Back to top

Conquistadores de la Calle

Conquistadores de la Calle
Child Street Labor in Guatemala City

A stirring ethnography of Guatemala City’s juvenile street vendors and the surprising economies of power they construct.

January 2008
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
244 pages | 6 x 9 | 9 halftones, 3 maps, 9 tables |

The first comprehensive, book-length study of its kind, Conquistadores de la Calle presents the findings of nearly two years of ethnographic research on the streets of Guatemala City, toppling conventional wisdom that the region's youth workers are solely victims, or that their labor situations are entirely the result of poverty and family breakdown.

Documenting the voices and experiences of the city's working children, this fascinating study reveals counterintuitive motivations for those who choose to abandon schooling in favor of participating more fully in their families' economies. The processes of developing skills and planning for their social and economic futures are covered in depth, presenting evidence that many members of this population operate well above survival level and are decidedly not marginalized or members of an underclass. Conquistadores de la Calle also makes important distinctions between these young workers—a generation of Maya and Ladino boys and girls—and the homeless children or gang youth who have been so much more widely studied.

Contextualizing a variety of data, ranging from detailed ethnographic portraits of the children's lives and the monthly income of children engaged in common street vocations (such as shining shoes or serving as porters) to educational histories and socialization activities, Thomas Offit has produced a rich trove of findings in a significant segment of urban economics that is tremendously important for anthropologists, Latin Americanists, and those interested in the lives and labors of children in the cities of the developing world.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Introduction
  • Chapter 2. Street Work in El Guarda and 18 Calle
  • Chapter 3. Jobs and Income of Child Street Laborers
  • Chapter 4. Child Street Laborers, Their Families, and the Household Economy
  • Chapter 5. The Social Nature of Economic Success
  • Chapter 6. Child Street Laborers and Education
  • Chapter 7. The Futures of Child Street Laborers
  • Appendix. Summary of Guatemalan and International Legislative Responses to Child Labor
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Thomas A. Offit is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and has taught at the Universidad del Valle in Guatemala City.


Rey's Story

Rey is fifteen years old, and he shines shoes for a living. He'll also repair a broken heel, restitch a bad seam, or even change the color of your shoes if you can give them to him overnight. Rey is good at what he does. He works hard, he takes his job seriously, and he's been doing it since he was six years old. He spends six days a week, twelve hours a day working underneath an overpass, sitting on a stool seven inches by five inches in size, about six inches off the ground. He sits there, a few feet from perhaps the most traveled street in all of downtown Guatemala City, shining shoes from the time the sun rises until it sets.

If it is raining and you have a little time on your hands, or if you decide it's time to get a shine, you might stop and learn a little bit more about Rey. If you manage to catch him early in the day, say around 7:00 AM, his clothes and his body will be clean, but after a few hours, shoe polish covers his hands and forearms, and the dirt of the sidewalk and of the black clouds of exhaust from buses, trucks, and cars paints his clothing with soot. If you or someone else does need a shine, you might notice that Rey has a full complement of shine brushes, rags, and different-colored shoe polish laid out in front of him, along with a well-built foot stand and a chair for his customers. He works fast and confidently, and he lets the customer initiate any conversation; his replies are good-natured. He is quick to laugh at a joke or smile, but his manner is not obsequious. You would appreciate that when he is doing the final buff job on your shoes he makes his rag pop, and that in the end you have a quality shoeshine for only one quetzal, or about fifteen cents.

Rey is not only a shoeshiner; he also handles the sale of newspapers and cold drinks for an older man who sits on a chair at a portable cart a few feet away, selling cigarettes, candy, and cookies. Sometimes the older man, Don Fernando, may be engrossed in a conversation with someone, or not there at all, and you might think that Rey works for the twelve-year-old girl, Don Fernando's daughter, Roxana, who is then sitting in the chair by the cart. Nevertheless, it's obvious that Rey is working for them, because all the money he gets from the newspapers and cold drinks goes immediately into the hands of Don Fernando or Roxana, and Rey looks much different from both Don Fernando and Roxana.

