Thursday, March 18, 2010

About a Boy

When we first moved to New York 20 years ago, our Uncle Martin (into whose empty apartment we were moving) called and told us to go down to the end of the block and find a specific panhandler - a hard-worn guy with a scraggly beard who looked like a cartoon version of a hobo. "That's Marty, my namesake homeless guy," he told us, and instructed us to give him five bucks whenever we saw him, which turned out to be nearly every day. A few years later we moved a mile away and Marty disappeared, but we never forgot the concept.

So, this is Jesús, our perro's namesake street urchin:

Local readers will recognize him as one of the dozens of kids who wander the heavily-trafficked streets of the Centro begging for change and selling stuff nobody needs. We've been buying gum from him for almost three years now - since he was four years old. He's here from the early afternoon until way past a six-year-old's bedtime, six or seven days a week. Whenever we ask him what he's been up to, his answer is always "working." He's recently been joined on his rounds by his three-year-old sister, which is a lot more depressing than it sounds.  (Readers with children barely out of infancy are invited to imagine them walking unattended through the streets of your city.  We'll wait a minute while you catch your breath.)

Jesús's "sales territory" takes him past all the major government buildings in the Centro, and yet none of the well-dressed, overpaid politicians here seem to see anything wrong with a small child working a 40-hour week. We know that it's unfair - even offensive - to apply the standards of one country to the reality of another, so we'll spare you the paragraph we wrote in our heads that began, "Back in America..." Still, let's forget Mexico as a whole and concentrate on Querétaro, a city that we consider affluent by US standards; GM's decision to discontinue the Hummer has a lot of people here stocking up on spare parts. That this sort of thing is tolerated here, year after year, is frankly shameful. The government agency that's supposed to deal with poverty, DIF, seems to exist primarily to provide politicians' wives a chance to be photographed handing out blankets. A couple of years ago, Jesús used to work the streets in a DIF sweatshirt (in the PAN political party's colors, of course), but he outgrew it. We're not sure what else the agency has done for him, though we assume there was a photographer present.  He'll probably be getting a PRI-colored shirt pretty soon, since the government changed a few months back.

To be clear, the kid is very well cared-for - clean, healthy, well-dressed - but that's largely because he's very good at his job. He has a father who works (we're unclear as what, exactly), but it wouldn't surprise us if he were the principal breadwinner in the family. We buy 10 pesos worth of gum every time we see him, and we're definitely not alone. (Minimum wage is 52 pesos a day.) He's got a sparkle and charm that the other kids lack, and he's fearless about just plopping down and talking to people. He's got genuine personality, talent and intellect. Plus he's small for his age and so, like a child actor, he's got an abundance of cute working for him.

Still, we can't help but wonder, like a child actor, what happens when he outgrows his cute phase? We've never been able to get a straight answer about whether or not he attends - or has ever attended - school, but we tend to doubt it. In a few years time he'll be a teenager, too big to sell gum, too small to do serious labor - and then what? After a few years, does he hock himself to coyotes and make the potentially deadly journey to the US to work for slave wages with no rights or protections? What are his options? It's a grim prognosis, we know, and we're happy to let you convince us otherwise, but we're not optimistic.  Yeah, millions of people in Mexico have the same shitty life story, blah, blah, blah...but this one likes our perro, so he matters more.  He's also got serious potential in life, and probably won't get within 1,000 miles of reaching it.  But then maybe he'll never even be aware of it, which might make it easier.

Anyway, the point of this long rambling post is that tomorrow, March 19, is Jesús's seventh birthday. We know this because he's managed to work it into every conversation over the last two weeks. So get the kid a little present - he's the perro's namesake street urchin, for God's sake.  Or, at the very least, buy a pile of gum from him, since he's sure be out working.

    Update: So we splurged a couple of dollars on a plastic truck with a bunch of choking-hazard-sized parts, wrapped it up, and headed to the plaza for our Friday evening editorial meeting and, sure enough, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business shows up within ten minutes. We hand him the present and he grabs it, leaves his basket (i.e., his professional inventory) on the table, and runs to give it to his mother for safekeeping. "I'm saving it for the party," he says. So you haven't had the party yet? "No, it's tonight at 1:00AM." 
    One o'clock in the morning sounds more like a starting time for Li'l Wayne's birthday party than a seven year old kid's, but as he explained, they don't get back home until midnight or so, and then they need some time to set up. If we'd known that was the schedule, we'd have gotten him a stripper. Maybe next year.


Anonymous said...

Please buy all his gum and tell me what I owe!
I'm dead serious.


Burro Hall said...

Thanks! It'll probably be about two dollars. I'll cover you until you can raise it.

Anonymous said...

Ahem, Franko. If you stuck to the five dollar plan, the kid could be driving an SUV by now.

Christina said...

I have often wondered if you buy the whole box if the child gets to call it a day. Somehow, I think they would just appear with a new box of gum to sell.

Does anyone know how this works? I assumed their is a person who sends groups of these children out to sell the gum and the kids get very little of the money.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I can remember you exposing your soft underbelly like this, Frank. It's appropriate and I'm glad to see it, but I'm just saying is all.

Burro Hall said...

Yeah, damnedest thing, innit? I should probably just steal his organs and get it over with.

Cristina - good question. He actually comes with his mother, so it's not quite a "Slumdog Millionare" situation. I assume she keeps 100%. What I don't know is what percentage, if any, she has to pay out to someone else for transportation, supplies, etc. Or if it's just a self-contained family operation.

Anonymous said...

Wow...not why I read Burro Hall, but really nice to see this side.

Anonymous said...

Very sad. And damn Calderon and the rest of the PRIAN (PRI & PAN) who don't do a think about it. If Mexico had compulsory education and better employment opportunities this kind of stuff wouldn't happen. At the same time, Mexico has the world's richest man! WTF? It's the reason I support social justice.

Anonymous said...

There is a very old man in the New York subway playing a keyboard, with battery dolls dancing. His music is great, but he is really really old, must be 90 or so. He is really old. He's Professor XXXX (I forgot his name) or so his official MTA sign says. I remember a seeing a video of him on YouTube. The same, every time I see him it's 5 bucks..... He's till around...

Jorge Arturo said...

we have compulsoy education, if Burrohall present a complain with Dif (child services) they would take the boy to another house.

As a mexican I can assure you that the laws are not the problem is the corruption, on both sides,

on the government side because if you see the budget they had for education, is a lot, but only 10% is used for the planned porpose. The schools (public) had breakfasts, lunch and meal included, but are over populated and to enter the managers of some schools ask for some "monetary aid".

On the parents side, they put their kids to work or beg for money because is more lucrative for them, the worst the kid looks the most they get, in the 90's there was a campaign that ask not to give any charity to anonimous people on the street and report them to Dif in orther to stop this exploitation, there was networks of "professional" beggars and some even had good money using kids for that.

I don't know this kid's life situation, but it is worth to study, and there are several goverment and non government organisations that could help.

- Vicentinas
- Caritas
- Dif
- Pan de vida

Jose said...

He told us it was his birthday on Oct 15th a few weeks before we left q-town--but whose counting! Buy his gum for crying out loud!