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Handouts Turn Child Laborers into Beggars

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 [...]

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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.

Filed under: Mexico, Social Issues

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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10 comments… add one

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  • LAbackpackerChick November 15, 2011, 2:11 pm

    it really is a sad situation. you don’t know if you’re helping or hurting others by trying to be a “good samaritan”

    in thailand i watched a beggar get off her motorbike with her dog and sit at her usual spot where she pretended to be homeless

    in cambodia kids grab on to travelers and pull them into a store asking for milk

    in india the gangs force kids to beg for them

    it’s so horrible i always feel bad as a traveler when i look the other way when someone asks me for money. i try to help out in other ways. i’ll hand a bit of money to someone that is playing an instrument or give a little extra to a hard working waiter or guide.

    it’s so hard to understand the difference between real poverty and poverty as a source of income.

    great article and thank you for showing the play by play through images

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    • Wade Shepard November 15, 2011, 2:20 pm

      Right on.

      Poverty has become a commodity and it is being sold just about everywhere. As a traveler just showing up in a place, you aren’t going to know what is going on, who your money (if you do give handouts) is going to, or if your “help” is actually doing more harm. Now, the consensus is generally that, in many places, the unscrupulous (or even parents) have realized that street kids begging can make them money. Ultimately, it is my impression that if a kid is out in the streets working or begging they are being put there by some adult. Sometimes this isn’t too bad — such as is my impression of San Cristobal — while often, as is the case in India, these kids are being exploited. Tourists and travelers pass through places usually without every really knowing what is going on, but the people who live there know the deal, and they know what triggers handouts (such as the milk “scam” you mentioned above where the kid turns around and sells it back to the shop owner as soon as you leave).

      It is my opinion that if a kid is selling something — even if they give the proceeds to someone else — this is better than begging, as at least they are engaged in a practice (to some degree) that can be turned into a worthwhile livelihood.

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      • LAbackpackerChick November 15, 2011, 2:32 pm

        that’s a good point.

        i think i’m going to be more mindful of the kids selling “chiklets” gum and such or other organizations where i see the benefits directly affecting kids in need.

        i’ll put aside a few pesos every day for my daily chicklet or trinket purchase 😉

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        • Wade Shepard November 15, 2011, 6:15 pm

          Yes, this is a good strategy for the most part, I believe. It’s a good way of putting some money directly into the lower strata economy.

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  • Gar November 15, 2011, 8:25 pm

    Good article Wade.

    Sometimes it is difficult to know when trying to help is really hurting. It is easier to see when some people don’t have a clue. The “lady” in the article definitely fits the clueless category.

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    • Wade Shepard November 16, 2011, 1:38 pm

      Yes, it is amazing how often people feel as if it is their God given responsibility to save other people, and no regard is often paid to those they trample in what amounts to a selfish, self-fulfilling pursuit. But this is normal, in travel people will see the paradigms they expect — and, though not the really the case in San Cris — people have found out how to capitalize on these expectations. It’s just business.

      Very right on about people not knowing when their help actually hurts the situations of others. I am not sure what I recommend here. LA Backpacker Chick’s strategy of buying a little from non intrusive street vendors is perhaps best. I would say that their are good organizations to give money to, but corruption is so rife in the NGOs and their ilk that many, pretty much, are just peddlers of poverty.

      Its a complex world when cultures come together en masse as they are now. This is probably one of the more interesting times in recent history to be a traveler.

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  • Andrea February 24, 2012, 10:27 pm

    Great article. It was painful just reading the description of that act of “charity”

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    • Wade Shepard February 25, 2012, 11:23 am

      Yeah, it’s just such a selfish, self-serving, self-congratulating way to act. Then again, Americans and Europeans come from cultures where we are told from birth that we are privileged and that the rest of the world is made up of staving beggars who need our help. This is simply not true.

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  • danielcmalloy March 15, 2013, 6:37 pm

    Come on Wade, okay she is a gringo trying to impress her friends, but if the kid had some goods maybe she would have bought them. Who knows maybe he invested the 20 and will be the next Carlos Slim. What really bugs me is people showing contempt for other people no matter what culture they are from.

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