The last time I saw Betzi I expected to see her again soon. I never imagined how mistaken I could be.
The day was hot and the dust from the road was rising despite being a couple of weeks short of spring. Tensions were high between Betzi and her mom. Normal teenage stuff – school, friends, the cell phone. I was flying home the next day and had come to say goodbye. I always hated leaving because I never knew what awaited me when I returned. This day was the worst. Amid the heat, the familial stress and a growing global pandemic, I felt something slipping away – a tenuous grip on an education, on a chance for Betzi to be more. More of what exactly didn’t matter. Just more than what she was born into.
Betzi was abloom with adolescence, a wildflower of a chica, all legs, attitude and desire for independence. I wanted to fence her in, to protect her against the predatory poverty that destroys such precocious blossoms. A suffocating heaviness befell me, the realization of my powerlessness over her fate.
When a cab to the city came, I hugged Betzi and said: “Don’t worry. I’ll be here with you. See you in July.” I didn’t return then, nor for a long time. Every day while I was gone I wondered if the Betzi I said goodbye to, the girl with the best grades, the rapid wit, and the smile that touches your soul, was still there.
After the state closed one of Oaxaca’s best-known children’s shelters and arrested the founder and her family on charges of abuse, the priest who ran the Ciudad de los Niños got scared. He feared the scandal would touch his shelter, which provided refuge, food and education to more than 50 boys whose parents couldn’t – or wouldn’t – care for them.
The priest’s fear seemed unfounded because the two places were so different. His shelter sparkled with cleanliness and smelled of bleach; the other was filthy and often reeked of urine. His children stood in orderly lines, waiting to wash or eat; at the other, disorder prevailed: preschoolers fought each other, toddlers fell from chairs, and no adult intervened or offered aid. His boys slept in individual bunks, neatly made each morning; in the closed shelter, many children shared mattresses, some set on the dirty floor.
After the scandal, the priest told me I could no longer visit. “I don’t want to complicate things,” he said. “You are a complication.”
A couple of years later, I came to know a family who lived near the shelter. When I went to see them, which was often, I would think about stopping by to see if the priest had changed his mind. I didn’t though, because I suspected he hadn’t.
In a one-room world, where you and your mother and your sister and your brother all sleep in the same bed, where the stove and the mattress and the clothes and the toys and the food fill all but some squares on the floor, there is no place to be alone.
Solitude is elusive. Privacy is rare To find them, children hide – behind curtains, in corners, under the sheets, deep inside of themselves.
Carlos is a quiet boy. Behind his taciturn façade his mind runs at full speed. He says little but absorbs everything. Show him a machine, he knows how it works. When something is broken, hand him a tool. His intelligence is a serpent, coiled, and ready to strike. What it lacks is prey.
For a while, when the television set worked, he watched pirated American movies about superheroes and alien invaders. He memorized entire dialogs, dubbed into Spanish, and could mouth the words seconds before the characters did. When the bed was empty, he crawled into and watched, mostly hidden, from his personal space.
On the day I met Mercedes she told me two things: Don’t leave a bag on the floor because it will bring you a year of bad luck; and, if you hug someone for twenty seconds, your worries will disappear. So I picked up my camera bag and hugged her.
Mercedes lives deep inside of herself. Her face, wonderful to photograph because of how her skin holds the light, rarely displays emotions. She stores those in a hidden aquifer of troubling experiences, which I suspect she taps only when she is alone. When emotions surface, they do so in dribbles. A glistening in the eyes, a questioning tilt of the head, a hint of an upturned mouth.
On this day, the first time I photographed her, she sits on her bed with her daughter in their one-room apartment, looking toward a window that faces a narrow passageway. Her face is patient, cautious, even enduring. Her hands are large, with long fingers worthy of a concert pianist, something I had not noticed until now. Her daughter is bored with me and has stopped smiling for the camera, which I prefer.
No one deserves a day of recognition more than single mothers who hold their families together through force of love, work and will. Doing so is never easy, and it is even more challenging in Oaxaca, where single women head up at least a quarter of all families.
Many are women abandoned by men who have gone north or moved on to another warm bed. Many are women who have left partners who drank too much or ruled the house with their fists. All of them have learned to be independent, both from necessity and desire, in a culture that in almost every circumstance values men more than women.
These mothers welcome me into their homes. They insist on feeding me; they invite me to graduations, baptisms and birthdays; and they bestow on me the gift I treasure the most: their trust.
They humble me with their work; they inspire me with their dedication to family; they make me laugh with their antics; and, when they are not looking, they sometimes bring me to tears.