If it's a slow day, and neither you nor anyone else is in need of a shine or a Pepsi, you might see Rey reading a newspaper or chatting with Don Fernando or Roxana, and you'd realize that Rey has no difficulty reading or conversing in Spanish. But perhaps Rey will be talking to someone else, and he will speak in a much different language that you might recognize as K'iche', a Mayan Indian language. In only a couple of minutes, you will have learned a good deal about Rey: who he is, where he's from, what he does for a living, how well he does it, who he works for, and how much he makes. But most people never notice Rey at all.

For two years, I spent my time working with hundreds of children like Rey, children who work on the streets of Guatemala City, Guatemala. Working children are ubiquitous in the streets of Guatemala City, as they are in most cities of the developing world. They are so common that they go about their lives and labors largely unnoticed. If Rey were to be shoeless and dressed in rags, passed out beneath his overpass with a bottle full of paint thinner or glue dangling from his hand, people would take notice. If he and four of his friends were gathered beneath the overpass wearing similar clothing, with sleeves rolled up and arms displaying tattoos with expressions such as "puros vatos locos" (crazy boys) or "Mami, perdóname por esta vida loca" (forgive me, mother, for living this crazy life), people would take notice. But Rey does not fit the popular conception of street child, and he's not in a gang. He is a member of the working poor, a population that makes up about half of all the children of Guatemala City yet fails to captivate the imagination of the public, government officials, international aid agencies, or academic researchers the way a much smaller percentage of the city's children do.

Because Rey and others like him are everywhere and therefore not exceptional, we feel as if we know and understand them. They perform small tasks and sell us small things that we purchase every day. They and their lives hold little mystery. If we do think about why they, as children, are working on the street rather than being in school or at home, we are quick to blame their families or an indifferent government for their plight, bemoaning the fact that in a poor country like Guatemala, everyone must work. Like virtually everyone, their lives are defined by their own and their families' struggle to survive, and as children working in the city, they are forced to work in the least hospitable job site—the streets—and perform tasks that contribute little to the larger economy and bring in only meager wages. We believe that child street laborers are victims of exploitation who have little hope of ever exiting the vicious cycle of poverty that brought them to the streets in the first place, and that most will be irreparably damaged by their labors.

The purpose of my time spent working with children like Rey was to delve deeper into their lives, to take them and their labor seriously, and to see if what we think about them and their work matches both what they think about themselves and what can be called the "objective truth" of the matter. It is my contention that, in the case of Rey and other children who work in the streets of Guatemala City, common beliefs about child street labor are incorrect. Child street laborers are not merely victims of poverty and exploitation; they are active agents in fighting these conditions. For Rey, and almost all of the other children working on the streets of Guatemala City, child labor works.

Conquering the Streets

Over the course of nearly two years, I conducted research among child street laborers working in two different areas of Guatemala City, the 18 Calle (Eighteenth Street) area of Zone 1 and the El Guarda market of Zone 11. My work was conducted on the streets, with the children themselves, while they were working and playing, indeed living their lives on the streets. From hundreds of hours spent working with the children, their peers, bosses, family members, and others, the results of my research indicate that the popular conceptions of both child street labor and of street children are erroneous.

Children who work on the streets provide a present and a future for themselves and their families. Over 70 percent of the children with whom I worked made a wage above the Guatemalan national minimum adult wage for urban workers, and the minimum wage is far above what many workers, rural and urban, actually receive. This income is not only essential for the children's and their families' immediate survival, but is often a vital part of the capital accumulation that allows children and their families to improve the conditions of their lives. While the economic activities of a porter, shoeshine boy, or informal street vendor may appear to be disorganized and marginal, the earnings that street work provides are far from being so.

In addition to the money that is to be made by children who work on the streets, through their labors, children also gain knowledge and make connections that allow them to move up the ladder of street jobs as well as find work outside the local street environment, be it a formal-sector job in the city or opportunities outside of Guatemala. For children who forsake school for street work, the streets provide many lessons that are integral to their future. A street education, while including lessons in immediate survival, also provides children with the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of running a business, from the importance of locations, profit margins, and where the best suppliers are, to contacts with nonrelated adults who can aid them in furthering their personal and economic development. A street education is applicable to both street and nonstreet settings.

