Mexican street children opt for `misery with freedom'

ARTURO can't remember his real name. Ever since he left his family to live on the streets of Mexico City several years ago, the shifty-eyed 11-year-old has acquired nicknames as fast as he's piled up stolen food, money, and drugs. Roaming freely around the rough-edged Tepito neighborhood, Arturo feels nearly invisible, a child with little sense of his own identity.

One recent evening, as rows of black-market vendors hawked tape decks and toys, Arturo revealed the one crystal-clear memory he retains from his earlier days: that his father used to tie him up and beat him when he came home with less than the expected daily ``quota'' of pesos.

Arturo's story is not unique. During the past five years of economic crisis - as the ranks of the poor have swelled because of high unemployment, rapid rural-to-urban migration, and slipping wages - abandoned children and runaways have become distressingly common throughout Mexico, according to social workers and church groups. And despite a new government initiative aimed at helping street children, they say, the underlying social conditions continue to deteriorate faster than new programs are being created.

Few reliable statistics exist on the shadowy world of Mexican street children. But according to estimates made by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), nearly 1.5 million of Mexico's 29 million children between the ages of six and 15 are abandoned, drug addicts, and/or living on the street. Of those, according to UNICEF, only about 80,000 - or some 5 percent - are being aided by private or public institutions.

Critics contend that some of these institutions are more harmful than helpful. Rather than encourage the gradual assimilation of the ninos callejeros [street children] into society, they say, some penal institutions and halfway houses try to impose society's rules either through force or misguided charity.

``There's a tendency to treat these children as an object of charity, of pity,'' says Marco Antonio L'opez, a social worker who chose to live with street children for a year before working with them officially through UNICEF. ``But pity is the last thing they need,'' says Mr. L'opez. ``That kind of denigrating attitude will only intensify the kids' lack of self-esteem.''

Many street children, like Arturo, were sapped of self-esteem by parents that valued them only as a means of boosting the family income. They quickly ``learned'' they had no personal worth outside of what they could beg, rob, or steal.

One young runaway was asked what he thought was more valuable - a bike or him. Without hesitation, he answered, ``The bike, of course.'' Nearly all of the street kids interviewed for this article told stories of being forced to work on a ``quota'' system: If they didn't bring home a certain amount of money each day, they were either locked out of their homes or beaten.

``When kids have a choice between misery without freedom and misery with freedom,'' says L'opez, ``they usually opt for the latter.''

Once on the street, the hardened youngsters often seek transitory substitutes for self-worth in money, drugs, and sometimes violence. All three can be found in the nighttime netherworlds of places like Tepito or the infamous Plaza Garibaldi, where tourists, drunks, and mariachi bands provide a steady flow of activity.

On one recent evening, the police and the cold had scared away many of the estimated 150 street children that usually hang out around Plaza Garibaldi. Only 16-year-old Javier and seven-year-old Tibiriti openly wandered about the plaza, their hands shoved deeply into their pockets. Javier explains that most of his cohorts were soaking in the warmth of Mexico City's modern underground metro system, where they can mingle with the large crowds, lift a few wallets, and travel all over the city.

Shivering and hungry, Tibiriti sticks out his hand for a few hundred pesos, but L'opez refuses to give anything. Later, the longtime social worker explains that handouts would only feed Tibiriti's feeling that he's only worth what he can rob, beg, or steal.

Surprisingly, street children often make more money than the average Mexican worker, L'opez and several other social workers around the city say. By washing car windshields, begging in the plaza, or singing on the subway, even the tiniest youngsters like Tibiriti can rake in between 10,000 and 15,000 pesos a day ($4 to $6), much more than the minimum wage of just over 6,000 pesos a day. Older teen-agers make larger sums of money, either by ``looking after'' a group of younger children and charging for their ``service,'' or by hooking up with cortineros, vandals who specialize in breaking the steel curtains outside stores and hauling off expensive merchandise. Two months ago, for example, a homeless 17-year-old named ``Chinchi'' stole $3,000 worth of stereo equipment; in less than two weeks, he returned to Plaza Garibaldi after squandering it all with a prostitute in Acapulco.

``They've earned fortunes, but they've never had the opportunity to construct a life,'' says Mario Ayala, who works for a private foundation helping street kids make the slow transition to a more ordered life. ``You can't focus on the economic aspect, because it's not money they lack. It's self-worth.''

Mr. Ayala says the children sniff paint thinner and smoke marijuana, not just to avoid feeling hungry, but to recapture a sense of self-worth and gain a feeling of invincibility.

Later that night, when the boys start filtering back into Plaza Garibaldi, the presence of drugs is hardly hidden. Two eight-year-olds saunter up, eyes glazed, to beg for money. They smell strongly of paint thinner, known as activo because it makes them feel more alive.

To get a rag soaked in thinner at the hardware store costs 200 pesos (9 cents); and to get enough for a small, plastic bottle costs 500 pesos (23 cents). Most of these kids are hooked, sniffing about 12 bottles a day, according to Manuel Gonz'alez M'ujica, director of Children's Community Development, a program working with about 1,400 children on the streets of Mexico City as well as other cities throughout the country.

``It's as much a social problem as a problem of these individuals,'' says Mr. Gonz'alez. ``They develop the ability to acquire almost anything for themselves - except love.''

Indeed, most social workers agree that helping these children off the streets requires a fine balance of firmness and love.

Society offers a flat-out ``no'' to the activities of street children. And some programs make them feel even more inadequate, critics say, by dropping them into a foreign environment - replete with clean sheets, showers, and formal manners - and expecting them to immediately adopt society's values.

But children will be lured away from life on the street, L'opez says, only if social programs adopt a ``yes, but'' attitude. A dirty, ragged child must be accepted and valued just as he is, he says, but should gradually be shown how his actions could end up destroying him.

One violent teen-ager recently demonstrated how this love and firmness might work together. Within minutes of being brought to a local home for abandoned juveniles, the kid exploded and hurled a brick through the home's bay window. Instead of provoking a negative response from the social worker, he only got another brick - with which he broke another window. He stopped before long, the social worker recalls, ``because he realized the shock value was gone.''

That night, the adolescent learned why it might be better to hold on to those bricks: He spent a cold, restless night trying to sleep in the room with a broken window.

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