Editor’s Note: Dr. Janice Crouse, Project Director, and Brenda Zurita, Project Coordinator, recently traveled to Mexico City to see progress on the five Crossing the Bridge projects to fight sex trafficking. All the projects are committed to raise awareness of sex trafficking and to battle mightily against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). During this trip they had three unforgettable experiences which are recounted here and in the multimedia presentation on our Web site.
Our schedule in Mexico City was tightly packed with meetings focusing on the work of our Crossing the Bridge partners, but three unscheduled stops took our hearts and minds on an emotional roller-coaster ride. Interacting with people caught up in prostitution and sex trafficking caused me to think about eyes being windows to the soul.
One morning on our way to an appointment, Gabriela Calderon, the operations director for the Road to Home Foundation’s (Fundacion Camino a Casa) shelter, mentioned that we would pass the mall where Graciella (her name has been changed to protect her identity) now works. Graciella was rescued out of prostitution last year by dedicated people in the House on the Rock (Casa Sobre La Roca) organization and now she sells jewelry at a kiosk in this mall.
Graciella was just opening the kiosk when we arrived, and we helped and chatted with her while she set up the displays and opened the cash register. Graciella’s jewelry was bright and beautiful and we all bought several items. We spent about 30 minutes with her trying on jewelry and sharing about our lives. Although this was the first time I had met Graciella, I felt sadness at having to say goodbye so soon. Warmth, joy and life radiated from her eyes, and her smile lit up that corner of the mall.
Later in the day, I would see another set of eyes that told a much different story.
Thursday afternoon we visited the Foundation for Children of the Street (Fundacion Pro Ninos De La Calle), a day center for boys aged 12 to 17 who live on Mexico City streets. We were met at the Foundation’s front door by Lourdes Garza, the education manager. Lourdes’ love and warmth were palpable; her smile was welcoming. In fact, all of the staff we met that day showed us kindness and attention but, more importantly, they showed care and concern for each of the boys in the center. When necessary, the staff was firm with the boys. The rest of the time, they expressed affection to them with hugs and pats on the back. For some of these boys, this was the only affection they have ever known in their brief lives.
The Foundation is open only from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and then all the boys must leave. This sounds harsh, but it is done as part of a process to help the boys voluntarily decide to leave the streets. They must choose to change and want better lives for themselves; they are never forced to do something they are not ready or willing to do. Lourdes explained that if they were to take the boys directly from the street to a shelter, they would rebel and leave. When they live on the street, they obey no rules, answer to no one and have complete freedom to do as they want. The Foundation is the bridge between life on the street and life in a shelter, back with their families or living independently in an apartment.
While at the center they are fed, taught basic hygiene, able to play games, study, read, do arts and crafts, take a shower, wash their clothes and even go on a field trip occasionally. It is a place for them to feel safe, and to begin to see the possibilities and opportunities of a life away from the street.
It was fun to interact with the boys over lunch. They acted like teenage boys; there was a lot of showing off and flexing of muscles, so endearing and yet so sad. Most teens will do these things in front of their friends, families and classmates, but these boys do not have those support systems. They gladly mugged for the camera and a few even accepted Dr. Crouse’s challenge to arm wrestle! After lunch one of the boys at my table, Jose David, offered to pick up my dishes and wash them for me. Touched by his gallantry, I gladly accepted.
Another boy at my table slouched in his chair and repeatedly made comments under his breath. He would not tell me his name when I asked him. When he looked up, which was seldom, his eyes were glassy and his expression was sullen. Jose David, sitting next to him, was engaging and curious. His eyes lit up as he talked about seeing his dad again one day, maybe in Los Angeles where he is living.
I saw in front of me, two sets of eyes: one hopeful, one hopeless.
Lourdes told us that 90 percent of the boys do drugs, usually glue sniffing, although it was not obvious with many of them. Also, many of the boys sell their bodies to earn money for drugs. Jose David has only recently begun to live on the streets, and I hope and pray he will not succumb to drugs and that he will find his way home soon. The light and fire in his eyes gave me hope that he would be okay, but the dullness of the other boy’s eyes wrenched at my heart. He was only 15, and already homeless, drug-addicted and living on the fringes of society.
The center’s director stopped by our table and gave the sullen boy a hug; he sat immobile and expressionless. Deep down, though, I hope that the caring touch registered as something positive and that he will take the hand that is held out to him. Would the hug build a bridge between his self-protective shell, hardening each time another night on the street passes, and a life where he can someday love and be loved in a family?
As we said goodbye to the boys and the staff, and the boys left the secure confines of the center, I wondered what the night would hold for them. Several hours later we would be out on some of the dark, seedy streets of Mexico City and, sadly, some of the boys would be in similar locations and situations. This world in the shadows and alleys of the city was virtually unknown to us, but it is all too real to these kids. I felt protective of these young boys after spending only two hours with them. I can only imagine the heartache the center’s staff feels every evening when the boys walk out the door.
Several hours after leaving the Foundation, we were meeting the eight men who would be our bodyguards for our trip into some of Mexico City’s red light districts. These men all volunteered and were eager to do it because they said they like the adrenaline rush of a protection assignment. The man in charge, Jerry, loves the action, and he would have driven us around until dawn if we had agreed.
During the 20-minute drive to the first location, the men joked among the three cars on two-way radios. But as we drove up to the first line of women, we all realized that many of them were just girls, as young as 14. Some of these bodyguards have daughters that age, and their earlier jocularity turned to hushed gasps about the number and youth of the girls. Shocked and repulsed that this goes on every night in their city, the earlier adrenaline rush gave way to a determined energy to fight this for the long haul.
Just two feet, the car window and the curb separated us from the lines of girls, who looked in at us. Suddenly I had to turn away; I felt that I had invaded their privacy and their lives. It was unsettling to see them displayed like commodities; I didn’t want any association with that evil. I realized that we were there to see with our own eyes the problem we are fighting and not to exploit them, but it was still unsettling.
The photographer with us was trying to capture the scene: several blocks of girls and women lined up side by side and a traffic jam of cars filled with “customers” creeping along. Without warning, one of the girls spotted the camera lens and began shouting that our car had a camera. One by one the women down the blocks turned their backs to us. Except one. She just stared at us and let her picture be taken. As the women turned away, their pimps came out of the shadows behind them. It was not frightening as much as it was eerie. And it was infuriating: cars of men in front willing to exploit the women, men in the shadows behind, ensuring the women’s compliance. An island of women and girls trapped in the shark-infested streets.
We moved on to several other areas around the city. The other scenes were smaller than our first stop, but sadly the girls were similar. Tight shirts, short skirts and high heels accentuated by lots of makeup. Several times we watched girls approach a car and lift their skirts or lower their blouses to give the men a preview of what they would be buying. From a distance the girls looked bored as they waited for cars to pass, but when we got up close we saw eyes vacant, not of boredom but of disassociation.
The image of one girl especially struck me. She looked right at us like a zombie with a blank stare. All hope was gone; her eyes were empty and lifeless.
I contrast that girl to Graciella. At one time her eyes were probably the same, but now they are filled with hope and life.
During the day we met people without hope in their eyes, but they were in situations where hope is possible. People were interceding in their lives, offering them opportunity and encouragement.
At night we saw people trapped in a life where even the possibility of hope seemed lost. Those faces still haunt me. Their situation calls to my heart.
I pray that the women and girls that we saw that night on the streets of Mexico City will be reached before it is too late. That’s what the Crossing the Bridge project is all about-reaching them one at a time.
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