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Man’s inhumanity to boy…

25 July 2013

This 36 seconds of cinema vérité, from  Villahermosa, Tabasco, was a one-day wonder in the Mexican media, though the issues it raises are those that could fill any number of web posts, news columns and probably doctoral dissertations.  And maybe should.

The little boy is a Triqui Mayan, from the Chiapas highlands.  For lack of other opportunities, Triqui eke out a small living as street vendors throughout Mexico, often as not, traveling with their children who are also put to work.  Child labor has been CONSTITUTIONALLY outlawed in Mexico since 1917, and — as a signatory to the 1990 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child — the little boy should not be working on the streets, but one accepts in Mexico that life is less than perfect, especially for the indigenous people.  Whether we should just accept that, and how exactly we achieve that, is something I can’t answer.

During the Fox Administration, the outstanding Secretary of Health, Chiapas physician and public health administrator Julio Frenck pushed through restrictions on cigarette sales,

Triqui children, being children... photo by Olga Rosario

How some Triqui children spend their time … photo by Olga Rosario

including the sales of “sueltos”… single cigarettes.  And, of course, sales and purchase of tobacco products by minors were forbidden.  Getting people to not smoke … let alone smoke less… has been something of a cultural battle, given that this is the country where cigarettes were invented and it is still customary when — if you have a pack of cigarettes and you smoke one in a group — you offer a cigarette to everyone else (being a smoker, when I first moved here, and most of my cohorts were poor Mexican artists and teachers, I very quickly learned to buy the cheapest brands!).

This incident occurred in one of my favorite places in Mexico, the Zona Luz of Villahermosa.  zonaluzPerhaps, as some locals claim, it’s the Italian-immigrant influence, but the main activity (if you can call it activity) in the Zona Luz is to sit at a cafe, lingering over your coffee, having a cigarette and talking with friends, strangers and the friends of strangers as you watch the world go by… and perhaps, suggesting that after a leisurely lunch later, you might conduct whatever business you came to town to accomplish… which means, of course, sitting around the Zona Luz with your client, and his friends, and the friends of his friends…

Nobody has a lot of money, and it is a lot of trouble to go down to the 7-11 for a whole pack of cigarettes, when only one person wants one, and buying a single cigarette from a passing vendor is a socially acceptable way of satisfying one’s own addictions and evading the inevitable obligation to treat one’s acquaintances of the moment.

Anthropology, social history, public health regulations, child labor laws and the basic laws of supply and demand all are worthy of voluminous studies of their own, but it comes down to this: small boys will sell you a cigarette… and even light it for you.

Although Tabasco has a radically progressive history (Andrés Manuel López Obrador has AMLO04never lost his thick Tabasco accent), the indigenous people are still dismissed as lesser people.  One still hears the word “indo” used, as much to dismiss people like the little vendor, as a way of saying “shiftless” — much the way the word “nigger” was used in the United States until relatively recently (and still is, though not in polite company).  Which of course, is nonsense.  One perhaps needs to be an outsider to notice that in the Zona Luz, laid back as it is, there is a lot of real work being done.

The Mayans do the crap work and the physical labor… as porters (I saw a two Mayans carrying a refrigerator though the crowd on those traffic-free streets one lazy afternoon on the Zona Luz) … the things WE don’t want to do, or — more to the point — see as beneath us to do.  Beneath our dignity.   And,  the whole concept of dignitad, personal dignity and the integrity of our ego, is a difficult subject to wrap one’s mind around.  I’ve tried.

What happened in this video is not just that the boy was forced by a meddling bureaucrat (named Juan Diego López Jiménez if you must know) to dump out his wares, ostensibly because the cigarette sales were illegal; not just that an adult is bullying a small boy; not just that there are uncomfortable suggestions of race and class bias in the encounter; but that the boy’s dignidad — his basic human worth — has been offended.

The individual abuses go on around us all the time, but seldom are we forced to witness them wrapped together and presented in such a way that we have to sit back and analyze our own role in each of the elements of this small drama.

