Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 148 | Noviembre 1993



Street Children--Mortgaging the Future

Why are there children in the street? What are they doing there? What are the risks to them? What can be done to deal with a problem that grows daily and would seem to have no solution?

Raquel Fernández

At every traffic light, in the markets and shopping centers, wherever people gather together for religious processions, fairs, political demonstrations, sporting events the children are there, selling gum, candy, cigarettes and all sorts of junk. Or sometimes they're just there, waiting for any carelessness to be able to snatch those extra córdobas they need for a meal.

They are the girls and boys of the street usually dirty; either barefoot or with tattered and laceless shoes; in hand patched clothing already handed down many times and generally still too large, or too small because the child has grown and the clothing hasn't; with long hair because there's never enough money to get to the barber or with shaved heads, because when there was a bit of money, everything got cut off to make the haircut last; eyes both fearful and bold, whipped from before birth by social rejection and misery. But they're still able to laugh and play, because they're children, even if children of the streets.

They are the last, the most defenseless, link in the chain of poverty. They are the ones who get the last bashing, which has built up force and brutality from the highest spheres of society, hurtling down until it ends up on them. But, one way or another, they manage to avoid the worst of the blows and survive.

Who Is "At Risk"?

Nicaragua is an astonishingly young country. According to statistics published by UNICEF, 50% of the 4.1 million Nicaraguans are under age 16. Reliable data also states that approximately 600,000 minors live at risk, though this figure would seem conservative. The country's unemployment rate is over 60% and it is precisely those families with the least resources that have the most children because they do not know about contraceptive methods, lack the resources to obtain them or have moral prejudices against using them.

It is important to understand as a "minor at risk" not only the child close to death from hunger an increasingly common reality in Nicaragua or who, at a minimum runs the risk of suffering abnormalities due to malnutrition, but also the child at risk of becoming a delinquent.
The phrase is deceptive: those children considered "at risk" are not so much those who are actually at risk themselves but rather those who put "decent" society at "risk." A skillful thief or a shrewd murderer with a knife, whether as a child or later as an adult, clearly puts society more at risk than someone left abnormal by malnutrition.

Against this backdrop, it would seem more credible that only 600,000 children have sufficient protection during their first crucial developmental years while the other 1,500,000 run serious risks of different types social, economic, nutritional or moral.

Managua's Children

Managua is the country's largest city and has the most children. More than half a million children live or at least survive in the capital and it is there that the most visible problems can be seen. The number of people and their proximity to each other helps Managua's children find some form of youth organization, such as gangs, that turns them into potential risks to society.

It is this potential danger that gives children in the city at least some possibility of receiving a minimal amount of official attention and care. Those of the countryside isolated and far removed from the sounding boards that could make their voices heard, die of hunger in silence.

But the children of the city are not really of great concern to the upper classes, who are more interested in window dressing activities than any sort of truly efficient work. The nongovernmental organizations are different and, to a greater or lesser extent, with varying levels of success, try to do what they can for the children. Many times, however, their efforts resemble the proverbial drop of water in the desert.

Impossible Numbers

In a country with virtually no reliable statistics, it is very difficult to know exactly how many children work in the street and how many live there. A 1991 study by the Ministry of Government found that about 1,000 children at that time were glue-sniffers, something considered almost the last step in the fall of a child, an open door to the world of drugs, a place from which it is difficult to return. Subsequent estimates raise that figure to about 1,300 today.

Searching for a numerical approximation based on reports made by street educators who work directly with children, it is estimated that, for every child who ends up sniffing glue, at least 10 live on the street at least part of the time. In other words, between 12,000 and 15,000 children live on the streets of Nicaragua.

It is impossible to know how many children work in the street. Huge numbers contribute to their family's income by selling newspapers, tortillas, homemade sweets or baked goods before or after attending school. But once their work is done, they are awaited and wanted at home, even if there's no house. These are not street children, they are working children. Although their childhood is jeopardized by tremendous responsibilities, they are protected to a certain degree.

The Road to the Street

Children do not end up on the street because they want to, but because they have no alternative. Many children start working on the streets accompanying their single mothers in the market or in their work at an intersection. Others end up there fleeing an unbearable family situation.

