I’LL NEVER FORGET HIM, a 6-year-old boy, crying in the back of the bus while holding a bunch of fading roses. I had recently moved to Mexico and he was one of the first working children that caught my attention.
He must be crying because his parents will punish him for not selling every single flower, I thought while searching for my wallet so I could buy a couple of roses to cheer him up. Suddenly the bus stopped and he disappeared into the night.
Over the course of the past three years in Puebla, where I’ve been living since this first experience, I’ve seen hundreds of these kids selling candies, fruits and plastic bags or cleaning windshields on the streets. Some of the children are barefoot and really skinny, most of them are dirty and wearing torn up clothes but all of them have a heartbreaking look and a squeaky plead: “It’s only ten pesos.”
I never knew how to react or what to think about these children. I blamed their parents for sending them to the street instead of school, and I hated the government for creating and sustaining a situation that deprived them of a happy childhood. I was positive that their future was cemented right on that crossroad.
Until I met Samantha Greiff and her project Yo’on Ixim, a non-profit association striving to create democratic development in the communities of extreme poverty.
“When I returned to Mexico two years ago I was determined to do something that would improve these kids’ lives” remembers Samantha, who graduated with a degree in Sociology of Education and who has always been interested in creating opportunities for the children left out of the educational system.
Convinced in the power of education, Samantha began to teach children on the streets of Puebla how to read and write — right there under the sun and the dust of a two million person city. Then, with the help of donations from friends, family and acquaintances she was able to rent a house that was eventually turned into a school, a community center and a craft workshop. Samantha was even able to hire three professional teachers.
When I stepped into the foyer of the school, full of books and toys, a pair of eyes were shyly observing me from behind the door. With a hesitating move, I took my camera. Although Samantha had told me it was okay to take pictures, I was unsure of how the children would react. Tourists jump around them with their modern technology devices all the time as if they were some kind of a wonder and I didn’t want emulate that. But after the first shot at least five children were hanging around me, pulling my sleeve and asking me to see the photo.
Currently, there are 28 children visiting school three times a week where they learn mathematics, reading, writing, biology, art and other basic concepts like how to read a clock and name the days of the week. The youngest ones, who are in kindergarten, are less than a year old. The oldest student is 38 years old.
Only three of these students had been attending school before the center opened.
“Maintaining [their concentration] is a challenge,” admits Francisco Ponce de Leon, one of the educators, adding that “however, their experience in sale and dealing with money enormously [helps them in] math classes.”
All the families who are involved in the project are of indigenous origin and come from the Mitontic municipality in the state of Chiapas — the poorest Mexican entity.
“They come from a very hostile environment. Nothing grows there except for some corn. There are no jobs, no schools, no health institutions. When they get sick, they have to borrow money to travel to the nearest town and pay for a private doctor,” explains Samantha.
In debt and without a possibility to pay it off by working in their home state, these families migrate to Puebla. As many of them speak only Tzotzil, one of the Mayan languages, and have never been to school, their only opportunity to earn money is to sell bubble gum, candies and other petty stuff.
The principal goal of all these migrants is to earn some money and return to their communities as soon as possible. However, it takes years to save up with this kind of work. Samantha knows a woman who “has been refunding her $1,200 USD debt for 5 years now. Besides the credit she has to pay for the food and the rent, the children get sick again and again …” The bills and the costs never run out.
Nevertheless, there are people who manage to put aside enough money to build a tiny store back home in Mitontic or buy a shared taxi to run. Samantha tells me about the family who finally succeeded to put a roof over their house after 6 years of labor. “They could only accomplish it with the help of all family members, including 6 children. Without their work, they wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Samantha explains that parents reluctantly send their children out to the streets, but it’s necessary to make this sacrifice in order to survive.
“The parents are delighted to see their children in school,” says Samantha. It’s not that they don’t want them to study, it’s just impossible to invest in their education when there’s no food on the table, she adds. So when some kind of emergency pops up, the kids are on the streets again. To prevent it, Yo’on Ixim is starting to collaborate with the food bank, which will provide more than 10 kilos of fresh fruit and vegetables weekly to every family — on the condition that their children won’t miss classes. The donated food will also help to eliminate malnutrition, something that many of these kids suffer from.
While it all started as a literacy project, Yo’on Ixim has slowly turned into much more. Women have organized into a cooperation, where they take design and textile innovation classes taught by volunteers. In them, they learn how to create traditional handicrafts with a modern touch.
I wanted to ask these women about their experiences in the classes, but they were too shy and ashamed of their broken Spanish. Eventually, between laughter and a rain of Tzotzil words, their contentment with the project became obvious.
Samantha has plans for the men as well. “The idea is to make contact with companies in Puebla who need unprofessional guards or maintenance personnel and to train the fathers for such jobs.”
However, Samantha predicts some possible conflicts with this idea. “Men who have never had a formal job and often don’t speak Spanish might not understand the employer’s demands. On the other side, the employers might take advantage of their worker’s vulnerability and refuse to pay. Since cultural differences will definitely cause doubts and problems on both sides, we’ll remain active as an intermediary.”
And while the men are working in these jobs, they’ll receive more training in order to acquire other technical skills, like carpentry.
According to Samantha, the main objective of the project, named “The corn heart” in Tzotzil, is to make it sustainable. While women are sewing and embroidering, they take literacy classes as well. “Eventually, they will be capacitated enough to teach the youngest kids themselves so it won’t be necessary to pay the teachers.” And when everything is working well, Samantha wants to start the same project in Chiapas, so the families don’t have to abandon their homes and migrate to big cities in order to have a better future.
If you would like to buy some of the magnificent traditional Tzotzil handiwork, donate or just read more about Yo’on Ixim, you can visit the project’s website or Facebook page.
All photos by the author.