The exhaust is thick between the cars, although not so noticeable in the comfort of the air conditioned Prius. Six lanes of bumper-to-bumper cars waiting to exit Tijuana, Mexico. Three lanes on this, the right side of the concrete divides, with three lanes on the other. All exiting Mexico: some from business; some from a weekend of partying; some from ministry work; us from the Casa Hogar orphanage.
Between the lanes are carts loaded with junk food, hand-made Minion statues, paintings of the Last Supper and any number of trinkets. Men walk down the aisles with cardboard boxes full of greasy homemade churros, peering through car windows for any signs of interest. One man hands ice cream cups through an open car window, in exchange for dollars, of course. Why else would anyone stand in the fumes, the heat of the sun and jeopardize their safety in the street other than for money?
My heart says, No, no, no, this isn’t right.
Out my passenger window a disabled man in a wheelchair shrinks under a hat that reads in Spanish, something like, “Give and God will multiply it unto you.” To the left of the center divide is an older man who’s sign says, “Your generosity is my salary.”
I have no cash so I’m careful not to make direct eye contact, even though my eyes are hidden behind sunglasses. A heaviness presses on my chest.
That’s when I see them. Two small boys, maybe six or seven years old, walking between the cars with a beat up 2×4 about five feet long.
“Why are they carrying a piece of wood?” I ask my husband.
Before he answers they stop half in front of our car and half in front of the car next to us. They hold each end of the board up and support it against their hips. A third boy, maybe five, appears from nowhere, climbs onto the suspended board, and juggles two plastic balls. His performance is short. Red over blue, blue over red, in a circle before him, once again and that is the end.
I can’t breath. Why are these children in the street?
The boy hops down from his make-shift stage and they quickly move down the rows of cars. As soon as the boys pass our car I see two little girls one row over. One girl gets down on her hands and knees and the smaller one stands on her back, juggling two plastic balls. Red then yellow, red then yellow.
My heart breaks as I wonder, are they doing this of their own accord? Do they want to make money to help their families? Are they forced to go out into the street and perform for money by abusive parents?
The juggling acts were not full of smiles and joy. Their faces looked panicked, full of anxiety. They’re out in the street alone, surrounded by strangers, and inhaling pollution.
The children disappear down the lines of cars. I don’t watch in the rear view mirror. I can’t.
We have just come form an orphanage where the children are nurtured and literally locked away in the safety of a compound. I wonder, who is better off? At least the ones in Casa Hogar don’t have to perform in the street.
We had brought food to the kids at Casa Hogar orphanage: rice, beans, flour, pastries and canned fruit and vegetables — nothing fresh is allowed across the border. The kids devoured their treats and rigorously colored the blank pages of Ninja Turtles and Hello Kitty coloring books. They were grateful and happy.
As happy as one can be without loving parents to give you personal attention.
I wish we could pluck each child off the street and give each one loving personal attention.
Here we sit, maybe one hundred yards from the border. One hundred yards from safety and freedom.
I turn to my husband, “If I lived here, I would do whatever it takes to get across this border. For a better life.”
With that, a new understanding swells inside my heart for these people, especially for the children.