The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 9, No 2 (2005)

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Alice's Academy


Innocent Love of the Street Untouchable

Weimin Mo


Weimin Mo is an associate professor of education at University of South Florida. He teaches Literacy Learning and Children's Literature. His research interests include early childhood literacy learning, multicultural children's literature, picture books, and reading.


In this issue we tackle a topic close to our hearts, displaced children. As we explored what we thought were all the possible permutations of displaced children in drafting a call for papers, we hoped for many interpretations of the topic, such as immigration and emigration, migrant workers, refugee situations, etc. Weimin Mo, however, in this article presents us with something unexpected: a study of a powerful, bleak novel about Brazilian street children and how that relates to issues of globalization. For us, this article was a launching pad for many thoughts and ideas. I wish you good reading and many explorations following.
(Elizabeth Pandolfo Briggs, editor, Alice's Academy)

 


Children are often called the touchstone of human dignity. The Universal Declaration adopted by the United Nations in 1948 stipulates that children have a variety of rights including "protection from cruelty and violence... a right to a standard of living, a right to education, and a right to equal protection under the law." (qtd. in Koren 243) However, half a century later, in many countries of the world we see more and more children come to the street. Among them are many runaways or "throwaways". According to Jeff Karabanow, what directly cause children to run away are despair, poverty, abuse, and alienation (371). In most cases they lack love. "A child who runs away is giving, loud and clear, a signal of alarm. The child who stays away believes that his or her scream for love has not been heard and may never be." (Sereny, qtd. in Csapo 31) However, they don't know what they are running away to. Their lives on the street are purgatory. Homeless children are the city untouchables. According to UNICEF reports, an estimated 100 million children live on the streets of the world's mega-cities (Compassion Canada, etext).

Urbanization, which drives millions upon millions of people from rural areas to cities in developing countries, has made the situation even worse for street children. Support networks that children traditionally could depend on are now fragmented by urbanization. Especially in developing countries, urbanization, as a major function of today's globalization, creates and perpetuates the hotbed of homelessness. According to Susan Bissell and other scholars, dehumanized relations are a feature of globalization (etext). With weak social welfare systems, street children face a dangerous world by themselves, and their status as "throwaways" is emphasized since they have little economic value (except as "goods") and no political clout. Street children's survival solely rests on their resilience and proactivity. Very often, they are driven by hunger to commit minor misdemeanors in the street. When there is no turning back, they begin to be involved in serious felonies. "Brazil, typical of most developing country cities, has seen rapid, unplanned growth in its urban centers. More than eleven of its cities are host to a population of more than a million people" (Children Speaks, etext).

Ineke Holtwijk's Asphalt Angels is a touching story that relates the experiences of a group of street children in Brazil who call themselves "Asphalt Angels". The novel serves as an example of issues surrounding urbanization in a time of globalization and as an exploration of how a child can successfully survive on the streets. Love, through a nurturing connection with an adult, is necessary. The protagonist, a thirteen-year-old boy named Alex, is kicked out of the house by his stepfather after his mother's death. He tries very hard on the street not to get involved in crimes or glue sniffing in order to keep a clean record, dreaming one day he will be adopted by some decent family. He never feels comfortable mixing with the Asphalt Angels. However, the reality of street survival pushes him, step by step, to follow them in stealing until finally he loses hope in life and almost commits suicide.

A Polarized Country

Homelessness is not new to humans. However, urbanization and industrialization have indisputably aggravated the problem, and society's overall insensitive attitude towards homeless children has reached a point that can no longer be ignored. Being the largest and fastest-industrialized economy in Latin America, Brazil's urbanization presents a mix of poverty and wealth not unusual in large, fast-growing cities where globalization has a profound effect. On one hand, in its large cities, its arrayed wealth impresses visitors to the country, with row after row of luxury high-rise apartment buildings, shopping malls, and office skyscrapers. On the other hand, the spaces between the extravagant urban towers are flooded with favelas or shanty towns with shelters of cardboard, cinder block, and corrugated tin that house thousands upon thousands of refugees from hunger and dispossession. According to Greg Palast (etext), ten percent of Brazil's wealthiest families take forty-seven percent of the country's income while the poorest ten percent earn less than one percent of that. Brazil's life expectancy is now the lowest in the Americas. Fewer than twenty percent of the poorest children complete primary school -- fewer even than in Bolivia and Peru.

