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Matraca – Visiting Southern Mexico’s "Street Children"
Visits with Southern Mexico’s
Street Children and Indigenous People
Matraca here stands not as a cause or an appeal, but as a metaphor for my own conversation, self-inquiry and learning about poverty, in this case among the indigenous and working street children in Veracruz and Chiapas. Matraca is an acronym for Movimiento de Apoyo a Trabajadores de la Calle, an organization based in Xalapa. But it also means “noise-maker,” a wooden toy that Mexican children use when they want to celebrate – anything. It makes a raucous, clacking noise, and I imagine that it represents the children’s lively expression of spaciousness, felt most acutely perhaps when they are not being neglected or abused, free to explore, discover, and play. Hooray! Let loose. Whoopee! Fire that matraca! Spin, dance, whirl. Laugh.
In Mexico, there are about 180,000 children and adolescents who live in the streets; 20,000 of them are less than five years old. Matraca, the organization, was started in 1991 by two Jesuit priests, first David Fernández and then Juan Francisco Kitazawa, as part of the university community’s outreach to these children.
Xalapa signifies “sandy waters” in Nahuatl. It’s in the center of the state of Veracruz, ancestral land of the Olmecs, Totonacas, Chichimecas, Toltecas and Teochichimecas, the birthplace of Mexico’s pre-Hispanic cultures, still lightly whispering to us through ancient art. The lonely jagged peaks of Sierra Madre Oriental dominate the landscape of western Veracruz. Rolling green foothills unveil fields of flowers, rich coffee beans, animalitos, gente genial…
It was in the nearby gray-cool harbor of Veracruz that Hernán Cortez plunked down his aggressive anchor in 1519, going on to conquer the Aztecs. Now the state of Veracruz is a 450-mile stretch, a multi-colored-blended tapestry of seven million people, most of them indigenous, with an admixture of Spaniards, Africans, Italians, Greeks, French and Cubans. Some 3,000 years ago, the Olmecs predominated here, a sophisticated race that created their own mathematics, their own religious myths and their own calendar, which was later adopted by the Aztecs and the Mayas. They were master carvers of giant basalt heads, nine to ten feet tall, nine to ten tons in weight, with large-lips and broad-noses and facial expressions that express a faint disapproval.
Today at the port of Veracruz, at that magical moment of sunrise: barest light on hundreds of eager boats pushing into the sea, waters gradually illuminated by pinks and oranges, dabbled on oil-rig-shadowed silvery water, fresh esperanzas for an abundant catch… And into the evening, lively marimba bands, danzon, cervezas, seafood, giggling-joyfully shrieking children, a beggar mesmerized by rhythmic-sensual rounds of dancing in the sweating plaza…
The working kids in Xalapa pass hours in the streets selling gum, cleaning car windshields, flagging down taxis, begging — sometimes as clowns and jugglers. They spend a lot of time trying to stay one step ahead of the Seguridad Publica whose officers keep trying to get them out of the streets. Most of the children maintain a bond with their families. About 150 of Xalapa’s three thousand working children have no home, no place to learn their ABCs, get their meals or any kind of medical care.
Last Easter week, I was at Matraca’s downtown facility of classrooms, offices, medical dispensary, kitchen, showers. Young teens Omar, Miguel, and Juan talk to me about managing their lives on the streets. They play futbol and basketball with other children in Matraca’s outside patio. One of the boys, drying off from a shower, pops his head out, hair over his eyes, like a seal emerging at sea-surface. Robert Colorado, hoping for tips, washes windshields at a nearby traffic intersection. He tells me how he and four other youngsters were recently detained for three days as a “traffic menace.” I have a short interview with Angelina Muñoz who works in an agrarian movement with indigenous people in an agrarian movement that is trying to help poor farmers get access to water, tools and quality seeds. She says they want to be self-sufficient. She also tells me about the seven young girls, and one six-year-old boy — all homeless — whom she lives with and cares for in Casa Matraca. Vanessa Torres describes going into the streets to support working children. Director Octavio Lara tells me about working against a newly proposed law that will lower the penal age of young people from sixteen to fourteen.
That night, Sabado de Gloria, catedral, lights from orange flames spread blessing rays to everyone, even to the bent-to-the-ground anciana, who are selling cositas for pennies in the park across the cobbled street. Ah, I think, better to pass on blessings than to curse the darkness.
A Heart-Breaking Evening
A 16-year-old boy I’ve known for several years was waiting outside of Matraca to talk with me. He had been abandoned, along with his sister, when he was eight. Over the years, he would take advantage of a few of the services at Matraca but liked finding his own places to sleep. I always looked forward to being with him and, at times, his sister, learning about their lives, encouraging them to go to school, with available scholarships. He had struggled in previous years, often using cheap inhalants to warm himself, robbing, guiding tourists to sex and drugs. But this night he told me about his 17-year-old sister, who worked as a prostitute for a year before she committed suicide. “She despaired,” he said bleakly. And then, long into a black night, we sobbed together and then raging like mad wolves, we sent our loving feelings and so many stories and smiles to a teenage girl who was killed by her own misery.
Street children, working kids, homeless young people here often sell their bodies to survive. According to government statistics, some 16,000 Mexican minors prostitute themselves; six of ten are boys. Some 60 percent of them are victims of sexual abuse, half of them have drug problems. Abusive pimps inject some of them with anabolic steroids to sex-size their young merchandise. Ten percent are HIV. Five percent are teen moms…
At the recent Global Forum and World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, UNICEF reported it has been able to help cut in half the number of children dying from diarrhea. Yet three billion people still live with poor sanitation. UNICEF’s target is clean water at every school. Abuse of children in labor or sadly in slavery is being more exposed and permeating the global conscience. In shadowy corners of the global economy, people are smuggled off to sweatshops, to prostitution, for domestic work in Europe or Southeast Asia.