According to psychologist Adilia Amaya, from the Institute for Human Promotion (INPRHU), to understand what kinds of risks children live with and their possibilities for recovery, it is important to know if it is a boy or a girl, what they do on the street, what area they work in, if they are alone or accompanied, by whom, etc. "A small girl all by herself selling water all day in a market is not the same as a 12 or 14 year old boy who sells tortillas made by his mother in his own neighborhood or nearby," says Amaya. "The first case is critical, that girl has a horrifying future ahead of her, while, in principle, the second case is much less problematic."
"Of course we can't be categorical about it," she adds, "but what we see normally is that someone in such a difficult and complex situation at such an early age is not likely to find a way out."
There are many exceptions: children who, like Dickensian characters, manage to overcome their virtually impossible situations and get on with their lives. But would a sensitive person allow his or her children to run serious risks with the hope that they will be one of the few able to overcome them?
Francisco Picado, coordinator of the National Commission for the Protection of Nicaraguan Children, which operates under the auspices of the Presidency, declares, "The child who is not taken care of looks for attention elsewhere. That attention could come from a neighbor, a relative or from the friendship of another child who is already living on the street."
Amaya adds that "children need an adult who can be their point of reference, someone they can identify with. It could be an uncle, a godmother, a grandmother or a neighbor. It's not important to the child if the person is a blood relative or not. This reference point is very important to the child's life."
But what brings a child to the streets? Social researcher Sylvia Saakes has a hypothesis. "Many demographic studies refer to the strategy of parents to depend on their children once they are quite old, but rarely do they take this strategy into account in the short term. However, children do thousands of things: they assist in domestic tasks, haul water, work as shoeshine boys, sell newspapers, watch and/or wash cars, and the like The number of children working in these kinds of activities grows as the economic crisis becomes more acute."
"This need for children's economic contribution may help explain why children are mistreated, a serious problem. The difficult economic situation requires that very small children help out economically and, given the pressure that comes from poverty itself, it is difficult for the parents to give in to their children's pressure for food, recreation and other demands. Oftentimes, the mother unloads her frustration on the children."
"For many desperate women, the lack of seriousness in the way children sometimes work forces them to turn to abuse as the only way to get their children to help. Under this kind of pressure, many children flee their mothers. A vice of the "old morality" disciplining children through violence is not easily eradicated if children's work is also an important part of the survival strategies of their mothers or guardians."
Amaya notes that "another element is the family situation. The situation of a boy or girl who goes out to work under the guidance of a responsible adult, even if it's not the mother, is not so terrible. Someone is waiting there to find out if the child sold anything or not, how his or her work went during the day. The child is expected and, when she or he returns, is given at least a tortilla with salt. It's a very different situation from those who have nobody waiting for them, nobody who cares if they get back or not. When such scant attention is paid the child, it generates an element that pushes the child to spend more and more time on the street."

The Martyrdom of Being a Girl

The conditions facing children on the streets are very difficult, but are even worse for little girls. It is almost inevitable that girls be abused at the markets and bus stops. "Everyone knows it happens," says Amaya. "Those of us who work with them know, the police know, the merchants, drivers and people who work there know and often, in fact, are the very people who abuse them."
A whole series of mechanisms pervert minors. A young girl shows up at a market or bus stop because that is where a lot of people gather, making sales more likely. But the economic situation means that there many, many girls are selling and few are buying.
Thus there is enormous competition. Moreover, there are often places to buy liquor near the bus stops, where adults get to the point that they look on the young vendors with lascivious eyes.

A number of young girls approach men offering their products, and the man makes a proposal: "I'll buy everything you have if you let me..." The empty stomach aches, and at home, hungry younger sisters and brothers are crying. So what happens happens. And what's left is left. And the girls are the bad ones, because the men are, as everyone knows, just men.

But these girls, in addition to having hungry, empty stomachs, also often have hungry hearts. They are starved for affection, for a little sweetness, for something. An adult picks up on that need very quickly, and cruelly romances the naive girls: "You're the only one, I'm going to give you this and that, there's no one like you."
"These are girls 12, 13, 14 years old," explains Amaya, "with serious affective, nutritional and economic needs, they need everything. They buy very easily into illusions, and they pay the price later."