Urbanization has squeezed the rural people out of the space needed for their survival. As a result, large communities are transient and the weakened social structure causes greater instability in society, which in turn produces the fast-growing population of street people. Street children are the offspring of social instability regardless of the direct cause for their departure from home. As Tony Austin points out, when the destitute and the desperate are increasingly young, uprooted, and urbanized, the result is social disintegration, a rise in crime, violence, alcoholism, and drug abuse (etext).

A Wake-up Call

Based on her first-hand experiences with street children in Brazil, Holtwijk paints a realistic picture of their miserable situation. There are, indeed, manifestations of human compassion and graciousness described in the book. Some adult characters show love and sympathy for these children. People like Vera (Robson's "aunt"), Dona Lica (the bartender on the beach), and Luis (the utility shed guard) are loving human beings. Their compassion provides a psychological haven where children like Alex and Robson can seek solace or lick their wounds. Their sympathy keeps the children's dreams alive and gives them courage to live on. Nevertheless, the majority of adults in the book are sadists who enjoy torturing children, rapists who take advantage of them, drug traffickers who prey on them, and corrupt cops who profit on their stealing. Holtwijk clearly indicates through the book that children like Alex are paying the price for the dehumanized relations bred by urban and industrial development of the country.

Alex and Duda are two unusual street children. One thing that distinguishes them from other street children is that they fight hard to hold on to their dreams, probably because they have love and positive connections to adults. Alex is a sensitive adolescent, and the author seems to purposely emphasize how his feeling of love is in control of his attitude about life. Whenever he feels loved, Alex is likely to stick to his dream. Adults' love and compassion give him strength to survive the tough street life. On the other hand, whenever he feels he has lost love, his courage collapses and he gives up on life. Alex is luckier than most of other Asphalt Angels because he has been loved before he comes to the street. Love plays a role in Duda's life, too. Although she lives in the street, she still stays in touch with her mother.

A Memory of Love

Alex's foster mother was a cleaning lady. To Alex, she is the only source of love, and he reacts strongly to her death: "The only person he had in the whole world had flown away. She would never hug him to her. She would never again run her fingers through his hair... All the plans, shattered." (10) However, the bond of love is powerful and after her death she remains a spiritual support for Alex to sustain his innocence. In Alex's mind, she is almost like God. Quite a few times, Alex prays to her as well as to God. On his first homeless night at the park, "Alex stared at the sky... He decided that his mother was awake and was looking down at him from the sky. The idea reassured him. As if she were watching over him just a little bit." (12) Each time he regrets his involvement in Asphalt Angels' stealing, he finds it hard to face his mother. He tries to defend his criminal involvement in his imaginary conversation with his mother:

That man shouldn't have been so dumb. Who would put a briefcase down next to himself like that? If Alex hadn't grabbed it, another boy would have. He thought of his mother. If she were still alive, he wouldn't have dared tell her. But maybe she had seen it. From heaven you could see everything, of course... But he would be able to explain himself to her if she were to say anything about it. If nobody gave him anything, he had to steal. Otherwise he'd starve to death. That's what he would say (84).

