The wide sidewalks of central Rio de Janeiro are beautiful mosaics of white, gray, and black stone. Each major boulevard has its own unique pattern. During my first night in Rio, sometime in June 1994, my carioca friends took me to dinner in a chic section of town. 1 After our sumptuous meal, we strolled along the sidewalks holding bags filled with the remains of our generous dinner. The evening air was pleasantly balmy; the titter of al fresco diners’ conversations blended with distant music and motor vehicle noise as we walked. At a particular corner, I stopped to admire the window displays of a designer bathroom fixture store. A half dozen bathrooms—with their perfectly color-coordinated commodes, bidets, sinks, towels, wallpapers, and tile floors—dazzled me. The window embodied the glamorous, fashionable Rio of popular songs and cinema.
But reflected in the window’s glass I caught a glimpse of another side of Rio. Two thin, small boys about 10 years old were preparing for bed on the sidewalk a dozen meters away from the front of the window where I stood admiring commodes and bidets. I turned around, transfixed by the scene. In the dim evening light, their skin and hair and dusty, faded clothing blended into a honey-brown blur. They were shoeless and wore only cotton T-shirts and shorts. Their bed was a flattened cardboard box that they unfolded on the mosaic sidewalk. Occasionally, well-heeled cariocas exiting the nearby grocery store placed some money or packaged food on their bed of cardboard. The boys tucked the wads of money, actually worth only pennies, into their pockets. 2 They ate some of the donated food and saved the rest. Then they lay down and pulled their knees up under their shirts for warmth. Facing each other, they snuggled close and went to sleep.
Mesmerized by this scene, I was also struck by its contradictions: their squalor amidst our comfort; the designer bathrooms in the window and the cardboard beds on the sidewalk. Was I a witness or an accomplice to their tribulation? Agitated and frustrated, I naively asked my friends what I could do. What did they do?
Certainly, this was not the first time I’d seen street children. I have lived in several major U.S. cities; I have traveled throughout Latin America. During my 2 months in Brazil, I saw many more street children. I spent an afternoon in a favela (shantytown), walking though narrow streets and paths, bombarded by intense sights and sounds of the neighborhood, and odors from garbage and debris that never would be hauled away by the city. I toured one section under the vigilant eyes of small boys with large guns. “They work for the drug dealers,” explained my guide who lived there. I visited numerous programs for