The Gamines (Los Gaminos) of Bogotá – By Kathryn O’Reilly

As the ‘International Year of the Child’ draws to a close we find it disturbing that the plight of millions of children working in slave labour conditions has received minimal publicity. The following is the story of some of them.

Like many other ill informed travelers – knowing a little but not enough – I had a certain impression of South America, a land of rhythmic music, colour, gaiety and an almost permanent fiesta. – Yes, I knew there was great poverty, but there isn’t a country to-day without it.

Among the many places in South America I visited Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, with a population of 5,000,000 (five million) people, at an altitude of 8,612 feet, lies almost permanently in a drifting web of clouds, fortress like. Beneath the clouds, however, lies a cosmopolitan city of amazing contrasts both in people and ways of life. The clever modern architecture blends graciously with the old, unbelievable wealth – mostly gained from great mineral resources, and illicit wealth, which is not spoken of, fueled by the drug trade and illegal emerald racketeering.

If the wealth and prosperity of a country portrays itself in the way it treats its underprivileged children – then Bogotá should bow its head in shame.

In Bogotá one sees the sickening contrast of the ultimate in opulence next door to the most desperate poverty – I speak of the slum dwellings on the slopes of the Andes “Resotration” which sprawl down the hillsides overlooking the city’s northern shopping centre. These dwellings are make from stolen bricks, cardboard, sheets of plastic, pieces of wood and disused petrol drums – anything that substitutes for four walls – at any moment the bulldozer can come, sent at a whim by a local landowner or government official. When the rains come they are more often than not washed away.

The breeding ground of the Gaminos -
The breeding ground of the Gamines – People are stacked on top of each other in slum dwellings. Many children go without basic amenities, much less the right to schooling.
Gaminos breeding grounds - Slum swellings sprawled across the hillside overlooking Bogota's northern shopping centre. According to unofficial estimates around 2,000,000 people in Bogota call such dwellings
Gamines breeding grounds – Slum swellings sprawled across the hillside overlooking Bogota’s northern shopping centre. According to unofficial estimates around 2,000,000 people in Bogota call such dwellings “home”
Gaminos breeding grounds - The slums of Bogota's mountainous perpihery
Gamines breeding grounds – The slums of Bogota’s mountainous perpihery

Bewildered prematurely aged women in the squatter settlements migrate from slow starvation in the countryside, like so many desperate ‘Dick Whittingtons’, hopeful that the city can offer more than their rural life. They bear too many children: In Bogotá the infant mortality rate is said to be 60 per 1,000 live births, while many of those born will die of disease, malnutrition and lack of medicine. For example, last August, in just one Bogotá maternity clinic a lack of medicine resulted in the deaths of 93 babies. Girls, with poor young mothers facing intense peer pressure from husbands and relatives desiring the survival of sons over daughters, are particularly at risk. Moreover, a cultural inclination for the dilution of milk bottles, which invariably are contaminated, over breast-feeding further fuels the risk of malnutrition and disease. 

Volunteer workers find that the most common objections to birth control are social ones, not religious, deriving from the male’s excessive concern with ‘machismo’.   From this wretched background the wandering homeless urchins street children – the gamines [in Espanola pronounced (gah MEE nays)] are bred, left to fend for themselves on the pitiless streets of Bogotá.

[Blog Note: In 1978, according to Page 272 of “Gamines: how to adopt from Latin America” [by Jean Nelson-Erichsen and Heino R. Erichsen (1981)], there were 130,000 gamines were living on the streets of Colombia’s cities.]

The Gaminos of Bogota - Child on the street, screenshot from the film
The Gamines (Los Gaminos) of Bogota – Child on the street, screenshot from the film “Gamin” by Ciro Duran, 1978

The children, as young as six years old, are sent out onto the streets by their mother or father or whatever where they compete with the vultures in their daily quest for food among the city’s refuse bins. Ill clad in their torn shirts and pants – often with no shoes, sometimes straw slippers, they form packs, sleeping on quiet streets, in doorways, in local parks and under bridges. It is a well know fact that they can strip a car down to the chassis in five minutes flat. They are fast on their feet, so fast the police seldom catch them – more often than not the police turn a blind eye. Girls of thirteen become prostitutes, their faces reflecting the hopelessness of their lives. Even children earning ₤1 per week down the treacherous coal mines are considered lucky.