The Problem of Self Esteem

"When we have workshops or meetings with girls and boys, the girls don't participate," Amaya points out. "The boys are already consciousness of themselves as macho and it shows. They are the ones who talk and run the show, while the girls are quiet and listen to what the "men" 14 year old boys have to say. They also don't talk when we have meetings without boys, until little by little, we coax the words out."
"In this sense, the work with the girls' mothers is as intense as with the girls themselves," continues Amaya. "The mother is an abused, mistreated woman, whose self esteem is shattered. She inculcates that same sense in her children, because she doesn't know how to do anything else. They are women who must be taught to think about themselves, because they've never done that. They are used to always being the last for everything. Both the mothers and the daughters are unaware that they have the right to enjoy themselves. If you ask them what they do for fun, they'll answer, 'wash and iron.' That's their recreation. They don't realize there are things people do just to enjoy themselves."
Building self esteem in these women and girls is complex because there are no models to which they can turn. They are starting with less than zero, because not only do women not value themselves, they un under value themselves.

Sylvia Saakes puts forth an hypothesis that could help explain why the abused woman repeats this same model with her daughter. "In many studies about women, researchers have been confused. On the one hand, the women interviewed recognize inequalities and injustices, not only towards themselves but also towards other women, and they understand that they are rejected for that reason. But, on the other, they do not take action against these injustices in an attempt to improve their situation. While almost all women reject machismo, domestic violence and the inequality of rights for men and women, they also accept this in their daily lives because men are important to their personal survival. When it is understood that women need men's help, it becomes easier to understand why they accept a 'traditional woman's role' and dependence on a man.

"Knowing how to convince a man to help them in something is their 'submissive power.' This behavior, in which women also promote the social division of labor, can explain why women accept machismo. Accepting the 'natural' division between men and women gives women the opportunity to get men's support, to get protection when they need it, and also makes it possible for them to avoid the heavy work traditionally considered 'men's work.' Taking a more critical position, or, even worse, an openly feminist attitude toward men means risking that support from one man and all other men. It is very difficult to recoup this support once it's been lost, especially in the precarious situations in which so many women live."

The Dangers of the Street

The street is a bad school for a child. Many things happen there, right in front of children's eyes, things that neither children nor anyone else should have to see, because they shouldn't happen.

Street educator Eduardo Carson, who has been working with street kids for years, suspects that among children at Managua's sprawling Mercado Oriental, the country's largest and most dangerous open market, probably not one virgin is left, since all the kids suffer sexual abuse double abuse in the case of girls. "Children see horrifying things on the streets, things that we who consider ourselves 'normal' cannot conceive of even in our most horrible nightmares," Carson says. "They see them every day."
He stresses that the situation facing girls is twice as bad as that of the boys. "And they are small children 6, 7, 10, 12, 14 years old who have to deal with these situations. There are still people who are surprised that these children grow up with serious emotional and personal problems. They are children who at 12 or 15 have a long experience of things that we cannot even imagine."
"The children are not guilty of the horrible experiences they have to face. They're out in the streets working to survive and help their families and what happens to them is not something they're out there looking for."

The Street as Temptation

A child comes to the street unaware of everything and, little by little, begins to understand and adapt to a hostile environment in which he or she must learn to live. Hunger teaches children to navigate in turbulent waters without a compass, to defend themselves and develop mechanisms that help them to avoid their environment.

But they also end up tied to this environment due to other extremely dangerous realities that they, as children, are unable to foresee. These include offers to get involved in dangerous and harmful activities: prostitution for both girls and boys, crimes of every type, drugs.

"Those who are already veterans of this kind of environment do not offer these things to the new kids due to malice, but because that's how things are for them," Amaya points out. "They have to steal or prostitute themselves or deal drugs in order to eat. It's a way of life just like any other. They don't learn to steal because they're bad, but in order to survive."
Nevertheless, the streets also often offer children something better than they have at home. Some of the conditions on the street are apparently favorable to the children more freedom of movement, less control. The only norms that exist are those demanded by survival. The children organize into groups or gangs to survive and find responses to their needs.

They search for and find where to bathe when it's not raining. They don't change their clothing except when they steal something new to put on. If they're lucky, they change clothes every day and if not, every month or every year. It depends. And it's not all that important. Food is not a problem for these children with strong stomachs and swift hands. In terms of where to spend the night, the market's tunnels and alleys are truly horrifying, but when there's nothing else, they'll do. In any case, the absence of controls compensates for the problems they must face.

The Glue-Sniffers

To psychologist Amaya, the real problem of the "glue sniffer" child does not lie in the habit of sniffing glue. It is the constellation of circumstances that lead a child to that habit. "Glue is like the thief's learning process: friends in the market don't give it to the new child because they're bad, but because they think it's good. The 'occupation' of thief is necessary to survival and glue sniffing makes it all bearable. The kids say that when they sniff glue, they feel like they're flying."
Without a doubt, glue is a factor that affects the children, but it also essentially complicates an already complex picture. It is a problem similar to that faced by an elderly diabetic with arteriosclerosis and high blood pressure who then ends up with bronchitis: one more significant complication to a difficult situation.

