Young beggars try to be bakers, meet red tape

If a group of homeless Mexican children - against all odds - figured out a way to support themselves by starting their own bakery, you'd think that politicians of every stripe would jump to support it.

Think again.

All the stainless-steel kitchen equipment that teenager Aaron Flores and his street friends need to start their bakery sits idle in a Mexico City building, shining tantalizingly like a mirage.

Of course, anyone who starts a small business encounters unexpected hurdles. But even though these street kids from the capital's rough Tepito neighborhood have the country's new president, Vicente Fox, on their side, they find themselves blocked by red tape.

Instead of kneading dough, Aaron still spends his day juggling on a busy Mexico City street corner, his face painted with the exaggerated smile of a clown.

Then when the pockets of his baggy jeans are full of change, this teen returns to the shelter that has given him a place to sleep out of the

elements for the past seven months. There, at night, he counts the coins and schemes with other street kids about the kinds of pastry and breads they hope to sell in their bakery.

"We're not asking for special treatment," says Aaron, sitting in the Liberty Group shelter. "We know what it is to be discriminated against, to be on the bottom, so all we want is to be treated equal - and for everyone [to have] a better government."

The snag the Tepito street kids' bakery hit is the city itself. Not known for strict zoning standards, the Mexico City government denied a permit for a business on the half-abandoned Libertad Street, saying the former store space is zoned residential - inappropriate for a bakery.

Local residents find the city's decision so incongruous they suspect politics is at play. President Fox blames the snag on "bureaucracy" and cites the bakery case as a good example of bad government, limiting instead of encouraging their aspirations. In his inaugural addresses Friday, Mr. Fox referred repeatedly to the Tepito street kids as symbolic of Mexico's frustrated poor youth, a marginalized population whose potential must be realized, he said, for Mexico to realize its potential.

But Aaron and his friends say they hope the city will change its mind. Their dream of running a business reflects the aspirations of many Mexican youths. A national survey released by the National Statistics Institute last week shows that when listing their expectations, 1 in 5 young people, 15 to 29 years of age, placed opening a business just behind getting married and finding a good job.

Still seeming a little incredulous they've got as far as they have with their project, the Liberty kids run fingers lovingly along the stainless steel of never-used bread ovens, muffin tins and dough blenders - the way other boys might treat a new car.

"I think it's pretty ugly that they won't let us open up, and who knows why?" says Manuel Santos, another Liberty resident. "But everybody talks about how the country's changing, so we still have hope. "

The Liberty Group's bakery project was born out of the broad Mexican desire for change that culminated in Fox's elevation to the Mexican presidency.

A year ago when Fox was still a presidential candidate, he met with some of Mexico City's estimated 15,000 street kids. He talked about the different Mexico he wanted to build, and he asked the kids to help by building themselves a better future. As a result, the Liberty kids talked about what business might succeed in their neighborhood, and they settled on opening a bakery. With the help of Liberty directors and Fox himself, they contacted one individual who bought the baking equipment they needed, and another who donated $2,000 cash for the flour and other ingredients they'd need to get going.

They even found a local baker who is willing to teach the kids his trade and get their bakery up and running.

The problem now is the small storefront space next to Liberty Group where the kids are storing their equipment. The city's claim that the space is only appropriate for residential use is raising suspicions, since local residents remember when it was an ice cream and candy shop during the neighborhood's better days.

"I even have the papers that prove the space was once legally used for a business," says Lucia Ruano Arizmendi, Liberty Group director, producing a federal tax record from 1959. The tax form shows the space occupied by "Margarita Ice Creams," a business permitted to sell "ice cream in cup and cone, candy, gum, and lemonade of all brands, but not beer."

Ms. Ruano says her organization is pressing an appeal. In the meantime, the street kids' efforts is spawning copious speculation about political interests getting in the way. One local who's been following the bakery project but who refused to give his name said, "It's simple. This is a PAN project," referring to the center-right National Action Party of President Fox, "and the city is governed by the PRD," the left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution. "Thus," he concluded, "no permit."

Others, like Mexico's new president, say the problem is just stubborn red tape. In the first hours of his presidency Friday, Fox visited the Liberty kids and advised them to persevere with their dream.

And none of them is giving up. "This bakery will open," says Osvaldo Castillo, one of the Liberty kids who hopes to leave the corner clown acts and windshield washing behind. "We hit some barriers, but sooner or later it's going to open."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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