Three years ago, when the Pope visited Bogotá the government sent military trucks on to the streets to pick up the gamines, keeping them in the mountains until His Holiness had left, for fear that he would see them or that their plight would be brought to his attention.

The gamines, or homeless street children, of Bogota sleep together, and form street gangs, to protect each other. They live off the proceeds of petty crime
The gamines, or homeless street children, of Bogota sleep together, and form street gangs, to protect each other. They live off the proceeds of petty crime

To walk on the streets of Bogotá wear even a wrist watch is not just hazardous, it’s crazy. The gamines would pull it off your arm, and if it didn’t come your wrist would be at stake. The same fate applies to handbags or any kind of jewellery.

The Casa de las Menores is a kind of remand home where boys picked up from the streets were sent. They may have committed some small crime or be guilty of the crime of illegitimacy and abandonment, unwanted orphans without any identification papers. Many boys are crammed into limited accommodation, and, certainly in the past, gruesome offences have been committed by the stronger against the weaker.

I heard of a Christmas party given by some social workers for these children. When the children saw the food they went crazy, knocked over the tables and ate like animals. They paid for this misdemeanour by being flogged with thongs by the wardens who accompanied them.

I have been told that the authorities are doing “something” – but “something” is not enough. There are now a number of volunteer projects in motion – Colombian and American teenagers are dynamic in the work that they do for these waifs – but it is only the tip of the iceberg. A complete change in social attitudes is not only necessary but vital if the smouldering discontent is not to erupt into a volcano of violence that the lethargic authorities will be unable to control.

And what of us safely ensconced in the faraway ‘developed’ worlds of Europe and America? What responsibility do our affluent societies bear for the prevalence and maltreatment of Bogotá’s disposable street children? It is clear to me that with Columbia’s drug trafficking cartels seeking to cash in on growing demand in our world for the highly addictive cocaine, more and more the true cost, the victims, of such demand will be the Gamines, the throwaway children.

This article was posted in the Irish Women’s Political Association (WPA) Journal No 14, Winter 1979. It was written by my late mother Kathryn O’Reilly http://wp.me/p15Yzr-k7 (or Catherine O’Reilly as attributed by the journal’s editor) who had recently returned from an extraordinary journey to Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela as guests of great personal friends the British Ambassador to Ecuador (John and Jenny Hickman) and the British Ambassador to Venezuela (Jock and Molly Taylor). 

During International Year of the Child in 1979 many problems relating to children—slavery, abuse, prostitution, homelessness – which thus far had been rejected out of hand or blatantly ignored by municipal governments throughout Latin America were given an international airing. In her own small, yet determined, way my mother, Kathryn O’Reilly, had hoped her article would draw the attention of Irish women to the wrongful practices of the Bogotá authorities with respect to addressing the plight of the gamines. International pressure, with Unicef actively assisting in the exposure of nationally embarrassing child maltreatment issues, moved previously complacent national government and city authorities in Latin America to start taking steps, albeit piecemeal, to address child protection issues, particularly with respect to homeless street children. 

Despite the nature of this article about the vicious cycle of poverty, desertion, abuse, neglect and children’s lack of access to basic amenities that breeds the gamines, the sight of which left an indelible mark on my mother’s psyche, she considered Colombia a wonderful and fascinating country. In Bogotá she met many inspirational local NGO volunteers and thus had a first-hand knowledge of their outstanding efforts to resolve the many complex, multidimensional, problems that every developing country with limited resources faces – which are mainly the result of a rapid increase in urban populations without the housing and service provisions that such growth demands. For my mother the best things about Colombia were its natural beauty and the warm welcoming attitude of Colombians towards visitors. In fact, given half the chance she wouldn’t have hesitated to go back!

