Robbed of Humanity

Reviews & Comments

This is one of the first books to document the lives of Guatemala's many street children. The book's originality lies in its ability to let the children speak for themselves. Tierney records the lives of the children through their own voices.


If you care about children, people, or your government's respect for human rights, read this book. Nancy Leigh Tierney's ROBBED OF HUMANITY: Lives of Guatemalan Street Children is a masterful marriage of academic information and gut-wrenching true stories. Don't be put off by the textbook-style title: it's a good, fast read, and these kids need you to know about them. The book's preface, written by Sister Alice Zachmann, admonishes the reader to respond to the stories with action ("The children of Guatemala do not want your tears . . .. Your energy is needed."). The devastating poverty and abuse endured by these smart, kind, funny children is worse than most of us could imagine.

In this book, Tierney describes, discusses and tries to explain the horrors faced by Guatemalan street children. Deftly guiding the reader through a clear, informative analysis of the conditions that cause so many kids to suffer, Tierney paints a picture of a government that not only neglects, but also terrorizes, the citizens it should protect. Health care, education and other social programs are shockingly inadequate; Tierney writes: "in 1990, according to UNICEF, only 63 percent of adult males and 47 percent of adult females in Guatemala were literate."

The book also describes many unprovoked attacks on street children by police officers. A powerful example of such brutality occurred when "two uniformed national police approached sixteen-year-old Esvin Noe Flores . . .. One of the officers, in a drunken state, asked Esvin if he had ''gotten anything'' for him yet. When Esvin responded negatively, the officer . . . began viciously beating Esvin with the butt of his gun and, more maliciously, poured a potent acid over the boy's head and chest." According to Tierney, the Guatemalan public ignores attacks like this.

The book's heart lies in its second chapter, made up of the testimonies of four recovering street girls who speak candidly of being jailed, beaten, raped and prostituted. One of the young women, when asked what she'd like to say to the readers of this book, responded: "When a person asks them for help, that they give it to him, because that person . . . is asking for help because he needs it." Read the book; you may never see a homeless person the same way again.

URBANO LATINO magazine, February 1999. Reviewed by Christy Damio.

ROBBED OF HUMANITY provides a detailed account of the everyday realities faced by street children in Guatemala City through several moving personal testimonies. The reader is given insight into the daily obstacles these children are forced to overcome, the brutality they suffer at the hands of the police and private civilians, and the corrupt system responsible for them. Tierney attributes the indifference shown by the general populace towards their situation to Guatemala's history of terror and torture, a history in which the plight of the growing number of street children has never been a major concern. ROBBED OF HUMANITY gives us a rare opportunity to become better acquainted with the harsh reality of Guatemala's street children, while revealing the remarkable spirit of endurance that they possess, and the hopes and dreams that many of them hold for the future.

REPORT ON GUATEMALA, Vol 19, No 4, Winter 1998 (San Francisco: Guatemala News and Information Bureau)

Nancy Leigh Tierney's book, ROBBED OF HUMANITY: Lives of Guatemalan Street Children, is a powerful and disturbing work on the lives of street children. At times painful to read, it evokes feelings of anger toward the forces and institutions that plague the lives of these unfortunate children. Like most foreigners and Guatemalans alike, I also chose to ignore their plight while visiting the capital. Tierney's book serves as a wake-up call to all of us.

Certainly in recent years Guatemala has received its share of bad press. Many people in the United States and abroad are becoming more aware of the human rights abuses, violence, and killings that continue to take place in this forgotten country of 10 million to our south. CIA-paid murderers escaping justice, Americans who have been murdered and tortured, and the latest crime of several American students raped on a study-abroad trip-all have considerably deepened our negative perceptions of Guatemala. Sadly, this book uncovers a societal problem that is even more perverse, violent, and systematic. Tierney explores the problem through the use of scholarly materials, interviews with child advocates, and with the stories of the children themselves. The children's struggle is also shown in various settings: within their families, on the street, in private shelters and public detention centers, and within larger social institutions. She paints a comprehensive and painfully clear picture by incorporating reliable and relevant sociological and statistical data from a variety of sources to support her findings.

In the opening chapter, the "Scene" provides an overview of the major forces and social actors that impact the lives of street children. The term "street child" is defined as youths with weak or broken ties to their families, who live and work on the streets and rarely, if ever, return to their homes. More than two-thirds of these street children are boys whose average age is 12 and girls whose average age is 10. Reliable reports indicate a worldwide total of about 100 million children now living on the streets. A disproportionate number of those are concentrated in Latin America, especially in the "gang of three" -Brazil, Colombia, and Guatemala. Most estimates for Guatemala City are 5,000 children, a number that has increased dramatically in the last 15 years.

Testimony taken directly from the children befriended by the author is the focal point of this work. These accounts, with little or no editing, make for powerful narratives. Many of these children began by working outside the home to support family members and ended up living permanently in the streets; others were in serious danger at home with abusive fathers, mothers, or other relatives and fled for their own safety. Tierney traces the root of these conditions to the societal limitations of an economy with typical wages that barely rise above poverty levels. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the institution that street children fear most is the police. Sickening details describe street children being murdered, tortured, robbed, harassed and ridiculed by police. These children have very few institutions to support or defend them; the notable exception is a street children's advocacy group called Casa Alianza, which is located in Guatemala City.

Tierney suggests strategies to address the problem: more assistance for single-parent households; coordinating efforts for children in destitute communities; and self-help movements in poor settlements to slow the growing number of children being forced onto the streets. ROBBED OF HUMANITY will hopefully outrage and compel concerned citizens here and in Guatemala to stand up for this nation's street children.

WORLDVIEW, Vol 11, No 3, May-July 1998 (Washington, DC: National Peace Corps Association). Reviewed by Matthew C. Royston.

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