Conquerors of the street: Child laborers work for survival

Offit, Courtesy Photo
Offit | Courtesy Photo
Offit | Courtesy Photo

By Rae Jefferson
Staff Writer

Dr. Tom Offit, a cultural anthropologist and an associate professor at Baylor, has made waves in the anthropological community with his research of child labor in Guatemala City.

Offit specializes in ethnography, or long-term study of an individual culture, which he called “the bread and butter of anthropology,” and published his findings in “Conquistadores de la Calle.”

Q: What kinds of ethnographic, or long-term, studies have you conducted?
A: I studied child street-laborers in Guatemala City for two years. Anthropology differs from sociology and psychology in that we go to where our subjects are. We live where they do. We learn their language. As much as we possibly can, we try to live their lives as they do.

Q: What are some limitations that arise when doing this?
A: Obviously, in my case, there are some limitations. I couldn’t be a child. I couldn’t live in that type of poverty knowing I was coming back to the States to my house and my family. I couldn’t actually be a poor child-laborer, but I ate where they ate and I spent time on the streets with them in the environments where they felt most familiar.

Q: What interested you in Guatemalan child labor?
A: First off, child laborers were the first Guatemalans I ever interacted with. As an undergrad I got a scholarship to do research there. When you get off the airplane you’re immediately surrounded by young kids who want to sell you something or carry your bags. During my first few days in the capital city, I was just inundated by young kids who were selling things and offering services.
Secondly, my own grandfather had gone to school until second grade and then became a child laborer himself. It was something in our culture that was just commonplace. Here it’s something that is still ubiquitous. Literally, street-workers are almost the first thing you encounter when you visit any city of the global south.

Q: What are some misconceptions associated with child labor in other countries?
A: When I started studying, there was a lot of news about the idea of street children – homeless kids who were drug-addicted and raising themselves. The U.N. released a number that there were 40 million street children, which would’ve meant something like one of out every 18 children was homeless, living without any parents, largely drug addicted and on the streets.
While it soon became very clear there was a large number of kids not in school who were on the streets working, very few were homeless or alienated from their families. Most of them were hardworking kids who were supporting their families.

Q: What were your findings?
A: The primary finding was that working on the street which seemed like the worst type of job because you were unprotected and could seemingly fall prey to adults or gang violence was actually the best type of job a child could have. It provided the greatest income levels, the most freedom at work, the most freedom from abuse, and they also gained a specific set of skills: connection with adults and knowledge of the street economy that many used to later migrate out of Guatemala City and into Mexico and, ultimately, the U.S.
Q: Do these findings apply to American culture in any way?
A: We have lots of child laborers, but they’re primarily locked in clandestine, hyperdangerous jobs – specifically drug sales and prostitution or the sex trade. We don’t have a viable legal alternative for poor children to work to contest their own poverty, because we believe that childhood is a time of innocence, and schooling is the only means of advancement.
Unfortunately, this says that children can’t be viable actors in their families’ economic struggles. Therefore, if they do have those roles, they’re in very illegal occupations – mostly drug sales. It further marginalizes them and their families.

Q: What can Americans do to advance children in impoverished families?
A: In order to advance an American society now, education is pretty much the primary means, if not the only mean. I certainly would not advocate a return to child labor here, but a recognition that we have to provide a greater social safety net if we aren’t going to allow poor children to work. We have to provide an education system that gives them real opportunity to achieve the higher levels of education that they need to earn a viable wage and survive in our society.

Q: What was the final conclusion of the study?
A: The big point of my research was that, in a country like Guatemala, kids who chose to work on the streets in many cases made the right choice. For a lot of these kids, their likelihood of attaining educational advancement was slim. Schools were underfunded, and there was vast racism, specifically against Maya children, and choosing the streets was an effective strategy. In the short-term they earned money, but in the long-term, in some cases, they gained what we call “the cultural capital” – the knowledge and social connections that would allow them to find better jobs than they would have in the rural hamlet where they’re from.