Glue complicates the child's situation, but is not the major problem he or she faces. The problem is not having enough to eat, not having a home, living in the street, being abused, and the near total security that he or she will end up involved in criminal activities. Falling into the habit of sniffing glue is the consequence of other things the child lacks and needs. And there's another issue as well: the group. According to reports by street educators who work directly with the children, the group of friends who sniff glue is very solid; all help each other resolve their needs.

Those needs vary widely, from credit from another friend to buy a small jar of glue to taking food into the police station when someone is taken in, and includes, of course, affective, nutritional and even sexual needs. The group helps and supports each other and nobody is alone. Thus some institutions feel it is more effective to work with the group as a whole.

A child generally begins to sniff glue after 10 years. It is rare to find children younger than this sniffing glue, but once they begin to do so, they've generally been on the streets for a number of years. That is, glue can be considered a doctorate of sorts in this catastrophe that, fortunately, affects only a minority. "The problem is of great concern, although it affects only a small minority of children on the street. It causes concern because it is the deepening of the deterioration of life in human terms and in terms of social rights. The number of children affected is relatively small, but we should not wait until the rates are alarming to do something for these children," says Amaya.

What is Glue?

Adela Membreño based her doctoral dissertation on the effects of glue on young bodies. The children studied were 15 years old and, on average, had been sniffing glue for three years. What was most compelling was the relative scarcity of medical literature about this problem that seriously affects all countries in Latin America. The glue used by shoemakers, commonly used by street children, is made of two chemicals, benzene and toluene, both of which have addictive properties.

The most intense effects of glue begin to be noted about two hours after inhaling, once the chemicals have reached high levels of concentration in the bloodstream. As a result, the nervous system is stimulated and the children begin to make strange faces and grimaces. Glue sniffing children steal for two reasons to guarantee their next fix and as a consequence of the euphoric boldness that the drug makes them feel. Membreño's research showed that the greatest frequency of crimes committed by children who sniffed glue was between 10 am and noon, because they begin to sniff as soon as they wake up, between 6 and 7 am.

When the drug's effect is at its peak, children suffer from mild tremors as a direct result of stimulating the central nervous system. Another effect is a voracious appetite: they are insatiable children who never tire of eating, who have a terrible hunger. However, although they eat in an uncontrolled manner, 81% of the children studied present symptoms of first and particularly second degree malnutrition.

Glue stimulates the sexual appetite, which leads the slightly older boys (14 16 years old) to rape the girls who sniff glue with them or the other girls who work in the market. Another effect of the drug is a very itchy allergic skin rash.

Psychological Alterations

To understand the psychological effects of glue among children who sniff it, the researcher formed two groups of 15 children each, of similar ages and economic, social and cultural interests. The only difference was that one group was made up of habitual glue sniffers, while nobody had ever sniffed glue in the other group.

The results of this comparison, after submitting all the children to psychometric tests, were devastating. All the glue sniffers demonstrated mental development ranging between 40 and 60% under what is considered normal.

With this result, Membreño confirmed that habitual glue sniffing causes neurological damage and that more exposure to the drug causes greater damage to the neurons. She did not specifically study the damage produced by glue sniffing in the respiratory system, although simple visual observation allows one to note irritation in the nasal passages, from which significant alterations in the lungs can be extrapolated. In a forthcoming research project, Membreño plans to continue work along these lines, to confirm her assumptions.

How to Get the Drug

The drug glue is sold in small baby food jars, and the price varies between three and five córdobas (50 and 85 cents). It can be found in almost any stand in the market, because it is such a common product for both domestic and professional use.
Each jar lasts a child two or three hours. But, in an attempt to get the most out of their investment, the kids make a small bell out of an old plastic bag to make sure that nothing escapes from the jar and goes instead straight to their noses. Another thing they do to intensify the effects of the glue is to take a drug sold under the name Artane for a córdoba before they inhale the glue. Artane is used in the psychiatric treatment of aggressive patients with severe emotional problems. It is available without a prescription in any market.

Why Sniff Glue?

