Tourist season is here once again in our little adopted Mexican city of Guanajuato. We are asked often if we’ve ever regretted moving here two years ago. The answer is always a resounding no!
But, to be perfectly honest, there is something about the culture that still bothers us and is still very much of a struggle for us. I am referring to beggars.
Begging or panhandling is certainly nothing unique. You see it everywhere. I can recall visiting friends in El Paso, Texas, which has scores of beggars (adults) standing in the middle of intersections begging from the cars caught at the red lights.
My friend, Mark, did not give money but would give them a package of breakfast bars and a small gospel tract. One young woman, who literally did a dance and then demanded money for it, told my friend that she only accepted cash and not food. This was in good ole America.
In Mexico, there are the genuinely poor beggars and then there are the organized beggars.
The poor beggars are those who seem to be genuinely poor and without any means to feed themselves. Their attire, their body odor, and their behavior all lead one to believe they are without the means for self-support.
However, one still must look with a critical eye even at those who give the appearance of poverty. This is where I struggle the most and especially with the little kids. Not all is as it seems.
There is evidence that some of the apparently poor are members of intricately organized begging groups or cults. They dress poorly, have a certain routine they employ with each of their “marks”, and play the game they are taught.
I’ve checked with three sources to verify this. One was when we were in Spanish language school where the teachers warned us about this group. The second source was my attorney here in Guanajuato. The third was a local newspaper article, from last year, with an investigation of one of these groups from the Chiapas region.
They take little children and force them to sell little pieces of gum on the street. They are taught what to do if a tourist refuses them. They go into a crying routine or will feign illness to garner the sympathy of their gringo victims. Our observation is that it works-a lot-with American tourists.
These children are NOT being educated but rather are forced to walk the streets to earn a certain quota before their pimp picks them up at the end of the day. It is tragic. It is sad. You don’t always know how to tell who are the “real” starving children and who are the little racketeers of this scam.
I struggle with the fact that buying their little pieces of gum or giving them money (which if you refuse the gum they will hold out their hands and demand cash) is reinforcing a destructive and ultimately go-nowhere behavior. Plus, I don’t know who their “caretaker-pimp” is nor what they do with the money the child has earned that day.
I’ve seen some remarkably dramatic begging acts here in Guanajuato resulting in the beggar taking the money they managed to score and buy cigarettes or head off to the nearest cantina. Amazingly, I saw an old shriveled up hobbit-of-a-woman beg pesos and then buy herself a pack of Winston’s and smoke them not ten feet away from the gringo tourists from whom she scored the cash.
So what does one do? Do you give them some money and then hope for the best?
What we do is offer food instead of giving money. We have found by empirical observation and personal experience that those who tell you no to a bite to eat and instead demand money are probably the ones you should refuse to help. Those who will accept food are perhaps the genuinely hungry.
It is difficult but this is a method which works best for us.