Jodi and Harold Bauman founded Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots in 1996. The couple came to Oaxaca on vacation in 1984 and were deeply troubled by the children they saw on the streets at all hours of the day and night. Initially, they began to help one Triqui indigenous family enroll their children in school. By 1996, Jodi, Harold, and friends were supporting approximately seventy children in attending school. They soon realized they could help further by chartering Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots.
Since then, we have grown and evolved. In the early days, all children in the program were Triqui and we provided our services from a rented office on Calle Jesus Carranza. As the program grew, changes occurred. To facilitate our work in Mexico we chartered Centro de Esperanza Infantil, which does the work on-site in Oaxaca, with Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots being its funding organization. We also looked for a permanent home in Oaxaca. Through the generosity of our donors from around the world, we were able to purchase a colonial building in need of repair at Calle Crespon 308. After two years of work we moved into the wonderful building that you see today.
Our mission has also evolved. Originally, none of the children we served had ever attended school and our goal was that they complete sixth grade. We now serve the poorest children who need support to remain in and complete school. Further, we now take students all the way through university, something we never dreamed of when we started our program. Spring 2020 will see our one hundredth university graduate.
Much has changed since our origins. Now, more than 25 years later, hundreds of Oaxaca's poorest children have had the opportunity they never dreamed of with the help of Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots -- the chance for the education they desire and a bright future.
Jodi Bauman first saw Rubén de Jesús in 1985. He was sitting in an outdoor cafe in the zócalo in Oaxaca, Mexico, the city’s tree shaded central plaza. Rubén was shabbily dressed child and about 8 years old, was going from table to table selling handwoven indigenous friendship bracelets to tourists. His pleading face, peppered with impetigo sores, captured Jodi’s heart and her curiosity. Where did he live? Where was his mother? Why was this tiny boy selling on the street? Was he a Triqui?
That evening Jodi followed the Rubén and saw him join a woman and three other small boys. The family home was a shallow, gravelly ditch hidden by weeds. She knew she couldn’t help all the street children in Oaxaca, but that night she decided she would do what she could for one child.
Jodi and her husband Harold, who providers and vendors for the Department of Mental Health in Missouri, were in Oaxaca because she had a read a magazine story about the Triqui, an indigenous people of Oaxaca, and wanted to visit this colonial city. The article said little was known about the Triqui, who live in the northwest part of the state of Oaxaca. The people, geographically and culturally isolated, work small plots of land in pueblos scattered among rugged mountains and canyons.
Helping the child wasn’t as easy as Jodi has thought. “I was trained in medication administration”, Jodi said, “so I went to a pharmacy and bought an ointment recommended by the pharmacy for Rubén’s impetigo. However, the mother wouldn’t talk to me or let me anywhere near the child and she wouldn’t take the medication. I didn’t realize why she wouldn’t talk to me. Back then, I didn’t know these women couldn’t speak Spanish.”
Determined to bridge the cultural gap, returned to the zócalo and sat under one of the large laurel trees blowing bubbles from a toy. A light-haired women blowing bubbles was too much of a curiosity for the Triquis to ignore. This time Rubén’s mother accepted the medicine.
It took three more years for the Bauman’s to become accepted in the Triqui community. During that time, Jodi and Harold visited Oaxaca every six weeks. On each trip, they purchased more handcrafted items, which they sold at weekend trade shows in the states. People they knew in Branson, Mo., helped promote the sale of the handicrafts. The Baumans reinvested the profits until they had as much as $4,000 to spend each trip. “It was a way for me to get some money into their hands,” Jodi said.
In Mexico, the Baumans helped some of the children enroll in school. “But first, we needed to remove some of the physical barriers that kept these children from school,” Jodi said. “And that included medical barriers such as impetigo, diarrhea, impacted teeth, and in some cases, we had to get them a birth certificate. In the beginning, the school officials didn’t want to accept the children. They’d say, ‘They don’t have any shoes, they can’t speak Spanish, who’s going to be responsible for them?’”
Harold and Jodi signed responsibility for some. They found other Triquis willing to provide them shelter. Sometimes the Baumans rented tin shacks where several families crowded twelve to fifteen people into a room. Within three years, they were helping 40 children through the sale of Triqui crafts and donations from friends. By 1994, the Baumans were helping 70 children. Three years later, Harold got cancer and the couple had to stop selling Triqui crafts at trade shows. They moved to Oaxaca. “One of our friends, Dr. William Freeman, knew what we were doing and just bluntly told me that we couldn’t let these children drop out of school.” Jodi said. “That’s how Grassroots started.”
