“We should be careful in this neighborhood,” Darby, my driver and new friend said as we waited for someone to answer our knock.
“Being careful” wasn’t nearly specific enough, but I improvised by clutching my purse more tightly under my arm and looking frequently over my shoulder. There is a sameness to the barrios of Guatemala City, industrial metal doors crowding in on narrow streets. The doors hide the truth of the lives behind, but the biting poverty of this neighborhood was hard to disguise.
Little fingers appeared and disappeared from under the heavy door teasing us to grab. The sliding peep hole opened and shut at intervals, but only upturned noses could be seen. Finally we heard something being dragged to the door, a whole face materialized in the opening, and the door opened.
Something was off, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. The absence of something is hard to define. Children were everywhere in the tiled one-car garage, but other than one little fellow spinning in circles on his belly and a couple of toddlers milling about, the children sat or stood in clumps doing and saying nothing. Not a toy, book, ball, or adult was in sight. I tried to count heads, but gave up at thirty.
When Mama Carmen bustled in from the kitchen to greet us, I realized what was missing—noise. The place was transformed by her presence. Children swarmed at her feet in obvious adoration, raising their arms in a bid for attention.
Mama Carmen, a squat woman somewhere over 50 with long black, white, and gray hair pulled back into a straggly pony tail, looked every bit the image of the little old lady in the shoe. She patiently patted heads and dispensed hugs while we talked, and parted a sea of children as she walked.
Eighty-six children are packed into this small ten-room building, 41 under the age of six. A few stay only while their mothers work, but for most, this is home. Although she has help from a few family members, Mama Carmen was the only adult present for the three hours I was there that first day.
The family courts are beginning to send her children they have removed from abusive homes or the streets, but most of these children were brought by their mothers who were unable or unwilling to care for them.
“They came to me as babies,” Mama Carmen said gesturing to the carpet of kids. “Most are the children of prostitutes. Their mothers are too poor and too busy to take care of them. I don’t really know how they find me—I guess through word-of-mouth. They hear because they need.”
At first, she opened her doors without questions of legalities, relying only on her faith to provide. This was good enough until one of the children needed surgery.
“I had no papers for the child, no birth certificate, nothing to prove that she was mine. The hospital said no papers, no operation.”
The birth mother was long gone, not seen since the day she placed her baby in Mama Carmen’s arms, and all attempts to find her failed. As she always does in times of uncertainty, Mama Carmen prayed for guidance. She smiled ruefully as she remembered her solution.
“I went to the municipal office and told them the child was born to me at home and that I never got the birth certificate. They gave me her papers. She was then mine, and she got the operation. Now, that’s what I do, I give them all my last name, and they are mine.”
“The municipality never questions that you give birth to all these kids, and at your age?” I asked.
“They understand. There is no one else.”
With obvious pride, Mama Carmen shows me around. The place was clean, aided I’m sure by the hurried whispers to the older girls. I didn’t hear, but as a mother, I know the drill.
“Make sure your room is picked up before we get there! Yes, under the bed is OK, just this time.”
The bedrooms, with the beds neatly made, are a hodge-podge of discarded furniture with children sleeping two to three to a bed regardless of age. The upstairs shower has no hot water and no door—a wooden door leaning against the wall took up most of the shower stall. Mama Carmen has big plans, if not big money, for continued improvements.
“I want this to be a real home for these children,” she emphasized.
We stepped over and around children as we walked. A few Buddha-bellied babies slept unstrapped in strollers parked around the rooms. Others crawled after us as we walked. No one, other than me, seemed worried when two followed us up the steep concrete stairs. That degree of concern is a luxury not afforded to a mother of 86.
The only toys I saw on the tour were one match box car, one plastic truck, one see-and-say type toy, and a few stuffed animals and dolls. When asked where the children play, Mama Carmen responded simply, “Here”, pointing to the garage. Once or twice a month she walks with the older ones to a soccer field 30 minutes away.
“This neighborhood is no place for children,” she says without irony.
Mama Carmen apologized that the crib room was locked, and she didn’t have the key. She explained that the courts had sent her a new child who was in a body cast. During the day, she locks him in the crib room to protect him from the other children since he can’t move, and she can’t be everywhere at once. The key arrived a few hours later when her daughter returned. The child, age five but the size of an American three year old, lay all day in a crib alone in this room. Inadequate as it is, this small room without violence was a step up for him.
