The little girl little comes up to us quietly asking for a peso. She cant be more than 4 years old. As much as their little faces make me sad, I don’t ever give money to kids begging (ever seen the movie ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’? well, it really happens). But Francisco is always bit more soft-hearted than I. Are you hungry? Do you want some fried dough? Let’s get an extra cup, here’s some api (a traditional Bolivian drink, something like a corn-based version of oatmeal which is soupy enough to drink. Sometimes they mix it with blackberries too and it comes out a startling barney-purple).
Shes quiet for a bit, happily eating the treats. Again, just as shyly, “Dame un peso.” “But you just had something to eat. What do you want a peso for?” “Debujar” (to draw). “To draw?” And she points a little ways away, a women who has set up a kids painting station as part of the fair. By this point another little girl, clutching a bunch of roses to sell, has joined us and also eaten a bit of our friend dough and api. Each flower has a pathetic, clearly second hand little stuff animal attached to it as well.
We finish eating and all go over to the painting station and one moment and two pesos later both sisters are happily painting photocopied sheets of sponge bob and snow white. Another little girl comes up, with more miserable stuffed animals attached to roses. Another peso and shes filling in the blue of cinderellas dress. A fourth and fifth girl come up, two more coloring sheets please, and now theyre taking turns with their cousins. They are so so excited about expressing their creativity by coloring perfectly in the lines and the absolute correct colors of the real sponge bob and Winnie the pooh as dictated by the lady in charge.
And im enamored with how easy it is to make them happy. How so little (a peso is worth like 14¢)is worth so much. And im just as happy as they are watching them be happy. (even though it was really Francisco who was the one who took the time to find out what they really wanted).
And in the middle of all these happy feelings, comes up a lady screaming so angrily. she roughly grabs at the little girls with the flowers and literally drags them away, hitting and screaming at them. I am so confused. What just happened? And the painting station lady just sadly shakes her head. They are in trouble because they are supposed to be out selling the roses. The youngest little girl, who at 4 apparently didn’t have to be selling yet, explains that’s my aunt. And I want to cry because of the absolute tragedy of it all. Little girls cant sit and paint in Winnie the pooh coloring sheets because they have to be out selling roses and grimy, used Happy-Meal toys.
According to the US Dept of Labor, 22% of children in Bolivia work. They work in agriculture, in mines, and selling on the street. As explains Unicef’s Bolivia representative Gordon Jonathan Lewis, “As long as poverty exists, and the magnitude and the prevalence you have in a country like Bolivia, you will always have the need for children to contribute to households and local economies.”
After a while, the two girls sneak back to finish their paintings. But now im nervous. I don’t want for them to get in trouble again. They finish, I snap one last hurried picture, and they are off, out into the dark night, dashing between the happy fair-goers with those damn roses.