It is morning, but Noelia Espinoza squeezes her eyes closed, pretending she’s still asleep. If she had a blanket, she would pull it over her head.
But there are no blankets.
In this crowded bedroom in Cochabamba, Bolivia, there are no pillows or furniture. Just a row of stained mattresses on the floor.
Six people sleep here. Bodies pressed tight. One child turns over, setting off a chain reaction. Knees curl into backs. It might be fun if it was just one night. But this is no sleepover. It’s every night. And 6-year-old Noelia is sleepy.
She hears her aunt, Maria, move in the next room. The sound of a spoon scraping against a pot is a good sign. Today there will be breakfast. Slowly, the mound of children in the middle of the floor untangles as boys and girls yawn and stretch.
Noelia and the five other children stumble into the next room where Maria stoops over a steaming pot of rice. She peels a few bruised bananas and stirs them in with the rice. The rice was given by a kind neighbor. The nearly spoiled fruit bought cheap at the market. Even then, each child will only get a small scoop of food to eat. Maria knows that in a few hours they will be hungry again.
Maria surveys the children as they shovel the food into their mouths. She tsks tsks the littlest ones who burn their tongues, urging them to slow down. But understanding why they don’t. This wasn’t ever her plan. She and her husband had decided they wouldn’t have children until they could afford it. Until they could feed and clothe them. Send them to school.
But these aren’t Maria’s children. Not her biological ones, anyway. Each one is abandoned. Some were left by tearful mothers who promised to return. Others were dropped unceremoniously on her doorstep, their parents slipping away into the darkness. And now Maria and her husband try to scrape up enough money for food. Sometimes the children can go to school. Most days they can’t.
Noelia and her brother are Maria’s niece and nephew. Their mother abandoned her children when her new husband decided he didn’t want the responsibility. A few months later, Maria heard her sister had been killed.
Three of the children in Maria’s care have parents who moved to Spain to find work. They used to send money, a few boliviano to help buy food and clothes. But gradually the letters stopped coming. Maria tries to believe the best. That the parents are saving, and will return. That’s what she tells the children anyway.
“Your mama and papa will be back soon,” she whispers to them when they cry out in the night. She says it to try to convince herself, too.
Noelia no longer cries for her mother or father. At the tender age of six, she knows they’re not coming back. But Noelia considers herself lucky. Because every morning, when she walks with her big brother to school, she passes through dozens of children on the crowded streets of Cochabamba, the second largest city in Bolivia. Even on the mornings where she hasn’t had breakfast, when her stomach growls and her clothes are dirty and wrinkled, Noelia knows her life could be worse. At least she has Maria.
Noelia has never called Maria her hero—but that’s what she is. Because of Maria, Noelia is not a street child. She has not joined the 72,000 Bolivian children who have no home, no adult supervision, no protector.
Maria would blush if you called her a hero. She would shake her head and think of the days when the children drive her crazy, always underfoot, always needing something. And although she may not feel heroic, for the six children in her care, she is their savior.
They’ve seen how abandoned children live on the streets. They’ve heard the stories of what happens. Abuse. Rape. Extortion. Even murder. They may not know the stats, but they know the truth. The average girl living on the street is raped for the first time before she turns 14. Forty percent of them will turn to prostitution at some point.
It’s not only the girls. Nearly 90 percent of street children will use drugs, primarily sniffing paint thinner. Society condemns the practice, believing drug abuse is the reason these children live on the streets. They have it backwards. More than 25 percent are on the streets because they’ve been abandoned. They sniff paint to erase the hunger, the cold, the loneliness.
There seems to be no escape for these abandoned children—these young victims of poverty. At best there is a bit of shelter, someone who attempts, but often fails, to care for their needs. At worst, they are invisible children on the streets who are abused and left to die.
The Bolivian government believes more jobs will greatly diminish this child abandonment epidemic. They hope to add more than 36,000 more jobs in Bolivia by 2010.
But that is too late for Noelia and the other children Maria cares for. Too late for an entire generation of children whose parents have fled the country, desperate for work. In Maria’s community, the average family makes just $840 a year. That’s $2.30 a day. They hear stories of jobs in Argentina and Brazil and Spain. It’s estimated that more than 2.4 million Bolivian adults have left the country to find work. There are no statistics on how many of their children were abandoned, but the number is estimated in the one hundred thousands.
But to Maria, those statistics mean little. All she knows is the six children crowded into her home have no one but her. And each night, as she shoos them onto their mattresses and listens to their bedtime prayers, she wonders what the future will bring. Not about the expanding job market or government help. Maria must think in the minutia. If one of her children gets sick, how will she pay for medicine? Will any of them finish school? Will they ever see their parents again?
Little Noelia snuggles close to her brother and waits for Maria’s good night kiss. After Maria slips from the room, Noelia squeezes her eyes shut and says the same prayer she says every night. The prayer that has become the mantra of abandoned children. Children who have learned uncertainty and fear. Who constantly wonder if the caring adult in their life will one day disappear. Noelia prays.
“Please, let someone take care of me.”