ITE, PERU -- Jeff Thielman was at the beach when Sebastian's baby died. Jeff, a 23-year-old American volunteer, had come to Ite, an oasis of 600 people in the Peruvian desert, with no electricity and one telephone, a two-hour drive from anywhere, to build a kindergarten. Jeff didn't realize it at the time -- there was no way that he could -- but the death of this infant would teach him what people in the Third World have known for generations about how little they should expect from life.

Jeff had taken the day off and gone swimming with a priest and two nurses working in Ite. When they got back to Ite it was 4 in the afternoon, and Sebastian, a skinny, cross-eyed 21-year-old, was waiting for them at the health post. He had been waiting for four hours and he looked like a wreck. Sebastian's wife had given birth that morning, he told the group. He had delivered the child and cut the umbilical cord with a razor blade. The baby was sick.

The group went down the hill to Sebastian's house, a one-room concrete structure, five by seven meters, with two tiny windows and holes in the roof. On the floor next to the small bed where Sebastian, his 19-year-old wife, Herenia, and their older baby slept, were crusted cooking pots and a few pieces of clothing. Flies were everywhere. It was the worst poverty that Jeff, who had just arrived in Peru, had ever seen. The newborn was lying at the foot of the bed, wrapped in a filthy piece of cloth, dead. It had lived eight hours. There were so many flies on the baby's face, Jeff wrote in his diary, that it looked as though his eyes were open.

They put the baby in a box and buried it the next day under a metal cross and a flower in Ite's tiny cemetery on the hillside. Atthe funeral, Sebastian passed around a bottle of Coke and a single glass.

The baby had been born six weeks premature, the nurse told Jeff the next day. Herenia had been hitting her womb in hopes of aborting the child. The nurse had suggested to Herenia that she have this child, then begin to use birth control, but Herenia did not want to do that. She told the nurse that she and Sebastian could not support the child they already had on his wages, let alone a second one.

A week later, Jeff went back to Sebastian's house. Sebastian was earning 14 Peruvian intis a day -- 84 cents -- he said, in his job as a farm worker, or peon, as they say in Peru, for a local patron. Where he had come from, in the mountains, he had been earning only 10 intis. He told Jeff his life was much better here in Ite, that the climate was not as harsh and the pay was better. He knew he wasn't being paid the minimum wage, which was 23 intis, he told Jeff, but there was nothing he could do.

Jeff thought there was something he could do. It was mid-February, 1986. Jeff was from a middle-class Connecticut family, fresh from Boston College. He had come to Peru with the school's International Volunteer Program, assigned to spend the next two years teaching at Colegio Cristo Rey, a Jesuit boys' school in Tacna, a town of 150,000 on Peru's southern border with Chile. Jeff had been student body president at BC, and had worked for Gov. Michael Dukakis, for whom he had written a paper recommending that Massachusetts go beyond disinvestment in South Africa and refuse to do business with any company that operates there. He was disappointed when Dukakis did not follow his recommendation, he said, but he realized he might have been naive. He had the earnest confidence of an honest young politician and the idea that he owed the world something, so he had come to Peru. Cristo Rey's school year would start in April, and Jeff had been looking for a way to spend the two months in between. He found it in Sebastian's house.

"I made the decision that day that I was going to shake the town up," he said. He would spend the next two months, he decided, or whatever it took, trying to get Ite's landowners to comply with the law and pay their workers the minimum wage.

He took his project to Fred Green, the World War II Marine pilot-turned-Jesuit priest who runs Cristo Rey. Green, who has lived in Peru since 1959, told Jeff not to waste his time. But after thinking it over, he told Jeff to try it. "You might learn something," Green said.

Jeff started the project when he got back to Cristo Rey. On Friday, he rode his bike into Tacna and went to see Oscar Galdos, the head of Employment and Social Security in the Labor Ministry. Jeff explained what he had found in Ite, which was under Tacna's jurisdiction. Galdos told him this was a problem all over Peru, and that he thought they could do something about it, but that transportation to Ite, a two-hour drive from Tacna, was a problem.

The next Tuesday Jeff went back to Galdos and volunteered to pay for gas for the trip. Galdos directed Jeff to another official, who wasn't around. Jeff went to talk to a third official. She listened to his story and said she would call him the next day. She didn't call. For the next six weeks, until school began at Cristo Rey, Jeff spent every day with a government official. They all wanted to go to Ite, they told him. But there was a meeting that day, or it was someone's birthday, or no car was available. "What a fool I am," Jeff wrote in his diary.

The school year began and for two weeks Jeff did not make his daily pilgrimage to the government offices. When he went back on May 13, there was a new man in charge. "He really wants to help me," Jeff wrote in his diary. "I talked to him and he said he'd talk to the mayor of Ite." But a month later, nothing had happened. In desperation, Jeff made 100 copies of the minimum wage law. When the mayor of Ite came to Tacna, Jeff gave him the copies. He promised he would distribute them.

"There are just too many damn tomorrows here," Jeff would say later.

The city hall Jeff tried to fight is one of the most frustrating in Latin America. Perhaps more than any other Latin American country, Peru is endowed with a self-perpetuating fatalism: Because nothing works, people come to believe that nothing can work; so few people try to make things work, so nothing works.

The breakdown of civic order is fundamental. Well-dressed businessmen urinate on Lima's downtown streets. Drivers use the left side of the street if they feel like it, honking and swerving around oncoming cars. Store clerks sit outside reading the paper or talking, ignoring customers. The streets are literally full of garbage.

After 28 years in Peru, Father Green has also developed divine patience in the face of the absurd. Every year, he said, Cristo Rey builds a school in a rural area like Ite and asks the Peruvian government for materials. "It's a lot of work to get local food and housing for 30 boys," said Green, "but our biggest problem is getting the government to provide us with a few bags of cement and some steel rods. There is no shortage of cement, but it takes months of visiting offices again and again to get it. It's the same rigmarole every time, for the most part dealing with the same people."