Update: May 2019

Blog Note:

  • If you would like to sponsor a homeless child in Bogotá check out the NGO

‘SOS Children’s Villages’  

http://www.street-children.org.uk/

  • “Fr. Javier De Nicolo, a dedicated Salesian missionary, visionary and human rights activist, passed away on March 22, 2016 at the age of 88. He dedicated his life to saving the young people that no one else wanted to help – children living on the streets of Bogota, Colombia. As in the likeness of the founder of the Salesians, St. John “Don” Bosco, Fr. Javier De Nicolo was devoted to helping homeless youth that others refused to approach – many of whom had severe social problems and drug addictions. Fr. Javier De Nicolo developed a system of mutual trust and respect, which became the foundation of success for his street children program. He joined in the activities of the children, sharing in their experiences and even sharing a little bit of money with them. Once respect was established, he invited them into his community where they would be provided with showers, clean clothes, meals and a warm bed. The children were able to come and go as they wished, but most chose to stay. Through various additional steps, the children were introduced to basic education and skills training, and were given the opportunity of a promising future. Fr. Javier’s generosity, dedication and hard work is something that every Salesian missionary strives to accomplish. He gave those children who had nothing and needed everything the chance to live a life of dignity, joy and empowerment. In his more than 50 years of service, Fr. Javier was a faithful disciple of both Jesus and Don Bosco, allowing thousands of children to benefit from his generous heart. May he now rest peacefully. http://www.salesianmissions.org”

Source: 

2019

2019

China – Under The Hood: Hangzhou Catholic Church “The most beautiful church in China”

China - Under The Hood Hangzhou Catholic Church 2014 001
2014 – Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2009 - Easter outside Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate /  Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2009 – Easter outside Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
Dedicated to ‘Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception’ (formerly known as the Church of the Saviour), Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate, which I attend, has long been
Address: 415 North Zhongshan Road, Hangzhou. 天主教堂 中山北路415号
Bus #s: 11, 28, 38
Tel #: 0571-85101503
English Mass Schedule:  Saturday 18.30 hrs
Chinese Mass Schedule: Sunday 06.30 hrs, 09.00 hrs, 19.00 hrs
considered one of the most serenely beautiful churches in China.  Remarkable is the wonderful quality of silence experienced within, given that bustling Zhongshan Road is only a very short distance away. Known simply as Tiānzhǔ Táng (天主堂), the three naves Catholic Church sporting a conspicuous baroque facade is the only Catholic Church currently in service within the city of Hangzhou. Indoors, the three naves (or one nave and two aisles) are separated by two rows of columns running longitudinally down the granite tiled flooring to the sanctuary of the main altar and apse area which is adorned by a large, eye-catching, fresco depicting Christ watching over his Hangzhou flock by way of bright rays of light beaming through clouds of darkness over the West Lake. Striking in its simplicity the fresco based on typical western artistic styles was painted by local Hangzhou artists.  Natural light, beaming through stain-glass windows of saints, brightens the inside and the aisles on either side of main aisle lead down to side-altars worshiping statues of St. Peter and St. Paul. Placed at intervals along the side walls of the outer naves are plaques depicting the Stations Of The Cross, and there is also one confessional booth.
2009 - Faithful gathered to celebrate Easter Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2009- Faithful gathered to celebrate Easter Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

History of the Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

It will be difficult to find anyone locally who knows much about its history. Here’s what I found out. Likely inspired by the baroque designed Chiesa del Gesu Jesuit church in Rome, which was the model for many Jesuit churches, the first Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception in Hangzhou was built in 1661 by Italian Jesuit pastor, missionary, cartographer, and historian, Martino Martini (Wei Kuang Guo / 卫匡国).

