Saturday, June 19, 2010

The myths and legends of 'street children'

There's a fascinating article in the Miami New Times about the myths invented by 'street children' in their struggle to survive. Here's an excerpt.

To homeless children sleeping on the street, neon is as comforting as a night-light. Angels love colored light too. After nightfall in downtown Miami, they nibble on the NationsBank building -- always drenched in a green, pink, or golden glow. "They eat light so they can fly," eight-year-old Andre tells the children sitting on the patio of the Salvation Army's emergency shelter on NW 38th Street. Andre explains that the angels hide in the building while they study battle maps. "There's a lot of killing going on in Miami," he says. "You want to fight, want to learn how to live, you got to learn the secret stories." The small group listens intently to these tales told by homeless children in shelters.

On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an audacious demon attack -- a celestial Tet Offensive. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell. "Demons found doors to our world," adds eight-year-old Miguel, who sits before Andre with the other children at the Salvation Army shelter. The demons' gateways from Hell include abandoned refrigerators, mirrors, Ghost Town (the nickname shelter children have for a cemetery somewhere in Dade County), and Jeep Cherokees with "black windows." The demons are nourished by dark human emotions: jealousy, hate, fear.

One demon is feared even by Satan. In Miami shelters, children know her by two names: Bloody Mary and La Llorona (the Crying Woman). She weeps blood or black tears from ghoulish empty sockets and feeds on children's terror. When a child is killed accidentally in gang crossfire or is murdered, she croons with joy. "If you wake at night and see her," a ten-year-old says softly, "her clothes be blowing back, even in a room where there is no wind. And you know she's marked you for killing."

The homeless children's chief ally is a beautiful angel they have nicknamed the Blue Lady. She has pale blue skin and lives in the ocean, but she is hobbled by a spell. "The demons made it so she only has power if you know her secret name," says Andre, whose mother has been through three rehabilitation programs for crack addiction. "If you and your friends on a corner on a street when a car comes shooting bullets and only one child yells out her true name, all will be safe. Even if bullets tearing your skin, the Blue Lady makes them fall on the ground. She can talk to us, even without her name. She says: 'Hold on.'"

A blond six-year-old with a bruise above his eye, swollen huge as a ruby egg and laced with black stitches, nods his head in affirmation. "I've seen her," he murmurs. A rustle of whispered Me toos ripples through the small circle of initiates.

. . .

Folktales are usually an inheritance from family or homeland. But what if you are a child enduring a continual, grueling, dangerous journey? No adult can steel such a child against the outcast's fate: the endless slurs and snubs, the threats, the fear. What these determined children do is snatch dark and bright fragments of Halloween fables, TV news, and candy-colored Bible-story leaflets from street-corner preachers, and like birds building a nest from scraps, weave their own myths. The "secret stories" are carefully guarded knowledge, never shared with older siblings or parents for fear of being ridiculed -- or spanked for blasphemy. But their accounts of an exiled God who cannot or will not respond to human pleas as his angels wage war with Hell is, to shelter children, a plausible explanation for having no safe home, and one that engages them in an epic clash.

. . .

The same overarching themes link the myths of 30 homeless children in three Dade County facilities operated by the Salvation Army -- as well as those of 44 other children in Salvation Army emergency shelters in New Orleans, Chicago, and Oakland, California. These children, who ranged in age from six to twelve, were asked what stories, if any, they believed about Heaven and God -- but not what they learned in church. (They drew pictures for their stories with crayons and markers.) Even the parlance in Miami and elsewhere is the same. Children use the biblical term "spirit" for revenants, never "ghost" (says one local nine-year-old scornfully: "That baby word is for Casper in the cartoons, not a real thing like spirits!"). In their lexicon, they always use "demon" to denote wicked spirits.

Their folklore casts them as comrades-in-arms, regardless of ethnicity (the secret stories are told and cherished by white, black, and Latin children), for the homeless youngsters see themselves as allies of the outgunned yet valiant angels in their battle against shared spiritual adversaries. For them the secret stories do more than explain the mystifying universe of the homeless; they impose meaning upon it.