Children who end up sniffing glue all have one key thing in common: they are children who were not wanted by their parents. They arrived in this world because there was no way to avoid it. They also do not have a home that deserves to be called such; and if there is a place they return to at night, they have to come back with money to pay for their right to sleep and, even then, they run the risk of all kinds of mistreatment and abuse.

Another common denominator all the kids share is the satisfaction they get through sniffing glue: "I feel so great, I feel like I take off, I forget everything, I forget that they hit me at home, I forget I don't have a home." They drown their problems and needs in glue like alcoholics do in liquor.

But once they are caught in the steel trap of drugs, children find themselves doubly chained. Because they are sniffing glue, they don't have the time to work or steal and, to get the money for a jar of glue, they prostitute themselves both the girls and the boys. For a jar of glue.

When the effects of the glue wear off, in addition to a horrible taste in the mouth and foul breath, there is a dulling of the senses and a depression that sends them into a solid sleep for hours. And then the cycle begins again.

The Difficult Recovery

The first that must be done to rescue these glue sniffing kids is to get them to stop sniffing. And, to do that, it is necessary to change the circumstances they live in that led them to the habit in the first place. And that is where the problems begin, because treatment has to be broad and deal with both the child and his or her family.

It is difficult to rescue children who are heavily into glue, because they will experience serious withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it. Experience indicates, however, that glue is relatively easy to stop using if the circumstances that led to its use are resolved.

The Ministry of Government maintains a rehabilitation center, the "Friends Center," where 72 habitual glue sniffers receive treatment that is as integral as is possible given the country's current economic situation.

Social researcher María Isabel Torres has run the center since it was founded in 1991. In her experience, she has seen children who can get through a number of days without using glue if they are entertained and occupied in different activities.

The children stay in the center, which has an open boarding structure; they sleep there and then go to school or receive technical training in different centers and workshops. They go home on the weekends and on Monday mornings come back to the center. "Mondays are critical," Torres admits. "It's easy to figure out who found things more or less okay at home and who had problems, because the latter come back sniffing glue or with glue on their breath. And then we have to start all over."
At the center, the children receive food, clo thing, medical and psychological treatment as well as large quantities of affection by a staff that has not received specific training, but is made up of people with tremendous compassion for these children.
Among the children at the center, some have no family, as they were abandoned in the streets when they were too small to remember their names or where they lived.
Others would have benefited greatly if their parents had abandoned them when they were very small, as their bodies are a virtual patchwork, sewn together everywhere. Their skin bears clear signs of deep scars that trace a crisscross pattern from head to toe.

When there is a family unit for the child to go back to, it must be transformed before the child is sent back. To achieve that, the center offers professional training to the mother usually the only relative around to help her carry out some socially useful activity to earn a living, increase her own self esteem and thus effect a positive transformation in her attitude toward life and her children.

Some theorists feel that the center's method is incorrect, as it takes children out of their environment and essentially isolates them.
But there is no other known way to help a drug addict to recovery. In the midst of a thousand difficulties, with very little space and without the farm it was promised long ago, the center has been able to rescue many children and give them new hope.
Each of those children justifies the center's existence a thousand times over. The "Friends Center" is the only one in the country dedicated exclusively to this kind of work. Other institutions work with street children, including glue sniffers, from the perspective that glue sniffing is one more serious complication, but is not the heart of the problem.
The facts demonstrate that successes have been scored with both kinds of treatment. What is clear is that the children need attention, affection, more attention and more affection and everything else implied by that.

The Children's Vision

As part of the process of political dialogue that the Nicaraguan government began on May 3, and hoping for some good p.r., President Chamorro invited children to express their opinions about the national situation. The meeting between the Cabinet and 32 children took place behind closed doors on June 18.

Almost nobody knows what happened in that meeting, which was organized basically for protocol purposes and ended up going on for five hours. To avoid surprises, the government selected the children, more than a third of whom came from the country's upper classes. But the government also had to invite some of the children from the streets and markets who are impossible to hide.

The few photos that were published show the Cabinet members looking a little dejected, heads down, while the children have firm, resolute expressions on their faces. And, because walls have ears, it is known that the children at the meeting demanded better education from Education Minister Humberto Belli, health care from Minister Martha Palacios and respect for the most marginalized from the National Police. They also demanded from the National Resources and Environment Institute (IRENA) the right to continue to breathe clean air, drink uncontaminated water and live in a livable country, and asked of all the government representatives present that they be given a country with a future for all, rich and poor.

