There are very few universal truths about a continent as huge as South America but one is that people love children. Compared to life back home, children are taken everywhere and I believe are consequently better-behaved than their UK counterparts.
Before I came back to Bolivia I had spent over a year travelling in South America and had seen only one example of intolerance towards children: the daughter of a cafe owner in Ecuador was bored whilst her father was working and liked to chat to customers. A group of local couples were enjoying their child-free evening did not take kindly to her intrusions, asking her father to keep her under control. Having been in South America 6 months at this point, I watched this scene with amazement.
To me, it seems that children are everywhere in Bolivia. Perhaps they are – Bolivia is an overwhelmingly young country. Unicef statistics from 2008 put the population of Bolivia at 10.4 million, of which 4.4 million (42%) were under the age of 18.
I am sure that there are plenty of children in the UK who wish for a Children’s Day (I am pretty sure I did too) however having experienced this day in Bolivia I will say that it does not translate in any way to the life most children in English-speaking countries enjoy. I’ve seen Dia del Niño described as the equivalent of Mother’s Day however I think this is taking it too far. Dia del Niño (celebrated on different days around the world) was established as a day to honour children and also to encourage the promotion of the rights of children, particularly in poorer countries. To me it is a reminder of the conditions in which so many children throughout the world live. Poverty translates as malnutrition, lack of access to health care and educational resources, and being required to work (or beg) to support the family.
All countries have their own specific customs and in Bolivia one of these is that a child has the right to carry two surnames (maternal and paternal). Another violation I would not have anticipated is that some parents do not complete the paperwork for their birth certificate. Passing through one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Santa Cruz recently, I noticed these derechos rights
freshly painted on the outside wall of a school in honour of this day as primary (junior) schools use this day to remind children of their rights.
One of my least favourite things about Santa Cruz is the inequality I see, and, more worryingly for the future, how there seems to be little in the way of social mobility. If you are born poor, your opportunities to escape this are limited. If you are born to wealthier parents you will be probably have this safety net for the rest of your life as adult children receive financial support for far longer than I would expect in the UK.
I visited the centre of Santa Cruz on April 12 specifically to see how Children’s day is celebrated here.
The smarter children’s clothes shops and toy shops advertising discounts, using this day as a promotional tool. Several of the more Western-style cafes were decked out in even more balloons than usual, with music, a clown and pixies.
Evangelical church “Reino de los Ninos” Kingdom of the Children
threw a large party in the square behind the Cathedral. Orderly queues formed for the balloon animals and bouncy castle. A stage show was also put on and people dressed up as cartoon characters.
A block away from the plaza was a begging child I hadn’t seen before (and hadn’t seen since): a small, dirty mite of about 3, over-dressed in a shirt and breeches and an Andean hat, dancing or singing along to the cheap radio put in front of him. The fact that I hadn’t seen him before or since (and I still think about this child) makes me think he was put there in a calculated move to solicit donations from families returning from the plaza. Without knowing anything about him or his circumstances I found myself annoyed with whoever had put him there.
I can’t bring myself to give money to child beggars, fearing that it encourages them (or their parents) to continue in this way of life. However, this pre-supposes that the family has any kind of choice.
Later that evening I saw the child gang of window-washers at a set of traffic lights. I am no longer surprised to see minors working here, however I wished that just for one day, they could have been allowed to be carefree children. Return to the May 2011 BELLA NEWS E-zine.