National Geographic : 2005 Mar
The squalor of Barrio Moravia (right) led the late drug lord Pablo Escobar to build new housing for the poor. Revered as a hero by some, Escobar is reviled by many others for his legacy, which the city stillfights to shed. THE CANDY SELLER More than 100,000 children work the streets of Medellin, but Miguel is the one I know best. He stands about four feet tall with a bristle cut and the smile of a natural-born salesman. Selling candy on the city bus, Miguel helps support a household in which everyone contributes. But he's also a ten-year-old kid who likes candy, and that's where self-discipline comes in. Every day, he says, he allows himself to eat one-and only one-piece of his wares. "If I ate more than one, I'd eat them all," he says. Miguel lives with his grandmother, who works in a factory shucking corn, and his grandfather, a watchman, along with four young uncles and his two brothers in a two-room apartment in a northern barrio. Like so many of Medellin's working poor, Miguel's family left the coffee growing countryside to escape the violence there. When he was a toddler, his mother abandoned Miguel and his brothers. "She threw me away, so my grandparents came and picked me up," he says. Once he saw her in a photograph. She had long red hair and her skin looked pale, but that's all he remembers. Each morning his grandmother gives Miguel 2,000 pesos (about 75 cents). After school he goes to the candy store to buy a bag of coffee caramels. Then he gets on the bus and announces to his captive audience of shopkeepers and factory workers: "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to take your precious time, but I am selling candy." It works. He makes about 4,000 pesos a day and delivers the money to his grandmother. When Miguel and I last spoke, it was several weeks before Christmas. I met him downtown after school and tagged along as he bought candy and worked the bus up the valley until we reached his neighborhood, called Zamora. His grandmother came in from the corn factory, and we sat on the two beds of their apartment to talk. Weeks earlier Miguel had told me he wanted a bicycle for Christmas, but that was clearly out 90 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2005 of the question. In fact, his grandmother said, they would ignore Christmas entirely. Miguel and his brothers would have the day off from school, of course, so she planned to take them to the factory to shuck corn, where they could pretend it was just another Sunday at work. My last day in Medellin was the second of December, ten years to the day after Pablo Esco bar's death. To mark the occasion, Escobar's grave at Jardines Montesacro had been tented and covered in white flowers. As I approached, the sky opened, and big oily raindrops splatted down on the grave's white tent.