Childhood Stolen by Economics

Mary Helen Ponce is a Sunland writer, currently working on a book about women writers of Mexico

The swap meet is crowded; folks are out shopping for bargains. Kids scamper by as tired parents scream at them to stop right now! In front of me a crowd forms at a booth full of athletic gear: bicycle tights, sweatpants and what is selling like hot cakes: white athletic socks at six for $3! Across the way carnitas sizzle next to fried onions and hot tortillas. Although I'd kill for a taco, I'm not here to shop, but on a quick errand. Sometime back I had promised some of my jewelry to Anita--not her real name--a young girl I have befriended. Each Saturday she and a tia (aunt) work a booth at the San Fernando swap meet.

I met Anita while visiting a friend in Pacoima. Anita, who lives across the street, was just then stacking clothes atop a crude table in her frontyard. She moved with speed; her small hands smoothed the wrinkles on a dress that had seen better days, then she hung a jacket atop a bush. I stopped to admire the jewelry on display (plastic earrings and bracelets) and the rhinestone tiara that sold for $1.

Not wanting to appear cheap, I bought a pair of leather earrings for all of 50 cents. They were ugly, but Anita--holding up a mirror--assured me they looked "cool." We talked for a time, until her mother came out to check on the sale. She scolded Anita for being so slow, then reentered the house, frown on her face. Just then a vanload of girls went by and waved at Anita, who said they were her teammates, on their way to soccer practice. "Do you play?" I asked the healthy looking girl. Tu no juegas? No, she replied, I have to work.

It bothered me to think that instead of having fun, Anita has to earn money. Later that day, I mentioned this to a friend. "You've got it all wrong," she argued. "Making money is an important part of life. The sooner kids learn to work (earn their keep?) the better adjusted they will be." But what of childhood? I screeched, thinking back to the American industrial revolution, when youngsters mined coal for a pittance and New England cotton mills enslaved children. What kind of childhood was that?

Unlike Anita's, my childhood was absorbed in climbing trees and playing with my friends. When in Mexico, my father had to work at a young age; he abhorred child labor. He wanted our nin~ez (childhood) to be carefree, devoid of money worries.

But Anita's childhood has been robbed by economics. Although only 10, she worries about money. Her father, a presser in a garment factory, was laid off when his employer relocated to Mexicali. Her mother, with five kids to look after, sews at home and also baby-sits two children. La familia is in dire straits. So forget childhood--and all it represents.

From teaching minority students--mostly Latinos and some Asians--I have come to realize that not everyone experiences what psychologists define as childhood: a time of exploration and the development of a value system. In fact, many of my students grew up in poverty. Their early years were filled with hunger, lack of adequate housing, and (often) parental strife. Some were forced to work as soon as they could walk; others learned to dodge bullets. Still others fled their native lands in boats that all but sunk. Which is why--when during a writing exercise--I asked them to write of childhood, some demurred. "I never had a childhood," one student said. "When I was little my father and brother were shot by government troops and my mother died soon after. I don't know what to write . . . " My students and I conclude that for some, childhood is only a Western concept. Reality is quite different.

I wander the swap meet. From afar I spot Anita and walk over. She grabs the box of costume jewelry I've brought, screws on a pair of shiny earrings, then stares into a mirror. "I've been here since 5 this morning," she announces, stifling a yawn. "I'm making lots of money, and when I sell your stuff, mucho mas."

To most of us, money is important, but to those with so little--like Anita's family--a child's earnings can mean survival. Perhaps Anita's work will help pay the rent and put food on the table. But what of childhood? I ask, as I walk to my truck. Why can't Anita be playing soccer? Or at the library reading? What will she have to remember when she is asked to write about her childhood?

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