Most of the 90 children who live in the garbage dump 20 minutes outside the city of Cuernavaca, Mexico were born there. A few years back, every single one of these children helped the rest of their families scavenge through the trash for sellable recyclables, but these days the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos orphanage in town dispatches buses every morning to gather the children and bring them back to town for showers, food, and study. At first, the children's families refused the orphanage's outreach -- after all, it would mean 180 fewer hands sorting through the 900 tons of trash trucked to this landfill each day. But soon, the parents realized that a daily dose of free food, hot water, and education was too good a gift to deny their children. Besides, there would still be plenty of trash to sort through each afternoon, when the children returned from class. Working alongside their parents (some of whom were also born in this same landfill) and at times their grandparents (many of whom still able-bodied enough to shoulder a heavy sack of trash). A handful of these children represent the third generation of trash scavenger born into their family's hardscrabble existence.
By hand and with two-pronged rakes custom crafted from flattened pipes and sharpened rebar, they dig through the stinking, fly-infested mounds, scouting for glass, rags, various metals (especially copper), plastic of any thickness and color, wood, cardboard, animal bones (which are sold to gelatin and bouillon-cube manufacturers), any electrical appliance in any condition, and, if it's fresh or even semifresh, food. They sell everything recyclable to buyers who pay market price, which fluctuates. On a good day, an entire family can earn about 50 pesos, roughly five US dollars -- slightly more than the minimum wage one average working stiff earns in town hanging telephone line. On a daily basis, the dump's pepenadores, as they are called, stuff their scavenge sacks full, heft them over a shoulder, haul them to the edge of the action, and dump them among the day's catch. There, other family members sort it into piles and wait for the buyers under tattered beach umbrellas and teetering lean-tos thrown together from lashed lengths of broken broom sticks, stained bed sheets, and small shards of brittle, sun-withered tarpaulin.
Many of the 50 or 60 families live in the dump year round. Others scavenge seasonally. Some rotate between the dozens of dumps that dot central Mexico. There's no running water. No bathrooms. Shelter is makeshift, but if it's well-built it should withstand a good many of the torrential downpours and subsequent mud slides that frequent the region during summer months. Electricity is available, but expensive. If a family wants power, it must pay for the long length of cable to connect them to the grid that runs along the poles paralleling the freeway nearly a quarter of a mile down the mountain. Some families, when times are good, pool their pesos to buy bricks and cement for the tiny chapel that sits unfinished at the end of a muddy foot path cut from the tropical slopes along the southern edge of the dump.
The restaurant in the Cuernavaca dump was full the day I toured the landfill with a 15-head group of students from a Spanish-language school in town. We had arrived via tour bus just in time for the mid-afternoon comida. A dozen pepenadores -- including three waving children, who sent shy, delighted smiles our way -- were gathered in the tight patch of shade thrown down by the restaurant's burlap sack roof. It had no walls. Benches had been crafted from splintered lengths of lumber propped on battered automobile rims. A very stout woman flipped corn tortillas on a square of thin metal that could very well have been a legitimate wood-flame skillet but was so coated with black grease and so warped from constant heating and cooling that I couldn't tell for sure. A half-kilo pile of meat of some make, cooked and diced, covered one lukewarm corner of the hot plate. I had no way of knowing, without asking, whether her tortilla-flipping hand had been put to use earlier that day to paw through piles of fresh trash. I didn't ask. Besides, I wasn't hungry. And if I had been, I doubt I would have ordered a taco from this stand. (After more than three months in Mexico, my stomach had grown an iron lining, I was certain, and I had already wolfed and chugged liters of food and drink from the greasiest of backstreet spoons without medical repercussions. But this taco stand, I had a hunch, would be a test of my constitution that I would surely fail.) If they opted not to eat at the restaurant, pepenadores could purchase food and drinking water and bottles of Coke and beer from the buyers.
The only reason I got to see the restaurant up close is because I insisted that we be allowed to get off the bus and explore. When we first drove into the dump, the bus driver said he would allow us outside, so long as we didn't stick our cameras in the pepenadores' faces, or give them anything, especially money. Then a blind-drunk pepenador built like a fire hydrant approached the bus and stared at us through glazed eyes. For about five minutes he anchored himself directly outside the door, waiting for it to open, as, inside, we listened to one of the dump's employees explain that there was no hierarchy of scavengers, no pickers union, and no rent for families who lived onsite who promised to sell their salvaged items to certain buyers.
The drunk young man outside unsettled many on board the bus; they quickly changed their minds about disembarking. Sensing their fear, our tour guide became uneasy with the idea of letting people off. But he was soon swayed by my insistence. He gave us ten minutes. So after we drove slowly to another section of the dump and parked (leaving behind the belligerent one, who had lost interest, anyway, and wandered back to his drinking buddies) I got off. Eight others followed. We stared at pepenadores and their world, an entire community -- with waving children, town drunks, a chapel, and a taco stand -- sculpted from the refuse of 100,000 Cuernavacans. They stared at us, the clothes on our backs probably worth more than an entire family makes all year. Even the pounding Mexican sun failed to break the ice.
While some students mingled and smoked next to the bus and others moved closer to a massive 14-wheeled truck poised to dump a ripe load, I climbed a short eroding hill to a slapdash lean-to and asked a few fellows hunkered down in the shade about life in the landfill. None of them, they shook their heads, had ever unearthed something extremely valuable, like a diamond ring or a slick pair of Italian leather dress shoes. One guy said he found a live puppy once and raised it with the rest. He pointed up the hill to a pack of dump dogs chasing each other and dodging a bulldozer across a freshly flattened patch of trash and dirt. I asked about hierarchy, pointing to an organized line of pepenadores waiting their turn to exploit a just-dumped pile. "Nope, no preferences," one man replied. "Here we are all equals." The patient line of pickers, he added, was just a function of courtesy. Yes, he said, sometimes people get hurt (sprained ankles from unsteady terrain, wrenched backs from hauling heavy scavenge sacks) but, he added, that's true in any kind of hard labor job. I later learned that volunteer doctors occasionally swing by the dump to treat injuries and to vaccinate Cuernavaca's pepenadores and their children against tetanus, tuberculoses, and hepatitis.
Sounding the horn, the bus driver announced that our ten minutes was up. Our group slowly made its way back to the bus as many of the pepenadores paused briefly from their work to look upon us one last time. Once inside, we took our seats and looked out at them one last time. The bus's big windows were designed to facilitate such sight seeing. But strangely, I felt like we were the spectacle.
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