THE WRONG SIDE OF FREEDOM 

 

Every day, at dusk, the gang gathers at the side of this street. They chose this place, sheltered from police raids and where leafy trees give them shade and some sense of coziness, to socialize, eat some food and spend the night. It looks like a kind of campsite, but there are no tents, just some pieces of cardboard and old sheets lying on the ground, a baby bed rescued from the garbage where whoever arrives first sleeps curled up in the small space, and half a dozen cans that they use for cooking in fires that they light next to the trees.

They are outcasts from society, almost all of them running away from something. Some managed to escape from orphanages where they were thrown from an early age, others simply abandoned the houses where they lived, tired of mistreatment by stepfathers and stepmothers, or of the constant lack of food on the table. They embraced life on the streets, now living off odd jobs, petty theft, or begging at traffic lights. In a word, they survive in the jungle of the street. All of them, without exception, have picked up the vices and bear the marks of those who live in that jungle. They smoke cigarette butts or any weed they can find, inhale gasoline fumes and glue remains they pick up in the garbage, and collect scars from countless skirmishes all over their bodies. Some can hardly ever get out of a permanent state of lethargy, caused by the constant inhalation of drugs.

There are also children here and others on the way in the bellies of young girls who will know motherhood too soon. They are the fruit of mismatches or miscalculated destinies and their future is extremely uncertain. They will most certainly be left at the door of asylums or orphanages, where another cycle of rebellion, revolt and escape will begin. They, too, will become gangs living on the streets and gathering at the end of the day on some other street to spend the night. In the meantime, they are cherished by all the gang members, who take turns to take care of them while their mothers play cards, the girls' favorite pastime.

Although they have become loners and survivors in a jungle where only the strongest can get revenge, when they are together in this place they show a amazing bond and solidarity among themselves. They protect each other from the onslaught of the police and the jungle's most dangerous predators, those who have already taken several years too many of living on the streets and have become full-time criminals. The food they can get and the cigarette butts, weed, and glue they smoke and sniff are passed from hand to hand until they run out. They share old sheets and pieces of cardboard to sleep on the floor, wrapped around each other to protect themselves from the cold that falls during the night, but most likely also to feel the only human touch and warmth they have left.

Like all gangs, this one also has a leader. But here the leader is not the strongest or the one who bears the most scars from the fights he has fought to gain the leadership. Here, the leader is the weakest member of the gang. Camilo was born handicapped and despite being confined to a wheelchair, his ascendancy over the entire gang is remarkable. He is the one who manages the group's meager resources, who convinces the cops to grant him a few more days of stay in the place, and who dirges the conflicts that usually arise among gang members, showing reason and even scolding when necessary. The round glasses lend him an admirable intellectuality that contrasts strikingly with the weakness of his condition and the clandestine nature of this group.

When they play among themselves they become real children, it seems as if they drop all the defenses they have learned to put up to survive as adults on the street and return to a time they could not live.  Disagreements are quickly overcome and invariably end with a hug or between smiles of relief. The girls play cards, betting a handful of coins that are passed from hand to hand throughout the day, and the boys take over the semi-deserted street, exchanging acrobatic passes with a ball stolen from a group of children that were passing by. They have no rules or schedules. They sleep, play, or smoke when they want or feel like it. The only time everyone participates is when two or three of them cook what they have to be shared among all. Even when there is very little to share, no one is left out.

The end of the day thus seems to be a liberating moment for this gang. Coincidently, the street they have chosen to meet and sleep on is called Liberty Street. A railing separates this street from a park called Independence Park, where one has to pay a small contribution to enter. Often, too often, the gang clings to the railings and looks out at the other children having fun on the swings and slides, or simply the pairs of sweethearts whispering on the benches in the garden.

But after all, on which side of the railing is there the true freedom? On the side of those who pay to enter the park so they can enjoy a few moments of silence while surrounded by bars, or on the supposedly wrong side of freedom, in those who, despite being marginalized by society, do what they want, when they want, and how they want?