"The kids," says Miguel, bending over a bag filled with nothing more than grimy Styrofoam, "they want to play. I know this is not a good time to be a child. But they don't always understand that this is my job. This is our job. If we do it, we eat. Nothing more, but we eat. They don't always understand that."
Except Romina. She is 15, lithe as a ballerina but strong as a bull and bossy when need be.
Miguel Machado, an unemployed factory worker, now searches for trash to sell to recyclers. Helped by five of his children, he might make $12 a night.
(Fabricio Di Dio For The Washington Post)
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"She's like our mother," says Jonathan.
"I put a lot of trust in her," Miguel says. "She's more responsible than the others."
"They are lazy," Romina says of her brothers and her sister, who is 12, as she uses all her weight to push the nose of the dolly down so that it is resting solely on its wheels.
She says she can handle a dolly with as much as 400 pounds by herself. The trick, she says, is balance and alignment. Always keep the wheels straight in front of you; otherwise, she says, "it will attack you."
When she first started working on the streets, she woke up sore for a week. "But the body gets used to it," she says. Once, a passing car nicked the dolly as she was pushing it. Just about broke her arm in two, she says.
"You have to really watch the cars," she says.
She has a boyfriend. He is 17 and a cartonero as well, working with his father in a neighborhood not far from here. She met him at her 15th birthday party.
She wishes they had more time together.
She wants to be a doctor. It's hard to find time to study. She hates to get her hair dirty.
But it's not so bad, she says. Half the children in her class at school are cartoneros, she says, so she's not embarrassed by it. She meets people on the streets. She finds herself easily bored when she's home.
This, she says, is not hard. She pauses a moment and the words spill from her mouth like rain.
"Let me tell you what's hard. What's hard is waking up in the morning, fixing my father's mate and doing all the stuff that needs to be done around the house, going to school, coming home to study, then coming out here to work, getting home at midnight, then waking up six hours later and doing the same thing over again."