Search for a Child

1 - 2005 Winter - Dreaming and Dying on Mexico’s Streets

By Kari Costanza

Monserrat,asleep in a park, has high hopes. “I would like to work to become a doctor, get married, have children, and have a good life,” she says. World Vision photo by Kevin Cook.
Monserrat is dreaming. Her mother is no longer a drug addict. Her brothers and sisters are healthy and strong. “We are doing fine,” she says. “We are living in a house.” It is a sweet dream.

“Then I see it’s not true,” she says. “It’s only a dream. Around me are the same things—street things. Everything is the same, and I feel sad.”
Monserrat Castro Garcia, 13, wakes up most days on a slab of concrete in a park. Everything is indeed the same—the empty swings and graffiti-covered benches; the soiled clothes she wore the day before. Monserrat is a street child in Mexico City—one of 140,000 in Mexico and 40 million in Latin America. Most have faced a troubled life at home.

“My mother would send us to get money for her drugs,” says Monserrat. “We would beg and clean windshields. Sometimes she sent us out to rob people.”

Monserrat was abandoned on the streets after her mother was sent to prison. She was 9 years old. “At first I lived in a square. When I was 10, I met these kids. We fight, but they take care of me.”

A dog named Manchas—Spanish for “spots”—provides further protection. He barks at strangers but lets the children hug him and bury their faces in his thick fur.

The children need a watchdog. According to Paco Peña, World Vision’s director for street children programs, theirs is a dangerous life. They are subject to abuse, beatings, and rape. “They will go to jail, or they will die,” he says. “Children can’t survive for more than 10 years on the streets.”

When it’s too wet or cold to sleep in the park, Monserrat sleeps in the sewers. It’s estimated 15,000 children live this way in Mexico City, but Paco says there may be three times more. The chronic poverty that affects half of Mexico’s population is partly to blame, as is the culture. “In this city of 20 million, 2.5 million children live with chronic domestic violence,” Paco says.

Street life is no less brutal. “People call us bums. They call us insulting names. They call us thieves,” says street child Ulises Guzman, 14. “They say they don’t like the way we smell.”

What can be done? World Vision’s rescue and recovery center, Niños de la Calle, is a safe place for street children and those at risk. Several fl oors of the shelter serve as a transitional home for former street children and those from violent homes. It’s a busy, happy place—each fl oor complete with bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, and space for children to make crafts, watch television, and dance.

Those still living on the street also have a space at the center known as The Patio. For a few hours each week they can go there to play games, get hot food, showers, and medical treatment.

At The Patio, laughter replaces street sounds as the boys play soccer with the staff. Meanwhile, Monserrat’s brother Jesus washes his sister’s hair, working in a lice-killing shampoo. She complains she had to have her hair cut short when it became infested with lice. “I cried,” she says. “I liked how I had it. Itwas long, to my shoulders.”
Monserrat’s brother Jesus knows firsthand that street life can kill. World Vision photo by Kevin Cook.

She begins to squish lice crawling from her shirt before she washes it. “How many have you found?” asks Ulises, squatting to help her.

Ulises’ brother, Aaron, died on the street two years ago. “I miss him,” says Monserrat softly. Aaron was her boyfriend. Jesus, who saw Aaron die, cautions Monserrat: “He didn’t eat, and he took too much Activo—just like you.” Activo, a paint thinner, makes a cheap inhalant.

Center staff encourage Monserrat to reform her lifestyle. She listens, but part of her holds back. “They understand me here. I think they love me. They tell me not to take drugs. They tell me I can move in, but the street wins me,” she says.

Trial by Fire

Former street child Eliseo is now a successful carpenter. World Vision photo by Kevin Cook.
Paco Peña acknowledges that World Vision is more successful at preventing at-risk children from reaching the street than rescuing those who are already there. Even so, there are remarkable success stories.

Take Eliseo Lopez. Today Eliseo, 29, is a family man making a living as a carpenter. But he understands Monserrat’s world perfectly. At the age of 10, he too escaped a dysfunctional family for life on the streets. “I liked doing drugs—Activo, marijuana, and cocaine,” he recalls. “It made me forget about everything.”

For three years he lived this way, sleeping in sewers or near a bus terminal. “It came down to robbing, beating, fighting, sex, drugs, and abuse by the police,” he says. “If we weren’t using drugs or getting beaten, it didn’t seem like a normal day.”

Then “normal” changed. A group of Eliseo’s friends lived in an abandoned mechanics shop—the floor saturated with old but highly flammable oil. One day a street child walked in and tossed a lit candle on the floor. Nearly a dozen children died in the resulting inferno. Eliseo says that after that, he didn’t wantto be on the streets anymore.

Fortunately, he was having regular contact with World Vision street counselor Elizabeth Vasquez. She assured him he would be welcome at the center. “After living in a sewer—now I had a home,” he says.

Eliseo admits it was a struggle to stay off drugs, but center staff were a constant encouragement. “The happiest days of my life were when I lived with World Vision,” he says. “Now it’s work, work, work, but I have a family, I go to church. I am concerned about and responsible for others. I have a lot to live for.”

Search for Salavation

Meanwhile, back in the park where Monserrat lives, the day is ending. Monserrat is having trouble standing. She staggers around the park, holding a piece of cloth tightly to her nose. The cloth reeks with Activo. Another of her brothers, Luis Enrique, wears the goofy smile of a teenager on a bender.
World Vision street counselor Mirna Montalvo spends time with Monserrat. World Vision photo by Kevin Cook.

Sometimes Monserrat worries about her friend Marisol. “She was very thin and she didn’t like to eat.She was shaking very bad and drooling,” Monserrat says. “It scares me. I don’t want to end up like her.”

Street counselors Gustavo Peñaloza and Mirna Montalvo are there to calm her fears. Through them, Monserrat knows that God cares for her. “They tell me that he feels bad that we live the way we do,” she says.

Gustavo and Mirna know the street children’s relationship with God is key to their survival. “Little by little we tell them that God loves them,” says Gustavo.

“There’s hope for Monserrat,” says Gustavo. “There’s always hope as long as there is life.”

He sits back on a bench in the park. This is his job: listening, counseling, loving, and praying for these children—trying to help them turn from the nightmare of street life to a future he knows is just a dream away.

World Vision Mexico communicator Luis Armenta contributed to this story.

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