This article is from the March 1997 The Mexico File
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The Trique Street Children of the Zocalo
by Maryanne Wilson
Maryanne Wilson, a dedicated Mexicophile, lives in New York City and travels to Mexico at least twice a year. She is a travel agent in Manhattan, a seeker, a learner, a collector of Mexican folk art, and a compulsive reader of anything to do with Mexico (art, history, archaeology, etc.). Of all the places she has visited in Mexico, she prefers Oaxaca and plans to retire there when the time comes.
Let me introduce you to Heladio. Hes the five-year-old who hangs around the zocalo in Oaxaca. You may have noticed him going from table to table singing to the tourists to earn money for food. On a good night hell earn about ten centavos (about one peso). Hes usually closely followed around by little Alberto, who is about three years old and subsists on snitching leftovers from the tables. One night Heladio was seen quietly giving his nights earnings to Alberto.
But lets begin at the beginning....
Last October I went to Oaxaca for the seventh time, the second time I had been there for the Day of the Dead. My friend, Victor Nelson, and I flew to Mexico City, then traveled to Oaxaca by first-class bus, stopping in Puebla for a few days. It was a good trip. We passed through some of the most spectacular landscapes (volcanos and all) that Ive ever seen. Oaxaca was, of course, jam-packed with visitors and the atmosphere was electric with anticipation. Even though we consider ourselves experienced Oaxacaphiles, Victor and I found ourselves swept away by the excitement. Neither of us, however, knew just how educational and inspiring this trip would turn out to be.
Those of us fortunate enough to have been to Oaxaca savor the delights of this lovely city. I know that many of you have enjoyed the local cuisine: this is, after all, the Land of the Seven Moles. Many of you have probably been more adventuresome and explored some of the villages surrounding the city to visit various artisans workshops. Perhaps you have at home some spectacular carved wooden animals, a hand-tooled metal mirror, an army of tin soldiers, or possibly earrings or bracelets fashioned in the style worn by the ancients.
As devoted zocalophiles, Victor and I enjoy watching life in and around the zocalo...the lovely gazebo, the balloon sellers, the young children trying to catch pigeons. One particularly interesting sight is the native Trique Indian women working on their backstrap looms creating fantastic works of fabric art. You will also see them at the small street market at Carmen Alto (just beyond the Santo Domingo Church). The colors and patterns are dazzling and are based on themes from their environment and mythology. We envy the artistry, imagination and patience involved in the creation of these pieces...all of them perfect for wearing, framing, using as wall hangings, or gifts for favorite people.
One can see these women out there night and day, often accompanied by children selling small items, handling money and haggling with the turistas. The older children look out for the younger ones. This is indeed a family enterprise, except for one thing: quite often there is no older male to be seen in the family.
Of course I had seen these weaving families over the years, but no one in town seemed to have any knowledge of these people. My curiosity remained without closure. Then I encountered Jodi Bauman, a native of Missouri who had been living in Oaxaca for about ten years. I met Jodi while I was enjoying morning coffee on the zocalo. Like me, Jodi had also wondered about these people, about their origins, their lifestyle, and the apparent disdain shown toward them by the majority of the native groups in Oaxaca. But it was the children who captured Jodis heart. Slowly and patiently she began to reach out to the children, trying to learn all she could about them and their families.
She traveled to the Triques home territory, an area of small, widely-scattered agricultural villages in a virtually inaccessible mountainous area known as Chicahuaxtla. Their isolation has enabled them to maintain their traditional lifestyle, customs, language, traditions and crafts. In recent years there has been much political actiivity in San Juan Copala, the home village of the Oaxaca Triques, along with many minor government and anti-government incursions. Each month more and more children are orphaned, or made fatherless, because of political assassinations. Each month more children are sent to town to earn their living. In addition to Heladio and Alberto, there is Victoriano, who at the age of eight had been living on the streets for most of his life. He had been badly burned in a fire and had lost his capacity for speech. And there is Margarita, who has stolen everyones heart. She was found living on the streets of Oaxaca suffering from malnutrition, a grossly enlarged heart and lesions on one lung.
