So, this is Jesús, our perro's namesake street urchin:
Local readers will recognize him as one of the dozens of kids who wander the heavily-trafficked streets of the Centro begging for change and selling stuff nobody needs. We've been buying gum from him for almost three years now - since he was four years old. He's here from the early afternoon until way past a six-year-old's bedtime, six or seven days a week. Whenever we ask him what he's been up to, his answer is always "working." He's recently been joined on his rounds by his three-year-old sister, which is a lot more depressing than it sounds. (Readers with children barely out of infancy are invited to imagine them walking unattended through the streets of your city. We'll wait a minute while you catch your breath.)
Jesús's "sales territory" takes him past all the major government buildings in the Centro, and yet none of the well-dressed, overpaid politicians here seem to see anything wrong with a small child working a 40-hour week. We know that it's unfair - even offensive - to apply the standards of one country to the reality of another, so we'll spare you the paragraph we wrote in our heads that began, "Back in America..." Still, let's forget Mexico as a whole and concentrate on Querétaro, a city that we consider affluent by US standards; GM's decision to discontinue the Hummer has a lot of people here stocking up on spare parts. That this sort of thing is tolerated here, year after year, is frankly shameful. The government agency that's supposed to deal with poverty, DIF, seems to exist primarily to provide politicians' wives a chance to be photographed handing out blankets. A couple of years ago, Jesús used to work the streets in a DIF sweatshirt (in the PAN political party's colors, of course), but he outgrew it. We're not sure what else the agency has done for him, though we assume there was a photographer present. He'll probably be getting a PRI-colored shirt pretty soon, since the government changed a few months back.
To be clear, the kid is very well cared-for - clean, healthy, well-dressed - but that's largely because he's very good at his job. He has a father who works (we're unclear as what, exactly), but it wouldn't surprise us if he were the principal breadwinner in the family. We buy 10 pesos worth of gum every time we see him, and we're definitely not alone. (Minimum wage is 52 pesos a day.) He's got a sparkle and charm that the other kids lack, and he's fearless about just plopping down and talking to people. He's got genuine personality, talent and intellect. Plus he's small for his age and so, like a child actor, he's got an abundance of cute working for him.
Still, we can't help but wonder, like a child actor, what happens when he outgrows his cute phase? We've never been able to get a straight answer about whether or not he attends - or has ever attended - school, but we tend to doubt it. In a few years time he'll be a teenager, too big to sell gum, too small to do serious labor - and then what? After a few years, does he hock himself to coyotes and make the potentially deadly journey to the US to work for slave wages with no rights or protections? What are his options? It's a grim prognosis, we know, and we're happy to let you convince us otherwise, but we're not optimistic. Yeah, millions of people in Mexico have the same shitty life story, blah, blah, blah...but this one likes our perro, so he matters more. He's also got serious potential in life, and probably won't get within 1,000 miles of reaching it. But then maybe he'll never even be aware of it, which might make it easier.
Anyway, the point of this long rambling post is that tomorrow, March 19, is Jesús's seventh birthday. We know this because he's managed to work it into every conversation over the last two weeks. So get the kid a little present - he's the perro's namesake street urchin, for God's sake. Or, at the very least, buy a pile of gum from him, since he's sure be out working.
- Update: So we splurged a couple of dollars on a plastic truck with a bunch of choking-hazard-sized parts, wrapped it up, and headed to the plaza for our Friday evening editorial meeting and, sure enough, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business shows up within ten minutes. We hand him the present and he grabs it, leaves his basket (i.e., his professional inventory) on the table, and runs to give it to his mother for safekeeping. "I'm saving it for the party," he says. So you haven't had the party yet? "No, it's tonight at 1:00AM."
- One o'clock in the morning sounds more like a starting time for Li'l Wayne's birthday party than a seven year old kid's, but as he explained, they don't get back home until midnight or so, and then they need some time to set up. If we'd known that was the schedule, we'd have gotten him a stripper. Maybe next year.