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Mexico Guru

Fresh Writing from Mexico City

In June 2008, Riverhead Books publishes First Stop in the New World, a street-level panorama of contemporary Mexico City. The book covers the sex industry and the corrupt police department; the dense jungle of urban politics and the brutal interactions of everyday commerce; religion, art and soccer.

Mexico City is brought to life by David Lida, a reporter and writer from New York. David’s essays portray characters as diverse as the richest man in the world and a desperate dance-hall girl, multinational executives and kidnap negotiators, drug traffickers who shop at Louis Vuitton and crack-smoking taxi drivers.

MexicoGuru is proud to publish the following excerpt from First Stop in the New World. It’s about Montse, a 13-year-old girl who lives on the street.

David Lida has called Mexico City home since 1990. You can find out more about him and his work at www.davidlida.com.

Montse’s trip

Her face is oval and nut-colored, with the enormous eyes of a gazelle. Montse’s expression is serious, cautious, pensative. Once in a while she drops her guard and smiles enchantingly. Her black hair, straight and thick, is covered by a beige knit cap. Every once in a while, she sticks her fingers inside to scratch her skull and remove some lice, which she smashes obsessively on the pages of a magazine wrinkled from the rain. Insistently, she also scratches her skeletal body. She is so thin that, with her baggy clothes, it’s hard to tell if she’s a boy or a girl.

Montse lives atop a stone platform in Pushkin Park, on the border between Colonia Roma and Colonia Doctores. She is thirteen, and has lived in the street since she was ten. She shares the platform with six or seven companions (two of whom are her brothers, Luis Enrique and Jesús Eduardo), a white dog with black spots called Stains, and the multitude of fleas and lice. They sleep on top of three mattresses, covered by various blankets donated by sympathetic neighbors. Montse is the only girl in the group.

Her breakfast comes out of a can. The can contains Limpiador Dismex, a toxic liquid that dissolves glue, available in any hardware store for two dollars. The sale of such products to minors is against the law, but Montse has found that the personnel of certain shops in the Colonia Guerrero are kind enough to provide it for her under the table. She moistens a piece of toilet paper with the liquid, lays it in her palm, and covers her mouth and nose with her bony hand. This is how her trip begins.

“My mother’s in jail for robbery and attempted murder,” she says. She speaks slowly, deliberately, with a monotonous voice, altered by the drug. “She tried to kill her sister.” Montse’s mother and aunt were partners-in-crime in robberies to get money to buy drugs – any drugs they could get their hands on. Montse’s father plays the trumpet with a mariachi band in Plaza Garibaldi, but he doesn’t get along with his children because he disapproves of their drug use.

The sort of substance that Montse inhales damages the brain, the liver, the kidneys and the heart. Ten or twenty years ago, Mexico City street kids sniffed glue, which was bad enough, but this generation of inhalant is far more destructive and addictive. A body as young and resistant as Montse’s will keep functioning for a few years, but if she continues to use the drug, its decline and collapse are inevitable.

When it’s cold or rainy, Montse and her companions cover themselves with plastic or run underneath the balconies. “Or we just tough it out,” she says. Life in the street has its advantages. “I can do whatever I want any time I want. No one tells me what to do.” There are, however, difficult moments. “Sometimes the boys come and hit us. They come from other neighborhoods, and sometimes they beat us up. There are a lot of them.”

Even though she looks like a gust of wind would send her flying across Avenida Cuauhtémoc, Montse insists that she eats every day. “At first, after getting high, I couldn’t. I got nauseous and vomited. Now that hardly ever happens. People from the neighborhood, from the street stalls, from the tianguis, give us food. They give us the fruit they can’t sell. Sometimes the police give us food, the same food that they eat. I like anything that doesn’t have vegetables or onions.”

Despite what she says, one morning I saw her biting into a doughnut covered with chocolate. She couldn’t swallow it. She spit out the first bite and gave the rest to one of her friends. She covered her mouth and nose with the little paper.

Pushkin Park is a stone’s throw from the Plaza Romita, the principal location where Luis Buñuel filmed Los olvidados in 1950. A restored version of the film, which deals with the brutal life of street children, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005 and released in Mexico City just after. What is most striking about the movie today is how little has changed. With the introduction of toxic inhalants, the problem of street children here is worse than in Buñuel’s day, when they only amused themselves with alcohol.

There are various organizations that try to help street children in Mexico City. They estimate that there are between 3,000 and 3,500 such kids. An additional 10,000 to 15,000 work on the street, shining shoes, selling chewing gum or juggling at traffic intersections, but they tend to live at home with their families. Those who choose the street usually have lived through such extreme violence at home that the sidewalk, with its dangers and hardships, rats and vermin, seems like a better option.

Children are sources of income for impoverished families and often the violence is related to work. They’re sent to the street and if they don’t bring home the required quota, they are beaten. Girls are often hurt by parents and brothers who feel they haven’t performed domestic chores adequately. Sometimes they’re raped.

Among the organizations, Casa Alianza (the Latin American branch of Covenant House) has the largest budget and most comprehensive facilities, including homes where the kids can live until they turn 18. Pro Niños de la Calle is a daycare center where the kids can arrive in the morning, have a shower and a meal, wash their clothes or even get new ones, and watch TV or play games until sundown, when the doors are shut. Casa Yolia deals exclusively with girls, many of whom are pregnant. All have the best success rate with kids who have been on the street a short time and haven’t descended too heavily into drug use. The rest are most often too far gone, not only from drugs, but from violence and such a sustained lack of affection, that it is impossible to get through to them.

Each day, Montse consumes a half-pint can of Limpiador Dismex. If she doesn’t get it she is desperate. She spent a year in a halfway house without taking drugs, but then told her wards she needed to go back to the street to “help” her brothers. At 13, she already has a boyfriend – one of the boys who sleeps on the platform with her. “He hits me,” she says. “But he doesn’t hit me hard. He gets mad because I don’t eat.” Once in a while they sleep in a hotel near Plaza Garibaldi. For about eight dollars they are kings for the night, with hot water and cable TV. The crust of dirt on her skin indicates that she doesn’t experience that luxury too often.

If she wants a bath or a hot meal she knows where to go: “Casa Alianza, Visión Mundial, Pro Niños de la Calle,” she says. She imagines leaving the street one day with the help of one of these foundations. She’d like to live in another state, near a beach. She wants to be a nurse, but can’t say why.

Montse claims to have heard about kids who have died, but hasn’t seen them up close. Yet when she goes into more detail, death could hardly have come nearer. “Some people die because they do drugs and don’t eat,” she says. “Others drown. There was a kid who got run over and died right there,” she says, pointing to Avenida Cuauhtémoc. “And Aarón, rest in peace, died in a hospital from an overdose.” Aarón was her previous boyfriend. When she found out, at first she couldn’t believe it. She didn’t cry but says she was very sad.

I ask her if she would like to have children of her own. She smiles and her face transforms into that of a child, rather than a street child. “When I was little I had a lot of dolls and carriages. I dreamt of myself with babies. I’d still like to have a baby. But not in the street.”

by David Lida