This article is from the July 2000 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Time to Give Something Back

by Maryanne Wilson 

Maryanne is a frequent contributor to MF, and a dedicated Mexicophile. She looks forward to the day when she’ll be able to live in Mexico full-time. 

Rubén de Jesús Flores is a college student who is studying computer science. This, of course, is not unusual in our newly cyberized world. What is unusual, however, is that Rubén is a Triqui Indian who was a homeless orphan. Fifteen years ago, at the age of four, he was found living in a cardboard box on the streets of Oaxaca. Rubén was suffering from the effects of malnutrition, including persistent diarrhea. He was taken in by an American couple, Harold and Jodi Bauman, who were living in Oaxaca, and slowly nursed back to health. Communication with Rubén was difficult at first as he spoke only Triqui; he now speaks Spanish and is studying English. The Baumans took Rubén in to their home, but he would  sleep only on the ground in the back yard. Never having slept in a bed, or even lived indoors, he felt more comfortable out back.  

Rubén has been luckier than the vast majority of the many homeless Triqui children in Oaxaca. You’ve probably seen them around the zócalo....offering a song, or selling homemade trinkets or Chiclets. Perhaps you’ve wondered about them. Who are they? Where do they live? Where are their families? Why are they up so late? They are, literally, singing for their supper. If they don’t make a sale, they don’t eat that day. Some are without a mother or father or both. Many of their parents have been killed in the political violence, which is rampant in the state of Oaxaca. This is the Oaxaca that the tourist industry would rather you not know about. This is the Oaxaca of opposing political factions, of killings by government officials and soldiers, of a 50% death rate of children under the age of six, of the discrimination and resulting poverty, and the daily struggle to survive.  

Most leave their homes in a state of fear, with only what they can carry on their backs. They reach Oaxaca after walking for several days from their home village of San Juan Copala, which is way up in the cloud forests of northwestern Oaxaca, about an eight-hour bus ride from the city of Oaxaca. Their hope is that they’ll be able to make a living by selling their weavings on the streets and in the markets. But the ways of the city are mysterious, and life there is arduous and overwhelming.  They are without the support of their families or the nurturing atmosphere of their community. Most of the Triquis live in an enclave up on El Cerro del Fortin, overlooking the City. Their homes are dirt-floored tin shacks, and are without electricity, fuel for cooking, toilet facilities, or even running water. Rainwater, for bathing and washing clothes, is accumulated in an ancient stone basin. Drinking water is polluted, but coming from a pristine environment, they didn’t understand the concept of pollution. They continued to drink the water, and suffered the resultant illnesses.  

This is the world in which Rubén de Jesús found himself at the age of six. Rubén’s survival was only due to the intervention of Harold and Jodi. The Baumans, together with Bertie and David Schuler, founded Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots, Inc. From its humble beginnings, Grassroots has grown rapidly in the last few years: from 190 children in 1998, 230 at the end of 1999 and, as of this month, 259 children are in the program. About 75% are Triqui, and 25% are members of other severely impoverished Mixtec groups.

In the early days, the Baumans and Schulers spent their own limited resources to provide medicines and food, but soon realized that this was a task far beyond their modest means. In an effort to achieve their goals, they started approach tourists on the zócalo, explain about Grassroots and ask for donations. As more and more people became interested in the program, Grassroots devised a system of sponsorship whereby donors could sponsor a child – in effect becoming a madrina/o to a particular child. Some sponsors chose a boy, some a girl. Others simply asked to sponsor a child with special needs. Not everyone, of course, wanted to be a sponsor. Many made donations earmarked for a specific need: clothing, shoes, books, food, or medicine.   

The program’s primary objective is simple enough: to provide the basic elements of life...food, shelter and clothing, without impinging upon or in any way altering the traditional Triqui way of life. Families and children are encouraged to maintain and pass on their mores, their myths, their religion and their artistry to each new generation. The goal of the Grassroots program has remained the same: eliminate malnutrition, provide basic medical care, place orphaned children with another Triqui family, and teach families about healthy foods and clean water.  

Another very important aspect of the program is to try to enroll as many children as possible in school. This task alone is a formidable one. First, a child’s identity has to be established. Most Triqui children do not have a birth certificate; some do not even know their real names. This entails a trip back to their village, searching church records to ascertain both parents’ names, and paying a fee for a written document.  

In the beginning, most of the 45 schools in Oaxaca would not accept Triqui children. School administrators stated that they believed Triqui children couldn’t learn, were dirty and uncivilized. Added to this was the very real fact that most children were beyond their grade age. In 1995, 14-year old Benito Guzman Barrios entered primary school, and did so well that he skipped three grades and graduated with honors in 1998. Then there’s Rafael Merino de Jesús who, having graduated from high school, is currently studying electrical engineering at a local university with the support of his sponsor; and Hermingildo Reyes Merino, who is now in his third year of law school.  

