The kids call him Chu Chus which in Quechea means “Tits”. Why is beyond us all. The fertile brains of the youth and their inside jokes. It was his twenty-fifth birthday. He stood before his cake and all the kids stood on chairs and tables with great smiles, happy to be involved in the celebration of the birth of this man who had come into their lives and given them comfort. From France but speaking fluent Spanish, he had been with the school for four months with two to go. He coaches the chicos in soccer, helps with the swimming and tutors them with their homework. He’s patient and gentle, and they love him for this. I was outside leaning into one of the open windows with Natalo and Juan Carlos leaning over me, taking it all in. After he blew out the candles they all started clapping and chanting cabesa en postre. He put his face close to the cake and Pablo pushed the back of his head so his face went into the top of the cake. A tradition here in Bolivia. Photos were taken of his face covered in cake with lots of laughs. Then of course thin slices were cut so all could enjoy.
I was standing on the corner of a busy street getting ready to cross when a small hand entered mine. I looked down into the open eyes of Rolando, a four-year-old boy who visits he school daily with his mother for lunch. That simple act completely disarmed me. That social barrier we carry in public was dissolved in seconds with trust this little boy placed in me to bring him across the street. His mother trailed behind us as we crossed. On the other side we all stood facing each other with Rolando still holding my hand. In the other he carried a box of candy, which he was trying to sell by the piece to people in the street. I asked the Senora where they were going, and she pointed in the opposite direction I was heading. I freed my hand from his warm clutch and placed my other on the top of his head and said, “I will see you later.” He looked up into my eyes, making it hard to walk away.
I call him Tiger, because often he comes into the shop after lunch and is a force to reckon with. Whatever we are doing he wants to do. If we are nailing, he grabs the hammer out of the hands of the bigger boys and starts hammering. They try to discipline him in Quechea, but it rarely works. His persistence is something else. I have learned to give him a small hammer and nails and some scrap wood and let him have at it. That boy has some skills. If he bends a nail by a miss hit, he pulls it out, straightens it with the hammer and sends it home. The chicos from the dorm get a big kick out of him. They love to rough him up, wrestling and kick boxing with him. How they laugh enjoying his fierceness in rough play.
When I was sitting on the bench in the shop he asked if he could sit on my lap. Normally they don’t ask, they just make their way there. I wrapped my arms around him and held him tight, knowing that’s what he needed. He melted into me with no resistance. It was an overwhelming experience. At the same time, I felt both empowered by the complete trust and sad for the knowledge of why. Fifty percent of the population in Sucre is below the age of eighteen. The street in the morning and evenings before and after school is a river of Yutes. They come to Sucre from the countryside for the schools. There is no work to speak of here, so their fathers are far off in places like Santa Cruz working the sugar cane fields or in Argentina picking grapes and in some cases in Spain working illegally and sending money home. Or the father has run off starting a new family with another woman. The kids are with their mothers or aunts or grandmothers, and some are alone living in shacks out by the airport. The kids’ need for male comfort is overwhelming at times. All the men at Nanta give what they can but it is very sad. The needs are endless. I could go on about the negatives of the adult world here but I won’t. If there is anything I have learned from these kids it is that regardless of the hardships before you, you greet each day with a smile and look to the sun.