Psychologically he tries hard not to blame himself. However, in daytime, he has to deal with reality. When he is pressed by the gang leader Roy to prepare for an armed robbery on the bus, he realizes that the serious nature of the robbery may ruin for good his chance to be adopted. "He felt as if he were slowly sliding into a deep dark hole. There was nothing to hang on to on the slippery slope. They would laugh at him if he said he was scared. They might think he was going to squeal on them. Maybe they would kill him... He had never really been one of them." (165)

When the armed robbery fails, Roy is deliberately run down and killed by the bus driver. The cold-blooded murder exasperates Alex and paralyzes his will to live. It is one of the darkest nights in his street life. Alex feels the need to "talk" to his mother again. "Alex looked up... She wouldn't come... She was upset. He could feel she was upset. But I don't want this life any more, he said... There's no use in it. I'm dead tired. I don't want to fight any more... I really want death over this life." (172) Although other child characters in the history of children's literature have experienced hardship, only in modern children's literature do characters think of ending their own lives. When Marian Koren discusses Elvis and His Friends by Maria Gripe, she notes that "[t]he worse thing that can be said about a human being is that it would have been better if he had not been born." (242) Now Alex, at the age of thirteen, feels his young life has already become too much of a burden to carry and wants to cut it short. He is painfully torn between dream and reality, between hope and desperation, and between life and death. When his dream hits upon the cold wall of social alienation and shatters, love ironically becomes a source of pain for Alex and death is the only escape. Because his mother's love urges him to maintain innocence, it pushes him to hold on to his dream. Naturally, when he fails to live up to it, he feels extraordinarily anguished.

A Noble Soul

Alex is fortunate to run into Robson at the beginning of his street life. Robson, who is one year older than Alex, ran away from home because of physical abuse. He has had some tough experiences in the street including being sexually abused. He provides Alex with very important information about survival skills in the dangerous street. By the time he meets Alex, Robson's ordeal is almost over. Vera, a woman he knows from the beach, is going to adopt him. Robson has now a house "where he could eat every day, take a shower, and change clothes." (19) Vera quietly helps street children who are struggling not to commit crimes. Apparently with her consent or even encouragement, Robson takes Alex to her home to eat. Alex later proudly refuses to go because he doesn't feel very comfortable about the way her daughter looks at him. Vera then asks Robson to take a bag of food to Alex everyday (27). Vera's graciousness reminds Alex of his own mother. That is why he suddenly talks to Robson about his own mother and tells him that she was actually his foster mother (29). Robson's response is right to the point that love is all that counts: "Foster mother, sick mother, real mother--whoever takes care of you is your mother." (29) It seems the author tries to communicate the message through Robson that love is redemptive after all, no matter what form it takes, and that love is irreplaceable for children; it comes together with children's feeling of security and confidence in life. She wants readers to know that it is one of children's basic needs and rights.

Children are no more responsible for their poverty than for their birth but the blight of poverty falls most heavily upon their shoulders. A lack of basic necessities like food makes them extremely vulnerable to crime in the street. Vera helps Alex tide over the difficult period of "apprenticeship" in his street life. The food she provides is crucial for Alex to survive his lack of experiences, but, more importantly, Vera's help also quietly keeps his dream alive. Although street children form gangs among themselves, in most cases they don't get love or emotional support from each other. Instead, they do not trust each other. That is the exact situation with the Asphalt Angels. Sometimes they betray or steal from each other rather than support members.

A Warm Heart

Robson also introduces Alex to Dona Lica, a bartender on the beach. Dona Lica is a practical female. She lets Alex do some odd jobs for her like lifting beer bottles and pays or gives him food to eat. She also keeps his personal belongings for him but warns that she won't keep stolen goods, drugs, or anything that could cause her trouble. She is one of the few people who are worried about him, especially when she sees that some children are murdered in the park. She cautions Alex about the danger of being an aviao, a drug deliverer . In spite of the risk involved, she tells Alex about the drug business going on in the park. She is the only one at the beach who would hug Alex and tell him, "I know you're a good boy. But, for God's sake, watch out. Don't get in with that kind... Once you're in, boy... it's playing with fire." (43)

