September 10, 2012
SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS — On a busy sidewalk outside Merposur, a large market in southern San Cristobal, a boy, Chepe, walks near a group of shoppers shouting, “Gum, candy, cigarettes, one peso.” He shows a small box of his wares. When they decline, Chepe responds, “Then give me a peso. Come on, just one peso.”
Throughout the day, some decide to buy, some give him the peso. Others just shoo him away. Chepe walks on and stops at the corner, to wait for others who might buy a pack of gum or cigarettes, so he can take money home.
Chepe, whose real name is José Pérez Encino, 8, doesn’t go to school. He is one of 37,000 children who work in the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, 85 percent of whom are indigenous, according to UNICEF. There are many international groups that work to eradicate child labor, but in San Cristóbal, there’s one organization with another strategy — support child labor by making it safer. The organization, Melel Xojobal, says it’s not against child labor as long as the children are not exploited.
According to Melel Xojobal, which means “true light” in Tsotsil, child workers contribute up to 35 percent of the family income, and often make more than their parents. The group offers aid by helping kids find jobs. They provide support services too, like accompanying kids home who haven’t sold anything all day and are afraid to face their parents empty handed.
But not everyone supports Melel’s mission. The International Work Organization, OIT, reports that one in seven kids works full time in Mexico, and they want it to stop. OIT’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor has worked in 86 countries, including Mexico, since it was founded in 1992.
“We’re against any kind of work by children,” says Igone Guerra, general coordinator for IPEC.
According to IPEC, child workers face multiple risks. Without education, they face a future of work in the street. They are vulnerable to sexual abuse and violence from other street workers and the police as well as verbal abuse from clients. Drug addiction, including alcohol and cigarette smoking, are also constant risks.
“I smoke the cigarettes I sell and sometimes I drink,” Chepe says.
But Melel argues that when those risks are minimized, the work itself is important for indigenous children.
“We don’t try to save them or pull them out of the streets. We try to help them value their work,” says Marisol Vega, who coordinates Melel Xojobal’s program for child street workers. Melel facilitates activities that include recreation and reflection, discussing the problems and challenges child workers face.
Melel also works with families in hopes that the children who work in the streets will not leave home to live in the streets. While large Mexican cities have high numbers of children who live on the streets, such as Mexico City where some estimate as many as 8,500 kids live on the street, Melel claims they are only aware of six in San Cristóbal. But Haza believes that number will grow unless families are better supported by social service organizations and more government funds are earmarked for prevention.
In San Cristóbal, Lorena Satis Hernández, 9, sells cloth with other children in the plaza of the Cathedral of San Cristóbal. Children in the plaza also sell cigarettes, gum, chayote squash, newspapers and clay animals. They shine shoes, collect trash and help with carpentry or construction if jobs are available.
Some say that many of the indigenous children who earn a living on the street are in line with their cultural values, which place a high premium on work ethic. “Work is an important element in the indigenous context. From the time you’re born, [the family] gives you the tools to earn a livelihood,” says Antolin Diezmo Ruiz, an indigenous man originally from Chamula, a Tzotzil indigenous community, who works for Melel. He says that in some indigenous communities, children are only considered children until they are eight or nine, and at 11 or 12 they are considered independent and capable of earning a living on their own.
But OIT dismisses these cultural claims. The group has found success in cutting off child labor, saying that nearly five million children have benefited directly or indirectly from its work, including a marked reduction in Latin American and the Caribbean. The number of children who work in the region has dropped by two-thirds in the last four years, to five percent of children between the ages of five and 14, according to the organization. Their mission includes establishing international labor norms that guide national legislatures and politics, as well as providing technical assistance through IPEC for those countries that want to develop and apply practical strategies for eradicating child labor.
But Chepe’s mother doesn’t know what she would do without his support.
He walks through the market daily with a smile and his box of gum, cigarettes and sweets, which his family buys for him to sell. He’s the youngest son of Rosi Encino Martínez, a domestic worker who has been widowed for a year and the family lives modestly.
Chepe hasn’t gone to school since he was seven, when the family could no longer afford registration for Chepe or his sister. So now he works. “I sell all day long, and when it gets dark, I go home,” he says. That often means 16 hours of work or more.
“I don’t want he or Mica [Chepe’s sister] to work, but I’m a domestic worker and that doesn’t give us much,” says Martínez. Martínez’s wages, 600 MXP a month, about $60, aren’t enough to cover the family’s costs. So, Chepe and Mica work in the streets and their 16-year-old brother, Juan Carlos, is a construction worker. Between the four of them, they scrape together a living of about 1200 MXP, or $120, per month.
Lorena’s mother sees things differently. Lorena’s work is a necessity, and a welcome one. Both Lorena and her younger brother work. She sells cloth, bracelets and belts every day.
Her mother, also named Lorena, says her daughter contributes income that the whole family needs. Though she had wanted her daughter to finish her education, her daughter is not certain she will continue with school. “Sometimes I don’t even want to go. I already know things. It’s better that I help here,” Lorena says.
Lorena’s future is uncertain. She said would like to return to school, but if she doesn’t, her options are limited. “I want to marry and work in a store or … I’m not sure,” she says, her eyes large.
Chepe wants to buy his mother a house. “Then I want to work or go to school or work in construction, or in carpentry like my dad,” he adds.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.