Every afternoon, rain or shine, weekday or weekend, around a dozen children swarm the central plaza of Sucre to make a little extra money for their mothers.
Most of the children, around nine years old or younger, spend over 20 hours a week trying to sell INTI magazines to tourists and locals. When they sell as many as they can (five is the daily goal), their mothers or mother’s friends hands them bags of seed to sell.
These children come from the countryside and the barrios, or suburbs, and live in poverty. Their mothers usually fooled around with a machista 15- or 16-year-old boy just out of the military and get pregnant with their first child by the time they are 14 or 15. Then, if the boy is good, they marry and have a few more children. Or the father leaves his family to go find another 13-year-old to seduce. So most of these kids have no father at home, either because he abandoned them or because he lives in a different city, trying to find work to feed his family. The children go to school for four hours a day, then walk into the city to sell things. Their mothers also sell things on street corners, but usually not near her children.
Biblioworks, a nonprofit in Sucre dedicated to encouraging literacy and education, works with a British expat to create and publish INTI, a short magazine for children and tourists, in both Spanish and English. They distribute the magazine to the children, which costs only four bolivianos. Two stay with the children and the other two fund the magazine.
These children are sweet, smart, and polite. Many of them are embarrassed that they have to approach strangers with merchandise to feed their families. They are all fluent in Spanish and Quechua (they don’t understand why I can’t speak Quechua) and have big, wonderful dreams. 10-year-old Carlos said he wishes he could take his whole family to France to see the Eiffel tower because he heard it was nice. One of the boys told me that Washington, D.C. was the capitol of my country. Two weeks ago Biblioworks took the kids to the movie theater to watch Home. It was the first time they had been in a movie theater.
Selling the magazine gives the children a greater profit than a bag of seeds, and it helps them practice their social and communication skills. They get very little attention at home. This isn’t to say their parents are bad (though domestic abuse is a serious problem in Bolivia), but when you are extremely poor, all energy goes into putting the next meal on the table. Basic survival trumps hugs and cuddles.
As a volunteer with Biblioworks I walk around with the kids, talking with them and encouraging them to communicate with the people on park benches. I am supposed to offer a chance to socialize as well as safety. Child disappearances are a problem in Bolivia, and the police are either unable or unwilling to do much investigation. Also, these kids walk from the suburbs to city center and around very busy streets. We volunteers are there to make sure they don’t get hit by a car while trying to make money.
Last week I walked one girl to a bank building so she could sell in the offices. Unbeknownst to us, her four-year-old brother followed, his trying to sell his bag of candy behind us. We crossed two intersections and walked in the street because the sidewalk was under construction. We didn’t see him until we were halfway through the bank building. The older sister, who is nine, started yelling at him and boxing his ears. I assume she was yelling in Quechua about how dangerous it was for him to walk by himself. I finally got them to stop, but by that time both little boy and his sister were in tears. As an oldest child myself, I understand full well the weight of responsibility one assumes, especially if the parents are absent like hers (mine never were, thankfully). Family ties are extremely strong; the poor girl was probably almost as terrified for her brother’s safety as if he was actually her son and just as anxious to protect him as a mother would.
So I calmed both down, had her carry his bag of merchandise, and held his hand as we crossed the busy streets back to the plaza. We both made him promise not to follow us again. It was so sad to see how hard these children’s lives are. And yet they are some of the sweetest, happiest children I have met.
Seeing their lives shows me two things. First, we need very little in order to be happy. Nice cars, iphones, and great clothes really aren’t necessary to wake up with smile and enjoy our day. We learned in kindergarten that the most important things in the world aren’t things, but people. Our relationships with neighbors, friends, and family are what really give us the most joy in life, and this is something that Latin America (and many poor people) realize. Once basic needs are met, some of the poor in the world are probably happier than the richest, just because they know what really matters in life.
Second, poverty is wearying. When we struggle to obtain the basics for our survival, we are exhausted physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The worst part of destitution and extreme poverty I think, it’s not actually the lack of money, but the lack of a purpose in life. You can’t go to school. You can’t get a job. You can’t fix the hole in your roof. You can’t plant a garden. You can’t talk to interesting people. Most of life’s goals are completely inaccessible because poverty closes all doors in society. It makes you doubt yourself and become apathetic. People so poor they slap together sheets of tin for a hut are desperately unhappy, unfulfilled, and unmotivated because poverty (not just of money, but of soul as well) robs them of their humanity and agency. People that send their children out to work aren’t quite as bad off, because their basic needs are being met through great toil and struggle, and are therefore probably much happier than the poorest of the poor. But they are still exhausted.
I hope the shoeshine boy gets to see his father again. I hope these nine-year-old girls don’t become mothers in four years. I hope the Down syndrome girl gets the help she needs. I hope they don’t drop out of school in a year or two. I hope their mothers have the energy to kiss them goodnight.
For more information about happiness and money:
- UNDSP Happiness Report 2015
- In the past, Scandinavian countries have always ranked highest in happiness, and several half-developed countries like Mexico rank higher than their GDP and other economic indices would suggest. The United States, which one might assume would rank highest in happiness as it does in economics, does not. Hypotheses include: Mexico and Sweden both have strong support systems for individuals (Mexico through family, Sweden through social welfare programs), making sure people know they will be helped and not forgotten. The United States (because of a strong tradition of independence or a reliance on money rather than people, or the odd mixture of ethnicities and SECs, take your pick) does not guarantee support, community, or belonging for its citizens, and the country’s wealth can only make up for some of that social/spiritual/human deficit.
- Gross National Happiness: Buhtan
- $75,000 The Price of Happiness
- Planning for Sustainable Happiness: Harmonizing our External and Internal Landscapes, by O’Brien (2005)
- Anything by economist Amartya Sen, such as this Reuters interview