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Handouts Turn Child Laborers into Beggars

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The indigenous kids in the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas are not beggars, they are workers. They walk through the streets in coordination with their mothers or siblings and they sell textiles, little painted clay animals, key chains, snacks, trinkets, or an assortment of other indigenous handicrafts to tourists or anyone else passing by.

These kids are often friendly as they go about selling their wares, and they stop to chat with tourists and pose for photos, and they appear to at least make subsistence level earnings. When walking through the streets of this small city in Chiapas state you are not accosted by street kids with their upturned palms being shoved up towards your face; no, you are met by little vendors selling handicrafts and snacks.

Outside of the Western or OECD world, children are often important wage earners in their families. Though it is not my impression that they are often expected to make as much money as an adult, they are allowed the responsibility to at least earn their keep. Often, these children work in agriculture , a factory, in a family businesses, or take to the informal economy selling miscellaneous products in the streets. These kids are not beggars, they are workers. Throughout San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico they can be seen cruising the streets with wicker baskets tucked under their arms, selling handmade items from their villages.

I was standing in the pedestrian section of Guadalupe street when an interaction caught my attention. From seemingly out of nowhere an older, foreign woman made a beeline for an indigenous boy who was resting on a curb.

Boy and tourist giving him handouts

The boy was around five years old, his skin was dirty, his clothes were torn, he wasn’t wearing shoes. I have to admit that he was a little grubbier than most of the other kids in his trade. The boy was either taking a break or was finished with his day of work, as his little wicker basket was empty. Nothing here was out of the ordinary.

But the old tourist must have taken offence to this boy, as she attempted to thrust a 20 peso bill in his face. She apparently mistook him for a beggar, and what was worse is that she treated him as such.

Tourist giving handouts

The tourist was smiling big as she was shoving money-for-nothing into the boy’s face, and was attempting to explain to him in non-threatening way what he should do with it. The little boy was not smiling, he looked nervous, apprehensive, he refused to reach out for the money. He looked to his left and his right, seemingly not wanting to look at the white haired foreigner that was looming over him. Eventually, the do gooder grabbed the little boy by the hand and forced her 20 peso bill into it. The boy just sat there frozen, not clenching his fingers over the offering. The old women helped him by rolling his hand shut over the bill and then sticking it into the front pocket of his worn and stained sweat shirt. The boy put up no resistance, allowing his hand to be manipulated by the woman as she deposited the bill into his pocket. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the old woman — who was now smiling huge in her do-gooder frenzy — reopened the boy’s hand and began depositing coins into it one by one, couting aloud as she did so.

Thus removed of her pocket change, her donation to the poor completed, the old woman walked back across the street and rejoined her compatriots, who were sitting at an outside table of a fancy and expesive cafe. Her companions congradulated her on the good deed, they were smiling big, she was smiling big, they all were satisfied with a job well done.

The little boy waited for the coast to clear, and only when the woman was firmly planted in her seat did he make a break for it. Walking fast past the table of do-gooders he did not flash a glance at them until he was well on his way down the street.

The group of tourists contiued applauding the woman who traveled to the other side of the earth, found a little laborer, and left him a beggar.

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Filed under: Mexico, Social Issues

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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