Soraya says. ``That growth enabled me to be receptive to Alma de la Calle -- I don't know if I would have reacted to her three years ago the way I did. And once I met her and realized what her life's dream was . . . it just felt like I can do something correct and honest here.

``There are millions of people like Alma de la Calle in Latin America, people who could have contributed if they had had a little help. My goal was to see her receive the recognition she deserves and to help her dream come true. That way I'm giving a voice to her and to so many people like her.''

The two women had an emotional meeting last spring, when Soraya sang Alma's song to her in the courtyard of a cultural center in Bogota.

''I cried when she sang it to me, because she was the first person who wrote a song for me,'' Alma says. ``That song is so sad, and it's my life.''

''It was really something magical,'' says Gonzalo Guillen, the Colombian journalist who wrote the story that inspired Soraya, and who arranged the meeting, speaking by phone from his home in Bogota. ``People in the street, in their offices, were listening, and everyone was crying, even the security guards.''

MORE ATTENTION

Soraya arranged meetings for the two women with Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe and with officials in the Ministry of Culture, which is publishing a book of Alma's poetry and two novels later this month. Soraya's help got the media's attention in Colombia, and the singer will return there soon to promote the record and her friend's cause.

But Alma's dream of opening a library like the one she wishes she had had when she was a homeless child is still a distant one. Resources are scarce in Colombia, and even with a pop star's backing, people are unlikely to help a poor, self-educated shoe-shining grandmother.

''When you don't move in certain circles people don't pay attention to you,'' says Martha Luz Alejo, a press contact at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism who has known Alma for 12 years and accompanied her to Miami. ``Very few people understand the value she has.''

But Alma perseveres. ''I've gotten very little support,'' she says. 'But I practice the saying `Little by little, you go far.' ''

In the middle of her show Soraya, glowing with the attention of the packed crowd, launches into Alma de la Calle. ''I'm the soul of the street, I'm the voice that escaped,'' she sings. ``There's beauty in everyone, we are all the same.''

Her inspiration sits in the dark on a small platform at the back of the room, and as the story of her life pours out of the speakers, she silently mouths the words into a dead microphone. No one can hear her, and almost no one is watching. But a lot of people are listening.