Where were you born? How did you start working with children?
I grew up and was raised in El Salvador in Santa Ana. When I was in college I participated in a group called Juventud Naciente (New Youth) in the parish. We went to old folks homes and orphanages to bring a little joy. I was a clown, one of three that were called Coliche, Capirucho, and Trapito - I was Trapito. The priest that was supporting us was really strong. In those times it was prohibited to spread joy.
This thing about joy is complicated. When we were having the activity in Amatilán I wanted to get into it as a clown but you have to rehearse. I had to leave my outfit in El Salvador but I am thinking of buying another one. Once we had a chance to go to a place where they did not speak Spanish and were not used to clowns. Now we want to form a group of clowns within Los Romeritos to go to hospitals and rest homes.
I came to a conference on children in Guatemala and they invited me to work with an organization in Guatemala. After that I met Padre Julian in Santa Marta and I liked the community work he was doing with the parish team. (Here Jaime also did work with children.)
Why did you come to Guatemala?
The situation in El Salvador wasn’t very good for working in the community because of the political situation and the war. Guatemala is a lot like El Salvador. There is a lot that can be done. There are people who are very brave.
I also participated in the student association. That is what brought us problems. Today many from that organization are now dead or out of the country. The National Guard detained me, that is why I had to leave. They said I was teaching the old people how to use arms, which was ridiculous. Thank God the National Guard no longer exists.
You can see a high level of awareness (conciencia) in the children of Los Romeritos.
What do you do to foster this level of awareness?
The first thing is to set an example. For example, if I say don’t smoke, I don’t smoke. You have to be very honest with children. I show them the reality and necessity of using resources with care. Here we don’t throw out food. We serve a little and if they want more we give it to them. When they write articles in the newspapers I tell them to respect the language of the children and they respect it.
Ludvig, the son of Doña Chica in Santa Marta, made a big impression on me when he was reviewing a pamphlet on children’s rights and noticed that all the children in this pamphlet were all really clean. He asked why they didn’t ever include dirty children. For this reason we never put up representations of children who have been cleaned up. The photos that we have on the walls here are the way they are. They are the protagonists of their own history (the actors of they own story). Children also can ask questions.
They also have a lot of talent. They get the jokes out of their daily lives. For example, this same Ludvig, when we were acting out politicians, said “I make the commitment and whoever makes the commitment, sticks his finger in it.” (“Yo me comprometo y quien compromete el dedo se mete.”) That came out of him.
The awareness also comes from what they see in their homes. One has even works as a bricklayer. They work because they want to help out the household.
You see a lot of affection for Lester (a child with disabilities).
How did you reach that level of caring?
We treat him as a normal child. We play with Lester. We joke with him. We don’t call him names or laugh at him. He has dirtied his pants and other children have offered to change him. We don’t want to deny that impulse to care for others. We celebrate his birthday. We take him to the doctor. He learned to walk and to eat here. Before he only took a bottle.
Here the parents begin to identify with us. We tell them how well their children are doing.
When we did the presentation for the Day of Migrants they did not expect us to do what we did. Out presentation was one of the best. They paid us 100 quetzales (about $15). We bought pizza and got wet in the rain. I got wet too. It is important that the children feel that you are one of them. When I was a child I wanted a bicycle and my parents could not afford it. We are from the same conditions.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the Romeritos?
The idea came up in the cold of November to go out into the streets to visit the children. We wanted to celebrate something with Padre Aldo and Padre Mario from the Escalibrini Mission from Brazil. We decided that a mass would not be the most appropriate thing for the park and it would be better to talk about the birth of Jesus, the real Jesus who suffered. That is how the idea started.
That is when Meggan came. She was the first volunteer and she started in the streets. She is also the only compañera who has gone out to the rural areas in the name of Los Romeritos. We have received about 25 volunteers but she is the one who really identified with the project. She called me from Africa when she was there. She impressed me because she had everything; she came from the first world-but she was motivated by ideas, by giving-leaving her country and her bed.
After that came Meggan’s Brigade and the contradiction. Her death gave a push to the project. We met Larry Monk. Sometimes you think that pastors are square but there are religious people who know about the construction of a more just society and are looking for how to do it.
We aren’t a religious project. We respect everyone who shares a desire to follow the real universal Jesus. Through Larry we have met a lot of caring people. He has brought people, and youth. The seed Meggan planted has sprouted and grown and other people have come. If it had not been for Meggan . . . .
The Spanish came through their solidarity committees named for Romero. Some went to the Line looking for us and the people there sent them here. We have also had a lot of press. One article, The Children of the Line, won a prize for the Prensa Libre.
What would you like to say to the Amigos de Los Romeritos?
We want to thank them. The act of coming here gives us strength in these difficult times just to know that people out there are thinking about us. This coming year we are going to work better. We are dedicated to Meggan. She is a symbol for us, the First. We always talk about her. She wanted to work in radio theatre but there isn’t any-maybe we can do what she wanted.
We want to thank the people who have come in solidarity with us. We are a small project with limitations but people have come here that have not come to bigger projects. Who would have thought that the Queen of Spain would come here. The Clowns without Borders also came but their humor was different and the children didn’t laugh much.
We have children with memory problems, for lack of nutrition. There are also speech problems. You have to include everyone without lowering their self-esteem. For example the one who couldn’t talk could dance with the big puppets. Children believe in puppets.
Once they invited me to a puppet workshop that Bancafe sponsored. People came from Mexico to do it. We made a commercial for Bancafe and they paid us 2000 quetzales. You would never imagine that I would do fumigation but I went to the Health Ministry and they taught me. We even had to do a military school. Once I was offered food for the children from a restaurant in Zona 10 (the rich area) but it turned out to be the leftovers from people plates, food that had been touched. I didn’t go back. Now they are offering a class in plumbing and I am going to see.
The problem is not to give up. We have to discover what each person is capable of. For example one person learned how to make candles to sell at the churches.
Here there are three of us. One doesn’t always come. We do everything, go to the market, cook. We take turns. It’s intense, being with the children. We bathe them when they have wet themselves. Sometimes they are afraid to get up and go to the bathroom. We give them vitamins. When they ask for a quetzal to buy something in the school we understand what they want and we give it to them. We made a store in here so they could buy something more nutritious because what they want is to buy.
One mom makes 100 quetzales a week (about $15). You need at least 50 quetzales a day to feed a family of five. That is not enough.
The children like to come here. Sometimes it is the only place that they are treated right.