During the ten years that I worked with Street Kids International, I met a lot of cool, big hearted people working in the field around the world. This is a portrait of one of the best: Rogelio Padilla.
Published in Toronto in Descant, Vol. 27, No’s. 1 and 2, Spring/Summer 1996.
Our flight to Guadalajara arrives an hour late. Before we can clear customs we must play an ingenious Mexican game of chance. A charming, elegant woman asks us if we have anything to declare, and then invites us to press a button below a little traffic light. If the light is green, she will take our word for it and we will skip through the gate. If it is red, we will shuffle over to the customs guard to open our luggage. We get the green light, and on the other side of the barrier our host, Rogelio Padilla, embraces us. We pile into his car and head toward the city.
Rogelio reminds me of both Ché Guevara and the Latin American kitsch paintings of Jesus. He looks so much like a Mexican actor playing Christ that local people call him “Jesus of Guadalajara”. For Rogelio, the name sits uncomfortably, but he doesn’t waste any effort apologizing. He is lean and tall, of dark complexion with a full black beard, long black hair swept back off his broad forehead. While he drives and talks, he occasionally uses a toothpick to eat cubes of plain white cheese from a container on the dashboard of his car. This is probably his first food in many hours, because he often forgets to eat. He sleeps less that six hours a night, and if you look closely you can see dark rings under his eyes.
As he talks, I translate roughly for my friends; Rogelio knows no English. He never learned it, he says, because when he was in school it was considered to be the language of American imperialism, the language of cultural oblivion. Now he feels it would be useful and he promises that next time we visit he will speak our language. We all laugh when I remind him that he promised the same thing last time I visited him, two years ago.
They call him Jesus of Guadalajara, and the truth is that, although he has no direct involvement with organized religion, his work involves the most basic acts of Christian kindness: he befriends street youth, working kids, abandoned children. He has gathered several committed young men and women together with him to help with this work. They are known to the children, and to each other, as “mairos” (feminine: maira ), a subtle and noble word coined on the streets of Guadalajara that means mentor, comrade, brother, sister, and friend. On the streets these street educators call out to one another, “Mairo!” They don’t make much money, but they like their work.
The organization which Rogelio founded in the mid-1980’s has a bittersweet name: MAMA. In Spanish MAMA stands for the Movimiento de Apoyo para Menores Abandonados (Movement of Support for Abandoned Children). One of its projects provides lunch, counselling, classes, storytelling, and a safe place to play for hundreds of street kids and working kids, girls and boys, near the central market. Another is a drop-in centre for hard-core street youth, primarily adolescent boys, and another is a communal, self-governing home for abandoned boys as young as six.
Three of us have come from Toronto to spend a week at MAMA with the mairos and the kids. My colleagues Derek Lamb and Kai Pindal are writing and designing an animated film, a karate adventure cartoon called Karate and Goldtooth. This is not the Saturday morning cartoons; it’s a dark tale about drugs and street life. We are here to field-test the illustrated script for the cartoon. We want to know if it is authentic, if it rings true for the kids. If it works, it will help kids talk about their lives and deal with their demons. All learning floats on a sea of talk, so we make cartoons to help kids talk about the toughest subjects. The style and characters are based on the first cartoon that we made together at Street Kids International, an adventure story that deals with AIDS and sex education called Karate Kids. The mairos have been using Karate Kids regularly in their health education programme since 1991, and it is very popular with the kids here. It’s unusual because it’s usefulness is not limited to any one culture—it works with street children all over the world. It’s now in 25 languages, being used for street education in over 100 countries. We are hoping that Karate and Goldtooth will be just as popular on the front lines—in the drop-in centres, clinics, and parking lots where the mairos do their work.
The girls and boys at MAMA are our typical audience, young people who are not in school, experienced beyond their years, sharp and restless, all bearing wounds and burdens behind their eyes. Kai, Derek and I are nervous. We have been developing the film for many months, and this is Derek’s second complete re-write. If they reject it we will have to go back to the drawing board. If they are enthusiastic, if it provokes them to talk about their own lives, we will know that it works. Kai and Derek have been making cartoons for over thirty years, and Derek has accepted two Oscars for cartoons he produced with the National Film Board of Canada, but these groups of street kids are the most intimidating audiences we have ever faced. Mexico is one of eight countries where we are testing our animated script before we produce the final cartoon.
