I am finding myself in situations here that require much moral thought, and I can’t seem to come up with the right answer, no matter which choice I make. There are children everywhere, all of them somehow under the age of twelve, and all of them working the same trade, selling bracelets, scarves, and little souvenirs on the streets, sharing their stories of sadness and begging for your business. I don’t know what to do with them. Long ago I couldn’t have seen anything but goodness in giving to a child- believing that my money and my food will help them out of their poverty. Now, I see things differently (although not entirely).

I have mixed feelings about buying from children in the street. On one hand, they are offering me something in exchange for my money, so they are working for it, it’s not a handout. On the other hand, they are working for it. They are so young, should they be spending their time working all day? And if I buy from them, does it just affirm to their parents that yes, they should be working all day? My heart tells me to never turn away a child, but my mind goes through the whole process, and sees a parent who has the option to put their child in school, or on the streets working. And when the child comes home from work with money, which option will the parent choose? But then six-year-old Tomás comes up begging, dirt in his eyes, no shoes, and pleading for me to buy a doll from him, he hasn’t eaten all day and he needs to buy a tortilla, please. What can you do? I had met Tomás earlier in the day as I sat down to read. I told him no, thank you, I didn’t want to buy a doll. This time he found me as I waited for my dinner. Sometimes I’ve seen kids laughing in the streets, and as they see me coming, they immediately stop laughing and turn on the sad face, as if it’s a Pavlovian instinct triggered by a gringo. But Tomás, his tears appeared genuine, the desperation in his voice real. There was a family next to me, and they had a small dog who was clearly loved. They were having a pleasant family night, eating pizza, drinking Cokes, laughing at stories and playing with their dog. Tomás approached them, necklaces draped over his arm, dolls in hand, asking five Quetzales for both (about 75 cents). They politely said no, and continued on with their night. He persisted, lowering his price, showing them the necklaces, telling them his story. They again said no, not unexpectedly. Finally, Tomás asked if he could have some food, as he was so hungry and they had plenty of leftovers. They said no, and eventually he gave up and moved on to me. As I was talking with Tomás, his eyes looking as if they were about to spill over, this family’s dog was barking, sitting on his hind legs, and being fed pizza for each trick he performed. It broke my heart to have to watch Tomás witness this, I can’t imagine what he made of it—people would rather feed their food to a dog than take away his hunger.

I don’t intend to judge this family, they have their reasons, and the situation runs deeper than I can imagine. It just struck me, and made me wonder.

I had an encounter the night before that made me start thinking about this subject. I was, again, sitting down to dinner in a little café on the main street of Panajachel. I had just gotten an iced tea and was writing in my journal, and a little girl approached me, basket upon her head, another one in her arms, begging me in her sad voice to please buy a bracelet, she hadn’t made a sale and couldn’t go home until she made some money. I said no, sorry, they’re beautiful but I’m not going to buy any. She persisted, lowering her prices, showing me everything she had to offer. I looked up this time, and said no thank you, not tonight. She didn’t seem fazed; rather she sat down, and asked what I was doing. I told her I was writing, and asked if she liked to write. She said she did very much, but even more she liked to draw. We talked for a few minutes, she had several questions; she wanted to know how I could write so many words, and what tea tasted like when it was cold. After a bit she got the courage to ask if she could draw in my book. I said of course, and her eyes turned huge with excitement. She took my pen, opened to the first blank page, and began to draw a picture of the Lake Atitlan, with a smiling sun rising over the mountains (the sun was happy because it was morning). She drew pictures of her house and her family, flowers and hearts and birds. I asked her if she could write her name, to which she answered, of course! She then wrote down a little poem, and signed it ‘Para Maren, De Maria Guadalupe’. Clearly, this eleven-year-old was being educated. At this point I decided it was okay if I bought a bracelet from her. Figuring she’d leave after she had my business, she instead continued to draw, talking away, hardly even noticing the money in front of her. A friend of hers approached, basket in hand, and upon seeing us drawing, dropped her basket and pulled up a chair. She wanted to draw, too, and after a minute we were playing games—one person begins a drawing, the next has to add to it, and the next finishes it, ultimately deciding what the object will be. Somewhere in here, my pizza arrived, and I felt quite guilty and a little rude eating in front of these girls. They weren’t about to ask for any, but you could see hunger in them. I didn’t know if it was okay or not, but I shared the pizza and hoped for the best. I felt as if I were sitting down to lunch with friends- they were so grown up, and had so many questions. They both go to school regularly- Maria Guadalupe wants to be a teacher (and when she heard that’s what I had studied, I was amazed at the questions she had for me), and Veronica wants to be a tour guide because she loves to travel.

The girls drew and played games and recited poems for close to an hour, part of me feeling guilty for keeping them from work, the other part kicking myself for feeling guilty. They so eagerly abandoned their work, and transitioned so naturally into being kids. I fought with this, wondering if it’s okay for them to work, or if it’s okay because it’s not taking them away from their education, but wondering if it will eventually keep them from studying, when their parents see they’ve brought home so much money… The two girls decided to show me how they make the bracelets, and did so so quickly and skillfully. I thought they would try and sell me these new bracelets, but instead they tied them on my wrist as gifts. I almost lost it. I think I wished I could adopt them more than I wish for a puppy.

I have no decided point to this story, simply meanderings about what to do in situations like these. Does giving to children encourage their parents to put them on the street? Is it okay for kids to work if they’re still getting an education? Should we buy from kids even if it does encourage child labor- for how will they eat if we don’t? What’s more important, that the child eats or that we make a point? If you have any thoughts or ideas on the subject, I’d love to hear them…


About the author

Maren Misner