TIJUANA — Through the gray revolving doors at the pedestrian entrance to this border city, past the customs officers, two-bit hawkers and pushcart vendors selling perros calientes (hot dogs), 9-year-old Pedro Lopez strums a guitar that seems almost as big as he is.
In his high-pitched child's voice, Pedro, whose Mixtec Indian parents migrated here from deep in the Mexican interior, sings the melancholy corridos, or ballads, of Mexican migrants who have come to the north to pick tomatoes in California, sew garments in Chicago or work as busboys in Phoenix. Always, the songs are of lonely men who pine for the security, love and stability of their homelands.
As Pedro, in his childish voice, sings a song of adult sadness, dozens of American tourists, many in short pants, sunglasses and colorful shirts celebrating a sunny weekend afternoon, stream by en route to a festive day of shopping, eating and drinking in Tijuana. Some take the time to throw a coin in the pink plastic bowl positioned on the pavement in front of the singer. Others aim money in his general direction, sometimes hitting him or his instrument. Few listen to Pedro's doleful ballads, fewer still would understand. Most walk by, oblivious.
"Que cute!" one woman says, mixing Spanish and English.
Pedro Lopez is one of the hundreds of poor children who hustle the streets here in search of tourist dollars. These youngsters, many less than 12 years old, scurry about the congested visitors' areas, their tiny figures darting through lines of vehicles and crowds of adults, always on the lookout for prospective clients--and for police officers and inspectors, who are cracking down on unlicensed and under-age vendors and beggars.
Aiming for 'The Other Side'
Like youths in tourist centers throughout the Third World, the children sell goods ranging from chewing gum to artificial flowers to blankets. In addition, they play music and sing songs, beg for coins and carry tourists' purchases--do anything, in short, that may gain them some income.
"I come here to make some extra money to take home to my mother," said the soft-spoken Pedro, echoing the reasons given by other children for their presence on the streets. "I like to sing. Someday I would like to be in a band. Maybe I'll be in a band in el otro lado (the other side)," he adds with a demure smile, using the common euphemism for the United States.
His comments are similar to those of other youngsters who pound the streets here. Although some Americans seem vaguely threatened by their approaches, the vast majority of the children are simply hard-working kids eager to bring a few extra coins back to their humble dwellings in Tijuana's teeming, poor colonias , home to tens of thousands of migrants from the Mexican interior, lured here in part by the possibility of crossing over illegally to el otro lado.
The youthful exuberance generally displayed by the children stands in stark contrast to their reality. Most of them face bleak futures as the offspring of some of the poorest segments of Mexican society. Eventually, some will drift toward juvenile delinquency and even prostitution, some will enter the United States clandestinely in search of work, while the great majority will eke out precarious livings in Mexico.
"The disgrace is that many are forced by economic circumstances to leave school and become vendors and beggars, and they lose out on their education and any opportunity they could have," said Jose Luis Perez Canchola, who runs an immigration study center here. "Most are likely to live forever on the margins of society."
For the millions of U.S. tourists who come here each year, the disheveled children appear to be little more than a transitory distraction--a tiny hand thrust forward in search of a handout, a pleading voice selling chewing gum or trinkets, a dirty face with hunted eyes and a shock of black hair offering to find a taxi.
Major Social Problem
"Wash your windows, mister?" they ask in broken English as they approach cars stopped for a red light, greasy rags in hand.
"Chiclets?" they ask other potential customers.
Although generally short-lived for most visitors, the images of these children can be among the most memorable--and disturbing--of any encountered during a trip to the border.
For Mexican officials, however, the children's presence represents quite a bit more: a major social problem, a loss of the fees and taxes paid by licensed merchants, and a somewhat unpleasant and embarrassing symbol of the nation's economic crisis. The notion of these unwelcome young reminders of Third World life working the streets--particularly when they should be at school or under adult supervision--doesn't jibe with the promoters' preferred vision of this former sin city as a haven of progress, industrial growth and tourism.