IQUITOS, PERU — Over the past few weeks I've gotten to know quite a few people here in Iquitos, including a number of the street kids.
Many visitors consider them to be pests, nuisances, troublemakers, or even criminals, but the reality is that most of these kids were born into unfortunate circumstances.
Many are trying to make money to support their families, usually by selling items such as t-shirts, jewelry, or handicrafts.
I thought I would introduce you to a few of these kids to put a human face on things.
Meet Antony. He's eight years old and spends his days making the rounds between tourist restaurants and bars along the waterfront. Antony sells handicrafts that he makes at home with his mother and siblings, including woven bracelets, necklaces, and earrings. Sometimes he sells t-shirts. Like any good salesman he knows how to turn on the charm, and when he approaches you it's almost impossible to turn him away. Before you know it Antony has become your fashion consultant and is finding an item to match your taste. At about $1-2 per item he's able to make a number of sales, but at the end of the day it's not much. Antony doesn't attend school regularly but hopes to join the army when he gets older.
Jackson is 13 years old. Most days it's not hard to find him around the Plaza de Armas or along the river walk selling t-shirts. Unlike a lot of the street kids here Jackson is still in school, though working keeps him from attending full-time. Once a week he returns home to the town of Nauta, a two hour ride away, to attend school for a couple of days, after which he returns to the streets of Iquitos. He says he wants to graduate if possible and even wants to learn English, though given his educational opportunities the prospects don't seem great. Jackson aspires to be a police officer and hopes to one day join the ranks of the Policía Nacional.
And there's Willy. At ten years old he no longer attends school in order to sell t-shirts full time. Willy is a very persistent and energetic salesman; if he were born in the U.S. he would probably be a millionaire by age 21, but unfortunately for him he wasn't. His family lives in Nauta, but Willy lives with the owner of the company that makes the shirts he sells. Each shirt costs 20 soles (about $7), and for every shirt he sells Willy gets to keep 1 sol (about 30 cents). He only sells a handful of shirts each day, but his income provides essential support for his mother and siblings back in Nauta. For this Willy has given up his education.
These street kids always refer to one another with reference to their "profession." You will hear things like "Carlos is a lustrino (shoeshine boy)," or "Jorge is a vendedor de camisetas (shirt salesman)." These kids are too young to have professions, but they do.
The biggest thing these kids have going against them is luck of the draw on birthplace. Had they been born somewhere like Seattle, Toronto, or Paris their lives would no doubt be quite different. And it's a sobering thought to realize that the single most important factor which allows me to be an international traveler instead of street kid is that I was lucky enough to be born in the U.S.
(Note: photo of Willy courtesy of The Iquitos Times.)