When Alex lies to her about his adoption, Dona Lica is really happy for him even though she feels surprised that someone would want to adopt a thirteen-year-old boy (70). Unfortunately, Dona Lica's matter-of-fact remark unintentionally deals a heavy blow to Alex. He feels his dreams are drifting away. To him, love, family, and security are just castles in the air. The conversation becomes, in a way, a turning point in Alex's life. His disillusionment turns into a hostile fury. His protest against the society finally blows up: "You're all big fat pigs! You're rich and keep everything for yourselves. You all have houses and eat three times a day. But eight centavos for a roll, you won't give that away." (72)

A Shared Dream

Duda is a complicated character. She is the only female Asphalt Angel. She is the "wife" of the gang leader Roy. She is also an experienced thief who often pretends to be a customer and steals in stores when other children work as decoys. There are a few unique roles she plays among the Asphalt Angels. For instance, she is the peacemaker within the gang. Her feminine rationality often helps smooth out troubles among the gangsters. In fact, it is Duda who introduces Alex to the Asphalt Angels. Duda is a breath of fresh air in the gang. She and Alex share a lot in common. In spite of being homeless in the street, they tenaciously stick to their dreams. She dreams that someday she could have a decent job: "Then I 'm a secretary... I'm wearing nylons and a tight skirt and I smile at everybody. I work in a big hotel and every day I get postcards. Because I've got friends in every country. At night I go home on the subway. My husband picks me up. He works in an office." (116) Alex falls in love with Duda as soon as he sets his eyes on her. The dream binds them together and they become soul mates to endure the tough street life

Alex joins the Asphalt Angels so that he can sleep together with the gang in the street and no sadists will rob or kill him during his sleep. Alex, like other people in the street, doesn't tell his real name but introduces himself as "Crusoe". The nickname appropriately suggests his feelings and dreams. Robinson Crusoe was a lonely person living by himself on the island but looked forward to being rescued someday. Every day he had to concern himself with hunger, cold, and an unfriendly environment. So does Alex living in the forest of concrete and asphalt. He feels lonesome, too, and has very few people he can trust. He also looks forward to being rescued or adopted. Joining the gang is only the beginning of a long transition in his street life. It is totally an experience that exemplifies the jungle principle of survival of the fittest. Anyone who joins the gang has to tough it out. Otherwise, he is doomed to perish in the severe environment. Alex has to learn the gangsters' trade tricks. They yell at him: "Cleaning is looting, stupid. Robbing, stealing, boosting. How long you been living on the street? It's a miracle you haven't starved to death yet." (63) He is laughed at, ridiculed, and humiliated by other gangsters. His first endeavor of mugging fails. The greenhorn gangster ends up letting his victim go and, in bewilderment, he even gives her a cavalier-style compliment: "You're very pretty, ma'am." (64) He becomes a laughingstock. Duda is the only one who takes his side and stops others from further embarrassing him. Alex is extremely pained. First of all, he knows that he is allowed to stay with the group because of Duda. Then he is especially scared that he would miss his chance at adoption: "Who's going to take in a thief?" (65)

It is heartbreaking to see a child like Alex struggling to keep his head above water with little help. As he loses his innocence and sinks, inch by inch, in the quicksand of street crimes, his conscience is hurting him. Once he examines the wallet he stole. "There was a photo in it of two smiling children. A father who carries around a picture of his kids. How he wanted a father like that too. What would the man tell his kids tonight? It was a boy just like you? He bit his lip. For the first time, he felt regret." (80) His own hunger for love makes his regret extremely painful. At a moment like this, he feels very lonely. This explains why, when Duda is back from visit with her mother, Alex's excitement is apparent in his body language. "Like a wild man he ran across the street, waving his plastic bag... Alex squeezed her arms with joy." (108) This is the moment when their friendship has some substantial development. Now they are both consciously aware of the bond existing between them. Duda tells him sincerely that she will help him no matter what happens. They also have a serious discussion about the meaning of friendship in the street (112). Although Duda is about the same age as Alex, she acts more like his mentor or guardian. That is why Alex feels so devastated when Duda's TV interview accidentally begets her a chance to be adopted. A rich hotel owner is willing to offer her a job. It is small wonder that he responds to it emotionally when Roy breaks the news to Asphalt Angels: "Alex's heart soared, but then he grew cold inside." (145) He feels sorry that he lost her emotional support for sticking with the Asphalt Angels. Now that they are separated in two different worlds, he can only fantasizes that maybe in the future he would run into Duda in a kind of fairy tale situation: "She would be surprised. He would say something smooth the way they do on television. My heart follows you always. No, that was too goopy. It had to be funny so she would laugh. He had found a bottle in the bay with a note with the address on it..." (150)

