Chiesa, Mariana

The first morning in Monterrey was very emotional. Coinciding with the third anniversary of Sandra Arenal’s death, I accompanied her daughters to the cemetery. The green field was splashed with tombstones and flowers, surrounded by a mountainous landscape. There, under the March Sun, the three women placed numerous red roses on the grass and got to work. I helped them by cutting the stems and sinking the flowers into the ground until we had formed a giant heart at the foot of the tombstone, where it read: ‘Red moon. Woman of a 1000 battles’.

Sandra Arenal’s relatives were incredibly welcoming and took me into their home. Sandra Maldonado and her husband Sotero gave me such passionate and generous attention that without their help the work as it was would not have been possible. They put their library at my disposal and, among other things, they showed me their books on engravings and editions of Taller de Gráfica Popular (Workshop on Popular Graphics), to which Elena Huerta, Sandra Arenal’s mother, had been part of. I saw many of her prints, and it led me to visit the former municipal castle and current cultural centre of Cohauila, where the murals she painted at an old age, narrating the town’s history, can be found. My hosts ensured they took me everywhere. The distances in Monterrey are enormous, and traffic is very intense, it feels like a decentralised city, intersected by highways and roads that are simultaneously crossed by bridges for pedestrians. Large shopping centres can be seen on the outskirts. Further away the landscape is imposing, varied, and very beautiful. Surrounded by hills, the most characteristic of which is Silla (Saddle), because it is reminiscent of a saddle. I was able to walk by the side of the river Silla, mentioned in one of the testimonies, that passes almost behind Sandra’s house, and enjoy the wind surrounded by the strange shapes of the mountains of Huasteca Park.

Sandra Maldonado, as well as her sisters Rocío and Ana —also a painter and an engraver—, and Sotero, are teachers and directors of several schools located in very poor colonies. In the mornings I accompanied Sandra to the Batallón de San Blas School of the San Ángel colony, where she works as a director. Although on the first day the children seemed reluctant about having their photograph taken, I gradually earned their trust. They preferred drawings to photographs. Delighted to be portrayed on a notebook, they made a queue every morning and made up ideas. There was not enough time to attend to them all, even observing and drawing them since the very first morning. And so, while they presented their little faces to me they told me about themselves. Many of them disliked school and were planning on dropping out to work. They would probably not even begin education after the basic cycle. Some were already working by their own will or forced by their parents, whom insisted that ten was already old enough to be packer at a supermarket, for example, when they were not at school. Others said they wanted to be illustrators like me, and asked where they could learn, and wanted me to teach them how to draw and paint, since they did not have art lessons. At their insistence, during the last days, provisioned with a great quantity of paper and various boxes of coloured crayons that Sandra helped me buy, we held a special art class. Taking turns, children of different ages enjoyed drawing and painting for a few days, calling me all the time, to show me their creations, to ask if they were alright, to ask me how to do something, to talk. They yearned to know more, to share their favourite visions, their desires, their dreams. At the end, they offered me what they had created, with dedications and hearts. And they asked me to stay there and teach them.

Despite trying, it proved impossible to access the factories, although we visited some industrial areas from where Sandra Arenal probably gathered some testimonies. One afternoon we encountered a student who worked as a packer in a supermarket. There were many like her, dressed in a blue apron, white shirt and cap, that I later learned they had to buy themselves. For carrying people’s shopping bags, transport them to the parking lot, or sort out the trolleys at the end of their shift, these children receive no pay, only the tips the customers decide to give them. To work as a packer one must be between the ages of 9 and 12 and be in school. This is a very common job, and is so integrated into the community that no one is surprised to see children working in a supermarket for tips. It is also usual to see them on the streets selling chewing gum, stamps, flowers, or cleaning windscreens amidst the traffic. During those days the local newspaper reported more than one work accident in which the victims were children working in construction. The situation is not all that different now, ten years after the first publication of Sandra Arsenal’s book.

A few months later, one night in Argentina, my family and I went to dine at a restaurant located in the city centre. We were looking through the menu when the waiter made a gesture with his white handkerchief as if to scare a fly away. Less than a metre from the ground, a young boy was trying to sell flowers to the few customers that were there. Before the waiter’s shocked expression, I called the seller over, and after paying for the most wilted bouquet, an encounter occurs between an adult and a child, not the seller and the customer. The child extends his arm and shows me one of those plastic eggs that usually contain a dissembled toy. The other diners observe the scene between annoyed and surprised, and then the young boy asks me to open the egg while he leaves his money on the floor, and with great interest begins the task of assembling the small gear, aided by my instructions and my hands. I remind him his money is on the floor, to put it in his pocket. When we were having our dessert, another young seller appears. It is midnight. In the centre of Buenos Aires another child sells me stamps while he tells me he stays out until one in the morning, and that he does not attend school because he is on holiday. From the windows of the family home it is more and more common to see, every night or early morning, children pushing or dragging trolleys without lights, alone or accompanied, carrying the cartons and waste they managed to collect.

Where I live now, in the historic quarter of Barcelona, there are many working children. Employed in small supermarkets or in restaurants. At the greengrocer where I usually shop, there is more than one. The greengrocer tells me they are his children. Last year, the eldest, aged fourteen or fifteen, arranged the stock and gave orders to a younger child, while he received them from an adult. Now he works at the cash register. He works around twelve hours a day, sometimes more. I ask him if he likes the beach, if he goes to watch the waves on his day off. He looks at me puzzled, replying that when he is not working, he is sleeping. I ask him if he will have holidays soon, and I do not understand if he says ‘in four years’ or ‘four years ago’, in Pakistan. He treats me like an adult to another adult, he notices my expression, whether I am tired or not, and now without shame he says ‘bye, beautiful’.

Mariana Chiesa

Self-portrait of the author

Mariana Chiesa (La Plata, Argentina, 1967) is an engraver, painter, cartoonist: three ways of naming her vocation for illustration. She learned the trade from Alberto Breccia, the professor who swapped the pencil for a knife, and is a reader of Alejandra Pizarnik, the poet who saw herself as a little girl in a garden. Childhood is a theme often present in her work. She has collaborated in publications of several countries: Lápiz Japonés, El ojo clínico, Sins entido, L'Association, Media Vaca, among others. She has taught engraving workshops and has participated in numerous exhibitions. She lives in Barcelona since 1977, where she has undertaken many tasks that do not usually feature in artists’ biographies, but which allow her to accept the commissions she is truly interested in. In 2003, the illustrations for No Time to Play were selected by the jury of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.