What is the real cost of a few extra pesos a day?

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At first when traveling, the days of the week stop mattering to me and I forget that not everyone is on holiday. Then I start to realize: it is a Wednesday at 11am and there are a lot of kids helping in restaurants or selling fruit, pastries, or trinkets on the street. I saw this somewhat in the Yucatan, but in the mountain villages of Chiapas it is quite prevalent.

The Agua Azul waterfall is an hour away from Palenque up in the mountains and the local community lives off tourism. Young girls, maybe 5-8 years old, thrust bags of fried plantains at the windows of our van every few miles as we drive up the mountain. At the falls, kids are all over, minding shops or carrying baskets of small items for sale. We met a 24-year-old working in a restaurant. He said he had spent every day of his life there at the base of the falls and had minimal schooling; our day trip was his life. With tourists coming directly to them every day, why bother with any other way?
Public school does exist and is supposedly mandatory, but apparently attendance is infrequently enforced. I hear that private schools are available for those who can afford it (I see kids in uniform actually on their way to and from school) and that is it truly a tiered education system here.
I have heard from other travelers about their experiences teaching English in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Mostly they are tales of frustration. How in a class of 60 kids only 5 regularly attend every day. How international volunteers come for short stints and then leave, creating inconsistency for the kids and low lasting impact. (IMHO, this sort of volunteerism is more to make the traveler feel warm and fuzzy about themselves that do real good.) How volunteers did stay in one place for a relatively extended period of time–two months–did not feel they had made a lick of difference because most kids plain weren’t there.
Who knows how much hidden talent could be revealed in the huge population of children that end up running trinket shops by default? By taking the small money now, how much are families sacrificing in the future? It is one of the everlasting question for a tourist: is my presence and money doing more harm than good?

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