Child labor and Chanukah in Chiapas, Mexico
Eight years ago, my husband and I planned a sabbatical-like trip to Mexico. We are finally taking this trip and are currently living in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico with a three-and-half-year-old and a two-month old baby.
San Cristobal is a two-economy town, the Indigenous economy and the Expat economy. On our first day here, a boy about eight years old, approached us in the main plaza.
“No, gracias,” I told him, after he offered to sell me something, a phrase my daughter ended up repeating after continuous solicitations to buy textiles, jewelry, and toys.
My daughter’s main concern was that this boy was by himself, as I have stressed so many times to her that children are not allowed to run off by themselves. My daughter knows it is very important that she stays with me and doesn’t run ahead.
“Well,” I explained, “that boy is older than you, and San Cristobal is different than Brooklyn. It’s a smaller place where children, who are a little older, can be by themselves…”
“But what was he asking us?”
I continued: “He was trying to sell us something.”
“So he could earn money. You see, some children here in San Cristobal have to work so they can make money for their families.” I clarified: “Children shouldn’t have to work. It’s very unfair and sad—but sometimes they have to so that their families can buy enough food to eat.”
I do not tend to think of my daughter as a spoiled brat, but the next day, she was loudly whining for ice cream just as we passed two children (not much older than her) selling bracelets and other crafts—and it made the description momentarily appropriate.
I sat with her on a bench, held her close, and spoke softly: “Whining is never going to get you ice cream. And, remember the little boy we saw yesterday who was working? Some children have to work just to have enough money to eat anything—and they never get ice cream. It’s a privilege to get to eat ice cream. So we don’t scream and whine about wanting ice cream.”
I am Jewish and with Chanukah quickly approaching, we bought some play dough to create a make-shift menorah for the candles I had brought from New York. My daughter remembered the Chanukah song from the previous year and also remembered that we don’t blow out the Chanukah candles. But she didn’t remember the story of Chanukah—so I told my version which uses this celebration as a chance to think about people who don’t have their basic needs met:
“A long time ago there were people who were Jewish like us who didn’t have enough oil to light their candles. And it was very important to them to light the candles in their temple. But they only had enough oil to light the candles for one day. So they lit the candles for one day—but the oil ended up lasting eight whole days. That is why we light candles for eight days and remember the miracle of Chanukah…and there are still people today who don’t have the things they need. Do you know anyone who doesn’t have what they need today?”
“Like the boy on the street who was selling things,” she connected back to the day before.
“What did he need?” I asked.
“Things like food,” my daughter shared.
“Exactly,” I told her. “So on Chanukah we can also think about the people who don’t have the things that are important to them or the things they need. And we can think about what we can do to help them.”
“Maybe we can buy something from him,” my daughter offered. “Or maybe we can give him some coins even if we don’t want to buy something.”
“Sure, we can do that,” I responded. “And maybe we can also ask our new friend Ilana about what else we can do to help.” (Ilana is a friend of a friend who lives in Chiapas and works with the indigenous communities here).
Would you like to join my daugther and I in learning about the needs of indigenous communities with your children? Consider taking action to support this work by CONTACTING ME (as the project’s website is still in construction), and I will send you information about how to support.
Also consider using Rethinking School’s curriculum about Lewis Hines’ photographs of child labor in the United States as a jumping off point for these conversations with upper-elementary aged students.
Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in Brooklyn. Sachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.