This time next week I will be back in Madrid. Yesterday, I said goodbye to the girls in my junior youth group. They are a large group, bustling and loud and rambunctious. Some of the girls come from very far away to get to the school set in the middle of the city of Santa tecla. They get up at five in the morning and must walk a long time to catch the bus, and some travel up to two hours to get there. They sell things in the marketplace, mangoes and lemons and a wide assortment of backpacks. They are lucky, because they can to go to school unlike some of their peers. The girls struggle with basic literacy and writing skills. There is one girl whom I strongly suspect has a learning disability and has somehow fallen through the system. She is in fifth grade and is seventeen years old. Some of them might live in low-income housing and barely have enough for tuition. One of the mothers once came up and spoke to me. She told me how much of a sacrifice it was to have them be in school. She told me how her feet got wet in the middle of the monsoons and how they had to leave their house for a while… I wondered how many of these strong mothers there were, these lions.
They are not the first group I have animated. I do not try to give them all the answers, but sometimes it’s hard. They are used to the shouts from their teacher, they are used to rebelling. I am not their teacher, I am an animator and their friend. They ask me to tell them stories of the United States, of Spain of England. I tell them that it is not always a fairytale…
Across the sea, there are girls and boys living in almost the same conditions of poverty as they are. I fear for them more than the salvadoran girls, perhaps because Madrid is so cold and unwelcome. When I moved to Getafe, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Getafe is a small town outside of Madrid. There is nothing beautiful or exotic about it. That’s the thing about countries, the daily living can kill any sense of adventure at times. Here were the places where the foreigners are washed away and forgotten. You could feel the pulse of the neighborhood at your feet. They were all so different from me. There were the nigerians, coming through in bright colors who people shied away from and were fearing them. There were the Chinese in every corner , who spoke no English or Spanish and knew no one. The morroccans, who tried to hold their children close and felt that they were disappearing into the cold and liberal city. I can see the gypsy girls, my gypsy girls, who wore long hooped earrings and spoke of their wedding day and went with us one day to the carnival. Who would be married by age 14 and would stop going to school. There was the Romanians, the ones people leered at because they thought they were thieves and misfits with crooked teeth and dusty clothing. There were the Turkish men who would chat me up anytime I went into the cyber cafe or to go eat the falafel. In the year and three months I lived there, I began to know every corner . I knew where to eat Colombian food, or where all the places were to pick up Western Union. And I knew most of the teens in the area.
I never had such a frustrating time with the teens then I did with them. Yet my heart tightens thinking about them : Are they o.k.? Do they remember anything I tried teaching them? I still feel guilty that I had to leave and I felt like I let them down.
We had first met them the first week in August 2010. We still hadn’t found a place to have the jy group but we tried anyways for things to happen and decided to try our luck at the park. Every Friday I would hang out with them. I would ask them their dreams, what they wanted to do when they grew up. They were a handful! One time they somehow grabbed videocassette tapes and took out all the tape and put it out everywhere in the park. I encouraged them to clean it all up, which eventually they did marveling at how fun it was!
They were the abandoned kids, the ones whose parents were rarely home. Most of the parents were happy I hung out with them except for the Spaniards who thought we were some evil pedophiles or something. I always invited them to come to the group to see what it was about. Unfortunately, it also had to do with the fact that I was a foreigner.
It was entirely frustrating at times to get through to them. They mocked me sometimes, but yet they still kept coming. In the meantime, my savings got depleted and I was searching for an apartment and kept getting into horrible roommate situations. The economy kept getting worse. I was feeling despondent, and there were times where I just didn’t have the energy to go to the group. one day, it was raining so hard that the little park looked like rivers. And there they were, huddled near the rain waiting for me. ( or perhaps they were there anyways)… How could I leave? Who would care if I left??
Everyday I saw people’s disdain towards them. They would insult them because of their race,because of their behavior. It made me so sad. I wasn’t their white savior. The only thing I could do was be their friend. Maybe if they knew that someone cared, it would somehow make a difference. …
At one point, the older group , a mix of Morrocan and Romanian kids found a joint in the grass. They wanted to shock me and told me ” Look! Look!” An old lady looked at them as they set fire to the grass and said ” You guys are nothing, you’re trash”. I turned around and told her ” They aren’t trash, they can save the world”.
I totally meant it by the way. And by the world, I meant their community.
But I let that love blind me , because I had nothing to offer them. I had not stable job so it was getting less and less likely that I would be able to stay for long. As the cold descended on the park with the first whispers of Winter, it became increasingly hard to hang out in the park. One day, i just didn’t want to go . Aiman, a tiny boy who looked younger than his age asked me : Why didn’t you come? He followed me to the park. Oh boy….
It was hard, and just getting harder. At one point, they set fire to a trash container and the firemen had to come squelch the fire. Another time, one of the older Romanian brothers wanted to steal some cash from me but the other brother didn’t want that to happen so he ended up throwing the soccer ball right into my stomach in rage.
Eventually after a couple of months, we got a place at the civic youth centre to have the group every Saturday. It was a nice place for them to hang out. Naturally, the amount of kids coming would after fluctuate. i met a lot of junior youth from so many background. There were the two girls Josefina and Maria from Ecuador who said I dressed like Barney… who had a lovely grandmother who always was worried about their welfare. I started to talk to the parents and they were all lively and interesting and presented different challenges.
The first time we went to the junior youth group twenty of them showed up. They would spit on the ground , throw paper and one of them stole a book. It was exasperating! One of the girls who was doing the group with me could not speak spanish so I had to translate!
The older boy, Dani, a Romanian boy with crooked teeth apologized for his friends ” They are very bad , very bad”. He said in his broken Spanish. He was aggressive, but he was also incredibly sweet. Some of the kids left, and I was left only with a couple of them. I asked them what they thought was their best quality. Dani looked up with me, his crooked face tilted sideways he softly replied : ” I have no good qualities. I am nothing. I am bad’. It broke my heart, and I told him how he had a sense of justice, of generosity and of love. I am sure he didn’t believe it.
He was 16 and he had already dropped out of school. A lot of them had. This isn’t some corny teacher movie, their lives go on. Some of their parents were in jail and others were away all day so they had to take care of their siblings. Dani’s siblings were younger than him and would scream if they didn’t get their way. They also would strip down naked in a park or poke turtles. They were lost, these children and at times we felt out of our depth.
They stopped coming. I still worry about them.
Aiman was getting older, his hormones out of control and his parents, strict Muslims were starting to get worried. They would get into fights with him, but he was still a sweet boy with loving and caring parents. I would visit them every week and watch their Morroccan shows. It was such a different experience from the gypsy girls Josefa and Gracia. The parents did not want them to focus on schooling. Josefa knew how to belly dance and spoke constantly about her boyfriend. She was only 11. She had long cascading hair and yellow eyes. They would come running to hug us every Saturday morning. They were already planning their wedding. They did not get along with the Romanian boys or the morrocan kids. They told me their parents would not approve or the patriarch of the family. It was so complicated, so many traditions you had to wade through…
I could talk forever about those experiences but I wish I could have stayed , because now in the dead of night I always feel a heaviness when I think of them, and I pray they are safe from harm. But most of all I remember, it isn’t just the parents who can care about other kids, it can be just someone who cares and wants to be their friend.