New Internationalist

Ricardo: ‘The only thing I hate in the world is the police’

Issue 366

Ricardo’s scarred hands are always busy – wiping the faces of smaller children, opening doors for others, picking up dropped items and returning them. He is desperately trying to give to others that which he has never had on Montevideo’s unwelcoming streets – comfort, pleasure and the security of knowing that there is a helping hand when you need one.

Candles are the only source of light in the underground bathroom where Ricardo sleeps at night.

My name is Ricardo and I am 16, but not for much longer. My birthday is in January, although I have never received a birthday present in my life. I’ve been living on the street for the last six years.

My parents are living but not together. My mother ran off with my father’s brother, though not before having nine children with my father. Now my father has a new woman who is pregnant with a new brother or sister for me. Two of my sisters have children so I have two nephews that I love very much. [The family live in a slum shack made of corrugated iron with dirt floors and no facilities.] I don’t see my mother much. My father cannot work as he has problems with his back.

It was my choice to live on the streets and not with my family. There were too many of us living in the small house in the cantigrill [slum]. I did not get on with my sister. She was the oldest and took control when my mother left. I didn’t like this. We’ve never got on very well. Also there wasn’t enough money for all of us to eat. It was terrible. So I took to the streets to be with my eldest brother who was already sleeping there, as were two of my other younger brothers. He lives in Parque Rodo [an amusement park; many children sleep in its abandoned underground bathrooms] and we could beg for money, as there were many people. But I was not with my brother for long. I began to sleep alone or sometimes with other children. Now I sleep in many different places but most of the time outside the cinema in Plaza Caganchua or in the bathrooms.

Walk on by: Ricardo tries unsuccessfully to sell his cards (cards pictured below).

I have to work. I don’t go to school, I can read and write very little [he’s very proud of his elaborate signature] and am too young for a good job, so I sell estamjatos [cards with religious images] on the street, on buses or in restaurants. I often get pulled out of places by the arm and people shout at me to leave. Other children sell these cards too: many are forced to by parents who need money for alcohol. So people are wary about giving money. This makes my job more difficult. Usually I work from 9am to 4pm, but I never eat anything until I stop, which is when I’ve made my money. I make a maximum of 200 pesos [$7] per day.

In the morning I wake up and wash my face – in the fountain if I sleep in the plaza or outside the cinema and in the sea if I sleep in the bathroom. Then I work till 4 pm and after that I buy milanesa [meat coated in breadcrumbs], drink wine and smoke marijuana. If I am drunk, I like to go to the beach. I drink and smoke marijuana often but only take pastabase occasionally [a form of crack cocaine, highly addictive and very cheap] because I only wish to try it. I don’t like it because it makes me crazy. I buy it from a house, from a man who sells to us children. I can give you the address and phone number if you like. [Dealers invite children into their homes with offers of food in order to get them hooked.] I smoke and drink because I need to forget my day – my situation, my life, is difficult and I need help to sleep.

Life on the street is hard enough but the police and other strangers make it worse. There are people on the street who molest children. I have been raped. The police are very violent with us; they don’t help us children, not even a little bit. Once when I was very hungry and desperate for clothes, which I couldn’t buy with my 200 pesos, I robbed a lady. She was walking down the street and I took her handbag. A policeman saw me. He grabbed me and beat me, no-one stopped him. Then I was put in prison for nine months [in an adult prison without trial at the age of 14]. The prison was horrible. Horrible. The police beat me; they sprayed teargas or pepper spray or something in my eyes regularly. I was alone but at least I got 4 meals a day. That was great. [He shows his torso covered with scars and cigarette burns.]

Other people do worse things. I knew a kid, nine years old, who slept in an abandoned car that had no wheels or windows because it was warm in there. One night a man came with a lighter and burned him alive. When we went to the police they did nothing. Nothing. I don’t understand why a man would do this, the motherfucker… The kid was only nine! It was a horrible thing to do, and for what? I don’t understand.

I have many friends on the street but they are not true friends. They are friends only when I have money. My only proper friend – the one I can trust – is Nicholas. [Nicholas has been on the street for many years and is caught in a downward spiral of aggression and poverty due to his pastabase addiction.] I had a girlfriend but we split up as you need more money when you have a girlfriend. Our band of kids is called Gurises en la misma [children in the same situation].

The best thing in my life is that I have studied bakery a little bit. The worst was my time in prison. It made me realize I was better off living with my father because the police wouldn’t arrest me again, so I am trying once again to live with them. Even though my relationship with my sister is a little better, we have a new problem. The slats in the house have collapsed and we cannot afford the money to fix them, so it looks like all of us will be living together on the street by the end of the week.

The things I like best are bakeries, meat pies, milanesa, local rock music and soccer – my favourite player is Penarol. The only thing I hate in the world is the police. I am afraid of the dark. I can’t sleep without light. In the bathrooms it is pitch black when the door is shut, but if the door is open the police can see or hear me so I shut it. Then all I can do is listen for the police approaching.

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing in the world I would have my mum live with my dad again. My dad is not so good. My dreams for the future are that I could work in a bakery, live in a proper concrete house, have a wife and start my own family. I want 15 or 20 children! But in reality none of this will happen to me. Nothing that I want can come true.

I have one message for people: if at any time there is a child in the street without anything, somebody give him a plate of food. Gracias.

Ricardo spoke to Jenny Smith (bingrabbit@hotmail.com), a freelance writer and volunteer fundraiser for Uruguayan street children.

Strength in numbers: street lads band together like a family. Ricardo’s brother Javier is in the front.

Street children in Uruguay

Joblessness runs at 20 per cent in Uruguay. Agriculture is faltering and the economy is in crisis. Today half of Uruguay’s 3.3 million population lives in the capital, Montevideo. Street children here all leave home for different reasons: some are thrown out as they are one mouth too many to feed; others choose to leave striving for independence or because home life is intolerable; yet others have lost both parents. Local NGO Vida y Educacion estimates their numbers at 3,000. Often as young as three years old, accommodation and basics like food and clothing are huge problems. The children take to begging, scrounging in bins and working illegally on the streets. Lack of education limits future possibilities and also is the cause of much pregnancy. This situation of children raising children on the street creates a vicious circle. The general public’s lack of understanding and sympathy perpetuates it.

Working to help are El Abrojo Instituto de Educacion Popular Soriano 1153 CP.11.100 Montevideo Tel: + 598 2 903 0144 / 900 9123 Fax: + 598 2 903 0144 / 9009123 Email: infaj@elabrojo.org.uy El Abrojo is involved in street education and runs a drugs programme and a mother and baby clinic.

Vida y Educacion Juan Manuel Blanes 879 Montevideo 11200 Tel: +598 2 402 6776 Fax: +598 2 402 6776 Email: vye@chasque.apc.org Staff members go out on the streets offering education and assistance.

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