Originally posted Feb. 21, 2013, at It’s all Relative. Republished with permission of the author.
At La Obra, I accompany Club de Niños as well as Casa de Jóvenes, which is open to the teenagers of the community of Barrio Borro. From the beginning the younger kids in Club de Niños were more open and welcoming than the teenagers, which is not a huge surprise but it has been my goal to get to know the teenagers that come to La Obra.
I face a lot of challenges in doing this as the teenagers have sporadic attendance, which makes learning names difficult. In addition, they talk really fast and use a lot of slang so communication can be pretty difficult as well. Furthermore, the teenagers are old enough to ask harder questions about me being an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission volunteer like: Why are you here? Why aren’t you in the United States? You’re not getting paid?
Fortunately, other things in which a high level of Spanish is not required, like playing beach soccer, Ping-Pong and Camelon (a card game similar to UNO) have given me the chance to get to know them better. So that is why today, while playing Ping-Pong I put my paddle down and listened when I heard the word “policia” (police) in a conversation across the room between one of the teenagers and several staff members of La Obra.
It turns out that the past weekend three of the boys that often come to La Obra were randomly stopped, questioned and then searched by the police. The staff members of La Obra explained that this was not OK and gave the kids a quick overview of their rights so they would be prepared for the next time.
It was hard for me to believe that this had happened to these kids — whose only crime was simply walking on a public street — that they had to go through this. Also the week before this incident, the police of Montevideo had set up checkpoints on an intersection close to La Obra and even had police squads in full riot gear and trucks roll through the neighborhood on full patrol. That day on my way home, I counted at least 30 policemen within three bus stops of La Obra.
A few months ago, I was watching the evening news and saw a story about two taxis getting robbed and lit on fire. The news story showed the police barricade at an intersection, which I immediately recognized as one that I go by everyday while on bus #328 on my way to La Obra.
A lot of the teenagers that come to La Obra are boys so it has been frustrating to face such challenges in having them open up to me. Maybe because I was once a teenage boy too, I thought it would be easier for me to get to know them. Like a lot of the boys at La Obra, when I was 15 I enjoyed playing soccer, hanging with friends and doing stupid stuff. I figured that would provide enough common ground.
However, when I was 15 I was never stopped and searched by the police. I didn’t see the glowing embers of a burnt-out taxi from my bedroom window or have a full SWAT team take a spin through my neighborhood just because it was a Thursday.
Will I ever truly understand what that is like? No, never. However, what I can do is understand how living in this kind of reality can deeply affect someone’s perspective on life, especially an impressionable teenage boy.
Note: I do not intend in any way for this post to talk poorly of policemen and policewomen, who everyday go out and put their own personal safety at risk to ensure the safety of the greater public. I only use these incidents as examples to illustrate what is just another part of life for the teenagers I accompany at La Obra.
Find a link to Emery Ellingson ‘s blog It’s all Relative at Lutheran Blogs.