Grassroots now has sponsors, donors and volunteers from practically every state in the U.S., as well as from around the globe. Many sponsors also volunteer their time, and there are many volunteers who are not sponsors. In addition, there are local people doing incredible acts of kindness for the kids. Dra. Marta Canseco Bennetts, co-owner of the Becari Language School, is a dentist who provides free dental care, and also serves as president of the board of directors. Dra. Oralia Vazquez Luís, is a board member who treats the children for free, and teaches preventive medicine. Blandina Velasco Martinez, who used to own a local restaurant, is director of the Food Harvest program. Blandina ensures that there’s a hot meal available for any of the children who show up on any given day...up to 85 kids at one time!   

There are volunteers who come to Oaxaca to offer their special skills and talents: a doctor from Boston ran a tuberculosis testing program this year; a nurse practitioner, also from Boston, provided gynecological exams in the newly established medical clinic. The clinic was made possible by a most generous contribution of medical equipment. Others prefer to do their part in other, equally important ways. A retired Spanish teacher in the U.S., and a group of his friends, sponsor 39 children. This group also helped purchase table and chairs, a washing machine and benches for the dining area; a group of workers from a Volkswagen plant in Karlsruhe, Germany is sponsoring 36 children. This group also purchased two water tanks, a computer, five bicycles, and a used Volkswagen for local use. Special mention must be made of Jodi Bauman who, despite the recent loss of her husband Harold, tirelessly maintains a rigorous schedule. She climbs up and down the hills of del Fortin almost every day to check on the children, assess new arrivals, and care for the sick.

This is, most assuredly, an incredible group of people. But, they could not carry out their work without the extraordinary generosity of others: donors, volunteers, and sponsors. This group provides the backbone that supports all Grassroots’ programs. They have provided the means by which a children’s library has been established in memory of Harold Bauman. Meals are provided by Food Harvest, and each child is given two pairs of shoes and one school uniform every year. Tuition and books are also purchased for all students. Donors also provided the funds for setting up a pre-school program which provides breakfast, as well as daily lessons on various topics which aim to develop the children’s physical, social and intellectual abilities.  

As the saying goes, however, “All work and no fun make Jack (or Juan) a dull boy.” In an effort to bring some lightness and pleasure into the lives of the children a playroom has been opened. It has a program of games and activities designed for each age group. Also, since many of these kids have little or no knowledge of the rich heritage of their own people, they are taken on trips to Monte Alban, Mitla and local museums. They are taught ancestral Mixtec dances, for which the mothers make traditional costumes. These dances have been performed in local schools and other venues. On 1998, volunteers from Italy, Mexico, New Mexico and England donated money and equipment to create a soccer team for boys aged 9 through 12.     

The one thing that the Triqui community in Oaxaca looks forward to is the annual Three Kings Day party. This very special event is held each year on January 6th. The Dia de Los Reyes 2000 party was especially festive, and was attended by over 300 children. For many of the children this is the only party they attend each year. Through the generosity of donors and hands-on volunteers, there were decorations, balloons, and tasty treats to eat and drink. Singers sang and dancers danced – and each child received a brand new book bag as a gift. Everyone had a grand time!   

If by now, I hope, you’re thinking to yourself, “What can I possibly contribute to this effort?” The answer is simple...sponsor a young boy or girl in need; the cost of sponsorship depends on the school level of the child you select – from $50 to $100 a year. This sum covers tuition, schoolbooks and supplies, a uniform, and shoes. I can personally attest to the joy I’ve received over the past three years through my sponsorship of Blanca Flor De Los Reyes. Blanca is one of the lucky ones in that she has both a mother and a father. But, there are 8 other children in the family, and Blanca’s father earns the minimum wage of $3.00 a day (when he can get work). Blanca is now nine years old, and doing very well in school. She enjoys learning, is now studying English, and promises to teach me Spanish.  

If you are interested in sponsoring a child, or making a small donation, be assured that all sums are tax deductible. Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots, Inc, and all of its subdivisions is incorporated in the U.S., and 501(C3) status (tax-free, nonprofit) has been granted by the IRS. They recently received the equivalent status in Mexico. At present, this group is in a desperate situation. The owner of the building they have been renting is refusing to renew the lease. And it is proving very difficult to find a large enough building in the downtown area, whose owner is willing for it to be used by upwards of 100 children a day. The only solution is for Grassroots to purchase their own building, and they have established a special emergency fund for this purpose.  

By the way, if you think you’ve read this story before, you're partially right. I have written on this subject before. But, so many changes have taken place within Grassroots, and with many new MF readers, the story was worth updating. If you would like further information on any aspect of this program, you may contact me by snail-mail at 32 West 82nd Street, New York, NY 10024, by phone at (212) 873-0632, or by e-mail at mwbecky@aol.com 

© 2000 Maryanne Wilson