We recently came face-to-face with the heartbreaking reality of unrelenting child labor in Mexico: child field workers. Philosophically, we wrestle with the abuse we saw. Even so, we recoil from the anti-child labor mentality that has produced (in its extreme) an entertainment-oriented extended adolescence. We found ourselves questioning the solution even as we grappled with the problem.
We had heard rumors. We have often been asked if we had seen child labor in Mexico. Generally, our answer is no. We have spent a lot of time in Mexico, traveling through most of Mexico’s states. I gave birth to our son in Mexico. We chose Guadalajara for our baby’s heart surgery. We love the country and her people, and are quick to defend her from the media’s imbalanced portrayals. It is for these reasons that I hesitate to shine light on this hidden but horrific reality of Mexico’s youngest child laborers.
And yet, I am a travel-writer. As such, I am compelled to call it as it is. Observing suffering children living within a system of poverty is nothing new to me. Our family has been traveling full-time for nearly nine years. From Latin American children chained out-of-sight due to special needs, Eastern European children forgotten in mental institutions, to young prostitutes plying the streets in Southeast Asia, I have seen and worked with many voiceless, oppressed children.
However, as much as the U.S. media would villianize Mexico, this country has made incredible strides towards educating and protecting her children. That said, I am more aware now than ever that the job is not complete. Mexico is a country developing. In order to prosper, the future generation must be nurtured and protected.
Children under thirteen can still be found hard at work in Mexico. According to a study by the World Bank, approximately 870,000 Mexican children under 13 spend at least part of their day helping their families make ends meet. We were aware of those statistics.
To be fair, the Mexican government has been hard at work getting children off the streets and fields and into schools. Fees for public schools have been eradicated. Cash incentives encourage lower-income parents to keep their children in school.
In the last ten years, the number of laboring children has steadily decreased. From urban centers to the outlying areas, each morning uniformed children dutifully walk to public and private schools, each school the pride of the neighborhood.
While the laws have changed, in reality, many families can not afford the fees that many schools still insist on charging. Administrators and teachers still ask for payment for supplies, maintenance and other overhead costs. Those fees are too high for families who struggle to get even one meal a day on the table. As a result, many children in Mexico are unable to attend school. Instead they spend their childhood dong such intense labor that they have stunted growth, poor health, and no hope for a future free from the oppressive cycle that entraps their parents.
From traffic choked streets to sweltering fields, we have seen under what conditions these children work.
On a Guadalajara street, a grandmother, mother, and children (7 years old and under) peddled inflatable toys, gum, and candy among the idling vehicles at a busy intersection. Late that evening, the mother divided two cups of beans and tortillas–the greater part of the day´s wages.
On the free road between Colima and Manzanillo, a crew of forty harvesters hauled tomatoes from field to truck. One out of four was 13 or under. Toddlers scurried on the outskirts; a young harvesting mother stopped in the sparse shade to feed her six month-old. A frail nine year-old tottered under a full crate of tomatoes. She hauled it to a waiting truck while the crew boss glanced ostentatiously from the shade.
Meanwhile, Mexico´s neighbor to the north faces a different set of challenges. After a century of compulsive public education, U.S. child culture is experiencing a number of disturbing trends as observed by educators, sociologists, and healthcare providers.
Many educators and legislators feverishly work to enact UN mandates, increase the length of the school year, and usurp the role of the parents. Even so, they bemoan a nature-deprived generation sunning themselves in the glow of an iPad.
Childhood obesity has reached endemic proportions. Internet use and gaming technologies add passivity and isolation at best, gratuitous violence and explicit content at its accesible worst. The generation raised by television is now raising a generation with handheld technology. Children return to empty homes as a single parent or both parents work outside the home.
Family businesses, once the glue of American society, struggle to subsist in the shadow of mega-corporations. By and large, child labor laws and compulsory educational requirements also work against the formation of such businesses. Laws that discourage youths from physcial labor create dependent young people ill-equipped to face adulthood.
We have run a family farm (in three countries) and are not against children learning how to work, particularly in the context of family. For ten years, we lived in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania among the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, world-renowned for their work ethic, family solidarity, and resistance to technological innovation.
Legislation allows these groups to form their own schools through the eighth grade and then to complete their education (“work-study”) while working with their parents. The practice still draws the suspicion of tourists and the ire of educators elsewhere.
We grieve the plight of the impoverished Mexican family struggling to subsist within a system that, slowly but steadily, is seeking to rid itself of oppressive corruption. Many Mexicans hold out the dream of heading for a better life up north. Unfortunately, the longest period of American postwar affluence and a century of compulsory education have waged war against the cornerstone of a stable society: the family.
Taking its cue from her neighbor to the north, Mexican urban families are decreasing in size and increasing their appetite for affluence and technology. While Wal-Mart, AutoZone and other megabusinesses are providing minimum wage jobs in Mexico, they slowly drain the appeal and viability of the corner tienda, an important thread in the fabric of the Mexican community.
In developing countries around the world, Mexico included, micro-finance has met with success. If managed well with compassionate and wise integrity, appropriate loans empower family-sized businesses. The cycle of poverty and child labor can be broken when parents have a sense of ownership and self-sufficiency. Our family and others have taken this concept farther and invested in individual families without requesting a re-payment plan. When a family is given such an opportunity they often go on to self-provide free from oppression.
While education has its valuable place in society, perhaps both the Mennonite family farm and the Mexican family store hold a balanced working solution to the problem of child labor.
Children need access to education, adequate medical care, and proper nutrition without robbing them of the pride and learning that comes with fair labor, especially in the context of family.
Mexico, we plead with you to avoid the errors of your northern neighbors as your pursue a working solution. You are already a world leader in preserving family values, hard work ethic, and friendly service. Let children work with their families while making greater strides to ensure that access to education is truly free to all. Vigilantly enforce penalties against those who would harm your children. Re-invest your growing economic successes into your most valuable resource–the family.