Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Large ladies wearing multi-layered petticoats and sporting the types of bowler hats remininiscent of important, stuffy British bankers sit on the sidewalk and sell fresh fruit or carved pig from pushcarts. A small, quiet child with deep, unblinking eyes suspends from a colorful blanket tightly cocooned against it’s mother’s back. The woman bends down to the curb to sharpen her knife on the gray, stained concrete pavement. With a big smile she returns to carving the huge hunk of pork perched on her rickety cart. Generous portions of pork are slipped between thick pieces of bread for hungry well-to-do pedestrians. Two of her other small children lie napping at her feet on pieces of cardboard. They stay there all day by their mother’s side.
The number of people who call the city of Santa Cruz home numbers nearly one million. The wealthy district of the city with its supermarket, musical record shop and small appliance stores tucked into crumbling old adobe structures had, only thirty years ago, housed the core of a simple cattle and cowboy town. Where once ox drawn carts rumbled along pitted dirt paths, six lanes of traffic now crawl past greasy chicken restaurants with blaring television sets that tempt customers inside with slick martial arts films dated from the nineteen seventies.
On a quiet street, away from the clatter and bustle of the emerging metropolis, a tall brightly colored wall with cartoon characters and painted figures of playing children boldly proclaims its presence to the blank, indifferent storefronts that surround it. The thick gray, steel door that punctuates the colorful wall is a necessary anomaly. The children that pass through the wall need the strong door between them and the street to assure them that the street life can’t slip inside – that they are safe to be a child again.
Look at the children milling about on the street. They are waiting for 6:00 PM to arrive, when the door will be opened. Some are leaning on cars parked nearby, others are laughing and chasing each other. Boys carrying shoeshine boxes threaten to smear the girls with ink from their blackened hands. The girls scream. If a boy comes to close, the girl delivers sharp, well-placed blows to the boy’s ribs. However, if the girl likes the boy she only aims for the shoulder or upper back instead – with an equally hard hit. The boys’ laugh and, choosing a less painful path to shake off their energy, they wrestle among themselves. In their enthusiasm two struggling boys locked arm and arm bump loudly against a parked car. The little boy sitting on the hood of the car barks authoritatively at the boys to “step away from the vehicle”. The little boy had just seen the owner of the car approaching and he did not want to lose the small change that he would earn over the past hour for guarding the car. The two combatants rolled off in another direction and the little boy rushed up to the car’s owner to collect his pay.
Outside the shelter, on the streets, the old souls of young children are hammered by vice, drugs, abuse, crime, grief and rejection. Crimes unimaginable are committed on small children. They fear older street kids, gangs, lecherous men, and above all corrupt and abusive police officers who would force them to steal, beat them if refused and then when public outcry over the abundance of crime grew too strong, they would round up the men, women, boys, and girls of the street and lock them into a filthy, tightly packed pen. One night a boy came into the shelter after just having left such a jail cell. He told us how the police took gasoline and sprayed it on the people. Then one of them lit a match. The left side of the boy’s face, his hand and the back of his neck were badly burned. We rushed him to the hospital. Later, we confronted the police, as we had done in times before, but there was little we could do.
The time is 6:00 PM. Eager faces look toward the door for an escape: An escape inside, away from the madness, where laughter, learning, love and joy predominates. Inside is where they have a chance to heal; to get a hot meal for today; and, for some, an opportunity to hope for a brighter tomorrow.
The soccer balls are the first to roll out the office doors, followed by laughing children. Their laughter is clean and pure- not the sick, gurgling giggle of a glue-induced euphoria. The glue- yellow, sticky goop that they carry in their pockets in small crumpled plastic bottles has captured and taken prisoner the souls of many of the children living on the streets. We provide a brief reprieve. The glue is taken from them and locked in the office. The bitter irony is that we must agree to return it to them the next morning. Otherwise, they would not surrender their precious poison preferring to sleep outside instead. While they are with us, at least we know that for one night, they snuggled up in warm blankets on a comfortable bed in a safe place, rather than on a dark, dangerous street curled up with their little bottle of glue. Some of the children were consumed by the glue as early as age seven, when for some reason or other they were first cast out onto the street. Heroically, they still struggle against the addiction.
The soccer ball bounces down the steps and onto the court. Happy shouts fill the air as teams are quickly chosen and the ball is put in play. Fear, fighting, and false bravado rule the games of the street. This game is played differently. The rule is simple. Play to win, but always play. Fighting wastes time and time is precious. The time to be a kid does not last long.
Dinner is at 7:00 PM. Between forty to eighty kids cram into the dining room. A large hot pot of soup sits on every table. An older boy or girl from each tablespoons out the soup, while the volunteers help get the plates of food ready. Hot dishes of rice, plantains, meat and vegetables bring smiles to the children’s faces. A prayer of thanks and plea for forgiveness of sins mark the beginning and end of each meal. After the selected table is assigned the chores of sweeping, mopping and cleaning dishes, the rest of the rowdy bunch race off to play. Music lessons, homework, catechism, dancing, preparation for festivals and the building of shoe shine boxes round off the evening’s activities.
It is 10:00 PM. The children gather blankets and go to sleep in real beds with real mattresses. A volunteer reads to them a bedtime story, albeit not always in perfect Spanish. The story is inevitably about a poor peasant who lives in a far away land and, thanks to their good-hearted simplicity and blessings from above, move within the safe walls of a beautiful castle and live happily ever after.