In West Africa and Brazil, laborers are taken to remote plantations. In parts of South Asia and North Africa, slavery that has lasted for millennia still continues. Kevin Bales writes: “Slavery has meant a loss of free will and choice and is backed up by violence. Even when there is no physical torture, it brings about a psychological degradation.” About 24,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related diseases (down from 35,000 ten years ago). Three fourths of the deaths are children under the age of five. An estimated 800 million people suffer from hunger. Ten percent of the children in developing countries die before the age of five. Tens of thousands are participating in the forum and, as leaders, are being presented concrete steps to address issues of food, water, shelter, energy, sanitation, health services.
Matraca celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, highlighted by a visit from Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who had done so much to defend the human rights of the indigenous in Mexico and especially in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. He was fluent in Tzotzil and Tzeltal, the region’s two most important indigenous languages, and, con gran gusto y respeto a todos, he served for 40 years in Chiapas before he resigned on his 75th birthday on November 3, 1999. When I think of this friend of the poor, I’m reminded of Rumi: “I’m so small, I can barely be seen. How can this great love be inside me? Look at your eyes: they’re small, but they see enormous things.”
Ideas of Mexican Revolution’s social shaking, almost a hundred years ago, still reverberate in some leaders such as Samuel Ruiz: wanting the sharing of land, resources, dignified work; appreciation for indigenous culture-religion-customs; nurturing-educating children; changing from the exploitation of the poorest into an inclusive “fair-trading” giving and taking of goods and services.
Chiapas has a population of four million, and it is a land of spectacular flowers, lakes, plants, rivers, hills, volcanoes, thick jungles, and forests producing mahogany and rosewood. Tourists come here to see the Mayan archaeological sites of Palenque, Bonampak, Izapa, Yaxchilan. Last year, on a cool, soft rainy evening I was in Parque Central de San Cristobal, Chiapas. The Mexican Marine Corps, snappily uniformed, full orchestra and chorus, were singing their guts and hearts out: operatics and ballads of the Revolution such as “Adelita” (long blackest hair to whom the revolutionary will return breathing liberty and make beautiful, breath-taking love).
The park is packed, yet children still find space to jump for glee as the choir’s full loud voice shakes a giant banner of two doves about to kiss, perched in the blue skies. Todos a la Feria de la Primavera y de la Paz. Peace. Violins, singing, tears touching so much pain and suffering and loves, joy of the aliveness of such emotion. Dulces. Popcorn, steamed corn on the cob, dancing, waving, flirting. Esperanza. Hope for peace. For economic tranquility.
Luis Arriaga, lawyer and Jesuit scholastic, took me to visit Acteal and Las Abejas, a peaceful group of Tzotzil Indians organized in 1992. We drove windy roads in a Nissan pickup, at times along pretty green forests, people scurrying with wood tied to their backs or pushing goats. Las Abejas community in Acteal are “displaced,” peaceful revolutionaries, organizing for social justice, still a mourning community because of the massacre on December 22, 1997 of 45 of their members, an attack by paramilitaries who surrounded their community from 11:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Ernesto Paciencia (secretary of the Acteal community) showed me the makeshift chapel where so many, praying and fasting for peace were killed and the hilly gorges where people fled, a pregnant young woman stripped, violated, baby cut from her womb. Exactly 45 bodies are buried in two layers in a concrete edifice, where Ernesto shows me pictures on the walls of the deceased, including his mother and sister. We sit quietly for several minutes. Tears cannot hide. Pretty Zenaida, now holding hands so tenderly with abuelita, is one of the fifty children orphaned; she’s blind from taking a bullet to the head.
Later we go to a wake, for the community’s friend, Victoriano, in the mountains, our Nissan pickup sometimes sliding backwards, a newly purchased coffin sticking out diagonally in the back. A few horses stare at us when we finally find a large community, some weeping around the corpse of their Victoriano, friend, relative, husband and father. He was 52. As Luis wryly says, “He died of poverty.” Many men wear white tunics. Three men play a cheerful melody: a violin, a guitar, and harp. The blanket-covered corpse is placed in the wooden coffin with some of Victoriano’s belongings and a few peso coins. We smell unavoidable death and the life and humanity around it. As we leave, we are offered corn tortillas with beans, cooked over an open fire. They tasted muy rico, as we stood eating, offering condolences, smoke in our faces.
At the ’98 Congress For Indigenous, April 13-15.
Such an inspiring happening, so invigorated being here! Fifty-six different ethnic groups are represented, co-mingling and peacefully marching for derechos humanos. Large groups live on the zócalo for four days and three nights…living in open tents on this gran plaza of México Viejo, risen from Lago de Texcoco, thousands of Indian peoples. Watching are heavily-armed-and-heavily-vehicled soldiers. They arrest some foreigners, so they can toss them out of the country. There are marches and protests against economic oppression of Indian laborers and people. I hear other languages all around me: Tarahumara, Chol, Mixteco, Nahuatl, Zogue, Zapoteco. Banners fly, greens, reds, whites of Mexican flag: Dignidad para los Indigenos and Nunca mas un México sin Nosotros.
It’s late night, into the morning and before sleeping on blankets, so close, touching this old, stone-blocked plaza, visioning golden Aztec temples, enlightened-feathered priests dancing on tops of pyramids, calling for a fresh — and non-violent — kind of human sacrifice to each other.
I so enjoy and am nourished by such times with people and families of Southern Mexico: tristezas, alegrias, sharing ideas, hugs, laughter and tears, the sudden sweetness of children.
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