Duda's leaving the Asphalt Angels is the last blow to Alex's courage to pursue his dream. Sensitive to his lost love, he is overwhelmed by hopelessness, which leads to his willingness to join Roy in preparing for the armed robbery on the bus: "He had never been one of them [Asphalt Angels]. So why not." (165) He is giving up his dream, believing there is no way for Duda and himself to get together any more: "She had been right not to come back. One day she would walk around in nylons and have a house with a bathroom. Besides, she was different. She was pretty and she was a woman." (165)

A Cold Society

In his short life, Alex has quite a few brushes with death. His dream is further weakened by the police sneak attack in the middle of the night. The corrupt cops arrest the Asphalt Angels, beat them up, and force them to steal for them. Alex is scared to death when the cops line them up like an execution squad: "His legs were shaking. His whole body was limp. He couldn't think any more. There was a whirlwind raging in his head. Now he was going to die." (153) In weaving this episode into the story, Holtwijk obviously has in her mind the infamous Candelaria massacre by off-duty policemen of eight street children who slept in a square of Rio de Janeiro in 1993. Alex, by then, understands what Roy means when he says that everyone is against them--the police, the judge, the shop owners, the reporters, and the rival gangsters.

When the bus holdup turns sour and Roy is killed on spot, Alex realizes that he has become a fugitive. He could possibly be recognized as one of the holdup men because he was with Roy and other Asphalt Angels all the time. Besides, since they have lost the guns borrowed from Roy's street friends, they may want to kill him, too. Now with both the police and the other gangs being after him, he feels there isn't a place in the world he can go to. When he sees on the kiosk at the beach is displayed the photo of Roy's bloody distorted face on the front-page newspaper, Alex feels that the whole society does not have any love for street children and is conspiring to kill them. He can't help but hysterically protest, "It's a lie. He [the bus driver] drove over him on purpose." (175)

Brazil is notoriously known for exterminators who, hired by shopkeepers, brutally hunt down street children like rats (Children Speak, etext). In fact, stunning violations of children's human rights by law enforcement personnel occurs in many developing countries. The police and political administrations are sometimes behind the worst kinds of child abuse: kidnapping, crippling, or forcing children into various types of slave labor and illegal acts. It is being discovered that a growing global economy does not necessarily translate into a growing economy that benefits the majority of humanity. Instead, the unjust distribution of resources creates the growing global disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

A Hopeful Ending

Towards the end of the story, while lying on the beach in desperation, Alex suddenly sees Duda's face. In confusion, he asks Duda whether Robinson Crusoe has been rescued. Duda's coming back is logically acceptable. It is especially good for young readers to know that there is still hope for Alex and Duda in their dream catching. Alex has painfully struggled with his fate and it seems that now he has finally come together with Duda and has been "rescued". His story proves that love and compassion have strong sustaining power in human struggle for dignity and they nurture hope in life. Otherwise, Alex could have been just another hardened young criminal in the street like Roy, Huff, and Big Mouth who never feel guilty for what they do at all. However, in reality love and compassion are scarce for street children and on an individual level they are not strong enough to combat societal indifference and to prevent children from degenerating. In fact, young people like Roy, Huff, and Big Mouth probably have had even worse childhoods than Alex in terms of love and compassion. They might be more severely handicapped at the very start of their lives because they lacked the least taste of love.

