Sunday, July 18, 2010

Streetkids in Buenos Aires: There is a child in the street!

By Anna Banchik

A esta hora exactamente,
hay un niño en la calle...
¡Hay un niño en la calle!

At this exact hour,
There is a child in the street…
There is a child in the street!

--Mercedes Sosa, Canción para un niño en la calle, Song for a child of the streets

In her Song for a child of the streets, Mercedes Sosa addresses a familiar sight in Argentina, and in particular, the capital city of Buenos Aires. While the 1990s saw unemployment peak at 18%, the result of economic policy of privatization and trade liberalization, the economic collapse in 2001 far surpassed the preceding decade in its scope and its generation of widespread poverty. The meltdown, which left Argentina with the largest debt default in history, put half of all Argentines below the poverty line (Labanca). In 2001, it was estimated that there were 1,500 poor children on the streets begging, scrounging for trash, juggling plastic balls, stealing purses, cleaning shoes, washing car windows for some petty change. A report from 2006 estimated a doubling of that figure. According to other government papers, almost half of Argentine children are poor. In addition, authorities claim that one-third of the 700 streetkids of Buenos Aires fled home to escape hunger, whereas another 40% left to escape abuse and neglect (Labanca).

Family unification is a priority for Buenos Aires officials. Marisa Graham, the director of the Buenos Aires Department for Childhood and Family, says that they “don't favor orphanages or institutions” and instead “bend over backwards to take them back to their families.” This procedure is in line with UNICEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 9 of that document states that “children have the right to live with their parent(s), unless it is bad for them.” Of course, if the environment of the “streetkid” home is an abusive one (compounded by the fact that government statistics show that 30% of fathers and 70% of mothers are out of work) the positive influence of the family on the child may be debatable. Nevertheless, Article 5 of the UNICEF Convention iterates that “governments should respect the rights and responsibilities of families to direct and guide their children.” It does not “place on governments the responsibility to protect and assist families in fulfilling their essential role as nurturers of children.”

However, the policy approach of the Argentine government, which argues against repression, is in fact now under attack for being too soft. While the government is making steps towards the protection of the rights of streetkids, exemplified recently as it struck down a law to take kids into custody even in the absence of a crime, it still struggles to protect a laundry list of rights detailed in the UNICEF Convention, including Article 24 (Health and Health Services) and Article 31 (Leisure Play and Culture). A critical failure of the Convention is seen by the cases of child labor—the National Committee for Child Labor Elimination estimates 22% of Argentine minors between the ages of 6 and 14 years of age work, a staggering 1.5 million.

As there is a vested interest by citizens and communities of faith to help, the city government can contribute by funding NGOs such as CAINA, the city's Center for the Children's Integral Assistance, which provides streetkids with showers, food, play, and some education. While not at home in the far-flung or nearby suburbs of Buenos Aires, streetkids are not alone in the cities. They form mostly harmless gangs, or ranchadas, and sometimes share panhandled or stolen money to buy food and drugs.

The picture reflects the temporary companionship afforded by these loose organizations whose leadership, says Laureano Gutiérrez, is not authoritarian but rather, charismatic. Gutiérrez is the deputy director of CAINA, the city’s Center for the Children’s Integral Assistance. Emilio Zadcovich, the head of CAINA, adds that “ranchadas work as physical and emotional support for these kids, who, under a facade of bravado, actually feel very vulnerable.” On its website, Felices Los Niños Foundation highlights some of the tragic, typical situation of a homeless, street child: violence, teenage pregnancy, family disintegration, unemployment and underemployment, lock of family containment, and physical and/or psychological abuse. Street children will also sleep in close proximity on cardboard or dirty mattresses, as depicted in the photo below of children waking up from slumber.

CAINA is just one of a growing number of organizations created to address the quality of life and needs of streetkids in Buenos Aires. Another, “La Casita,” is a network of four homes wherein streetkids between the ages of 8 and 21 can rest, play, cook, study, work, and learn. Roughly 35 children are housed within the network at any one time and most of the teens are capable of supporting themselves by the time they graduate (Belo). Public school instruction and training in a particular trade are provided and many skills are learned, including breadmaking, meal preparation, catering, and above all—self-acceptance. La Casita works with the Association for Assistance and Promotion of Street Children, a partner of Church World Service, to reunite children with their families.

Today there are more efforts to be made than ever before, as the number of streetkids in Argentina continues to escalate. The situation in other parts of the country is just as dire. The chart below, published in the newspaper La Nación in August 2003, depicts the results of a study on a population aged 15 to 24, broken down by percentage of young people who neither work nor study.

We must listen to the words of Mercedes Sosa, her call to action: to acknowledge that, at this exact hour, there is a child in the street! *Full lyrics are below with, again, my shoddy translation.

Canción para un niño en la calle / Song for a child of the streets

By Mercedes Sosa

A esta hora exactamente,
hay un niño en la calle...
¡Hay un niño en la calle!

At this exact hour,

There’s a child in the street…

There’s a child in the street!