During the meeting, an unexpected and surprising solidarity between all the children from different social backgrounds was noted, undoubtedly because all children in Nicaragua are marginalized, whatever their family's economic means may happen to be.

Each statement by one of the children was harsher and more critical than the one preceding it. The photo opportunity fell apart, so there was not much information about what really took place. The only thing made public was the President's speech inaugurating the session nothing more.

Can Crushed Seeds Take Root and Grow?

The different institutions working with children try to do something for the kids, but the problem is enormous. Little by little, however, children are rescued, family environments are reconstructed. Huge investments are not needed to achieve these gains because the children are used to living with almost nothing and have small scale ambitions. The sheer number of children is what makes the problem so overwhelming. The children do not ask for much, and are content with a future that is not destroyed before it even begins.

In the few official actions carried out in an attempt to deal with the problems facing children, the fear that these children will turn into impossible adults prevails over any love for or commitment to justice.

These children frighten society, and even more so when one stops to think what they will be like when they are adults; the assumption is that they will be dangerous.

That remains to be seen when they reach adulthood, as nobody really knows if they will be dangerous to society or not. But, at the moment, it has been shown that society is dangerous to these children, because it robbed them of the only really valuable thing they ever had: their childhood.


Where do you live? Where is your house?
In the Mercado Oriental.

Are there houses there?
Well, in the alleys.

How long have you been living there?
For four years.

And how do you eat?

Well, how do you make a living?

Do you hang out with men?

Do you have any children?
Yes, one, a year old.

Does the father help you out?
No, he's married.

Did you know that when you got involved with him?
Yes, but he told me he was going to leave her and come live with me.

Does he help you with the child?

I haven't seen him again.

Haven't you looked for him?
Yes, but he doesn't live at the address he gave me,
they don't even know him.

And now?
I don't know.

Will you keep doing the same thing to make a living?
I don't know.

And if another child comes?
I don’t know.


Do you have a woman?
Yeah, yeah, Juana.

What do you like about her?
She's a good housewife and treats me well. And she
broke off with her friends from before. My woman is only for me.

How old is she?
Is she pretty? What do you do to support her?
I work.

How long have you been working?
For four months. I had been with one of the street
educators for a while; I was leaving the bad life behind and they helped me find work. And here I am, just fine.

When did you start living on the streets?
When I was about 10.

And the glue?
I was about 12.

How did you make a living before you started working?
Stealing. I was a thief.

What did you steal?
Well, at the beginning, fruit, money from the merchants. Later,
gold chains, watches, everything.

How many times have you been in jail?
I don't know, a lot, about 20.

Why did you decide to change your life?
The street's a bad life. The police, the people, the
market women, they all humiliate you.

Why did they humiliate you?
Because I was dirty, long haired, sniffing glue. And glue only makes you happy for a little while. Then everything turns ugly; you get a headache, you start to stink. When you talk to someone, they tell you, "Get out of here, kid. Damn, what a smell, you're sniffing glue." And the police mess you up, they put you in jail for five days. We were in jail for five days, one time they even cut open my head with the butt of a pistol.

And now, how do you see your friends from before?
I still see them. I go to the market to see them sometimes, because I'm not afraid of them, they're my friends.

Are your friends people to be afraid of?
Well, in that environment it's easy to come to a bad end; for any stupid thing. The other day a friend of mine got stabbed by another guy I know, he killed him. He just wanted to scare him,
but he got carried away. If someone wants to survive here, they have to be really sharp.

And what do they think about the change in you?
There's no problems with them. They tell me that it's good, they've understood me. The problem is with the police, because they know me and they don't believe I've changed. The other day one showed up who knows me, and he says, "Ah, it's you, stealing
again?" "No," I said, "I'm working now." And he says, "I don't believe you." "But it's true," I said. So then he says, "This kid has been a thief and a glue sniffer since he was little. Look at this shirt I don't even use shirts like this and you have one, and these pants, and great sneakers. You started out stealing vegetables, then gold chains, purses and now you're assaulting people." And I said, "But I'm telling you the truth, I'm not in that scene anymore." And he answered, "Look, you son of a bitch, you're a thief and the first thing I see, I'll empty my gun out on you." So I just got out of there, I thought it was better just to leave.

The police don't believe that you've changed?
No, they don't believe it. Sometimes I go to visit my friends, market women, they like me a lot because I've changed. They are very happy to see changes like this and they give me fruit drinks, but I'm going to have to stop going because I don't want any trouble with the police.


