Monday, June 6, 2011

Día del Niño

Last week, Ecuador celebrated Día del Niño.  It's a day set aside to honor children, much like Father's Day or Mother's Day in the United States.  In Ecuador, children receive gifts from their families.  Most schools have special events or take a half-day off.  While it may seem strange to first-world people, it's an important holiday to celebrate here.  Many parents are not able to take care of their children the way they would like to.  Their kids have jobs or take care of brothers and sisters while mom and dad are gone all day.  Many poor children do not go to school, or if they do, they may not attend regularly.  For these reasons and more, Día del Niño is a day to honor children for their contributions.

The impact of this holiday wasn't obvious to me at first.  I work at a school where most students own several Blackberries and parents regularly beg their little ones out of tough situations.  These kids seemed pampered enough.  The reality of the holiday became obvious to me over the weekend.  While some children played with new Power Wheels and bicycles in the park, others were out selling flowers and candy to make a living.  On Saturday night, while I was out drinking with some friends, a young girl stopped at our table to sale roses.  Everyone saw her coming, and we all seemed to be uncomfortably preparing ourselves for the moment when she would finally reached our table.  Then the worst thing happened.  One of my friends said cheerfully, "Oh, hi Maria!" (not her real name). The demeanor at our table changed immediately.  No one had wanted this child to have a name or to be memorable, but suddenly we had no choice. 

This is because my friend works for an organization that assists families in need.  Her job is to give working children a break.  We all knew that some of the children were found while they were working on the streets, but we had never realized that she might run into them while she was out celebrating the weekend. I was amazed at how collected she was while she talked to Maria.

In the face of all this, I began to understand the importance of acting like my friend did.  She set aside a moment to face the problem, then moved on with the evening.  At a time when I have spent too many afternoons feeling helpless in the face of such enormous problems, it suddenly made sense to me.  No, setting aside one day to break the mammoth into smaller pieces doesn't immediately solve anything for Maria.  However, it does bring the situation out of the "What can I possibly do?" paralysis.  While living in a country surrounded by economic and social hardships, sometimes that is enough.

*Edit:  This week while reading U.S. news, I stumbled across the following excerpt from a piece submitted by Jonathan Franzen to the New York Times.  I think it sums up the difficulties one person faces in trying to grapple with social change far better than I could explain it:

"...My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.

How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject...

When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.

And who knows what might happen to you then? "