Was the Chiesa del Gesù Rome the original prototype for designing Hangzhou's Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception?
Rome’s Chiesa del Gesù

It had taken two years to construct and was hardly built when on June 6th Martino Martini died from cholera in Hangzhou.  He is buried in the Dafangjing Jesuit Cemetery (大方井卫匡国等公墓) on the north side of Beigao Feng (北高峰). It seems that twenty years later Martino Martini’s body was discovered in a relatively unblemished state, whereupon it became a venerable object of cult-like worship, not only for Christians. In 1877, in a bid to put an end to what it perceived to be idolisation, the Catholic Church hierarchy had Martini’s body reburied.

Portrait of Martino Martini founder of Hangzhou Catholic Church by Michaelina Wautier 1654
Portrait of Martino Martini by Michaelina Wautier 1654

As the leading China geographer of the 18th Century, Martino Martini is celebrated as the first to undertake the study of Chinese history and geography with meticulous scientific impartiality. Added acclaim in China and beyond alludes to Martino Martini’s unique awareness of Chinese culture and profound understanding of all things Chinese as being the bedrock from which modern sinology has developed. During the reign of the Qing Emperor Kangxi, in 1691 an anti-catholic drive coordinated by Zhang Penghe (张鹏翮), the Confucian governor of Zhejiang Province, resulted in the practice of Catholicism being outlawed throughout Zhejiang. The Italian Jesuit Prospero Intorcetta, who had already lived in Hangzhou for 13 years, was expelled for staying in Hangzhou without authorisation, publishing books, circulating pamphlets throughout Zhejiang, and baptising over 1,000 people. Governor Zhang subsequently took over the Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception ordering all its books to be burned and printing woodcuts destroyed.

The following year, under pressure from Jesuits and Manchu Prince Songgotu, Zhang Penghe in an apparent about turn commanded that the Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception be completely repaired. However, Zhang continued to arrest and persecute Catholics, while several churches in Hangzhou, Haining and Jiaxing which didn’t have residing priests were confiscated.

In late 1692 the Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception in Hangzhou was badly damaged by a fire, remaining in a state of disrepair until 1699 when Emperor Kangxi himself passed by the church.  After one of his ministers had inspected the interior Kangxi granted 200 silver taels to complete the restoration. Two characters “敕建” (chi jian) – meaning “built by order of the emperor” – were inscribed on to the gate.

Hangzhou Catholic Church altar 1990
1990 – Altar in Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

In 1730 Kangxi’s son Emperor Yongzheng proscribed Catholicism and Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception was converted into the Tao Buddhist temple of the Celestial Empress, Tian Hou Gong (天后宫). The characters “敕建” were chiseled off the gate. It was not until 1848 that it became a working Catholic church again when a group of Dutch, French and English Lazarists took it over.

Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2013 – Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception – Stained Glass Window featuring Pope Saint John Paul II and Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Further disruption occurred during the Cultural Revolution when all religious activities ceased. For a period of 12 years the main church hall was divided into 10 small cells for imprisoning criminals, while the other church buildings were also divided up as residences. On December 12th 1982 Mass was once again celebrated at the re-opened church, while by 1986 all remaining families who had lived there during the Cultural Revolution had been relocated to new residences.

The Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception is now listed as an historic site under the protection of the Municipal Government of Hangzhou.

2009 - Faithful gathered to celebrate Easter Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2009 – Faithful gathered to celebrate Easter Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA)

Prior to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 the Catholic Church in China was under the control of foreign missionaries, and some Church organisations opposed communist rule. In 1957 the secular Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) was set up to organise the Catholic Church in China under government patronage. It no longer recognised the authoritative role of the Pope as the leader of Chinese Catholics, and in the appointment of new bishops. The Vatican immediately declared the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association incompatible with Catholic doctrine and since then there have been no formal diplomatic links between the Vatican and Beijing.  An underground Catholic Church said to number millions of Chinese Catholics still remains faithful to the Bishop of Rome.

