Latin America and the Caribbean

NACLA Report on the Americas
May/June 1994


Report on Children Introduction

The drama unfolded before one of the NACLA editors as she was sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe' in Cochabamba, Bolivia several years ago. A little girl, no more than six, was crying forlornly at the perimeter of the tables. An older girl, perhaps 10 or 12 whom she took to be the child's sister, was cajoling the youngster: you must do it! go ahead! The little girl wept, and shook her head. The older girl would not relent, and gave her sister a shove. The little girl, her cheeks still wet with tears, approached the table. Her eyes cast to the floor in shame, she put out cupped hands and asked for some coins.

Childhood--a phase of life meant to be carefree and safe, a time of learning and discovery--is for many children in Latin America an initiation into hardship, shame and suffering. The lives of children bear the strongest imprint of the tremendous social and economic upheaval that has rocked the region over the past 15 years. The flexibilization of the labor force, for instance, has resulted in an explosion of child street vendors. The simultaneous breakdown of the family and the stripping away of social protections traditionally provided by the state have forced children to contribute to family income or fend for themselves. These same pressures have led children to seek other structures-- sometimes illicit--of authority and camaraderie.

In this report, we look at Latin America's poor children in the context of the recent shift to neoliberal economic policies, the unambiguous growth in poverty, and a process of democratization that has layed bare the once-masked cleavages between social classes. Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Daniel Hoffman argue that in Brazil the term "street children" is used by one class (the wealthy) to classify those children of another class (the poor) who have the audacity to transgress social boundaries. In fact, the authors say, most of those considered street children maintain close ties to family, and are in the street because it is the locus of economic struggle. Gilberto Dimenstein looks at the experience of young girls who have been swept up into the prostitution racket in the Brazilian Amazon, a set-up reminiscent of slavery. Underlying the blatant exploitation of minors by adults is the playing out of the new social and economic relations in an extreme form. These girls end up on the street from the pull of hoped-for economic gain and the push of broken homes. Studying the sicarios, Colombia's young hired assassins, Alonzo Salazar reveals how strains on the family and limited economic prospects propel teenage boys into the hands of the wealthy drug traffickers.

At this moment, we are witnessing the collision of two trends. On the one hand, as the UNICEF report, The State of the World's Children 1994, points out, gradual advances in technology and communications over the course of history, coupled with rising awareness, mean that we now have the ability to eradicate childhood disease and hunger which have plagued the world for centuries. On the other hand, we are living in an era in which the ascendency of free-market economic policies has grossly increased the disparities between rich and poor, and created massive social disorganization that has undermined the traditional supports of children's lives. This NACLA report examines the lives of Latin America's children who are caught in the vortex of these contradictory tendencies.


North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA)
475 Riverside Drive, Suite 454
New York, NY 10115 USA
Tel 212/870-3146

For subscription information, email:

NACLA is an independent non-profit organization founded in 1966 to research the political economy of the Americas.

Return to PANGAEA HomePage