In Mexico, Some Kids Choose Life on the Street to Escape Abuse

Marc Silver / ABC/Univision

From the Day of the Dead to Revolution Day, Mexico is well known for its colorful celebrations, and Children's Day is no exception. Celebrated on April 30th, "Día del Niño" is a day of nationwide festivities established to honor children. The school curriculum is replaced with a day of fun and games. Parks and public squares become a hive of activity, and shopping malls are filled to the brim with piñatas and balloons to celebrate the country's youngest citizens.

It's a big date in the calendar of a professional clown: making people laugh is the order of the day. But for Angel, a clown working at one Mexico City's busiest traffic intersections, it's bittersweet. He is one of an estimated 15,000 children living on the streets of Mexico City. He earns the few pesos he needs to get by performing as a clown amidst the hubbub of the city's unremitting traffic. For hour upon hour, Angel performs tricks at the traffic lights. His repertoire is limited but his spirit is unflappable. As he threatens to pour buckets of confetti onto the windscreens of passing cars, he is invariably sworn at and only very occasionally gets a laugh or a few coins.

Most people stare straight ahead, refusing to be engaged by his routine. But Angel is unfazed, he is accustomed to being ignored. "Everyday I wake up and people look straight through me," he says as he emerges from under the covers of his makeshift bed by the side of a busy road next to the Alameda Park.

There is a deep sadness lurking behind his painted smile. Angel left his family home in the border town of Mexicali when he was 9 years old. He says that he chose to leave because of domestic violence that became so bad that he decided that he'd rather live on the streets than continue to suffer any further.

Children's Day will pass Angel by like any other but he considers himself lucky. He isn't addicted to solvents like most of his friends and makes a living by making people laugh. Living with hunger and filth, his friends sniff cloth soaked in gasoline to escape the reality of their so-called childhoods. For most of Angel's friends, prostitution is their daily bread and butter.

"I have to make a living one way or another. I have sex with men in order to make the money I need to survive," says Carlos as he sniffs on a rag in his hand. He says the men he sleeps with are from all walks of life: taxi drivers, lawyers, men with university degrees.

Carlos' other form of employment is known as 'faquir' or self-flagellation. He is carrying a t-shirt full of broken glass with him. He explains how he lays the shirt out in carefully chosen spots around the city, in an underground carriage or on a busy shopping street, and spreads the pieces of glass with the sharpest ends pointed upwards. He shouts at the top of his lungs to get the public's attention and begins to throw himself, face first, onto the glass. With a little luck, his audience will take pity on him and pay him to stop. The scars on his body are testament to the fact that he has been doing this since he was a very young child. Carlos lives between the city's sewers and abandoned houses. For him, each day is just another day to endure and survive.

In a country known across Latin America for its economic growth and financial integration, inequality remains Mexico's Achilles' heel. UNICEF estimates that more than 20 million children and adolescents live in poverty in Mexico with more than five million living in extreme poverty. Most of the children on the streets point to family disintegration and physical abuse as the drivers for their homelessness, but poverty seems to be at the root of most of their stories.

And yet, despite the horrors of their everyday life, these children are hopeful for the future. Angel confides that, "I dream of living in a house and having a job and a family without having to suffer the humiliation that I endure on the streets."

Carlos, meanwhile, has one message for parents on Children's Day: "I would tell all parents out there to give their children the love and understanding that I never got from mine because there's nothing nice about living on the streets."

If you've been touched by Angel and Carlos' stories, find out how to help here: Casa Alianza works with street children to provide guidance and help them leave the streets and build a future in one of their residential programs.

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