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Mexico City's forgotten

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Mexico City's forgotten

This young generation was meant to anchor the nation's future. Instead, they beg in the streets and sleep under overpasses



July 9, 2010, 9:51PM

MEXICO CITY — The streets snared Diego Rosas at 13, and now, five years later, he spends his days winnowing pesos by lying on broken glass to the delighted disgust of people rushing past to jobs, families and fruitful lives.

Rosas huddles nightly with three dozen other teenagers beneath a highway overpass in the Mexican capital, scrounging for meals, watching tele­vision, abusing substances, catching a fitful sleep.

"I'd like to go to university. But I didn't even finish primary school," Rosas said one recent morning with a shrug, showing off the festering scabs on his arms and back that come with his line of work. "I'd maybe like to live in a house someday. But here we have each other."

These teens are the hardest cases: the slightest splinter of a fraction of Mexico's unneeded.

But alongside them in the streets and farm fields and U.S. border crossings swarm millions of others not far removed - children, teens, parents and the ancient - all striving to survive.

Coming of age amid Mexico's population explosion, nascent democracy and its climb up the ranks of the world's prosperous nations, this young generation was supposed to anchor a hopeful future.

It largely has not.

Instead, legions of the forsaken wash car windows or juggle for coins at stoplights, sell tacos and snacks on sidewalks, thrust begging palms at even the most unkind of strangers.

All that sets these millions apart from the truly desperate like Diego Rosas is their luck - sleeping under roofs, not having suffered either debilitating family violence or substance addictions.

"We don't talk about street children. We talk about the 'street-ification' of youth. These children don't have employment, don't have education," said former senior government official Mario Luis Fuentes, who heads a private organization for youth.

"Rather than a demographic bonus," Fuentes argues, "we are seeing a demographic tragedy."

With its population of 110 million having grown by more than half in the past 25 years, Mexico has needed 1 million or more new jobs annually just to keep pace. It's never come even close to creating them.

Off-the-books jobs

Projected to grow by at least 4 percent this year, Mexico's economy is on the mend, along with that of the United States. But last year, the economy spawned little more than half the 1.2 million jobs needed. Because so many are competing for the same few jobs, wages have remained frustratingly low, averaging about $19 a day nationwide.

Worse, one of every two jobs created this year has been in the "informal" economy of dead-end, off-the-books pursuits. Among them, according to the International Labor Organization, are 3.6 million Mexican working children, about 10 percent of the country's youth.

"Social exclusion leaves many outside the system," said Juan Martin Perez, director of a 65-member coalition focused on children's issues. "You see this in all kinds of ways: in the narco-trafficking gangs, in the street children, in the street vendors."

Five young men swarm into the intersection every time the light turns red, frantically wiping down cars, buses and trucks with long-handled dust mops. Most of the drivers try waving off the cleaners with flicks of their wrists, forefingers signaling "no, no, no."

The men keep smiling and wiping. A few motorists relent, dropping two or three pesos into the car dusters' outstretched palms.

All from the same block in the poor, crime-plagued northeast fringe of Mexico City, the five have been making the three-hour round trip to this corner for more than five years.

These are the youth-turned-men who couldn't make it doing something else because there is nothing else; they work not from one paycheck to the next, but from one peso to another.

On a good day, the men say, they can take home $10 apiece and are happy to have any job at all. The pesos they earn in traffic keep their wives and children fed, clothed and living under a roof.

"I know I can't keep doing this forever," said Luis Alberto Rodriguez, 23, who's been working in the streets since dropping out of the third grade. "But there is nothing else for me right now.

"Even the real jobs that exist pay so little that they don't cover my expenses. At least here I'm making some money."

Armies of the unabsorbed

Phalanxes of such workers throng the asphalt of urban Mexico: snack peddlers, acrobats, jugglers, fire-breathers and window washers, all providing barely needed services in exchange for a few coins tossed their way. Mexico's leaders count these armies of the unabsorbed among the country's employed, keeping official jobless percentages at about half that of the U.S.

"People will do whatever it takes because they are desperate," said Herlinda Suarez, an economics researcher at Mexico's national university who specializes in youth employment. "We are in a survival mentality."

