Tuesday, October 4, 2011


It’s 10:00 on a Friday night in Las Peñas, Guayaquil’s infamous bar-hopping spot.  Across from me is a gold-encrusted fairy godmother from the “art of the human statue” fund.  I watch as someone places money in her bucket, and she waves her wand over their head and stiffly dances.  I don’t have any change, but I could really use some of her magic right now.  My taxi has gone, my phone has suddenly stopped working, and my friends aren’t at the right meeting place.  It’s an all-night bar hop going sour.  I want to leave, but I wait a little longer.
While sitting, I’m approached by a small girl carrying two packs of gum.  She is so tiny she can only hold one pack in each hand.  “Chicle?” she asks softly.  There is no sales pitch, no cute act.  I know she is talking to me because she treats one pack of gum more like a matchbox car that she rolls along the edge of my park bench.  “No, gracias,” I say, in the voice you use for children this small.  She does not seem to notice my answer.  She continues to wheel the gum around like a car.
I’m relieved she is playing.  I look up quickly searching for the person who’s waiting with the other packs of gum.  “No one sends a child this small out on her own,” I reassure myself, but no one meets my eyes.  “There is nothing I could do anyways,” I think.   It’s another line I recite to myself, just like I recite “No, gracias” to street-working children.  I have learned to have prepared responses.  Then, I won’t have to feel the full shock of each experience over and over again.
Of course, each experience begins to run through my mind as the minutes tick by and my friends are still missing.   The little girl rolls her gum-car in front of me, and I see the hands of another child playing across the window of an open-air restaurant in Mexico two years earlier.  A little boy had stopped to entertain the dining tourists.  His mannerisms were puckish as he played out a little scene with a friend for my amusement.  I dropped my guard.  Instead of shooing him away, I watched his act.  As he stood at the window grinning, I gave him some food, then some more.  He stayed silent, waiting for more.  When dessert came, he reached across the table and grabbed for the plate.  For a moment I was disgusted, then ashamed.  “What had I taught him?” kept flashing across my mind.
“What am I teaching this little girl?” I ask myself.  Since the incident in Mexico, I’ve had an education.  In Ecuador, my friends work for foundations.  They say decisively that children cannot make money or receive food, or they’ll always be on the streets.  Admiring such a confident answer, I do what they say, but there are always obstacles to following the rule.  This is how I feel with the little girl now.  She is too young to learn this lesson, I think.
She does not have the tricks of the kids who have worked on the streets for a long time.  They have gimmicks.  They have street personas.  They understand who to hassle and who to avoid.  Young children like the vendedorita don’t have these skills.  At times, I’m unable to rationalize saying no.  Each time the children walk away, it is like dogs retreating with their tails between their legs.  They don’t understand the disgust behind each refusal they receive.  The little girl is not acting this way, but I worry that the memory of each “no” she experiences will be harder.  My heart is torn.  Should I have said “yes” tonight?
Before I can think it over, my friends arrive.  The little gum-seller doesn’t even notice our group of gringos, an amazing sales opportunity.  My friends don’t seem to notice her either.  As we walk away, I’m equal parts sad and grateful she is too distracted.  I do not have any change to give her anyways.  I can postpone a difficult decision for another day.

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