. . .

The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it's highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the "ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good" -- a sense of mission -- is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.

In any group that generates its own legends -- whether in a corporate office or a remote Amazonian village -- the most articulate member becomes the semiofficial teller of the tales. The same thing happens in homeless shelters, even though the population is so transient. The most verbally skilled children -- such as Andre -- impart the secret stories to new arrivals. Ensuring that their truths survive regardless of their own fate is a duty felt deeply by these children, including one ten-year-old Miami girl who, after confiding and illustrating secret stories, created a self-portrait for a visitor. She chose a gray crayon to draw a gravestone carefully inscribed with her own name and the year 1998.

. . .

There is no Heaven in the stories, though the children believe that dead loved ones might make it to an angels' encampment hidden in a beautiful jungle somewhere beyond Miami. To ensure that they find it, a fresh green palm leaf (to be used as an entrance ticket) must be dropped on the beloved's grave.

This bit of folklore became an obsession for eight-year-old Miguel. His father, a Nicaraguan immigrant, worked the overnight shift at a Miami gas station. Miguel always walked down the street by himself to bring his dad a soda right before the child's bedtime, and they'd chat. Then one night his father was murdered while on the job. Recalls Miguel: "The police say the robbers put lit matches all over him before they killed him."

Miguel's mother speaks no English and is illiterate. She was often paid less than two dollars per hour for the temporary jobs she could find in Little Havana (mopping shop floors, washing dishes in restaurants). After her husband's death, she lost her apartment. No matter where Miguel's family of three subsequently slept (a church pew, a shelter bed, a sidewalk), his father's spirit appeared, bloodied and burning all over with tiny flames. Miguel's teachers would catch him running out of his school in central Miami, his small fists filled with green palm leaves, determined to find his father's grave. A social worker finally took him to the cemetery, though Miguel refused to offer her any explanation. "I need my daddy to find the fighter angels," Miguel says from a Salvation Army facility located near Liberty City. "I'll go there when I'm killed."

There's much more at the link.

One can only feel desperately sorry for kids forced to grow up under such horrendous circumstances, of course; but it's also fascinating to see how their myths have developed. One can see traces of Christianity, Voodoo, and a bunch of other influences, but they seem to have synthesized them into something altogether unique. I imagine anthropologists and sociologists could have a field day investigating them all.



Joe Allen said...

Hmmm... my BS detector is twitching. I'm reminded of the whole New York Mole People kerfluffle.

Some of the mythology seems a bit sophisticated for adolescents to have come up with it.

Anonymous said...

Joe, all it would take is one child with a vivid imagination to start the process, and then the others could add more and more detail. I'm not saying that you are wrong, but that this is quite plausible, given some of the imaginary stories I've head from kids and that I remember coming up with myself in my younger days.

LabRat said...

This isn't the first article I've read about the shelter mythology- it's a fairly well-established anthropological oddity by now.

I also see elements of traditional American folktale in there- Bloody Mary and La Llorona are two American ghost stories/urban legends, one Anglo and one Latin, folded together.

Peter, have your read any of Jan Harold Brunvand's books on urban legends?

Peter said...

Thanks for mentioning Prof. Brunvand, Labrat. I hadn't heard of him (not surprising, being a furriner!), but I've looked him up and found lots of interesting information. I'll have to look for a book or two by him.

LabRat said...

Look for the earlier ones rather than the later anthologies- he went into more detail and gave more background to those legends whose roots are more traceable.

I may be biased, though; I was one of those kids whose reading level was always way, WAY above their actual age, and my parents let me read basically anything I was ABLE to and able to ask coherent questions about, so his books are actually something of a cherished childhood memory. I just wanted to read a story, I didn't care if it came with scholarly analysis, I'd just read that too.

Anonymous said...

Heck, a lot of this is the storyline from the TV show Supernatural.


LabRat said...

Check out the date on the article- 1997.