Ruben Ledesma, 46, has been selling tacos on the same corner where the five car dusters work.

"In the United States, people are poor because they don't work," he said. "Here, people work very hard and remain poor."

Still, Ledesma is an example of at least some payoff. He started selling street food 26 years ago to pay for accounting studies. After graduating, he realized he could earn more in the street than in an office. He never became an accountant.

With his savings, Ledesma opened a small general store in the poor neighborhood where he lives with his wife and four children.

"I earn OK, but I don't like the way this country is, with its inequality," Ledesma said. "There are many earning more than they deserve and many more earning much less than they merit."

While counted among the employed, some 40 percent of working Mexicans under 29 years old earn just enough to scrape by.

"Economically, there is no difference between the child who lives in the street and people who only work in the street," said Suarez, the economist. "They lack a long-term chance for something better. We aren't investing in them as a society."

Reeking of long-unwashed bodies and clothes, fetid mattresses, chairs, and nostril-scouring industrial solvents, the youngsters' refuge can be smelled before it's seen.

Filthy sheets and blankets strung from a fence beneath the overpass shield the youngsters from prying eyes in the apartments across the street. People passing in cars beyond the grassy knoll can't see into the lair. The kids are all but invisible.

Inside the den, a dozen teens slouch on a torn and sagging couch and the few rickety chairs, watching cartoons on a television set upon a small table. A statue of St. Jude, the patron of lost causes, stands next to the television, adorned with beads and other tributes the teens have offered it.

"We take care of each other. We are family," said Leonardo Flores, 15, who lives in the camp with his 17-year-old brother, Uriel, both runaways. "I like it here."

Fists of frustration

No one here says much. Many press curled fists tightly to mouths and noses, as if sucking their thumbs.

They aren't.

Their hands hold small rags soaked in solvents. By mid morning, many of the teens lie passed out or sit dazed in the grass. It's still several hours until noon, but many can barely speak; a few can't walk. The chemicals have them.

At least 90 percent of teenagers living in the street are addicted to solvents or narcotics, said psychologist Luis Enrique Hernandez, who is director of Caracol, one of the many private groups working with street kids.

Substance abuse is "something that defines them," Hernandez said. "It's an element of their identity, a way of living their lives.

"They assume that they are worth nothing … that they don't have a voice, that they are responsible only for themselves."

Fleeing tension, violence

About a dozen teens started living under the overpass a year ago. Others drifted in, brought by word of mouth.

Junk dealers drop off old mattresses, blankets and furniture discarded from homes in nearby neighborhoods. Private and government aid groups stop in often, bringing food and clothing, offering impromptu classes on sex education and the benefits of cleanliness.

Many of the teens earn as much $15 or $25 a day peddling, begging or lying on glass or spitting flame, Hernandez and other social workers say. They could pool their funds to rent rooms or apartments, but they choose not to.

The teens say they left homes because they were beaten by parents or sexually abused or both. The cramped conditions of Mexico's urban slums breed family tensions and violence, advocates say.

"Many are leaving homes that are completely violent, abusive, inhospitable," said Sofia Almanza, director of Casa Alianza, the Mexico City branch of Covenant House, a New York-based agency that works with street kids in the Americas. "The street offers them their dignity."

A group of older men, former street dwellers on the mend in a government homeless shelter, visited the teens one recent morning, hoping to woo some into drug rehabilitation and classrooms.

"What these youngsters need is self-esteem," said Cuauhtemoc Jimenez, 46, a former army officer and treasury ministry bureaucrat who landed in the streets after a long affair with alcohol. "They are here because of social disadvantages.

"They are children with no future."


Is there a future for Mexico's youth?

3.6 million: Number of children and teens working in Mexico.

12.5 million: Number of Mexicans working off-the-book dead-end jobs such as peddling.

28 percent: Percentage of Mexico's workforce doing such jobs.

3,049: Number of street people living in Mexico City, considered a conservative estimate.

Sources: Mexican census agency and International Labor Organization


Photo gallery: http://www.chron.com/news/photogallery/Mexicos_forgotten.html

"Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave."

"...for the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."

US Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (D-TX)

Testimony to the House Immigration Subcommittee, February 24, 1995

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