That being said, these past few weeks since having written that entry I've reflected a lot instead on the youth that, for whatever reason, have chosen to stay. I don't begrudge those that have left Los Laureles anything, in fact I really miss them; but I am continually impressed and humbled by the hardy, ingenious and fiercely loyal young men and women that have stayed behind. In my next few posts then I want to profile some of them; these hapless youth with so little opportunity or hope to cling to, these leaders and heroes of the garbage dump.
I want to begin with the young man that in many ways has become the person that I turn to the most for advice as it relates to activities in Los Laureles; the ineffable, indefatigable and ever-joyous Chihua.
I know I've written about him before, though don't ask me to pinpoint when: I'm forever amazed by his openness to others, his generosity with everyone he meets and his ability to befriend and endear himself to every class of person. Chihua is universally loved and admired in the Laureles community and is a natural-born leader.
Aged 19 and the oldest of 7 siblings, he's the sole bread-winner in his family which he supports by running a barber shop out of his family's wooden shack of a home. His father left his family in Laureles when Chihua was about 5 and then would intermittently visit to impregnate his mother 6 more times over the next 10 years. From the time he was young then he felt the weight and responsibility of caring and providing for his family - he had to be the man of the house where his father had refused to do so. I think then that's how he learned to be so generous and self-sacrificial.
My father met him 4 years ago and was impressed by the simple scene of Chihua with a recently bought and rather tiny bag of chips. His siblings very near swarmed him when they saw him with the treat; hands out and begging to be fed. Perhaps what so impressed my father was that in a similar situation his own children would have stuffed as many chips in their mouths as humanly possible and then run off to take shelter under a bed and gorge themselves with what remained. Chihua though very calmly divided the contents of the bag in as evenly a manner as possible amongst his various siblings and then ate the meager remnants himself.
That one stuck with my father; he's recounted it to me several times over the years: "It was just one little bag of chips but he made sure that all of his brothers and sisters had an even share before he ate the rest." has always been his closing refrain.
For what its worth, Chihua refers to my father as his grandfather, says that he always remembers to pray for his abuelo, and likes to joke about going to live with his grandparents in Pennsylvania. Some of the more gullible youth in Laureles believe him.
He's got a charm and a easy-going wit that makes him instantly likable; more than that though people follow him. Men 5 and 6 years older than him will listen to his instruction and take his advice and not think twice about his being younger than they. In the past year he's formed a small band of older youth that basically hang on his every word; if he suggests picking mangoes, going fishing or hunting for iguanas that's what they all do that day. When I want to form a group to take swimming or hiking I call Chihua first and he essentially organizes the group and very often decides our destination. More recently he decided that anyone that wanted to go on outings with us would have to go to church with us as well. To him it only seemed fair.
This past summer I spent the last month of my vacation almost entirely in Los Laureles - day in and day out I was out in the community just visiting and passing the time with the youth there. Just like old times. One of my current students Jorge, for lack of anything better to do, began to accompany me, especially when we would go swimming or hiking. The first time he came along on one of our excursions he got a rather cold reception from most of the youth - from everyone in fact except Chihua. It was Chihua that began conversations with Jorge, showed him the best boulders to jump from and saved pizza for him to eat at lunchtime. Jorge and Chihua became fast friends - the two couldn't be more different; Jorge is bilingual, lives in a wealthy neighborhood and wants for nothing. Chihua...Chihua lives in Los Laureles. Their bond though has grown solid and they genuinely care about each other. The other youth too, seeing Chihua's acceptance of Jorge, very quickly dropped their pretensions and welcomed him in like one of their own.
On one particular sunny Saturday I called out to Chihua in the morning and told him to get a group together - I wanted to go swimming. He agreed and asked immediately if I would be amenable to including a boy named Tavito amongst our merry band of adventurers. I agreed but was a little surprised that Tavito would want to come with us - he's only 14 but works 7 days a week selling bananas in order to support his family. I've been inviting him along on our outings for years but he rarely if ever has accepted the offer and so I was pleasantly surprised to hear Chihua's news. Later that day while we were swimming I pulled Chihua aside and asked him how he'd managed to convince Tavito to come with us:
"It was easy" he replied "Tavito lives with me now."
I was a touch incredulous and ordered him to explain himself immediately, after all Tavito has a mother and two younger sisters that he essentially supports with his meager salary.
"Well the other day" he began " I was riding my bicycle along the highway and as I approached the community I happened to look to my right and there I saw Tavito sitting at one of the roadside cantinas drinking a beer. I couldn't believe what I was seeing so I swung my bike into the cantina to get a better look. Sure enough, there was Tavito with 3 empty beer bottles on the table in front of him and he was starting on his fourth...and he was drunk. I pulled him up by his ear, tossed him onto my bike and pedaled him back to my house. Once there I smacked him around a little until he sobered up and then told him that if I ever saw or heard of him drinking again that I'd beat the hell out of him. I then told him he could stay here with my family for as long as liked and since then he hasn't left my side except to go to work."
I was in shock; the other kids listening to this story laughed and joked about how Chihua was now rescuing street children and in part it was true. Tavito and Chihua had no real relationship before this particular episode, sure they knew each other and were friendly to each other but not much beyond that. Chihua though saw a kid from his community, a kid that clearly needed guidance and a strong male figure in his life and so did, what in his mind, was the only conceivable option.
My father said 4 years ago that Chihua would someday be that young leader from within the community that others would follow without hesitation and that would carry on the work that Konrad, Josue and I had started so long ago. My father was right and I think that day has come.
Among his many attributes is an innate urge to be the one kid to jump from the highest possible boulder or tree into the river.
Others may follow his lead...
but he's always the first.
So well loved is he that when I invite others to go out for their birthday dinners they almost invariably ask if Chihua can come along as well.
Flaco, Mateo, Chihua, Soplo
Even gringos have started to frequent his establishment
Chihua with his mother Marta