‘Angelitos’ Takes an Honest Journey Through the Slums of 1985 Mexico City

By Christina Miranda

On September 19, 1985, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook Mexico City. Hundreds of buildings and homes were reduced to rubble, and medical relief was severely limited. As a result, the major earthquake caused the deaths of 10,000 people and left thousands more without shelter.

While one of the most chaotic events in recent history, there have been people in Mexico City who have always lived in a similarly chaotic situation. These are the children of Mexico City, struggling with extreme poverty daily. For the children in Ilan Stavans and Santiago Cohen’s graphic novel, Angelitos, a brief yet resounding light shines on their lives and social barriers during a time in which they were forced to live in the shadows.

The real life Padre Chincha

The real life Padre Chincha

Written by Stavans and illustrated by Cohen, Angelitos is a fictionalized retelling of Ilan Stavans’ time spent with Spanish priest, Alejandro García Durán de Lara—also known as Padre Chinchachoma or Padre Chincha—who spent over thirty years guiding and raising homeless children of all ages across Mexico.

After he is mugged by a group of children, Ilan discovers Padre Chincha living and watching over the children that robbed him. Captivated by Padre Chincha, Ilan decides to follow him in his work and attempt to provide moral guidance to children who must resort to violence and theft as a means of survival. Over the course of his time spent with Padre Chincha, Ilan quickly becomes exposed to the hardships that force these children to extreme measures for the sake of survival. This is not limited to hunger and poverty, but assaults from a police force tainted by years of bribery and abuse of power. He watches them beg, steal, and stumble through the high of cheap drugs.

As a result of this, Padre Chincha, defends his children in his lesson to Ilan: “That’s why homeless kids are violent. Because these kids – they do what other kids do unto them.” Although Ilan is put in an uncomfortable position of being a wealthier person in the turbulence of trying to help them, he is also comforted by others in their inner circle like Cristina. Despite being mute, she is able to get through to the boys during their lowest moments. As a young Lengüita is released from the local penitentiary for begging on the streets, he confides in her, saying, “Even though you are mute, you know me.”

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The use of illustration adds to the realism of the lives portrayed for those on both sides of the Mexican socio-economic spectrum. At first Cohen’s illustrations present a style similar to those found in the comics section of the Sunday paper—simple, to the point, and comforting. However, as Ilan’s story progresses, the line between a lighthearted presentation and a weighted narrative of children enduring theft, rape, and murder become woven together. Padre Chincha clarifies their situation perfectly upon finding one of his children, Jaimito, in an alley, sexually abused and battered: “Poor boys, we’re always stitching them back together like rag dolls.” In the end, you are left with a deep sense of discomfort which is welcomed by this form of affective storytelling. 

What’s memorable about this graphic novel is its sobering ability to bring the reader down to the level of the children who take Ilan in after Padre Chincha’s arrest. While Ilan might have been burdened with the image of a savior, there is a leveling of the social field that makes him and the children equals before and after the earthquake. The children in this story are not mere sob story fodder, but real characters who are trying to have a normal childhood in a society that wants nothing to do with them. They attempt this by making room in their home in the slums for Ilan.

In such a quick read, there is plenty to pause on and ponder, making this melancholic story a highly enticing graphic novel.

Angelitos is on sale now from The Ohio State University Press.