Es honra de los hombres proteger lo que crece,
cuidar que no haya infancia dispersa por las calles,
evitar que naufrague su corazón de barco,
su increíble aventura de pan y chocolate
poniéndole una estrella en el sitio del hambre.

It is the glory of men to protect what grows,

Make sure that there’s no childhood lost in the streets,

To avoid the wreckage its heart of boat,

the incredible adventure of bread and chocolate

Putting a star on the place of hunger.

De otro modo es inútil, de otro modo es absurdo
ensayar en la tierra la alegría y el canto,
porque de nada vale si hay un niño en la calle.

Otherwise it is useless, otherwise it is absurd

to rehearse in earth happiness and song,

Because it’s useless if there’s a single child in the street.

Todo lo tóxico de mi país a mí me entra por la nariz.
Lavo auto, limpio zapato, huelo pega y también huelo paco
Robo billeteras pero soy buena gente, soy una sonrisa sin dientes
Lluvia sin techo, uña con tierra, soy lo que sobró de la guerra
Un estómago vacío, soy un golpe en la rodilla que se cura con el frío
El mejor guía turístico del arrabal por tres pesos te paseo por la capital
No necesito visa para volar por el redondel porque yo juego con aviones de papel
Arroz con piedra, mango con vino y lo que falta me lo imagino

Everything toxic in my country enters me through my nose.

I wash cars, clean shoes, sniff glue, and also smell authority figures

I rob wallets but I’m a good person, I’m a smile without teeth,

rain without roof, fingernail with dirt, I’m what got left over from the war,

an empty stomach, I’m a hit in the knee that gets cured with cold weather

the best tourist guide of the suburbs, for three pesos I’ll take you through the capital

I don’t need a visa to fly on the runabout, because I play with paper airplanes

Rice with stone, mango with wine and whatever is missing, I can imagine

No debe andar el mundo con el amor descalzo
enarbolando un diario como un ala en la mano
trepándose a los trenes, canjeándonos la risa,
golpeándonos el pecho con un ala cansada.

The world should not go with love barefoot

brandishing a newspaper like a wing in one’s hand

climbing on the trains, exchanging the laughter,

beating our chests with a tired wing.

No debe andar la vida, recién nacida, a precio,
la niñez arriesgada a una estrecha ganancia
porque entonces las manos son inútiles fardos
y el corazón, apenas, una mala palabra.

Life should not go, newly born, with a price,

childhood risked to paltry profit

because then, hands are useless bales

and the heart, hardly, a bad word.

Cuando cae la noche duermo despierto, un ojo cerrado y el otro abierto
Por si los tigres me escupen un balazo mi vida es como un circo pero sin payaso
Voy caminando por la zanja haciendo malabares con cinco naranjas
Pidiendo plata a todos los que pueda en una bicicleta en una sola rueda
Soy oxígeno para este continente, soy lo que descuidó el presidente
No te asustes si tengo mal aliento, si me ves sin camisa con las tetillas al viento
Yo soy un elemento más del paisaje los residuos de la calle son mi camuflaje
como algo que existe que parece de mentira, algo sin vida pero que respira

When night falls I sleep awake, one eye closed and the other open

in case the tigers shoot me, my life is like a circus but without a clown

I go walking through the ditch, juggling 5 oranges

asking money to everyone I can riding on a bicycle with only one wheel

I am oxygen for this continent, I am what the president neglected

Don’t be scared if I have bad breathe, if you see me without a shirt and with my nipples to the wind

I’m an element more in the landscape, the waste from the street is my camouflage

like something that exists that appears as a mirage, something lifeless but breathing

Pobre del que ha olvidado que hay un niño en la calle,
que hay millones de niños que viven en la calle
y multitud de niños que crecen en la calle.

Poor is he who forgets that there is a child in the street,

that there are millions of children who live in the street

and a multitude of children who grow up on the street.

Yo los veo apretando su corazón pequeño,
mirándonos a todas con fábula en los ojos.
Un relámpago trunco les cruza la mirada,
porque nadie protege esa vida que crece
y el amor se ha perdido, como un niño en la calle.

I see them pressing their small hearts,

watching us with a dreams in their eyes.

An interrupted lightning crossing of their gaze,

because nobody protects that growing life

and the love was lost, like a child in the street.

Oye: a esta hora exactamente hay un niño en la calle
Hay un niño en la calle

Listen: at this exact time there is a child in the street

There is a child in the street

Works Cited:

"Argentina's Social Situation." Felices Los Niños Foundation. Felices Los Niños Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Jul 2010.

Belo, Roberto. "Argentina Streetkid News: Games help street teens learn." World Street Children News. BBC in Buenos Aires, 12 Oct 2004. Web. 17 Jul 2010.

Convention on the Rights of the Child. 1989. Print.

Labanca, Alejandra. "Nobody's children." | Children of the Americas. Miami Herald, 27 Nov 2006. Web. 17 Jul 2010.

"The Street Children of Buenos Aires." World Street Children News. CAINA and the Buenos Aires City Government, 27 Nov 2006. Web. 17 Jul 2010.

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