As Liliana picks lice from the tangled, thick hair of her boyfriend, Patricio, while they sit together on the sidewalk of a Caracas street, she’s also multi-tasking, keeping a watchful eye on her “family.” When a 10-year-old girl named Danianyeliz kneels down to drink water from a puddle, Liliana reproaches her, urging her to have a sip from a juice bottle they’ve just found in a garbage bag.
At 16, Liliana has become the mother figure for a gang of Venezuelan children and young adults called the Chacao, named after the neighborhood they’ve claimed as their territory. The 15 members, ranging in age from 10 to 23, work together to survive vicious fights for “quality” garbage in crumbling, shortage-plagued Venezuela. Their weapons are knives and sticks and machetes. The prize? Garbage that contains food good enough to eat.
Liliana has a quick, wide smile and goes by the nickname Caramelo. She takes charge of each day for the group, deciding how much food her “family” will consume and how much they will stash away for another day. She settles conflicts that flare up and gives a hug, a kiss or a pat on the back as needed.
“Caramelo is my mummy and Paola is my aunt,” declared Danianyeliz, a newcomer who joined the gang about a month ago. She left home, she said, because there was not enough food to go around. The “aunt” she referred to, Paola, is just 14 and another member of the gang.
Read more at the Miami Herald.