Oscar Galdos, the Social Security and Employment chief that Jeff had talked to last year, was reading the paper when I came into his office one morning last month and asked to speak to him. We talked for the next two hours. On the wall behind him was a poster from the National Debureaucratization Program -- "Debureaucratization is the responsibility of every Peruvian," it said.

I asked him if it was true that some employers do not pay minimum wage. "The great majority of employers," he replied. "It is a disgrace, but the supply and demand for work allows this to happen."

There were many barriers to the government's doing inspections, Galdos said. His office will not initiate an investigation without a complaint from a worker. I tried to picture Sebastian finding a way to make the two-hour trip to Tacna to denounce his employer, and I could not. Then, said Galdos, there is the transportation problem. "In reality, we don't do rural inspections because we have no cars," he said.

Galdos, like Jeff, viewed himself as a fighter blocked by the system.. "This is the history of Peru," Galdos said. "It is the legacy of hundreds of years of colonial rule. The worker is always exploited. He doesn't know the laws and usually can't read and write. There are hundreds of terrible cases in the country, thousands. What we need is a huge campaign on the part of the government to improve education and health." Without these sweeping reforms, he said, there was no point in trying.

He laughed gently when I asked him about the idealistic young gringo who had dogged him the year before. "Jeff came in and began banging on my desk, saying 'I want these guys to pay minimum wage,'" he said. "I said, 'Fine, I want it too.' I told him, 'You want to make a revolution?' I said I was a revolutionary, too.

"I wanted to help him. I tried to get transportation. But the problem is, if we arrive to investigate and the patron thinks his workers have denounced him, he will fire them. We have experience with this -- we've gone into restaurants and questioned the owners about what they pay their kids, and the next day the boy loses his job and is out in the street.

"There was a man in my office this morning. He was fired from his job because he has tuberculosis. Because of an error his doctor made in the dates of his treatment, social security is not going to cover his illness. What can I do? I could be his lawyer, but there are hundreds of cases like that. The need is to solve not just one case, but all of them. I'm like a doctor who sees so many deaths. One more doesn't mean anything."

Today, Jeff laughs when he thinks about his quest a year ago. "I wanted to ride into Ite on a white horse and announce, 'Okay everyone, now you'll all make minimum wage,'" he said. "But now I know more about Peru."

Gone is the impatient gringo. Jeff could now make small talk for 20 minutes before easing the conversation into what he really came for. He didn't walk a block in Tacna without stopping to schmooze. His new project, the Center for the Working Child, was going well. Jeff convinced a Cristo Rey parent to let him use an empty house in central Tacna as an afternoon center for the newsboys and shoeshine boys who work in Tacna's streets. They came to play table soccer, eat oatmeal with apples, watch cartoons and do art projects. On Saturday they played soccer. There was a shower the boys could use -- when there was water. The money for the center came from Jeff's own pocket and donations he solicited in the United States.

Jeff took me to the house of a boy who came to the center, 12-year-old Mauricio, a polite and intelligent boy whose seashell sculptures had just won an art contest. Mauricio and his family were recent immigrants from Puno, an Indian town in the Andes. The five children and two parents lived in a two-room dirt-floored house in the back yard of a wealthy man's house in Tacna. Until a few weeks before, an aunt had also lived with them. Mauricio's father worked from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. for no pay each day for the privilege of living in the house. The parents and daughters slept in the larger room, which was four meters by two, and the three boys and the aunt slept in the smaller room. There was no electricity, no beds and I didn't see a bathroom, not even an outhouse. A garden hose provided water.

Mauricio's prize for winning the contest was a plane trip to Lima for a week of art classes, parties and political events with other winners. He was even going to meet President Alan Garcia. It would be the best opportunity of Mauricio's life. His mother didn't want him to go. It was too far away, and she didn't like the idea of a plane trip. She had been persuaded it was a good idea, but she was wavering, and Jeff made the visit to lobby her one more time.

She was about 27 and wept continuously while she talked to us, rarely looking up from the ground. She held her smallest child, an 18-month-old girl dressed in a torn sweater and tights. The girl's eyes were dull with fever. She had been sick for three days. The mother said there was no money to take her to a doctor.

I took Jeff aside and asked him if we should offer to take them. "Go ahead," he said, as though he were repeating what Father Green had told him -- that now I might learn something. "She'll say no." She did say no but let me to buy some liquid aspirin.

"If that had been me last year," Jeff said as we walked out,"I would have said 'Oh my God, let's do something.' Now I know you have to try, ask the mother to bring the baby to the hospital, but if she doesn't, that's life. I see so many sick kids." He shrugged. For a second he sounded just like Oscar Galdos.

Jeff and I went to Ite, his first trip back in a year. Sebastian and Herenia had moved. There was another man living in their house now. The man, in his early 30s, was working in the field, spraying pesticide on some peppers. He said he had a small son living with him and was also supporting a wife and daughter in Puno. He said he made 35 intis a day. The minimum wage was 42 intis.

Sebastian was working in a different patron's field, a better patron, he said. His new employer had told us he paid 50 or 60 intis a day, but Sebastian said he was making 40, two intis below the minimum wage. He and Herenia had moved to a new house next to a sheep corral. It was smaller than their other house, with walls made of woven wicker. There was one small bed. On the floor next to it was a fire under a pot with onions and potatoes. On the bed were two children. The new baby, a boy, was born just 10 months and 17 days after Herenia had given birth to the baby that Jeff helped bury. He was born Dec. 25, and the couple had named him Jesu's.

Tina Rosenberg is a freelance writer based in Latin America.