The education that child street laborers receive is complementary to the benefits of a formal education. Virtually all of the children with whom I worked were born in poverty and have worked since their earliest years, yet most have attended school and left because they found many disadvantages to formal school attendance, most notably the high cost and low return of "free" public schooling. Most child street laborers have a great respect for formal learning, which many continue on their own while they work, yet they left schools because the schools were failing them.

While familial poverty is a contributing factor to why children work on the streets, it is only one aspect of the overall forces that drive them to work. The moral and ethical importance of work is a value that is heavily engrained in the child street laborers that I worked with, and virtually all believe that work is what has saved them from the fate of their "pathological" peers in their midst. Children work because of the poverty they and their families face, itself a result of national and global inequalities in the distribution of wealth. While the developed world tries to use legislative means of eradicating child labor, it is these same nations that, through their control of the global economy, consign children to the bottom rung of the ladder.

It is my contention that child street laborers are prospering from their time spent working on the streets and are making the best of the dire poverty that brought them to the streets in the first place. Global and national economic injustices force children onto the streets to work, yet the children actively respond to this by transforming the streets into a place where they can contest their poverty. They are providing for the survival of their families and are gaining the skills and the knowledge that will allow them to provide for themselves as adults in the future. As I demonstrate, child street labor works, unlike the legislation that attempts to help them, the schools that are provided to educate them, or the national and international economic forces that contributed to them being on the streets.

The Definition of Child Street Labor

As I believe that child street laborers are incorrectly understood in the popular and academic literature, it is necessary to define child street labor and to explain how the confusion regarding this definition is central to the general misunderstanding of child street labor. I define child street laborers as children under eighteen years of age who are engaged on a full-time basis in a variety of occupations—primarily the sale of foodstuffs and dry goods and the provision of basic services—that take place in the public streets and parks and for which the children are paid. This definition therefore sets child street laborers apart from the two other groups of children with whom they are usually confused: street children and child street workers.

Street children are children who have become, to varying degrees, estranged from their families for a variety of reasons, usually having to do with neglect, abuse, and insufficient emotional and financial resources for their maintenance (Wright, Kaminsky, and Wittig 1993a). They spend much of their time on the streets, engaged in a variety of activities that range from odd jobs and begging to theft and prostitution; occasionally, they sleep on the streets. Although most street children, like child street laborers, do manage to earn their keep on the streets, the irregular nature of their work and their opportunistic and ephemeral choice of occupation and work site make them incomparable to child street laborers. Original estimates in the late 1970s to early 1980s placed the number of street children in Latin America at 40 million, 7 million of whom lived in Brazil (Tacon 1981). Yet as numerous studies have since pointed out (see Hecht 1998; Rizzini et al. 1994; and Scheper-Hughes and Hoffman 1998, to name but a few), these figures and most others from that same era were greatly inflated. More recent estimates indicate that there are only about 40,000 true homeless street children in Brazil (Hecht 1998). While no comparable estimates exist for Guatemala, the results of my own cursory investigations lead me to believe that the number hovers around 1,000, and the local office of Casa Alianza (Covenant House, an international NGO and the most prominent advocate and service provider for street children throughout Central America) estimates that it serves some 1,235 children a year (Casa Alianza 2007). That there are any children living in this manner is a cause for serious concern. At the same time, researchers obscure investigation into the lives of child street laborers by failing to distinguish them from "true" street children. Although the distinction between street children and child street laborers has been emphasized in previous studies (Thomas 1995; Wright, Kaminsky, and Wittig 1993a, 1993b), confusion still results. Because of the shock value that descriptions and photos of true street children provide, most researchers tend to write about street children. Sometimes mention is made that they are far outnumbered by child street workers and laborers, yet statistics and descriptions are offered that include child street laborers and child street workers under the rubric of street children.