Enfir, a strikingly handsome boy with eyes much older than his eleven years, sat by himself in the corner watching the general huh-bub. A newcomer to Mama Carmen’s, having been sent by the courts only six months before, he was a master at avoiding notice, a survival trait that no doubt served him well in his past life. He smiled shyly as I sat down on the floor beside him.
“Will you teach me English?” he asked softly.
“Sure,” I replied, “What do you want to learn?”
He thought briefly and said, “How do you say ‘I’m hungry’?”
When we were leaving I asked Mama Carmen if there were other informal orphanages like this.
“Of course,” she replied, “Guatemala has so many children and there is no where else for them to go.”
The truth is that no one knows how many orphanages like this or like any other exist in Guatemala or how many children are parentless or living on the street since the government does not keep these records. What statistics that are available are numbing in their bleakness.
- 49% of all Guatemalan children under five have stunted growth as a result of severe malnutrition.
- 24% of children under the age of 14 are in the work force.
- 30% of girls under 14 have been sexually abused.
- 24% of teens attend secondary school.
- Over 5000 children, average age 11, living in the streets of Guatemala City.
And with one of the highest birth rates in the world, these statistics are not likely to improve anytime soon.
On my last day in Guatemala, I returned to Mama Carmen’s, this time bringing food and toys. Mama Carmen was out collecting day-old bread for her other ministry of distributing food to the hundreds of street people who live at the city dump. An old man and a young woman were holding down the fort at home.
Pandemonium broke out when the balls appeared, with kids screaming and little boys diving to the ground in that universally male way of making a catch. I quickly restored order with crayons and coloring books.
Enfir patiently waited on the sidelines for his English lesson. He practiced over and over, “Give me a kiss”, his requested phrase for the day, until he was satisfied with his pronunciation. To make sure he didn’t forget, he asked me to write it down and then, with tongue gripped between his lips to aid concentration, he wrote it phonetically underneath. He carefully folded the paper and put it in his pocket.
“I love to learn,” he said in his soft voice.
“What grade are you in school,” I asked.
I had to lean close to hear his reply, “I don’t go.”
Guatemala requires kids to start school at the beginning of the year. If a child moves during the year, he must sit out that school year. A child, such as Enfir, is out of luck. The fortunate few orphanages with adequate funding have an onsite teacher to avoid this problem, but Mama Carmen’s concerns are far more basic.
No matter what happens with the new adoption law passed in December, it likely will be too late for Enfir. Their focus is on making sure there is no fraud in the infant adoption process, that no birth mother is coerced by money to conceive or give up her child. A laudable goal, certainly, but if she keeps her child, then what? There is no welfare system, no child care, and often no food. These children join the dismal statistics of hunger, minimal education, and wasted lives. Some will become the next generation of Enfirs, and the Enfirs of Guatemala aren’t even on the radar screen. His age and the unworkable abandonment laws will ensure that he will stay with Mama Carmen or some similar orphanage until he is 18, and then he will be turned out into the streets with little education and no skills other than avoiding notice and the ability to say “I am hungry” and “Give me a kiss” in perfect English.
Addendum: At the request of a number of readers, I have found a way that I am comfortable with for making donations of supplies or money to Mama Carmen. Orphan Resources International a non-profit based in Pennsylvania does phenomenal work in Guatemala bringing supplies to orphanages. (http://www.orphanresources.org) They have staff on the ground in Guatemala, as well as in the US. They have agreed to collect supplies or money and bring them to her orphanage. She can use most anything child related, but especially formula, diapers, powdered milk, vitamins, new socks and underwear for children under 6, and simple over the counter meds, including band-aids and lice shampoo.
ORI collects supplies in their warehouse in PA and then ships a container to Guatemala. You can also donate money and ORI will buy local supplies in Guatemala. This is the fastest route to help since they only ship a container when it is full. Also, spending money directly to buy items in Guatemala helps the Guatemalan economy. Money can be donated online and supplies can be sent to ORI in Pennsylvania. To donate on line go to the ORI site (http://www.orphanresources.org/donation.html). I found it a bit confusing, but you click on the Just Give button, then type “Orphan Resources International” in the search box, this pulls up the Guidestar info, on this page there is a button on the top right that says Donate Now, click that and fill in the info. There is a place where you can designate that the contributions is for Mama Carmen’s orphanage.
Send supplies to:
Orphan Resources International
550 West Trout Run Road
Ephrara, PA 17522
Image credit: IMs BILDARKIV