CASA DE LAS FLORES
…or “The House of the Flowers” an old and moldy building with a small inner courtyard, in the center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. It provides temporary shelter for the many children that spend their day trying to sell useless knick-knacks to the tourists. Some children are as young as 6, some are teens, but they all have one thing in common: they are poor and uneducated. Their parents cannot afford to pay the fee required to register a child at birth, therefore the family will not receive the meager financial assistance that comes with that, nor will the child have access to the school system. It does not matter anyway: even if the children are registered they have to work as soon as they can, and the easiest form of work is to try and sell “stuff”. Rain or shine (and this area is cold and wet for many months of the year) the child walks through the tourist filled streets, carrying a burden of gum, peanuts, cigarettes, string bracelets and more, and pushes the ware on to anyone they can see. At night some may go home and take the money to the parents, some may choose to sleep on the street somewhere given the violence that expects them at home.
Claudia Castro is the woman who started what intended to be a safe place for children to come during the day and have a peaceful sleep, eat some healthy food, get some peace form the constant danger that surrounds them: fights, having their money stolen, rape and abuse of all sorts. It took a long time to win the trust of the children, their affection and willingness to obey the rules in Casa de Las Flores (no violence, no abuse, basic hygiene etc.). May times, the children are sick and come to sleep out a “fever and a cough” which usually is a lot more than that: pneumonia, skin infections, sexually transmitted diseases and so on.
After several years of struggle, Claudia has managed to bring a few volunteers to help – -they are now offering basic literacy classes, some math, some general education…but most of all they are helping the children be children! It may be inconceivable for most of us that a child does not know how to play, but think about it: how can one play if one is never safe, never has free time and has never seen anything that is even close to “play”?
Claudia is also spending a lot of time walking through the streets and meeting with those children who are either afraid to come or whose parents do not permit them to engage with the Casa. She talks to them, gives out packages of nutritious food, suggests temporary solutions for the many troubles that the children have…. eventually some of them will manage to come to the shelter and benefit from what it has to offer.
Winning the boys over was difficult but dealing with the girls was even harder as they are more circumspect and would not come to the shelter if the boys were there. Now there is a time for “girls only” but slowly, as trust grows, the girls have started to show up on other occasions and are tolerating a co-ed environment even though they may not interact much with the boys.
Some girls bring their babies with them – usually the result of a rape – -and are learning how to care for them better. I was told that in Chiapas there are over 30.000 pregnancies in girls aged between 10 and 15 and the majority are resulting from sexual abuse.
The yearly “Gratitude Party” happened during my stay in Chiapas: Everyone is invited to light a candle and walk a small path covered with pine needles (an indigenous custom) while focusing upon the things one is grateful for. From this, another candle is lit for the dreams and hopes for the next year; both are placed upon a small ledge and left to burn out, while the smoke lifts all the thoughts and wishes into the Universe.
A time for play and “craziness” starts, with games, balls and balloons, followed by a short speech from Claudia and, the most important part: the meal! At the end, every child receives a small but practical present and the shelter closes for 3 weeks during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
There are many success stories of children who eventually were able to get a paid job somewhere (no small feat given the lack of education), stay away from drugs and illegal work. A handful made it to the USA and found work there. Unfortunately, lots and lots of sad stories counterbalance all the positive ones – – with some boys arriving beaten and abused within an inch of their lives, girls calling Claudia desperately for help while being kidnapped or attacked. So many of them try to make their way to the USA but the majority either return in worse shape or simply disappear somewhere on the long road to the illusive happiness on the other side of the border.
Claudia is not a wealthy woman, she has her own health issues and is a single mother raising her 2 daughters. I do not know how she manages to find the strength to face this pain and suffering every day, how she continues to fight for “her children” and push ahead even when the hopelessness and sadness swallow her up. Yet she does. She smiles and hugs and scolds and ruffles hairs, she is a parent and a friend and an inspiration to all that know her. I am left humbled and speechless… and extremely proud to be able to help.