In addition to differentiating child street laborers from street children, a distinction must be made between child street laborers and child street workers. Child street laborers engage in remunerated employment. Child street workers, while often working as hard as laborers, work with family members and are not paid for their labors. Many child street workers do receive pocket money, given at the discretion of their family members, but they do not receive compensation commensurate with the work they perform, as child street laborers do. The work that child street workers perform is usually combined with other tasks, such as childcare and the running of errands, which, though tremendously important to the running of a street business, are considered either as an apprenticeship in street work or as their roles in the familial division of labor. Most often, relatives or parents will not even identify their child as working, but rather as coming to work with them. Child street work, and the nature of the unremunerated work that urban children, especially girls, perform, is itself a largely understudied phenomenon, though a few excellent studies on this phenomenon in rural settings do exist (Loucky 1988; Nieuwenhuys 1994; Reynolds 1991). By failing to differentiate between these two groups, existing research leads to confusion, especially with regard to such topics as earning power and contribution to family income.

Children who belong to the middle- and upper-class families of Guatemala City, like their economically less advantaged peers, are to be found en masse on the streets of the nation's capital. These children, known as fresas, frequent the theaters, cafés, retail stores, and street kiosks that dominate the 18 Calle area, often without adult supervision. They also visit El Guarda on big shopping days. All of them attend school full-time, most in private schools that offer a full day's curriculum of academic and other courses. Although they may dress and behave in ways that distinguish them from the youth actually working on the street, it is difficult to determine who they truly are without knowledge of the symbols that differentiate youth subcultures and socioeconomic classes in Guatemala City (see Hebdige 1979 for a classic statement on youth subcultures and dress). Needless to say, though these youths may at times be difficult to distinguish from other children in the street, the fact that they do not engage in any type of work or labor in the street excluded them from my research.

An intermediate group of children who are frequently in the streets are part-time child street workers and laborers. These youths, like fresas, all attend school on a full-time basis, though most attend public or parochial schools that generally require only half-day attendance, either morning or afternoon. Some perform street labor for pocket money on an opportunistic basis (much like the child hawkers of Nigeria profiled by Beatrice Oloko (1991).

Children whose primary means of income came from illicit street activities, such as prostitution, thievery, and drug sales, do meet my criteria for child street laborers, but they will not be addressed extensively here. These children, like street children, are a small minority of the total number of urban child street laborers. Nor will child street laborers who attend formal schools and work part-time be addressed extensively in my work, for they, too, are few in number in Guatemala City relative to the number of child street laborers who do not attend schools (this does not seem to be the case elsewhere; see Oloko 1991; Porio, Moselina, and Swift 1994). Within the estimated 137,000 child street laborers and workers in Guatemala (Villarreal and Peralta Chapetón 1997), my own survey and ethnographic research indicates that the child street laborers of the type I shall describe here make up the majority.

Research Perspectives and Methods

My first memorable experience in Guatemala was with a child street laborer. In 1990, I was a twenty-year-old undergraduate with a small research grant to study the history of the development of the export típica (Maya weavings and fabric) textile trade in the town of Panajachel (Offit 1993). Upon my arrival in Guatemala, I decided to spend a few days in the capital before setting off for the Western Highlands, and I spent the day walking around the downtown area. While admiring the huipil (blouse worn by Maya women) market set up in the Parque Central (Central Park), a child in clown face who entertained on the streets for money spotted me. My command of the Spanish language was meager at best, and that child proceeded to lure me in and ridicule me for more than fifteen minutes as a huge crowd of onlookers laughed and threw money into his hat.

Once I recovered from the embarrassment of this encounter, I began to appreciate the guile with which the child had drawn me into his act and turned the appearance of another gringo (foreigner, white person) in the Parque Central into a fine moneymaking opportunity. After I completed my research in the highlands, I decided to make child street laborers the focus of my anthropological research. Through a grant from the Tinker Foundation, I had the opportunity to work with homeless street children and child street laborers in Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in the summer of 1994. During the course of this trip, I visited many of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in each city that worked with urban "street children" and ended up working closely with the renowned Proyecto Alternativos (lit. the Alternatives Project) in Tegucigalpa and with Childhope in Guatemala City. I made another trip to Guatemala City in the spring of 1997 to continue my preliminary research and choose the site for my research, again with the aid of Childhope.