Every child has dreams. It is the society's negative perception of their dreams that makes children believe there is no hope. Karabanow reveals the fact in his survey that street children's feelings of alienation and marginalization leads them to believe that society at large perceives them as "thieves", criminals" and "dregs of society" and there is no hope for them to reintegrate with its mainstream (375-76). The absence of humanity, compassion, and sensitivity has become a recurring topic in global economic, social, and political discussion. When referring to children's human rights, Eugene Verhellen succinctly explains the mentality: "in a world dominated by the interests of adults, who also have the power to define, children... do not have to deserve them; they do not need to be given rights." (1994, 18) The world has seen too many extreme transgressions of their rights in the past fifty years since the U. N. Declaration. Street children's situations are worsening with each passing day.

The etiological factors of homelessness, namely poverty, despair, and abuse, have been aggravated by urban and industrial development. The large number of street children may have frightened us and numbed our sensitivity. Asphalt Angels is a book that rests heavily on our consciences. Alex's sensitivity to love and its impact on his confidence in life should be a wake-up call to all of us. These children's vulnerable and marginal lives on the street are a moral disaster for all of us. As Jonathan Kozol puts, "[t]he way we treat our children tells us something of the future we envision. The willingness of the nation to relegate so many of these poorly housed, poorly fed, and poorly educated children is going to come back to haunt us." (qtd. in Shames 7) While we as a society have the obligation to protect homeless children and approach the issue of street children in a more sensitive and humanitarian manner, it is necessary to use our wisdom to reflect on the relationships in global economic systems and to strengthen the infrastructure of human civilization. For that purpose, we could start at least with showing some love and compassion for the destitute.

Notes

• Ineke Holtwijk, author of Asphalt Angels, is a correspondent in Latin America for a leading Dutch newspaper and for television news for young people. The book is based on her experiences with street children while on assignment in Rio de Janeiro.

• Wanda Boeke, the translator of Asphalt Angels, has worked with writers and filmmakers in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Spain. Her translations have been published in both Europe and the United States.

Works Cited

Austin, Tony. "Children Pay High Price for Asian Economic Miracle." 14 May, 2003.
http://www.fva.org/0195/children.html

Bissell, Susan, "Globalising Childhood". 21 Nov, 2003.
http://www.childrightseducation.org/english/Sbarticle.htm

Children Speak. "Hope for Brazils' Street Children." 22 Nov, 2004.
http://www.opcr.org

Compassion Canada. "Who are Children at Risk?." 29 Jan, 2004.
http://www.compassioncanada.ca/sharingcompassion/childrenatrisk.asp

Csapo, Marg. "Running Away from or Running Away to?" Canadian Journal of Special Education 3 (1987): 31-51.

Holtwijk, Ineke. Asphalt Angels. 1999. Trans. Wanda Boeke. The Netherlands: Lemniscaat b.v. Rotterdam.

Karabanow, Jeff. "Creating a Culture of Hope: Lessons from Street Children in Canada and Guatemala." International Social Work 46 (2003): 369-86.

Koren, Marian. "Human Rights of Children: An Emerging Story." The Lion and the Unicorn 25 (2001): 242-59.

Palast, Greg. "Lights out across Rio? World Bank Is to Blame." 18 February, 2005.
http://www.gregpalast.com/printerfriendly.cfm?artid=51

Shames, Stephen. Outside the Dream. Philadelphia, PA: Aperture Foundation, Inc. 1991.

Stearman, Kaye. Homelessness. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Street Children. "The Exploitation of Child Labor in India". 14 May, 2003.
http://pangaea.org/street_children/asia/carpet.htm

Verhellen, Eugene. Convention on the Rights of the Child: Background, Motivation, Strategies, Main Themes. Leuven/Apeldoorn, Belg.: Garant, 1994.

World Children's Fund. "Economic Earthquake Starves Children in Argentina." 20 May, 2003.
http://www.worldchildrensfund.net/content/shownews.asp?mode=shownews&id=172

 

Weimin Mo


Volume 9, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, 2 April, 2005

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"Innocent Love of the Street Untouchable"
© Weimin Mo, 2005.
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor.



The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680