Azul is one of four sisters who lived in Hijos de la Luna, a children’s shelter so named because the kids’ mothers supposedly worked as prostitutes at night (under the moon – la luna). A few did, but most were just hard-working and poor. They cleaned houses, washed clothes, worked in markets, making enough to pay the rent but not enough to care for their kids.
Someone told me Azul’s mother was a prostitute, but I never met her, so I didn’t know for sure. What I knew was that Azul lived deep inside of herself. She stared at me like no else ever did or has. In the 10 or so times I photographed her, she never said more than 10 words to me. One day, when she put on a red clown’s nose, her face fell into the closest thing I’d seen to a smile on her.
After the government closed the shelter on charges of abuse, the children scattered. I heard that Azul and her sisters moved in with their mother, who afterward had a baby boy who died in infancy. Before each trip to Oaxaca, I message Azul’s older sister, asking her to ask her mother if I may visit. Sometimes I hear back, sometimes I don’t. She’s never said yes.
Mexico is tough on dogs. They die from starvation on sidewalks. They die on highways, flattened by buses and left as a feast for the crows. The die from poison in farm towns because folks prefer dead dogs over dead chickens. They die from fights with other street dogs, clawed, bitten and infected.
This dog died in a children’s shelter. It ate something toxic, perhaps poison, maybe rotted meat. Death came slowly, performing its last rites before an audience of children. All afternoon they watched the dog lie on a slab of cement and gasp for the breath its flooded lungs could not produce.
When stillness finally came, the children stood over the corpse. A few touched its fur, moist with sweat from the exertion of dying; others, less adventurous, poked the body with their shoes.
This is the first photograph I made of Irma. She stands in the afternoon sunlight in the front door of her beauty salon, which was located in the Colonia America Sur, a neighborhood with streets bearing the names of South American countries. Irma’s street was Brasil. She named the salon Michelle after her daughter, Betzi Michelle. Before opening the salon, Irma cleaned houses and worked in a laundry, living week to week on what she made. The founder of a shelter where Irma’s two children lived during the workweek helped her go to beauty school and set up the salon. The business was going to be her ticket out of working-class poverty, but it only lasted a few months, killed by too much competition and too little funding.
When Irma closed the salon, she took its furniture to her one-room apartment. Each time she moved, which was about once a year, she dragged the furniture with her – a reclining chair used to wash hair, a sink that drained into a bucket, a dressing table with a tall vertical mirror, a bright green chair made of mesh, and a pair of plastic tables. For a while, Irma did haircuts and styling out of where she lived, but eventually she gave it up entirely. Piles of clothes, food, cleaning products and toys now cover the furniture.
In a world of uncertainty, some circumstances still guarantee certain outcomes. A hot stove burns and blisters the misplaced hand. An untended garden goes to seed. Water boiled long enough vaporizes. And a child born into poverty withers before maturity if, like the garden, not well cultivated.
The last is not science – like the heat of a stove or the physical characteristics of water – but is the nature of human beings.
Generalization often leads to misconception, yet history helps us recognize patterns of predictable consequences. All things being equal, hard-working people succeed more than lazy ones; more education leads to better incomes; bad habits – such as over-eating, over-drinking or smoking – shorten lives; and abused boys often grow up to become abusive boyfriends and husbands.
Each family, each culture, each moment of time generates its own cycles of behavior, action and consequence.
In Mexico, for example, where I spend a couple of months a year doing documentary photography, the culture and the social infrastructure create their own web of reliable relationships between circumstance and consequence. People born poor and shut out from education stay poor; corrupt government corrupts society as a whole, which, in turn, fertilizes further government corruption; the rising economic tide lifts only the boats of the already wealthy; hard work and higher education are not indicators of eventual economic success.
And teenage girls who get pregnant become middle-aged single mothers. The fathers move on – to the beds of other women, to where there is work in the U.S. or in other parts of Mexico, or to the bottle. The children of these teenage mothers, with few exceptions, are doomed from birth to lives of never-ending work, physical and economic insecurity, and, when the last roseate glow of childhood fades from their hearts, the deflating acceptance of servitude to a classist society that while dependent on their labor considers them easily replaceable.
There are many ways Mexico breaks my heart, but none rends more than seeing the children of the families I photograph arrive at adolescence, drop out of school and lose their way in the toxic labyrinth of poverty that entraps them at their most vulnerable age. For a country that attracts millions of tourists with the “warmth” of its culture, Mexico is shamefully short of compassion for its own children.