When I returned to Guatemala City in the fall of 1997 to begin my doctoral dissertation research, my planned research site, the Parque Concordia, had been unexpectedly razed by the municipality in order to construct an underground parking garage and to remove the many undesirable elements, such as street vendors and homeless street children, who used the park as a workplace or a home. I therefore was at a loss for where to begin my work and sought help once again from my friends at Childhope. They then put me in touch with the largest local NGO working directly with children in the streets of the capital, the Programa Educativo del Niño, Niña y Adolescente Trabajador, or PENNAT (Educational Program for the Child and Adolescent Laborer).

PENNAT's aim was to provide a flexible education program for child laborers that would allow children who could not attend public schools an opportunity to receive their elementary school diploma. They had independently devised a primary school curriculum that had received approval from the Guatemalan Ministry of Education and was designed to permit students to work at their own pace with only minimal (thirty to forty minutes per week) instruction from a street educator. Therefore, students could receive this instruction either while at work (common in the case of child street laborers) or during their daily breaks (which was the case with children whose work entitled them less liberty). At the time of my research, PENNAT employed nearly fifty educators who worked in twenty-two areas of the capital and taught almost three thousand students. I had the opportunity to visit most of the PENNAT projects and with their counsel chose the 18 Calle area of Zone 1 and the Trébol area of Zone 11 as my research sites.

Of the more than one hundred thousand children working informally on the streets of Guatemala (Villarreal and Peralta Chapetón 1997), the majority of them work in Guatemala City. The two areas on which I based my study both rank near the top of the list of neighborhoods characterized by a high quantity of child street labor. Each area is a popular shopping destination, as the Trébol hosts the capital city's largest retail market (El Guarda) and the 18 Calle area of Zone 1 contains the largest agglomeration of street vendors and retail and wholesale shops in the country and is home to another large retail market, the Mercado Sur 2. In addition, both areas have tremendous pedestrian traffic and are major city centers for bus transportation within the city and from the city to all points throughout the country.

While working in both neighborhoods, my research site was the street. Many other researchers, working either directly with child street laborers or with homeless street children, end up basing their research of street populations on data they gathered from these children in nonstreet settings, such as health clinics (Wittig 1997; Wright, Kaminsky, and Wittig 1993a, 1993b), advocacy programs (Tierney 1997), and even in some cases state reform institutions (Aptekar 1988; Patricia Márquez [1999] spent part of her time in a state-funded institution). Though these areas are undoubtedly safer and more conducive to long-term interviewing and testing, as an anthropologist, I found it impossible to justify the study of a population that is largely defined by the public nature of their workplace in any type of private, off-street setting.

By choosing to focus my research in the street, some limitations were placed upon my research. Though I chose Zones 1 and 11 as the focal points for my eighteen-month-long study, I did not live in either area. Granted, this is contrary to the traditions of ethnographic fieldwork, but it was a practical and necessary condition for my research. Unlike most traditional village-based ethnographic research, the heterogeneous nature of the city makes it difficult to reside exclusively with one's research group, unless the study being undertaken is of a specific residential neighborhood. In the case of child street laborers, at virtually any point in my research, the children I worked with were living dispersed over the entire city, as well as in the outlying pueblos (hamlets) or colonias populares (shantytowns) located on the periferia (periphery) of the city.

Over the course of my research, I lived in four different locations, from an apartment located only minutes from both the Trébol and 18 Calle, to a small house in the colonial city of La Antigua, about twenty miles outside of the capital. I did visit many of my subjects' homes, which ranged from single-family dwellings on the periferia to apartments in the heart of the city that housed eight to ten workers to a room and doubled as workshops and bodegas (warehouses), so I was well aware of the conditions in which they lived, though I never shared the same quarters with them.

