I am a very curious person by nature. Perhaps that is why I find my summers as a volunteer at a children’s shelter in Quito so interesting because each summer I learn another unexpected detail of the culture.
Coming from the United States, I never thought much about children being unregistered as citizens. In the United States children are born in hospitals and paperwork for birth certificates are filled out at that time. This is not the case in Ecuador where many children are born at home. In these circumstances the parents must take their children to the city registrar to log them into the archives. For many children this doesn’t happen. Unable to go to school, they become trapped in poverty with no chance of a bright future.
Last summer my work with Margoth Enriquez, a government social worker with whom I regularly work, took me to a poor section of north Quito called Llano Chico to register one such child so he could enroll in school in September. Clever (a popular Ecuadorian name for boys) was one of five children born to an alcoholic mother, four of whom are now living with their 85-year old grandmother. She washes clothes by hand to earn money in order to feed the children and does the best she can to be a loving caretaker and provide them with a home. The oldest granddaughter, 15- year old Doris, works for $2 a day as a domestic helper to contribute as well. Doris has never had the opportunity to go to school. The smaller children had been in the shelter for a year before they were placed with the grandmother. Margoth had previously registered them. Eight-year old Clever, however, had always lived with his grandmother and never had the opportunity to be registered or go to school.
When we arrived at the house, Clever was at the washing center helping his grandmother scrub clothes on a stone slab. He was shy and timid. His life thus far had never been encompassed much beyond the walls of his home. Margoth explained to the grandmother that we were taking to her and Clever to the registrar in order to get him logged into the archives as well as enroll him in school. She got on her slippers and hat and we piled into the government vehicle to ride to the registrar’s office.
Margoth, Clever and his grandmother, and I entered a small office with a desk and a few chairs. The registrar was an amiable man willing to let the grandmother register him despite the fact that she wasn’t his mother. This only happened because the grandmother came with Margoth, a government worker with identification vouching for his relationship to her.
The registrar started the process by asking the boy’s name, age, and birthday. Already a problem arose. Clever needed more than a first and last name, he needed a middle name, something neither he nor his grandmother knew. Margoth said, “That’s okay. We’ll just give him one.” Then she turned to Clever and asked him what name he would like. He had no idea. I suggested my husband’s name in Spanish, José, and he thought that was good. So he became Clever José.
Then came the matter of his birthday. We were guessing he was around eight years old, but without a birth certificate or the mother we really had no idea. So his birthday became June 22nd, the day of the visit to the registrar’s office! His Grandma signed the papers with a thumbprint as she can’t read or write.
As they were finishing the registration process, I walked across the street to get Clever some juice and cookies as a celebratory gesture. Then we dropped Clever José and his grandmother off at their home. I left Margoth in charge of the money necessary to provide him with shoes, a uniform, and school supplies so he could begin his education.
There are thousands of children like Clever in Quito. Sometimes I feel like I am doing so little because there so many more children out there who need help. In these times I recite to myself a famous quote by the British writer Sydney Smith: “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.”