Ecuadorean cartonero hopes his sons will live better

Juan Valverde is a cartonero - a collector of cartons. But it is not a hobby. It is a livelihood for Juan and his family. Simply put, cartoneros scour the garbage dumps of Quito - and other Latin American cities - for leftover cartons, to sell them to paper factories for recycling.

Juan, who has been a cartonero for 15 years, can tell you more about cartons than you thought there was to know about them.

He is up at 5 a.m. or earlier every day, ''working,'' as he says, the Rio Machangara, a river that winds through Quito. It has become one of the main trash and sewage dumps of this sprawling city of 900,000 - receiving an estimated 350 million liters of raw sewage daily.

Quito municipal officials admit the Machangara is contaminated with high levels of toxic wastes, but they are hard put to undertake any cleanup. ''There's just no money,'' one says.

Actually, about the only cleanup is that done by Juan and his fellow cartoneros, who include Cecilia, Juan's wife, on many days. They pick up hundreds of pounds of used cardboard boxes daily.

Juan and Cecilia then dry the cartons. When they get enough, they make pangas , or packages, of them, to sell on Saturdays.

''They are usually wet or damp when we get them,'' Cecilia says. ''They dry out quickly in the sun.''

Juan has no idea how the pangas he takes to the papermill in south Quito are weighed. He simply takes ''what they pay me.'' Papermill officials refused to disclose how they measure or weigh the pangas.

''Let's just say,'' a paper plant official said, ''we could get along without this waste paper, but since it is here, we can use it.''

The Valverde family earns about 2,000 sucres monthly (some $22) for its labors.

Being a cartonero obviously is not much of a life. Still, it is what sustains the Valverdes - Juan, Cecilia, and three boys.

Juan, a full-blooded Indian, came to Quito when he was 12. He had run away from his home in the rugged hill country around Ambato because he didn't want to spend the rest of his life being a farmer like his forebears. There were 14 brothers and a sister to carry on the ''tradition of farming,'' as he calls it.

He admits, moreover, that the glitter of Quito attracted him.

''We all knew there was this big city where jobs were plentiful,'' he says.

What he did not know, of course, was that thousands of other teen-agers were flocking to Quito at the same time - and like Juan, many were illiterate. Jobs, moreover, were not so plentiful.

But rural youths still come in waves. Between 1974 and 1982, for example, greater Quito grew 40.6 percent, according to government statistics.

Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city with 1.2 million people, had a slightly lower growth than Quito. But thousands still flock to the important port city.

Fast urban growth is taking place all over Latin America. Often, however, the only work for the Juan Valverdes is occupations such as collecting cartons. Millions of people do such jobs.

These people are often denied basic social services - health care, school, housing, light, drinking water, and cooking gas. They live on the margins of society.

The Valverdes, for example, live in a one-room house, 8 feet by 12 feet. A fourth of their income, some 500 sucres a month, goes for rent.

Yet through it all, Cecilia, who came to Quito when she was 5, is cheerful. ''We have work. I know some who don't have it.''

Then Juan states the clincher: ''Our boys have school. They are learning to read and write, something I will never do.'' The youngest, Jose Eugenio, starts school in October.

The boys are part of Ecuador's vast school-age population - 29 percent of the country's 8.6 million people are in school.

One of the reasons so many people like the Valverdes are without electricity, water, and gas is that Ecuador is providing so much schooling. And there are 250 ,000 Ecuadoreans going to college.

The Valverde boys may not go that far.

But Juan says: ''They are going to learn something other than being a cartonero.'' Just what, he's not sure. Neither are educators and others who worry that there are not enough jobs - or the right jobs - for the Ecuadoreans.

Such concerns are lost on Juan and Cecilia, however. They fully expect their children to do better than they have.

''They won't be cartoneros,'' Juan says over and over again as if he is trying to convince everyone who is listening.

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