Who do you live with?
My mother.

And your father?
With a stepfather.

How do you get along with him?
I don't get along so great with him, because ever since I was little, I'd hang out in the streets because he always drank, and then he'd hit me. But now that I'm a man, that doesn't happen. I don't let it. I stop him.

Have you ever taken drugs?
Before; I stopped using them when I was 15. I'd been sniffing glue since I was 12, but not anymore. That's behind me forever, it was enough.

How did you stop sniffing glue?
A "chela" [a light skinned, or foreign woman] came to the market to work with children; she was real nice, but she didn't know this place. She didn't know anything about glue and I brought her a jar so she would know what it was and she thanked me, so I felt good. Then she asked me if I wanted to help her and I said yes. In my mind I said, "I couldn't do that kind of work, because they'll just see me like another kid, I'm not responsible enough." That's what I was thinking, but I started and I'm working now. I've been doing this for two years.

Do you like to work with kids?
Yes, and also with really little kids and with disabled people. I do it because I want to; they don't pay me. I do it because I like doing it.

And how do you live?
I sell things and I also have a little part time job.

And your mother?
She sells things in the market. I give her part of what I earn so she can use it and get ahead a little. It's not very much, but at least it gets us halfway there.
And the part you don't give your mother?
I save that to work on my house little by little. It's true that we're poor, but it's not all that bad.


Why did you get involved in vagrancy?
There's no work now. I worked, but people said that I'd been a bum and they said I was stealing things.

And was it true?
Yeah, but I didn't like it when they said that to me.

Are you married?
Yes, she's 20, we work together economically. She works in whatever she can and I steal. We make enough for "rock" for both of us.

Yeah, rock, what they call crack.

Have you ever been in prison?
Yeah, three times.

In the police station or in the prison at Tipitapa?
In Tipitapa.

But you're only 16...

The thing is I'm about to turn 17. Right now I'm out on bail for theft and battery.

Who paid the bail? Your mother?
My mother doesn't live around here, it's been a long time since I've seen her. No, "Munra," that guy from around here paid it.

How much was it?
A thousand córdobas.

A lot?
Nobody's alone here. There's credit. It's just a matter of getting the money, and we're out of there.

What's the treatment like in prison?
It's pretty awful. The food is horrible. The treatment of minors is worse, everyone is really vulgar with them, the police
harass them. There are rapes and all of that. The oldest prisoners take advantage of the youngest ones, but there are also some who give advice.

Does prison rehabilitate or corrupt?
You go there to get rehabilitated, but you end up even worse. You learn from the older guys, who know a lot.

Trade secrets?
Well, what else?
And now that you're out on bail?
Now I have to be really careful, so they don't catch me alive. Better that they get me dead, laid out on the pavement, because we're talking about five years now.


What's this about having problems at home?
My problem is that they throw me out. My stepfather throws me out every time I show up and I do everything I can so he doesn't.

And why does he throw you out?
Because he wants to, maybe because I wanted to watch television, or play.

And your mother, what does she say about this?
She takes my stepfather's side; instead of supporting her daughter, she supports her husband.

And your father?
He doesn't live with us, he lives with another woman. He only comes around looking for a good meal. But sometimes I'd like some advice, but they don't give me any advice. In fact, I'm the one who could really give them some advice.

Your stepfather is a better compañero for your mother and that's why she puts up with him?
My mother has suffered a lot with our stepfather; she's already thrown him out of the house, but he wouldn't go. And I wonder if there's not a law that could get him out because he doesn't do anything. He just makes my mother's life and our lives miserable.

Besides selling things, what do you do?
I'm in sixth grade and I want to learn to sew.

Where do you sell?
I sell fruit drinks at the bus stops.

I understand that girls face serious difficulties in those places...

It's true, because I've seen cases of girls, things they've told me.

Nothing's happened to you?
No, but they say to some girls: "Hey, come over here, I'll let you sell on the bus, if you'll let me touch you." So the girls prefer to sell things outside the bus, even though they sell less, because they don't want anybody to touch them.

And your studies?
It's really difficult, because my mother doesn't believe I'm going to school, she thinks I'm just hanging out, she won't let me go, and gets angry with me. She calls me all sorts of things, starting with little bitch. Sometimes I'd just like to get out of there, but I don't want to just hang out and do nothing, people shouldn't go down a bad road.


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