On the warm Friday night that we arrive, Rogelio takes us for a walk near our hotel. Within minutes he stops to talk to a young man who emerges from the shadows. Stained and scuffed with the dirt of a day’s labour or perhaps from living on the street, he looks about seventeen. He greets Rogelio with a warm handshake, calling him “Mairo!”. His face shines in the streetlamp as he smiles and nods shyly, revealing a broad nose and square jaw. After getting firm assurance that he is doing OK, Rogelio reminds him, “You always know where to find me.” The young man goes on his way, stepping a little more lightly. Rogelio is in his element, providing friendship, respect, and offering a helping hand. Across the road, we run into another youth who is very happy to see him. He gives a brief account of himself—he is doing well, working at a magazine kiosk, obviously fat and content. Introducing us, Rogelio explains that he has known this kid for years, and it is great to see him. He is an alumni of the MAMA project who has survived the streets to become a young adult with a job. His old teacher gives him a good slap on the back, and we move on.
We come to the streets where the wandering Mariachi bands work for tips. Dozens of men in full costume, silver studs and buckles from ankle to hip, hang out along the road with their instruments, smoking and talking. It seems that for them, at least on a slow night, this is not a living but an excuse to get out of the house, a way to legitimize and ritualize their need to be out on the street corner with other men. According to the code of machismo, the home is the woman’s domain. We pass a wall where guitars of all shapes and sizes are hung up against closed shop doors, and then we come into a small square lined with bars and restaurants.
After Rogelio negotiates the price of a song, one of the band leaders whistles for his men to surround us. We are engulfed by the music of six guitars, four trumpets, and three singers. They are middle-aged men with large stomachs proudly protruding above ornate silver belt buckles, providing ample cushion for their deep-bodied orchestral guitars. Maybe they listen to Musak in offices by day, but at night they banish it from these streets with their clear, confident melodies. Rogelio seems to be absorbing their music through his pores, honouring them with all his attention.
He respects them as fellow artists, for he is no stranger to street performance. Before getting involved with street education he was making films, teaching communications in university and acting in a street theatre group. On the streets with his guerilla theatre, he was fascinated by the kids he met there. Moved by their courage and the depths of their need, he began to get to know them. Gradually his work with the kids became more important than his teaching post at the University, and he decided to leave academia behind. Now, at the age of thirty-eight, married with two children of his own, his classroom is the city. His students are shut out of school, and must be reached on their turf, on their terms. To win their trust, he must respect the discipline and knowledge that they use every day to survive. Inspired by the socio-political theories of Paolo Freire, he uses the techniques of Augusto Boal’s “theatre of the oppressed” to offer the kids additional skills, ways to increase their competance and self-knowledge in a hostile world. A master storyteller, he loves to perform for children. Through play and conversation, through action and reflection, he invites street kids to transform their own reality by understanding it. Learning to tell their own story, he reasons, they take ownership of it. And when that happens, they can make decisions toward a future that does not lead to prison, a hard drug habit, or the business end a knife.
On Sunday afternoon we go to the old Tlaquepaque Market, where local people gather to eat lunch in a square with a raised, covered stage in the middle. The Mariachi singers, guitarists, trumpeters and dancers perform with passion, not for tourists in a hotel, but for their fans. Guadalajara is the birthplace of this music, and the Mariachis in Mexico City’s Garibaldi Square seem jaded by comparison. Every song is a movie, says Rogelio. The first song we hear when we sit down is the story of the Mexican cowboy—the heroic Everyman of Jalisco, el charro Mexicano—who gambled all his money away one night, and then with a curse and prayer bet his wife on the next hand. When he lost, he hesitated only a moment before saying, “I am a man of honour. Take her!” In the next moment he turned and stabbed her with his knife and said, “Here, take her now. She is yours.” Every song is a movie, usually of tragic melodramatic proportions, often an ironic, fatalistic story of machismo . Cecelia, Rogelio’s wife, nods a macho-weary smile and then adds with fierce good humour, “If he bet me at cards, I would kill him !” Rogelio agrees, “She would kill me.” At a crossroads on the edge of the city there is a heroic statue of el charro, with his broad sombrero, mustache, bandolier of bullets, and lasso in hand. He is watching the traffic, poised forever in the hot sun on the verge of some decisive, perhaps violent gesture.
Our lunch is hand-rolled corn tortillas, dark frijol beans, sour cream, guacamole, and spicy meat with a hot tomato salsa. Rogelio explains the mysteries of the ancient tortilla. A local proverb says: “Food that needs a knife and fork is for people who must walk; the taco is for men on horseback.” Almost every story, every aphorism is about strength and weakness, freedom and domesticity. Rogelio, who doesn’t travel much, tells us that Mexicans suffer when they travel because they miss their good corn tortillas and their fresh Mexican salsa piquante. It would be no use to tell him there are a dozen brands of salsa at my corner grocery, because for Rogelio, true salsa is made by Mexican hands on Mexican soil.
