TIJUANA — It's past midnight in this border city, and the downtown streets are throbbing. Disco music blares from clubs and cantinas. The screeching siren and revolving lights of a passing squad car barely turn a head. Overdressed working girls linger in the shadows. At the entrance to "burlesque" shows, men outfitted in black waist coats and frilly white shirts attempt to entice foreign tourists inside.
"Wanna see Mexican ladies?" one entreats. "No cover charge. No minimum."
Almost unnoticed in the clamor, big-eyed, dirty-faced children, betraying no sign of late-night weariness, scurry up and down the streets like animated toy figures, hawking flowers or Chiclets, or just begging for a few coins.
In the midst of it all, Guillermo Alvarado cruises the streets, looking for his kids. Alvarado walks at a fast pace, good cheer emanating from his broad smile--a smile that befits his nickname-- El Payaso, The Clown.
Youthful Hangouts Are Scoured for Prospects
Alvarado brushes confidently through the entrance of an all-night al fresco taco stand and up a flight of back stairs to a makeshift video arcade--a cramped, dimly lit plywood loft where tiny children work the machines amid a cacophony of computerized sounds and a lightning storm of flashing lights.
"Let's go, Alex," says Alvarado, tapping the shoulder of a short-haired youth who appears no more than 10 years old. "We're going to play football. You want to play?"
"Payaso!" the boy says. "Let's play football!"
Alvarado and the boy leave together, looking to recruit more players from among other nearby youth.
It's just another night's work for the indefatigable Alvarado, who works in a novel, non-governmental program here aimed at the legions of so-called ninos de la calle-- street kids--who haunt the thoroughfares of Tijuana. Working on a shoestring budget, Alvarado and the program's coordinator, Jose de Jesus Cordova, attempt to reach out to the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 children who spend much of their time on the city streets, attempting to hustle a living.
"These youths don't respond to traditional government assistance programs," explained de Jesus Cordova, a former street youth from Mexico City who founded the program in the summer of 1986 and keeps it running thanks to annual grants of about $7,700 from the United Nations Children's Fund. "They have to be approached differently. They're independent. They often resent authority."
The approach is modeled on a methodology that has had success elsewhere in Latin America, notably in anarchic metropolises such as Mexico City, Bogota and Sao Paulo, where tens of thousands of street urchins have become a major social preoccupation--and the subject of numerous studies and seminal films such as Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones), about Mexico City youths, and Hector Babenco's Pixote, concerning Brazilian street kids.
Like other Latin America cities, Tijuana, a fast-growing city of more than 1 million people, is a major migratory center; the city constantly draws impoverished new residents from the Mexican countryside. Apart from the higher standard of living and availability of jobs here, Tijuana boasts another attraction: It is the gateway to the United States.
With the traumatic move to an urban center, once-strong family ties are often weakened. Here, as in other Latin cities, many poor children are drawn to the streets, where they can eke out a living selling small items or hustling. The majority appear to live at home and earn money largely for their family.
The youths are ripe for exploitation. Some are drawn to crime, drugs and prostitution. When asked, many say they admire the notorious narcotraficantes (drug dealers) whose exploits are regularly chronicled in the Mexican press.
Last month, a human rights group here presented evidence that Mexican police had tortured more than 100 minors. Officials vehemently denied the charges.
"These children are among the most vulnerable, marginal sectors of our society," said Victor Clark Alfaro, an activist anthropologist who heads the human rights group that leveled the charges against the various police agencies. "Nothing is being done to help them."
While Mexico has an array of child-care bureaucracies, observers say the agencies are under-staffed, under-funded, and generally ill-equipped to deal with the problems of the street children. Moreover, says Alvarado, the independent nature of the street children calls for a different approach.
Difficult to Reach
"The children don't want to be told to do anything; there's no point in doing that," said Alvarado, a slim, animated man of 24 who seems perpetually on the move. "We try to help them to make their own decisions about life. What they accomplish has to be because of their own initiative."
It is a difficult task. The program, which consists of the two staff members and several volunteers, has several aspects.