The “rest of the story”  — Juan Diego López Jiménez has been fired by the municipal authorities, and the state’s Human Rights Commission has been asked to make a report and issue recommendations for avoiding incidents like this in the future — save it from being a tragedy. One hopes, though, that that we aspire to at least the level of humanity of the man in the red shirt.

Sources:

Autoridades de Villahermosa deciden qué hacer con funcionario que humilló a menor de edad (SDPNoticias)

Autoridades de Villahermosa deciden qué harán con funcionario que obligó a un niño vendedor a tirar su mercancía (Sin Embargo)

Cesan a funcionario que humilló a menor en Tabasco (El Universal)

Separan de su cargo a funcionario por humillar a niño en Tabasco (Milenio)

VIDEO: Funcionario humilla a niño por vender cigarros en plaza de Villahermosa (SDPNoticias)

VIDEO:  “Abuso de Autoridad”, TVX Canal 16 de Cablecom

 

 

UPDATE:  A bit of justice.  The boy, who lives with two aunts, has been offered legal and psychological assistance by the State’s Human Rights Commission, and Sr. López Jiménez was charged yesterday not just with abuse of authority but also theft by moral violence”.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. roberb7 permalink
    25 July 2013 9:53 am

    Did anybody have a talk with whoever it was that put this kid to work? Or with Grupo Carso, BAT, Cigatam, and other purveyors of cigarettes in Mexico? They’re been enabling this behaviour for a long time.

    And speaking of “enabling”, that’s what you’re doing when you buy cigarettes from these kids. Don’t do it.

  2. 26 July 2013 11:06 pm

    Well, roberb7, don’t you think we should put first things first? Simply starve them first? Is that it?

    Or shouldn’t people keep buying cigarettes and sun-cooked gum from little kids until their families have a decent means of housing and survival first?

    It’s all well and good to sit high on the caballo and level edicts at the poor. But one thing that buying gum from little kids does do is get them some money. Unless we can send most of Chiapas to live in your home, I think I’ll still buy gum and keep hoping that a more holistic solution is found, other than dumping their goods and destroying their humanity.

    “Don’t do it” just means “starve them.”

    • roberb7 permalink
      27 July 2013 2:27 pm

      How much of the money actually goes to the little kid? Very little, in all likelihood. As I wrote in the first sentence: “Did anybody have a talk with whoever it was that put this kid to work?”

      • 27 July 2013 3:05 pm

        Actually, they have. The child lives with two aunts in Villahermosa, and the family has been offered legal and other assistance by the State. What’s missing is any discussion of the root of a situation which requires nine-year-olds into the labor market. Just saying “don’t do it” does nothing for the family or the child, but may assuage your tender conscience… out of sight, out of mind.

  3. 29 July 2013 12:57 am

    And that’s really the point, I’m afraid. “Don’t do it” removes money both from the aunts and from the child’s home. While I can completely understand the desire to resolve the situation, it has to start with the home having a means to provide or obtain an income.

    While these two aunts have some assistance coming, now, finally, how many others are out there under similar circumstances? I’ve talked with more than a few of these weary children. It seems there is an endless supply as they’ve not disappeared or their numbers diminished in any way over 20 years.

    Reform would need a multi-state effort supplying jobs and housing. Even moderate assistance by some municipalities would help. But it is so slow in coming because these children and their caretakers are seen as outsiders in too many cases.

    If there are any real efforts being made to address the situation of child laborers, particularly these street vendors, I hope we hear about them so we can lend our support.

    • 29 July 2013 2:11 am

      This particular child’s situation has been improved (one hopes)… he’s been returned to Chiapas to live with his mom, promised a scholarship, etc., but that does not resolve the issue by any means. It’s like the Travon Martin-George Zimmerman incident in the U.S. While obviously a more devastating incident (somebody ended up dead) just obtaining justice for the wronged party does nothing to resolve the causes of the situation.

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