Leonardo meekly wanders over to the truck window where I sit waiting. He greets me by name, politely and a bit shy, but excited just the same. He’s stick thin and his pants are torn and too short. His button up shirt has been worn a day or two before today without a wash, and his face is a bit dirty from his mid-morning snack – the empty plate in his hands a testament to this fact.
The children here all know me by name and shout it out whenever they see me. I’m one of very few foreigners who has been around, stuck around for over a year now, and who doles out hugs and kisses completely indiscriminately. Whenever I happen to be alone for a minute in these rural communities, inevitably one of the children will come to keep me company. Today is no exception.
Luis has wandered over with Leonardo but he doesn’t speak much. Some of the kids tease him about it but he just smiles his sweet smile and looks at me with his big, baby calf eyes. I don’t know who his parents are or why he doesn’t speak (at all? or just not often?) but it doesn’t matter. We’re buddies and I give him a wink while telling the older boys that he talks to me, so maybe it just depends if it’s important. That earns me a grin.
I know today is the last day of school before “summer” holidays, so I ask Leonardo how it went. It turns out this was just the opening he was looking for.
“Bueno” he tells me, the grin nearly leaping off his face, “I’m graduating sixth grade. Next year I get to go to the first year of high school”.
This is a big deal, which I already knew, if the proud look in his eyes wasn’t enough to tell me. With so few parents who can read and write or ever made it past elementary, and with the amount of children who work to help their families survive, getting through the sixth grade and being allowed to pass on into high school is a big accomplishment. I am very proud of him and I tell him so.
“You must study hard, then. That makes me happy! Do you get good grades?” I ask him.
He tells me he does and that they’re even better than Carlitos gets – a slightly older boy who is receiving a scholarship in the community. His modesty has lapsed just a bit at his pride at moving forward.
I’ll learn later from Sebas that he’s lying about those grades – another commonality in the communities, especially where I am concerned. People want to put their best foot forward with me. Impress me, even. Which makes me sad, but then again, how could I not understand?
I want to know if he’s going to be working over the holidays.
School holidays in Nicaragua fall pointedly during the coffee cutting season, as it’s the best opportunity for a family to earn enough money to get them through the year, a tradition that has been in place since…well I imagine since education began in Nicaragua. Everyone over the age of 7 or 8 usually participates in the coffee cutting. Entire families will head down to the fincas (farms) and work long days, getting paid by the big basket or bucket.
He’s already started, he informs me, planting coffee on his father’s plot of land.
“I dug 36 holes yesterday!” He splays his palm to show me a raw area where blisters were…and then were worked right off.
Wow! I tell him, great work. You must be so strong. He’s still a little boy, after all, and we all want to be recognized for our accomplishments, don’t we?
Next week he and his mother and father and his two siblings will go pick coffee, he tells me. I ask what they pay for a basket (a large basket) of picked coffee beans at the farms.
“30 cordobas with food, 40 without”. That’s slightly more than one dollar.
This is a typical system at the big coffee plantations. Anyone who works will receive a large plate of beans and tortilla (some of the better fincas will add an egg) at midday and then they pay them less per basket, or the families can pack along their own food and receive more per basket. Most choose the meal and less pay, especially those with more mouths to feed, because the portions of beans are large and handed out without regard to age or size.
“And how many baskets can you pick in a day” I ask. I know the size of the baskets (they’re not small) but I have no concept of what a young boy can pick in a day. He tells me three. He picks three baskets and (proudly) earns his family $4 a day for his efforts. A grown man, if he’s really good he says, can sometimes pick 9. Or even 10. His whole family together will usually pick 21 in a day.
The price is jarring to me. I know it’s hard work and the coffee plant bugs eat you alive all day while you’re under the wretched sun, or even worse – rain. But then again, regular farm work only pays about $4 a day. So if his family can make $29 a day between them…they’re in a lot better shape for a while after the season ends.
With the privilege I’m afforded by bent of being born in a different world, I consider the price of those 29 dollars.
I know that within a few days his fingers will be raw and wounded from not only the motion of picking over and over and over, but from the slightly acidic leche the coffee beans give off. His skin will be two shades darker, burned though not visibly, from working outside without a hat and he’ll look tired.
Too tired for a 13 year old boy. Only he looks 11, because his life is not an easy one and the parasites that infest his water and his food also steal the nutrients from his small body.
By now there’s a group of older boys around us at the truck and Leonardo has become a little more uncomfortable talking to me in front of them. He still answers each of my questions politely and completely but he’s dropped his voice and seems to be fading into the tall grass.
As I leave, the two younger boys – Luis and Leonardo – wave with big grins and Leonardo wishes me well on my way “Que le vaya muy bien, Cynthia! Adios! Adios! Nos vemos!”.
I wave out the window as we drive away and think to myself: “Is $4 a day the price of childhood?”