The roof of the sewers shows signs of the lives below.

Three weeks ago I arrived on the doorstep of Casa Alianza, Paseo de la Reforma 111, Mexico City. I would like to say that I arrived at 8am sharp, but unfortunately my biological clock was having some problems getting into an early to bed, early to rise rhythm, so let’s call it 8.10am. Lucky for me, Mexican culture adopts a more laid back attitude to the time/money adage of the western world and I wasn’t penalised for my ten minutes of tarrying. However, no time was wasted in throwing me in the deeper end of Casa Alianza’s programme; I was sent to the front line with David, phase one co-ordinator and my street team partner.

Phase one of the Casa Alianza programme involves what is known as its outreach programme. Every Tuesday and Wednesday David and I roam the rugged streets of Mexico City to meet and build relationships with the teenagers to whom those streets belong. The meetings took me under the congested overpasses, into sodden back alleys and clambering into the sewers of the world’s third largest city. These are the locations where communities of teenagers survive amongst the suspended shelters of tarpaulin sheets and dirty rugs. The smell is the first thing that hits a person coming in from the outside; bodily odours, dog odours,  damp, human waste and solvents. The sight comes second; heaps of bodies sprawled across rotting sofas, vacant eyes stare up from beneath soggy blankets; a pale, yellowish 15 year old father bounces on his lap his 7 month old daughter with one arm, whilst his other lifts a black tissue to his mouth for a breath of Activo glue. A  girl emerges from a tent clutching her tummy asking for a doctor, she has a pain in her stomach and she’s bloated – she’s not sure if it’s an inflammation or a pregnancy. There are few adults, the ones who do remain are childlike, delirious from years of solvent abuse.

A room to the left of this photo is home to around 15 teenagers.

This was my first taste of  the life of the street child and it was a new reality brought down upon with me a violent crash – my first exposure to the human state in the depths of poverty. So my second enlightenment came when I met the children living at the Casa Alianza home; I couldn’t believe that they had come from that same world. They’re smiley and chatty; they’re healthy, energetic, enthusiastic and, to my greatest surprise, they bear not a grudge. There are moments when a sadness flashes across their eyes or despairing heads are buried in hands, or when floodgates open and the tears cannot be held back. But for all this I have yet to see one chip on a single shoulder. That really brought home to me the importance of a place like Casa Alianza.

For new arrivals the routine and discipline may come as a shock, as do the expectations: responsibility, education, participation. But, ultimately, I’ve seen that the home allows children to be children again. For all the teenage dreams of no adults, total freedom and a life uncensored, nothing can prepare anyone, let alone an 11 year old, for the world without adults that awaits them in Mexico City. Teen liberty here means they grow up fast and die young, high on glue and scraping together ten pence for a taco.  The contrast with those living at Casa Alianza is phenomenal and yet barely recognised by the wider world.

So, to bring my ramblings back to the photographic side of things, I have brought forward a new principal aim in the project: I hope that the final exhibitions will reveal something of the contrast between street and home for Mexican and Central American teenagers, and to bring to the audience the vast differences a place like Casa Alianza Mexico does make to the quality of 135 teenage lives.

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