2009 - Faithful pray ''Our Father' at Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2009 – Faithful pray ”Our Father’ at Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

Today’s Mass at Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

The Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception in Hangzhou is always filled to capacity for the 9.00 a.m.. Clear evidence of the growing appetite for spiritual values among mainland China’s officially atheist population, the worshipers represent a broad spectrum of men and women, young and old, all in thoughtful concentration. This church has a genuine feel to it and, given the unremitting pressures of daily life that abound in rapidly changing China, it is wonderful to observe and experience the congregation’s deep sense of spiritualism and respect for each other.  Streaming out of the church after the conclusion of Mass all appear at peace within, assured.

China - Under The Hood Hangzhou Catholic Church 2014 002
2014 – Faithful gathered to celebrate English Mass at Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

On the face of it, given that in spite of everything this is a Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association-operated church, this could be a Mass typical of any Catholic Church the world over. The choir sings the usual hymns (the acoustics are very good), while the benches at the foot of the left side-aisle hold a very energetic group of hearing impaired parishioners using sign language to communicate, their smiling facial expressions and fast-moving hands corresponding with every spoken word. There is holy water, a lively confessional, and communion, while the Our Father is prayed most fervently with hands raised high.  When it comes to offering each other the sign of peace there is that spontaneous outpouring of goodness and togetherness which typifies Catholic Church communities everywhere. The genuine sincerity is palpable.

If you did not have a chance to experience the serenity of a place like this you’d probably leave China thinking that in the rush to keep up with what is termed as “progress” everyone is only concerned with their own material well-being. As witnessed by the outpouring of compassion following the apocalyptic Sichuan Earthquake, and now today in the Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception in Hangzhou such a thought would be entirely mistaken. I cannot visually / vocally see or hear any difference between this and Mass back in Ireland, expect for noticing that no offering was collected. I guess the official Catholic Church in China doesn’t have a problem with funding!
The most recent renovation of Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception in Hangzhou was completed in 2012, and while the demolition of the front wall may have been designed to present a church that is more conspicuously open, the appearance of security camera above the nave ensures that worshipers are always under the watchful eye of the Party.
Loves You top at Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
Usher wearing “Jesus Loves You” top at Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

English Mass Saturday 18:30 hrs

An English Mass, which is celebrated at 6.30 p.m. on Saturday evening, is typically attended by a colourful mix of Hangzhou’s foreign community from Africa, Asia, South America and Europe.  The English mass pamphlet refers to the Pope (in a spiritual capacity) – indeed the wall of an office just inside the entrance gate hosts a large photo of the late Pope John Paul II.
1990 - Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
1990 – Hangzhou’s Cathedral of Santa Maria Immaculate / Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hangzhou / Hangchow

The archdiocese of Hangzhou, which at the time had less than 30,000 practising Catholics has not had a Vatican appointed bishop since 1956 following the death of  Archbishop Jean Joseph Georges Deymier (梅占魁). In June 2000, The Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association appointed (now 91 years oldMatthew Cao Xiang-de (曹緗德) (a.ka. Cao Yude) as bishop, an appointment that prompted the Vatican to invoke canon 1382: “Both the Bishop who, without a pontifical mandate, consecrates a person a Bishop, and the one who receives the consecration from him, incur a ´latae sententiae´ excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See.”. Source: Latae sententiae

Previous Archbishops of Hangzhou, Matthias Wu Guo-huan (吳國煥) (1958–1987),  John Zhu Feng-qing (朱峰青) (1988 – 1997) also had no papal mandate. 
[Thus article was updated: April 2018. Related article about the Catholic Church and China: “Accurate China Insight: New leaders of the Catholic Church and China, Pope Francis and Xi Jinping, have much in common, but little prospect of reconciliation”  https://nialljoreilly.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/change-at-the-helm/ ]
2008 - Former entrance (demolished in 2011)  to Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
2008 – Former entrance (demolished in June 2008) to Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
Easter 2012 - Newly renovated interior of Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
Easter 2012 – Newly renovated interior of Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
Easter 2012 - Newly renovated interior of Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception
Easter 2012 – Newly renovated interior of Hangzhou Catholic Church of Our Lady Of The Immaculate Conception

2018

2018

2018