Thse children have one thing in common: they all have Jodi as their guardian angel. This incredible lady has spent all of her time and energy (not to mention her pension money) doing everything possible to try to improve the lives of the Oaxaca street children. She spends about 14 hours a day, every day, attending to the needs of the children...and those needs are endless. Her initial aim is to find out who each child is, if they have any family in town, and even if they know their own family name! This enterprise, which is now called the Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots and is non-religious, non-political and non-dogmatic, started out in a small way with trying to help one child, then two children, and then many more. At this point, about 140 children (from toddlers to teenagers) are being assisted. A tax-exempt USA-based organization has been set up to receive funds.
One of the first children Jodi helped was Ruben, who was found fourteen years ago sleeping in a ditch with his mother and brother. Ruben was put through primary and secondary school, and is how taking classes to enhance his business acumen. He speaks Trique and Spanish and is now studying English. He is working on his computer skills and plans to enter the university when the time is right for him. Rubins brother, Mario, is currently in school as well and hopes to become a doctor in his home village.
In her efforts to get help for "her children," Jodi has set up a sponsorship program which matches one child to one sponsor. Each sponsor meets and corresponds with his or her child (letters are translated into Spanish or Trique). Everyone can keep in contact with Jodi and her large brood by means of newsletters, email, and faxes.
I am the very proud sponsor of Blanca, who is now six years old and is perfectly lovely, shy, and innocent. She asked me if I would drive over to her house and take her for a ride in my car. As far as she knows, New York City is just down the road!
As for Margarita, through the efforts of many concerned people who donated money (and blood), she was taken to Mexico City this past March and had surgery to correct her many medical problems. She is currently recovering nicely. She is bright, absorbing everything around her, always grasping at knowledge, eager to see and learn it all...and I have no doubt that she will!
Jodi arranged for Victor and I to meet some of the Trique families. We taxied up to the top of the Cerro del Fortin, and then walked (hiked, really) up a 200-step stone stairway to reach this area. We were welcomed like family...offered a place to sit and a modest meal. Communication was difficult, but some things can be communicated without words. A hug, a smile and a tone of kindness in the voice...and all is understood. Most of the adults speak no Spanish, while most of the children have at least a rudimentary understanding of the language.
Each family in the little enclave we visited, which constitutes about 30 people altogether, lives in 8 by 10 foot, dirt-floored, tin shacks piled one atop the other...with no furniture, no gas, no electricity, and no running water. These dwelling rent for about $35.00US per month. All living in communal. Sanitary facilities consist of a stone catch-basin which collects rainwater. All household goods, clothing, food supplies, etc., are arranged hodge-podge throughout the compound. There is no outside space for the children to play in. (In fact, I am not even sure these children understand the concept of play in U.S. terms.)
The main thrust of this grassroots effort is to improve the lives of the children. The projects aim is to ensure that everyone has access to basic medical and dental care, clean water, clothing and shoes, and a decent place to live. The guiding principle is to see to it that there is no interference with social/communal/family life, that children remain with their families (or extended/adopted families), that they learn about and respect the richness of their culture, and that the mores of the group be maintained.
One project that is currently in the works is a water purification program since much of the water in the Trique territory is now contaminated. Two of the volunteers are teaching the children how to set up solar boxes to purify the water used for drinking and cooking. The materials for each solar box cost about $2.50US.
Another project is fitting about 70 children with their first pair of shoes. Jodi enlisted the aid of a retired airline pilot who had a hitherto unknown talent for fitting shoes! There are also Spanish and English classes organized by some retired American teachers, as well as an effort to get U.S. doctors and dentists to provide medical and dental care. The needs are almost endless.
You dont need any special talent or knowledge to become a sponsor, just a desire to help and an interest in becoming part of a new (and very extended) family. If you want to become part of the family, please contact me. I will be happy to hear from you and give you all the necessary information. I can be reached at home on evenings and weekends (212-873-0632) or during business hours (212-944-2121 ext. 328 or 800-944-9035 ext. 328). I can be contacted through fax at 212-944-5134 or through email at firstname.lastname@example.org