February 27, 2002
A good flight down to Mexico City. The project director met me at the airport, conveniently located at the very edge of the city and I was introduced to the city’s superb subway system. The days since have been full of new sights and sounds. Mexico City is fabulous - incredible contrasts of wealth and poverty, juxtapositions of ancient and modern rare in the Americas and a rich and thriving contemporary culture. And 20 million people.
One day I visited the Zocalo, Mexico City’s main square and the largest such square in the Americas. The remains of ancient Aztec pyramids lie beside an enormous cathedral and the imposing Presidential Palace, both built of stone looted from the pyramids. There is also a McDonalds although it is hard pressed to compete with the delicious French Fries made by nearby street vendors.
Beside the cathedral, twenty dancers of a grupo folklorico spun and twirled to the beat of drums in the bright morning sunlight. Decorated with ancient patterned costumes glistening with gold and silver and crowned with fantastic feather head dresses with golden jaguar and eagle heads, the dancers, both genders and all ages, were like a vision from a past as beautiful, mysterious and complex as Egypt´s Tutankhamen era. But this was no ceremony from the past; it was a living religious ceremony - ancient ritual married to Catholicism.
While I watched this sparkling pageant my attention was attracted to my left about a hundred meters down alongside the cathedral. Away from the crowd of spectators caroused a group of street kids, some holding yellow aerosol cans of solvent, maybe twenty kids in all. As I focused in more closely, the jumble of bags and ragged cloths they staggered amongst indicated that this part of the Zocalo was their home. Almost every kid held one hand closed to his face in the classic solvent sniffer pose. They stumbled and leaned against each other, drunk and hopeless in the shadow of the great cathedral, impervious alike to its giant tolling bells and the beat of the drums.
Later, in the subway on my return, two street kids were squatting on the floor of the subway car, fists to their mouths and eyes glazed. The younger, a boy about 11, let his hand fall limply to his lap after a big whiff and revealed a mouth encircled with sores and scabs from the solvent. The people on the train who noticed them shook their heads in disgust and sadness.
March 4, 2002
You know when the banks are closed but there is that little area they leave open so you can use the cash machine? This morning on the way to this cybercafe I passed one of these and one of the boys from the streetkid banda we are working with was asleep on the floor, curled up in a corner. I had earlier seen another one asleep on a bench at a bus stop.
I have met some of these kids now. Here are two: Mouse, about 11, looks about 9. His mother died shortly after he was born and his father died a few years later. He was given into the care of an uncle and aunt who used to tie him to a chair and beat him. He escaped to the streets when he was 8. When he’s not drunk he just looks confused and worried. Another is Pinocchio - so-called because of his big nose. It’s only a little bit bigger than most. He’s about 13. In all the pictures taken of the banda that I had earlier seen, Pinocchio stood out because of the genuinely good-humored grin and the twinkle in his eyes. When I met him I was disappointed. The grin was not to be seen and the twinkle was gone. I’m told he was raped by a taxi driver on New Year’s day and has not been the same since.
It is not going to be easy to restore these kids’ faith in humanity. They no longer think about tomorrow. They only think as far ahead as the next whiff of solvent and the momentary relief from a reality without hope that it brings. This project is embarking on an ambitious plan with several parts: First, isolate the kids from the influences of the streets to make it easier for them to kick the solvent habit - a ranch outside Mexico City will be the location for this. After several months on the ranch the kids will return to the city to a house for group living and to take some training and education to prepare them for their successful entry into normal society. To organize and finance all this infrastructure is a lot of work but the hardest task of all is to restore hope. Philosophically, these kids have retreated to the safest place to stand, a place where there is no hope, no better tomorrow, no point in doing anything. That way you don’t get hurt.
March 12, 2002
He’s about 13, with shaggy black hair sticking out in all directions. I see him every morning when I go out to a nearby cyber café for coffee and to touch base with the world. Monday morning he was curled up asleep in a corner of the automatic teller enclosure. The lineup of people waiting to use the ATM curved around him. Tuesday he was asleep on the sidewalk in front of the Chinese restaurant. This morning he is sleeping on the broad steps of the Cosmo Cinema entrance.
He’s wearing Nike sport shoes but only the uppers are intact. The soles are mostly gone and his toes and heels are visible, covered with grime. He looks like he hasn’t bathed for a long time. His face and hands are nearly black with dirt. In sleep his face is placid, the unlined face of childhood, but as the morning sun strikes the Cosmo Cinema steps and a siren screams above the roar of the six lanes of traffic racing past, he shouts in his sleep and his face is twisted in anger. For him, unconsciousness, blessed sleep, must be bliss. I have a donut in a bag from the coffee shop. I prop it against his shoulder, careful not to wake him, and walk away.
April 1, 2002
Now this kid has got a good gig. He looks to be about 10 or 11, skinny as a rail. A shock of black hair, a tattered t-shirt and a pair of combat pants about 4 sizes too large. He doffs his t-shirt at the busy intersection, waits till the light turns red and halts traffic, then runs out into the crosswalk and puts a cloth-wrapped bundle down on the ground, He unfolds the bundle to reveal a bunch of broken bottle glass. He fills both hands with these glittering shards and holds them high for motorists to see. Then he spreads them out on the cloth, lies down on top of them and wriggles around with his hands and feet in the air and his belly pressed onto the broken glass. Then he turns over and does his back, maintaining a grimace of pain all the while. This boy must have skin like leather. Then, before the light turns green, he leaps up, gathers up his bundle of glass and canvases the nearby drivers for one peso - which he indicates by holding up one finger. Most drivers just ignore him but one or two every red light give him some change. When the light changes he slides between the whizzing lanes of cars with the relaxed grace of a matador.
I sit down on the curb and wait until he decides to take a break. His name is Fernando. He’s twelve, he tells me, and he’s from Mexico City. He lives over there, he says, pointing to a tarp spread over a few ornamental shrubs in the nearby park.
I open his bundle to look at the glass and carefully pick up one piece and feel the edges. They´ve been honed flat. You couldn´t cut yourself with this glass if you tried. I check the other pieces. They´re all the same. Fernando is grinning. He breaks a piece of glass on the curb and then demonstrates how to take the sharp edge off by grinding it on the paving stones. In a few minutes he has rendered the new pieces as harmless as the others. He shakes his finger at me not to tell.
I give him five pesos for sharing the secret and watch while he jumps out into the crosswalk again. But when he rolls on the glass and grimaces, he catches my eye and I have to laugh, and so does he, spoiling the effect completely. Nobody gives him anything but when he comes back to the curb I donate another peso for ruining the show.
(If you wish to find out more about street children in Mexico, visit Mexican Street Children.)