Saturday, 7 July 2012

San Cristobal: La Casa de las Flores

It's not unusual to come across mission sponsored schools and community programs in Mexico, but in my experience, it's unusual to find a local non-profit that is successful and addressing local needs. One such program that impressed me on my first trip (in 2011) to San Cristobal was the ReadingTrain. But as often happens, the program got usurped by greed. On my return trip, the Reading Train program consisted of two tour guide "trains" (tour buses in the shape of a locomotive) making oodles of money for the owners. The non-profit that was supposed to benefit from all that money had been reduced to a single canopy tent with a couple of chairs and maybe twenty children's books. There were no volunteers helping the children read, no small peddle 'trains' as a reward for the kids when they finished a book, and no children! It was such a sad degradation to watch. The year before, the kids were excited and had a great time riding on the little peddle cars. Now there's nothing but a fraudulent shell so the tour guides don't lose their government grants.


On the other side of the spectrum is Casa del las Flores. The brainchild of a local woman named Claudia, this non-profit gets funding for rent and her salary from a lawyer in Mexico City. Funding for one teacher's salary comes from Amigos de San Cristobal, a local coalition of foreigners and locals who raise money for worthy projects and non-profits.

Casa de las Flores is a day-home, five days a week, for children who live on the streets selling woven bracelets, stuffed toys, chewing gum, and shoe shines. Most of these indigenous kids have parents struggling to feed a large family, but some are orphans, and some are being raised by an older sibling. The children begin working at a very young age, some no older than four years old. Many of them are cute and win the hearts of foreign tourists. They may sell more than their mothers, who spend the bulk of their lives wandering the streets with textiles draped over their arms. For years at a stretch, the mothers also carry one infant after another in a reboso.

Learning to write and spell.
I first heard about Casa del las Flores from my friend Laurie, who has been coming to San Cristobal for a month or more every year. This year she and her partner Tom stayed for two and a half months. She volunteers at the center, teaching kids reading and English. Most of the children are also learning Spanish, as Tsotsil is their mother tongue. Very few, if any, have gone through the doors of a public school. Their lives revolve around their families, church, and selling on the street. For the kids, Casa del las Flores is a world of possibility, where they can learn, have genuine playtime, and practice real world skills in a safe environment.

Claudia told me, in an interview, that she originally envisioned a homelike atmosphere where there would be stable parents, rules, chores, good nutritious meals, and expectations. She is the constant "mom". For the first two years she ran the home almost single handedly, but then suffered from a medical crisis. She asked her friends for help, the word went out, and now she has more volunteers than she can use. Some of the volunteers are men who gladly fill the role of dad. About half the volunteers are foreigners who serve for short periods of time while others live year round in San Cristobal. The other half are local Mexicans. Claudia's role has changed thanks to all the volunteers and extra help. The vision for the center has enlarged to include training in sales, computer skills, and business.
Watering the plants in the rooftop organic garden

Recently, the front part of the home, with large doors that open to the street, has been turned into a store. On one side used clothing, toys, and household items are sold, on the other side they sell fruits and vegetables. The children came up with the idea of the store. They buy produce from a mayoreo (wholesale grocer) and sell organic vegetables they grow on the roof. The kids work in teams. The team running the store each week gets a salary which is probably better than they would make selling trinkets on the street. They learn math and business skills, and how to interact successfully with customers. Other children cut up produce for packaged fruit salads (topped with chile) that are popular all over Mexico.

Collapsed bathroom
Casa del las Flores offers showers two days a week. The center is housed in an older home with a small kitchen and one bathroom. The other rooms of the house serve as a library, computer center, classrooms, and a large play room filled with toys. There are two decrepit bathrooms in the far back of the property. The roof on one has caved in and the other has no door or running water. Claudia estimated about $10,000 pesos could bring both up to working order, but the need for money to buy food is more pressing. The school serves lunch for up to thirty children every day. They can plan the food quantities on a daily basis. It's easy to get a head count, the kids must do one hour of class and a chore before they can eat lunch. Keeping enough food in stock for the demand is a bigger challenge. Most of the food supplies are donated by local people and businesses but still, a lot has to be purchased. Feeding the kids is Claudia's biggest worry.

The school is home to two cats who serve a unique purpose. Most indigenous people have no use for an animal that does not provide food, wool, or work. Dogs and cats are often treated very badly. The children have no experience with a pet. They have no idea how to treat an animal with affection, or get animal affection in return. Most of the children have never been cuddled and have no idea how to pet an animal. Learning to love and take care of another living being is great training for getting along well in life, and it dovetails into Claudia's secret purpose for Casa de las Flores: to change Mexican culture.

There are flexible rules for the children about working, studying, and doing chores before they can eat lunch, but there are only two house rules: No drugs, and all must show respect for women and girls.
Everyone has some chores

The kids are allowed to come in off the streets if they are high (inhaling solvents is a big problem) but they are not allowed to bring drugs inside. If they do, they are permanently banned. They must also show respect for women and girls and that's a much tougher rule to enforce because it goes against the grain of so much Mexican culture. The kids have to be taught what respect is, what words and actions are not allowed. The girls must be taught to respect themselves, to stand up and not allow others to treat them badly. Claudia told me it was a lot easier to ban drugs.

Each child coming in the door for the first time must be trained. They need to learn about honesty, social skills, what is expected of them, and the rules. Sometimes a child never comes back. Some return once a week, or once a month. The time spent at Casa de las Flores is time they are not out selling their wares. Women and children are often punished with beatings if they don't come home with a certain amount of money. About 40 children show up regularly. An average of twenty kids a day are fed and taught. No paperwork is kept as that would create a "government agency" atmosphere, and Claudia would lose the trust of the children. She has no statistics on how many of them are truly homeless, how many have families, or what their family circumstances are, though she has a pretty good idea from talking with them.

I have a feeling that Casa de las Flores will still be in operation, and probably with spin-offs by the time I return to San Cristobal. Claudia's integrity will see to that.

For more information about the school, and if you'd like to make a donation, the website for Casa de las Flores is:

Two girls on the roof watching the antics of the other
children in the house's patio. 

The school's library and
computing center, housed in
the old living room

Three girls in charge of the lunch dishes

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