I also limited the majority of my research time to the daylight hours. The children I was studying worked almost exclusively in the daytime hours, from as early as six o'clock in the morning to as late as eight in the evening, and the latter only on days of extreme economic opportunity such as during holiday shopping seasons. While the streets of El Trébol and 18 Calle presented many dangers during the daylight hours, they were a much more dangerous environment at night. Much as in many environments, the whole landscape of predators and preyed upon transforms when the sun goes down, and the streets were too dangerous for work or leisure except in exceptional circumstances. I did spend some late nights in the 18 Calle and Trébol areas both to confirm the working and socializing schedules of my informants and to observe the radical change in environment, but these nights were few.

During the initial stage of my research in each area, I would assist the local PENNAT educator and work with children on the PENNAT educational curriculum, as well as any other educational concept, including the study of my own language, which the children wished to learn about. I believe that by working on education, both the children and I became much closer than would ordinarily have been possible. Education was my introduction to each area, not only among the children but with the local adults and authorities as well. Any adult, especially a foreign one, would not last very long on the streets of Guatemala City by being known simply as an unaffiliated researcher who spent his time talking to children. Fears of abduction and abuse of local children by adults, particularly foreign ones, were always high in the neighborhoods where I worked, and without my affiliation with PENNAT and my accepted role as "Profe Tomás," I myself would not have been able to conduct my research, much less survive.

My early work as a "street educator" was also vital to establishing a true relation of reciprocity between the children and myself, as we were both benefiting from my time spent on the streets as opposed to the often-criticized one-way exchange that occurs between an anthropologist and his/her informants (recent work by Carey [2001] and Little [2004] point out similar reciprocal relationships in their fieldwork in Guatemala). Contrary to the traditional teacher-student relationship in which power flows one way, my own childlike errors while speaking Spanish, as well as my near total ineptitude in the many Indian languages that the children also spoke fluently, frequently placed me in the role of the student. My constant questions concerning the nature of their jobs and what it took to become a street worker and move up the ladder within the street economy also placed them in the role of the learned elder, with me as the novice.

Selection of Informants

Once I had spent a few weeks in my field site assisting the PENNAT educator, I created a map of each neighborhood area and identified which areas contained high concentrations of child street laborers. At the same time, I compiled a list of all the different street occupations in which children were engaged. Then, with the aid of the PENNAT educators and Guatemalan university students, I gathered basic data (name, age, job) on as many individual child street laborers in the area as possible. Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain an exact population of all child street laborers residing in each neighborhood because, much as the Greek philosopher Heroclitus remarked that one can never step twice in the same river, so, too, no informal market area is ever the same from hour to hour, much less day to day.

To gather a pool of informants that met my requirements (i.e., children working full-time in one of the many street occupations), I needed to try to distinguish full-time child laborers from their part-time peers. As Oloko (1991) and others have remarked, street sales or hawking is an activity undertaken by many adults and children on a part-time basis, from only one or two days a week to only three or four weeks a year. In addition, many children who attend school full-time and belong to a socioeconomic stratum in Guatemala that would correspond to "working class" engage in street work on a very opportunistic schedule. Thus, to make my possible pool of informants representative of children for whom street work is a true vocation, I chose to work only with full-time child street laborers. I devoted two weeks to making rounds of the neighborhood twice a day (at 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM to eliminate children who attended school full-time in the morning or afternoon sessions) and noting which children worked in the same area doing the same job for at least eight of the fourteen days. Once this was accomplished, I had an idea of the relative population of full-time child street laborers in the area as well as their distribution by age and occupation. I then further introduced myself to those children and discussed with them my research as well as the PENNAT educational program.

I next developed a typology of the categories of jobs that child street laborers performed consistent with the existing classification of street work in Latin America devised by sociologist Ray Bromley (1997; see Chapter 3). This was done to determine which particular categories of jobs were most common and what the gender and ages were of those engaged in them based on my population estimates. I then used the principles of quota sampling (Bernard 1994, 94-95) to choose informants representative of each of the largest occupational groups. I chose my principal informants, who numbered 112 (66 from 18 Calle, 46 from El Guarda), according to the relative distribution of children by vocation, age, and gender, as well as by their inclination to work with me. While I am confident that my informants do represent the typical child laborer working in these two neighborhoods of Guatemala City, my final subject pool, due to the nature of research on the street, was not a true random scientific sample.