In Guadalajara there is a sense of calm. Dwarfed by the giant, Mexico City, Guadalajara is still one of the world’s great cities, with its population of six million. Yet it is as calm and undisturbed by our presence as a provincial town in northern Spain. On Sunday evening in the central park, the city turns on a powerful fan that blows wind up out of a huge grill, and the ecstatic children run back and forth across it, hair and clothes billowing upward. The air above the vent is streaming with a fountain of balloons and toy-soldier parachutes borne high on the subterranean wind; grinning, laughing children chase them in all directions, while smiling parents lie back on the grass enjoying the spectacle in the warm blue evening air. A shirtless boy climbs high in the branches of a tree, freeing balloons and parachutes with a long stick. The city square is a lake of families moving together in a gentle ebb and flow. Strollers, stone carvers, cobblers, water fountains, vendors, shoe shiners, children, balloons move in elegant harmony, presided over by a monumental bronze statue of Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, thecreole priest who became a general and started Mexico’s revolt against Spain in the early 19th century. He was the one who proclaimed the end of slavery in Mexico more than half a century before Lincoln went to war over it in the United States. That statue of the fierce, defiant figure breaking the chains of a slave with his bare hands speaks volumes about tormented roots of Mexican political culture. His central demand was the same as Zapata’s in the south half a century later, and the same as that of the Zapatistas now: native land rights. An old man with a simple vision, the Hidalgo was executed before Independence was achieved, and the power that he defied has risen in other guises to cause endless suffering in the century since his death. Yet he is a central inspirational figure in Mexican historical art, representing the force of righteous rebellion and the cry for freedom with dignity.
The week goes very well. We have spent long days going over the story and rewriting it with Rogelio. His ideas will help us bring the story closer to the reality of the kids, which is a terrible reality. “The fight that kids face on the streets is a fight that they often lose. Their pain overwhelms them.” We have shown the story in the form of a slide show to several groups of boys and girls, with Rogelio performing the narration and some of the older boys adding sound effects. The kids love the story, and they make many good suggestions. Their passion will help to sustain us in the coming months as a team of artists brings our cartoon to fully animated life.
On our last night in town, the mairos gather at the home of Rogelio and Cecelia for a traditional barbecue of salted flank steak and grilled onions, red and green salsas, bean stew, fine corn tortillas and rich guacamole, washed down with near-frozen beer. After dinner they break out the guitars. When I was growing up, we used to sing “la cucaracha, la cucaracha” as a parody of Mexicans. Aside from Speedy Gonzales cartoons, that song was all we knew about Mexico. Now Lupillo, one of our new friends, sings the familiar tune in a melancholy voice:
La Cucaracha, la Cucaracha, ya no puede caminar
Porque lo falta, porque lo falta, marijuana par fumar.
(The Cockroach, the cockroach, he can’t go on
Because he doesn’t have his marijuana to smoke.)
I ask him if he’s kidding. Marijuana? A pot-smoking roach? Are those the traditional lyrics? “Oh yes,” he says. “It’s a song from the Mexican revolution. The cockroach is a symbolic person, a character who can’t go on into battle because he has no marijuana, he needs it to calm his fears.”
Like the American boys in Viet Nam, the peasant foot soldiers of the revolution were terrified, they were campesinos with families to love and fields to tend. They knew they were cannon-fodder. They needed to get high to deal with their pain, to calm their nerves, to face death. Perhaps they identified with the lowly cockroach because it can scurry out of harm’s way, or because it is the ultimate millennial survivor. It can live virtually on moisture and dust.—a good namesake for the untrained campesino-soldier dodging bullets, scraping sustenance from the scorched earth of his revolution-ravaged land.
Like the peasant soldiers, street children face hunger, abuse, and death every day, and for them, too, drugs often provide the feeling of well-being that they need to go on. Like the anti-hero Cucaracha, they too survive on nothing, always running from danger—vigilantes, paedophiles, the police. They seek courage in a bottle of beer or jar of glue, and they find comfort in a joint of marijuana or a few pills. Maybe the illicit pleasure and the sense of risk gives them power over their own bodies in moments when they feel absolutely powerless and exposed. Their struggle, too, is to survive and achieve some kind of home life on the other side of the battlefield. “It is a favorite song of the street kids,” says Lupillo.
* Rogelio is pronounced Ro-hey-lee-o