Jodi and Harold Bauman founded Oaxaca Streetchildren Grassroots in 1996. The couple first 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 Street Children Grassroots.
Since the origins of the program we have grown and evolved. In the early days, all children in the program were Triqui and our services were provided 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 that does the work on-site in Mexico 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 308 Crespo. After two years of work we moved into the wonderful building that you see today.
In addition to our own building, our mission has evolved as well. Originally none of our children served had ever been to school and our goal was that they complete sixth grade. As things have changed in Oaxaca, 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, over 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.
When Jodi Bauman first saw Rubén de Jesús, he was sitting in an outdoor cafe in the Zócalo in Oaxaca City, Mexico. In this city’s tree shaded central park, the shabbily dressed child, 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?
Later that evening Jodi followed the child through the back streets of Oaxaca and watched him join a woman and three 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.
The year was 1985. Jodi and her husband Harold were in Oaxaca because she had a read a fascinating magazine story about the Triqui Indians, and because she wanted to visit this colonial city in southern Mexico. The article said there was little known about the Triquis, an indigenous tribe that inhabits 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.
The next day Jodi discovered helping the child wasn’t an easy task. “I was trained in medication administration”, Jodi recalls, “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.”
At the time Harold and Jodi were providers and vendors for the Department of Mental Health in Missouri. They were also administrators of the second largest providers of services for the state’s developmentally challenged. They trained managers for 16 facilities throughout the state.
Feeling frustrated because they couldn’t help Rubén, the couple purchased $275.00 worth of beautifully handcrafted knives made by Angel Aguilar. The man wanted to help the Triqui children and split the profits with the children. He later was assassinated in 1997 while trying to help the poor people of his rural town. The sale of his products helped the children for years, as he pounded away in his blacksmith shop. The Baumans sold them in the states and returned every six weeks for the next order.
This time, determined to bridge the cultural gap, Jodi sat under one of the large laurel trees in the Zócalo blowing bubbles. This friendly, light haired woman blowing bubbles in the air was too much of a curiosity for the Triqui’s to ignore. This time Rubén’s mother accepted the medicine, but it took three more years for the Bauman’s to become accepted in the Triqui community.
During those three years, 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, Missouri, helped promote the sale of the Triqui handicrafts. The Baumans reinvested the profits from their original investment in handicrafts, until they had as much as $4,000.00 to spend each trip . This was one way to help, Jodi explained. “At least it was a way for me to get some money into their hands.”
On their trips to Mexico, the Baumans also 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 explained. “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 help provide them shelter. Sometimes the Baumans rented tin shacks where several families crowded 12-15 together into a room. Within three years, they were helping 40 children through the sale of Triqui crafts and donations from friends. By 1994, the Bauman’s were helping 70 street 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 explains. “That’s how Grassroots started.”
David Schuler and Bettie Schuler did the necessary 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 now served almost 200 children. Volunteer sponsors “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 could attend school.
“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.”
Jodi doesn’t discuss the details of the political situation that makes children and parents flee their mountain pueblos and little is written in the U.S. press about this this violence. Jodi claims that in the past ten years 300 mothers, fathers and children have been assassinated. “The children are innocent victims” she says. “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.”
In talking about the history of the Triquis, Jodi explained that during the colonial era, the Spanish heard the natives use the word “Driqui.” In their language, Driqui means god or sir, and referred to the representative of the town. The conquistadors couldn’t couldn’t speak or understand these people and therefore called the religion and the people who lived in it “Triqui.” Because of their language barrier, geographical isolation, and the tribe’s adherence to traditional customs and ways, the Triqui’s, today, are one of the least known ethnic minorities in southern Mexico.
Their territory, hours by second class bus from Oaxaca City, is an irregular territory 260 kilometers square throughout which are scattered small agricultural communities. The area is divided in two regions: a lower region known as Copala and anupper region called Chicahuaxia. The Oaxacan street children come from the region around San Juan Copala.
“The Triquis are one of the very few indigenous tribes who have not lost their cultural identity” Jodi says. “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 their traditional hand woven red huipiles, the displaced women can be seen on the sidewalks and in the markets of Oaxaca, weaving on ancient backstrap looms.Children, when not in school, help out by selling the products in the markets and in the Zocalo. Although the older women are shy and don’t speak Spanish, they are much more accustomed to foreigners and tourists than when Jodi first met them.
“Grassroots isn’t a welfare system” she says. “We’re not giving a handout. We merely want to help them get an education so they can help themselves.” “The Triquis are already giving back. When a medical center needed a water line, the Triqui fathers dug drainage ditches for 12 hours in the sun. A group of children adopted a city block, which they keep clean. As more refugees flee into the city, Triqui families often put another mat down on the dirt floor to give the newcomers a place to stay. The children who entered the school early on tutor younger children. They help the younger children with Spanish and with homework. They monitor the children in the streets for safety.
Recently two valuable volunteers have started another program. They are Mike and Jeanie Duffy from Decatur, Texas. The program is called “Food Harvest” for Oaxaca Street Children. School directors came and complained that children fainted in class, due to not having enough to eat, “sometimes people accompany me when I take food to people living in the shacks” Jodi says.” “Some of them (friends) walk away crying, saying “Jodi this is hopeless. It just isn’t going to work.” So Food Harvest is developing a learning center where the focus is on how to survive on the streets, nutrition, preventative medicine, dental care and educational opportunities for any adult in charge of a child.
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.” Jodi recalls. “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.”
She talks about another child whose father was assassinated and whose mother suffered from depression. The 16 year old boy 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.
Of course her favorite stories are about the children who first caught her attention more than 15 years ago, Ruben and his three brothers. They still live on a dirt floor in a tin shack with 15 other children, cared for by a Triqui foster father. Mario is studying to be an architect.
Hilemigeldo, won a scholarship to law school and plans to become the first Triqui volunteer lawyer. He still lives with 15 other children in a one room tin shack with a dirt floor.
Ruben has completed computer school and is a full time volunteer in the Grassroots office. In one more year, he will have his teaching degree. At a Grassroots meeting recently, Ruben summed up the displaced Triquis’ attitude. He said “We can think for ourselves. We can plan for ourselves, given the opportunity.”