It’s one of society’s most painful realities – children living hand to mouth on the streets, often the victims of abuse, abandonment, or being orphaned.
In the Dominican Republic, some of the children are so undernourished and abandoned that they purchase a gallon of glue a month in order to get high and forget their troubles.
Former Union City resident Mercedes Jimenez-Ramirez chose to give a face to some of these children in her first documentary, entitled Palomos:Hijos de la Calle (“Pigeons: Children of the Street.”)
A little boy named Alfredito Immigrating from Cuba, Jimenez-Ramirez settled in Long Island before moving to North Jersey, where there is a large population of Hispanic immigrants in the Hudson area.
“Behind this documentary I was able to give a face and voice to those children,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “A lot of these kids are orphaned or have been abandoned by their parents, and feel they will find solace in the streets.”
Jimenez-Ramirez now lives in Bergen County with her husband Jessie Ramirez, and works as a freelance writer for Spanish community newspapers.
On a trip to her husband’s homeland of the Dominican Republic, Jimenez-Ramirez befriended a young boy named Alfredito who was working as a shoe shiner in the resort area of the province of Boca Chica.
“[He] was about 10 to 12 years old at the time,” Jimenez-Ramirez said. “He was a shoe shiner, and ironically he did not own a pair of shoes.”
Jimenez-Ramirez began to speak to the little boy, who told her that he would get up at 6 a.m. every morning to walk to Boca Chica so he could [financially] help his mother and six brothers.
In impoverished countries, children often go to work at a very early age to help support the family. Some children will walk barefoot for 10 miles to these tourist locations to find work.
Jimenez-Ramirez wanted to tell the story of Alfredito and other children like him.
Using glue Personally funding the independent project, Jimenez-Ramirez and her husband returned to the Dominican Republic and began production in 2003, but could not find Alfredito, so they went on to other tourist locations that had many boys and girls wandering the streets. However, what they ended up discovering was a lot darker.
Jimenez-Ramirez went to a place called Parque Enriguillo, where she found a small group of kids without shoes, and sniffing inhalants.
“They call those kids palomos [pigeons] because they are very similar to pigeons,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “But when I learned about their lives, and that they use glue to get high, I thought I have to make a documentary about these kids.”
Palomos are the modern day equivalent of street urchins. Homeless boys and girls that wander the streets, at times working for small wages only to purchase inhalants – mainly glue – because it is cheap and a quick high.
“The faces of these kids in the Dominican Republic are the faces of over 40 million kids all over Latin America, and about 20 million of these kids each consume one gallon of glue a month,” said Jimenez-Ramirez.
Upon returning to the U.S., Jimenez began her research about these lost children of society, and learned that many of these children become victims of sexual abuse on the streets, or are kidnapped in human trafficking rings, ending up in the United States and other locations for the purposes of labor or sexual enslavement.
If they do make it to adulthood, many perpetuate the cycle of abuse and poverty.
“Unless they get early intervention, they end up in the jail system with adults, where they get used again,” said Jimenez-Ramirez.
Befriending palomos At first, Jimenez-Ramirez had a difficult time to get some of the kids to open up.
“They don’t trust people after being abused by the system,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “You can’t even have a dialogue with some of them.”
However, she was able to befriend one of the oldest children in the group, a 14-year-old boy named Andres. “He was the most vocal,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “He was an orphan and utilized the glue to forget his pain and hunger.”
Andres’ mother had worked as a prostitute to maintain her son, and was killed during one of her excursions.
One of the youngest kids she interviewed for the documentary was between the ages of 9 and 10 years old, who had been consuming most of the glue among the group.
“I asked him ‘why did you leave your family,’ ” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “He said ‘because I was hungry.”
Some of these kids prefer the chances of finding food wandering the streets than to endure assured starvation at home. Young girls even turn to prostitution just to survive. Some become dependent on inhalants to deal with their harsh realities.
Sometimes, they are not only abused by adults for sex, but a lot of the adults supply the glue.
“It was a very difficult piece to do; it was so dark and gritty,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “Your realize that at no time did they ask for money or shoes; they just wanted a mom, a home and help.”
Raising awareness The documentary premiered in December at the 2004 International Festival of Nuevo Cine Latinoamericanos in Havana, Cuba. Since then, Palomos has appeared in over 35 national and international film festivals, receiving awards and critical acclaim. But that was not the end of Jimenez-Ramirez crusade.
Over the last two years, she has been working closely with worldwide groups like UNICEF, which in 2004 made Palomos part of their permanent film archives, to raise public awareness of this problem, As a matter of fact, Jimenez-Ramirez’s documentary has helped in changing the laws of Boca Chica. “We gave a copy of the documentary to the president and first lady of the Dominican Republic, and since then they have made changes and passed laws. But what good is a law if not enforced,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “The development we would like to see is a long-term commitment.”
Jimenez-Ramirez has continued to advocate for education reform for these street kids such as technical skills, birth control, and parenthood education. She also wants to see an increase in aid to current existing programs trying to help these kids through private entities and individual governments.
“I see those kids that have been incapacitated by society; their future is bleak and non-existent,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “It takes a powerful influence from places like the United States or Europe and the United Nations. Then we will see change in Latin America.”
In June, Jimenez-Ramirez was recognized as one of the 80 most elite Latina women of 2005 by Hispanic Business Magazine at their awards ceremony held at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas Nevada.
Jimenez-Ramirez was recognized for her documentary “Palomos:Hijos de la Calle” and for her humanitarian work as an advocate for children’s rights not only in the Dominican Republic, but across the Caribbean and Latin America.
“To tell the stories of these kids was a powerful and impacting experience,” said Jimenez-Ramirez. “Film is long-lasting, and there is nothing more impacting than an image.”
Filmmaker Mercedes Jimenez-Ramirez’s documentary “Palomos: Hijos de la Calle” will next be screened at the Five Corners Public Library in Jersey City on Feb. 22.