Life on the Malecón: Children and Youth on the Streets of Santo Domingo

Life on the Malecón: Children and Youth on the Streets of Santo Domingo

Life on the Malecón: Children and Youth on the Streets of Santo Domingo

Life on the Malecón: Children and Youth on the Streets of Santo Domingo


Life on the Malecón is a narrative ethnography of the lives of street children and youth living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and the non-governmental organizations that provide social services for them. Writing from the perspective of an anthropologist working as a street educator with a child welfare organization, Jon M. Wolseth follows the intersecting lives of children, the institutions they come into contact with, and the relationships they have with each other, their families, and organization workers.

Often socioeconomic conditions push these children to move from their homes to the streets, but sometimes they themselves may choose the allure of the perceived freedoms and opportunities that street life has to offer. What they find, instead, is violence, disease, and exploitation--the daily reality through which they learn to maneuver and survive. Wolseth describes the stresses, rewards, and failures of the organizations and educators who devote their resources to working with this population.

The portrait of Santo Domingo's street children and youth population that emerges is of a diverse community with variations that may be partly related to skin color, gender, and class. The conditions for these youth are changing as the economy of the Dominican Republic changes. Although the children at the core of this book live and sleep on avenues and plazas and in abandoned city buildings, they are not necessarily glue- and solvent-sniffing beggars or petty thieves on the margins of society. Instead, they hold a key position in the service sector of an economy centered on tourism.

Life on the Malecón offers a window into the complex relationships children and youth construct in the course of mapping out their social environment. Using a child-centered approach, Wolseth focuses on the social lives of the children by relating the stories that they themselves tell as well as the activities he observes.


This book is an ethnographic exploration of life on the streets of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, as told through my personal interactions with the children and youth who have chosen to make the street their home. For over two years I served as a Peace Corps volunteer with a Dominican nongovernmental organization (NGO), Niños del Camino (henceforth, Niños), providing outreach services, including educational, medical, and legal assistance, to street children and youth. the overwhelming majority of the children Niños worked with were boys and adolescent males. This was partly because of the relatively few girls and teenage females who make it to the streets. Teenage girls who leave their natal homes lead much less public lives, often being lured to work in brothels or hired as domestics. Although aware that this subpopulation of homeless children existed, Niños defined its boundaries as work with homeless children and youth who lived and slept directly on the streets.

Acting on the decision to make the street their home, however temporarily, kids eke out a living on the avenues, plazas, and abandoned buildings of the city. Their strategies for survival are multiform, as they diversify their approaches to living and working on the margins of society. For some, taking to the streets is but a momentary stopgap as they circulate among natal households, social welfare institutions, and law enforcement agencies. For others, the street is a permanent residence, the final stop on a life trajectory. It is difficult to predict which child will come to the street, which child will remain there. One thing, however, is certain: the longer a child has been sleeping on the streets, the less access he or she has to returning to a natal household or to social services that are willing and able to help.

To better understand the lives of street children and youth, we would do well to examine the external factors that structure and partially determine the conditions in which they live, and the day-to-day workings of children . . .

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