The “Street Children” of Guatemala

I write this blog as I finalize details for the second seminar with my colleagues from the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala and RTI International for the seminar II: “Evaluation and feasibility of educational programs as life projects for youth-at-risk in Guatemala,” scheduled for Friday, April 15, 3-6PM CT. This seminar aims at learning from best practices in developing programs with youth at risk in rural and urban communities in Guatemala. Presenters will include representatives from the Asociacion Ak’tenamit — of which I wrote a February blog. Two other presenting organizations in this seminar are  Los Patojos and Guatemaltecos Extraordinarios. I dedicate this blog to the first organization after visited its founders and facilities; I will post a blog on the second one once I visit them in the near future.

Before introducing Los Patojos, let me address these questions: Who are the so-called street children? Why it is important to take them into consideration in my Fulbright research? Worldwide, an estimated 150 million street children constitute one of most vulnerable populations today.

Chased from home by violence, drug and alcohol abuse, the death of a parent, family breakdown, war, natural disaster or simply socio-economic collapse, many destitute children are forced to eke out a living on the streets, scavenging, begging, hawking in the slums and polluted cities of the developing world… Various categories of street children exist. There are those who work on the streets as their only means of getting money, those who take refuge on the streets during the day but return to some form of family at night and those who permanently live on the street without a family network (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, UNESCO)

In an archive of a relevant literature review, Prof. Martin Patt (Street Children – Guatemala) depicts a  precarious reality street children face in Guatemala, where primary education is not yet universal and  where this vulnerable population is criminalized through police violence, widespread discrimination, social stigma, and the inadequate provision of human services. The articles and reports cited provide evidence on this regard:

Credible estimates put the number of street children at five thousand nationwide, approximately three thousand of them in Guatemala City. Most street children ran away from home after being abused [U.S. Dept of State Bureau of Democracy, 2006].

Thousands of children living in Guatemala’s streets have faced routine beatings, thefts and sexual assaults at the hands of the National Police and private security guards [Human Rights Watch, 2001].

Drug consumption, sexual promiscuity, extreme poverty, and low educational level place street children at high risk of sexually transmitted diseases [Solorzano, Arroyo, Santizo, Contreras & Gularte, 1992].

As of 2000, 55.8 percent of children who started primary school were likely to reach grade 5. Working children tend to complete only 1.8 years of schooling, roughly half the average years completed by non-working children [U.S. Dept of Labor Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2005]

The Asociation Los Patojos: Dreams and Ideas in Action is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization (NGO) who aims at “giving hope and dignifying children and youth in Jocotenango, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala.” During my first field visit to Los Patojos last week, I realized that its director, Juan Pablo Romero Fuentes (who in 2014 was named a CNN Hero), as well as its educational and administrative staff, take that motto seriously. After all, Jocotenango is a municipality northwest of Antigua Guatemala that is best know for the high levels of crime and gang activity. Los Patojos founders insist in avoiding the criminalization of children and the “victim blaming” inherent in violence prevention programs by NOT considering as criminals the children attending preschool, primary and secondary education, even if they themselves and their families may have engaged in criminal activities.

In less than 10 years, Los Patojos has grown substantially in size and programming. Its office moved from serving the street children in this municipality out of a family home into a medium size facility where not only educational activities are developed but a wide range of services are provided to these children and their families. While meeting the educational standards of a regular public school, Los Patojos draws from Paulo Friere’s critical pedagogy to teach students through exploration and collaboration instead of using traditional forms of formal education prevalent in this country. The classrooms are organized as open spaces where children can learn while playing, interacting, and engaging in hands-on activities.

Although many of its students are street children, Los Patojos applies the principle of nondiscrimination in working with the youth “without regard to their family difficulties or problems so that they may live, enjoy and participate actively in the transformation of their contexts,” as per the organization’s website. Los Patojos not only promotes critical thinking among these youth but also their responsibility as individuals and citizens. In fact, some of the graduating youth are already “giving back” to the community and supporting the expansion of the organization into a Community Center, which is one of the Los Patojos dreams. The organization’s founders demand honesty from the children and youth attending classes, and they show what that by being transparent about how they do their work and they don’t. For instance, they promote Los Patojos in order to seek financial support from funders but don’t expose the youth to politicians seeking to use the organization as a platform for their personal or partisan agendas. Community education and cultural action, which are part of the emerging philosophy of patojismo, are considered a medium for “activating dreams and ideas” in order to forge a world that is more just and free, with gender equality.

Los Patojos founders are young Guatemalans applying the institutional values in the way they engage with public and other private institutions in the country and abroad, as well as in the way they develop their fundraising: with dignity, responsibility, and respect. They do it by not allowing colonizing forms of humanitarian assistance, which may compromise the institutional identity of the organization. Volunteers are expected to engage in Los Patojos not for charitable reasons but as allies and partners in the development of this community development program. During my brief visit, it was noticeable that students, staff and volunteers alike are expected to observe the values of dignity and responsibility highlighted in this blog.

During the March 2nd seminar on youth at risk, Dr. Wayne J. Pitts, Criminologist directing the Transnational Crime and Research and Justice Program at RTI International, presented some of the results of a recent study commissioned by USAID to answer the question: Can US Violence Reduction Programs Work in Northern Triangle? This question can be best answered by examining the work of organizations such as Los Patojos and the others presenting at the April 15th seminar. Thus, I am waiting to learn more about the Patojismo and the contributions of this program to the discussion on children education and vocational training of youth at risk in Guatemala. Now that my research protocol got approved by both the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala and Elon University during this week, I am ready to move forward with interviewing some of these “Heroes,” who in spite of the adversity they have confronted and continue to confront, realizing their dreams and ideas while bringing hope to the street children in Guatemala.

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