High in the hills outside Mexico City, Silvia Bazua has put in a long day at the Bonampak school in Iztapalapa, one of the city's roughest districts, helping mothers overcome a key obstacle confronting their children – the lack of an official identity.
One in 6 Latin American children have no identification, according to UNICEF. In Mexico, children without birth certificates may not register in public schools, forcing many of them to work as soon as they can hawk a box of chocolates, wash the windshield of a car, or ask for a few pesos from passersby.
Ms. Bazua, a former government employee turned activist, hopes to change this. "It's a personal decision," she says. "You can either leave and forget about the problem, or you can start to fight to solve it."
Since 2001, when a census she conducted revealed large numbers of unregistered children in some of Mexico City's most marginalized areas, Bazua has been helping residents obtain birth certificates so that they can get a driver's license, register for health insurance, or attend public school.
Many of the mothers she works with are unable to read and write. Bazua puts together the complex paperwork and accompanies women to the city registrar. She obtained birth certificates for 357 people in 2007.
During the process, kids in Iztapalapa can enroll at Bonampak, located in a small building with peeling paint and broken windows. It allows children without papers to start their education. Once the process gets under way, Bazua actively supports the families. "You can't leave them alone," she says, explaining that many families get asked for bribes of up to $100. Others get frustrated and quit.
A social anthropologist by training, Bazua started working at Bonampak after helping to form the school in 2001 in a joint effort between the National Council for the Promotion of Education and the private Asociacion Xulaltequetl, which she also helped found and which supports the city's indigenous population. Its roster has gone from about 70 to 150 students.
Children without papers are often born at home to poorly educated parents. Some are unaware of the need for official papers or can't pay fees. As time goes by, students become too old to enter the grade level appropriate to their skills and may work instead.
Hortensia Urrutia spent five years trying to register her five children and three grandchildren before finding the Bonampak School. "Now that they come to this school, they have stopped work and started studying," Ms. Urrutia says.
Bazua, raised in a relatively wealthy family, smiles when she talks about her political work. "I don't agree that a few people should have all society's wealth," she says. "You see that changes in society aren't going to come from the top."
In 2001, her census found that 25 percent of children in the Bonampak settlement did not have birth certificates, 25 percent did not have vaccination certificates, and 30 percent did not attend school. That year, she helped found the Asociacion Xulaltequetl.
The process isn't free, though, and the government hasn't always been forthcoming. This year, Bazua says she's not sure they will receive any funding for registration. In the interim, Bazua's family members have chipped in.
While they wait for the government's 2008 budget, the activist says she'll receive no salary.
"Whose responsibility is this? The government's or mine?" Bazua asks. Still, she feels she must continue. "I told them I wasn't coming for three months, but I have to go."