The persistent poverty, the insipid public education, and the absence of decent healthcare (especially for women) produce a relentless societal cycle that forgives no youthful mistake. A teenage girl, enamored, offers her body to an insistent boy. She becomes pregnant, he leaves town, and she is enslaved by 60-hour workweeks and an income that buys nothing more than a room or two, often without water or a bathroom. She puts her children in shelters, leaves them home alone while she works, or takes them out to the street with her to beg, raising them with the hope they don’t follow in her footsteps. But she lacks both the education and the time to teach the tools they need to break the cycle.
For boys, it is just as daunting. A teenage boy quits school, hangs out for a couple of years with others who found the classroom too confining or the home life too abusive and then, after hustling day to day to make money and stay out of jail, decides he wants to return to school. But he can’t. Once a child is out of the public-school system in Mexico, he or she is out for good. An eighth-grader in a state boarding school steals another boy’s mobile phone. He has to transfer to another school, so he moves back in with his mother, sleeping on a cot next to the bed she shares with her daughter. He misses the high school application deadlines because his mother works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and has no time to speak with anyone at the school. He starts classes late, lacks the money for books so goes an entire semester without them and starts his second semester so far behind he fails just about everything and drops out.
Every child below the middle class in Oaxaca is at risk. There is no safety net. It’s every family for itself. Impunity by the political class and indifference by the upper classes create a Hunger Games environment that rewards those who have the money and connections to bend the system to their benefit and ignores those who begin their lives with nothing and too often end up that way as well.
Throughout central Oaxaca, and in all of Mexico’s big cities, utility poles and the walls of buildings sport flyers that say “Ayúdanos a localizarla” (“Help us to find her”). Each poster displays the photograph and name of a missing person, most often an underaged girl. In sterile, institutional language, the poster describes the missing person, suggests what she might be wearing, and names the whereabouts of where she lived. There are flyers for men, too, but most of the posters in Oaxaca of missing people are of women.
Here is an example (translated from the Spanish):
Name: (I am leaving out the name)
Age: 16 years.
Was seen for the last time: March 13, 2020, in El Rosario, San Sebastián Tutla, Oaxaca, Oaxaca.
Clothes she normally wears: Blue jeans, short-sleeved blouse and sandals.
Physical description: Strong build; 5 feet 2 inches in height; clear dark skin; round face; large forehead; thick eyebrows; medium-sized brown eyes; medium-sized nose with a wide base; large mouth; thick lips; oval chin; curly, chestnut-colored, shoulder-length hair.
I know this girl. She once lived in a notorious children’s shelter in Oaxaca that the government closed after reports of abuse. I met the girl several years ago at the shelter, when she was 10 years old. In the photographs of her displayed on the missing-person poster, she appears a decade older than when I saw her a couple of months ago. She is heavily made up, the tips of her dark hair are tinted yellow and she is puckering her lips in the come-hither pose that is so common these days in selfies taken by teenage girls.
The missing girl’s mother messaged me to tell me her daughter was missing and that she feared the girl was involved in something dangerous, perhaps a prostitution ring. She showed a Facebook post by another woman who was looking for “chicas calientes y sexys” for “trabajo con disfrute e ingresos” (“hot, sexy girls for enjoyable, well-paid work”). The post tagged her daughter’s name.
The news did not surprise me. It was the consequence of all the circumstances I mentioned about Oaxaca – no money, no education, no prospects, no one giving a damn about what happened to this girl other than her mother, who, because of her own lack of education, cannot provide the guidance her daughter needs.
I never made a good photo of this girl. She was always self-conscious and striking a pose for the camera, the Instagram curse. When I last saw her, she was sassy, surly and rebellious, not terribly different than so many adolescents. But Mexico is unforgiving. This girl had left school before finishing the seventh grade, she didn’t work, and she spent hours lying in the bed she shared with her mother and talking on a phone she’d somehow procured. She and her mother fought all the time about money, about her friends, about her not working. The girl began to stay out late at night, coming home at 2 a.m. or sometimes not at all.
Then she was gone. One day while her mother was working, she broke a window to get into the apartment and grabbed the few clothes she had. Her mother told me she had run off. But the daughter has another story. In a Facebook post she wrote after the mother filed a missing-person report, she said: “Hi friends. If you see my photo that says I am disappeared it is not true. In December, my mother threw me out. I had problems and I went to my aunt’s house. I didn’t want to live with her. Thank god, I am OK. Don’t pay attention (to the missing-person poster) and don’t share it either.”
Did the girl really run away? Did her mother throw her out? Does it matter why she’s gone? The result is the same: Another teenage girl on the run, uneducated, without money, angry, loose on the streets in Mexico. These are the circumstances. The consequences will not be good.