Friends of the Baumans, David and Bettie Schuler, did the paperwork to form a non-profit organization called Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots, Inc. David Schuler became the first president of the organization. The next year, because of an increase in political violence, the number of children needing help increased to 140. At that time Grassroots, served almost 200 children. Volunteer “sponsored a child” by donating either $50 for an elementary school child or $100 for a teenage child. The money was used for shoes, uniforms, and books so the children.
“Grassroots is primarily concerned with education,” Jodi said. “Our main focus is to get the children into school. We get involved in medical help only to remove the barriers that prevent them from going to school. These aren’t illegitimate children or runaways and they aren’t on drugs. These children are victims of political violence. They are here because it is not safe to be in their pueblos (in the area of San Juan Copala). “It’s a violent situation, sort of like our wild west era where the gun ruled. Some parents stay behind to protect their little adobe home and garden and send the children alone to the city.”
In the Triqui part of the Mixteca political violence and, and still is, a fact of life. “The children are innocent victims” said Jodi. “When a child runs into your arms crying because they killed his father, it may not be reported in the press, but it’s so very real to us. Our organization has to stay completely removed from politics, but half of our children have lost a parent, usually a father, through assassination. Our children and their parents are not connected with any political party, we’re not furnishing arms or taking sides, so it’s easy for us to stay out of it. We are an educational program for the children who are forced to live on the streets of Oaxaca. That’s all we are.”
The name Triqui, Jodi said, comes from the word driqui in the Triqui dialect which means god or sir. The Triqui referred to the Spaniards as driqui. The Triqui, because of language barriers, geographical isolation, and adherence to traditional customs, are one of the least known ethnic minorities in southern Mexico. Their territory, hours by second-class bus from the city of Oaxaca, is an irregular 100-square-mile territory that includes scattered, small agricultural communities. The area is divided in two regions: the lower known as Copala, and the upper called Chicahuaxtla. The Oaxacan street children come from around San Juan Copala.
“The Triquis are one of the very few indigenous tribes who have not lost their cultural identity” Jodi said. “They continue on with their religion, language and crafts. One of the goals of Oaxaca Street Children Grassroots is to help them maintain these parts of their culture. We don’t try to change their religion or beliefs.”
Wearing traditional hand-woven red huipiles, Triqui women can be seen on the sidewalks and in the markets of Oaxaca, weaving on ancient back-strap looms. Children, when not in school, sell the products in the markets and in the zócalo.
“Grassroots isn’t a welfare system” said Jodi. “We’re not giving a handout. We merely want to help them get an education so they can help themselves.”
Rather than focus on the hopelessness of the situation, Jodi talks about the successes, and there are hundreds of them.
“There was one child burned by hot oil in the market. He couldn’t speak.” she said. “He kept his face against a church doorway. He was traumatized. He didn’t have a mother here. He didn’t have a father, so we found the child a grandmother. Then Grassroots found the child a sponsor and today he is in school and he speaks. He is a normal little boy.”
The father of another 16-year-old boy was assassinated and his mother suffered from depression. The teenager was the sole supporter of his four brothers and sisters. Grassroots arranged to get him into an open school program, so he could study on the street corner while selling his crafts and attend school only to take his exams. “He jumped from third grade to six grade in 15 months,” Jodi said.
Jodi’s favorite stories were about the children she saw that first day in the zócalo, Rúben and his three brothers. At the time of this interview, they still lived on a dirt floor in a tin shack with 15 other children, cared for by a Triqui foster father. Mario was studying architecture. Hilemigeldo won a scholarship to law school Rúben had completed computer school was a volunteer in the Grassroots office.
At a Grassroots meeting, Rubén described what Grassroots had done for him and his community. “We can think for ourselves. We can plan for ourselves, given the opportunity,” he said.
The Triqui are one of Oaxaca’s sixteen registered indigenous communities, the descendants of the region’s pre-Hispanic population. Several of these cultures have roots extended to 2000 B.C.
Studies put the Triqui population at about 23,000 people and their home villages are located in the part of the state of Oaxaca known as the Mixteca Baja, a mountainous are where the much of the population practices subsistence agriculture. It is the poorest region in Oaxaca with an average salary of less than $5.
Many Triquis, like the state other indigenous peoples, migrate to the city of Oaxaca to work as day laborers or ambulantes – street sellers.