Myths Over Miami

Captured on South Beach, Satan later escaped. His demons and the horrible Bloody Mary are now killing people. God has fled. Avenging angels hide out in the Everglades. And other tales from children in Dade's homeless shelters.

The same overarching themes link the myths of 30 homeless children in three Dade County facilities operated by the Salvation Army -- as well as those of 44 other children in Salvation Army emergency shelters in New Orleans, Chicago, and Oakland, California. These children, who ranged in age from six to twelve, were asked what stories, if any, they believed about Heaven and God -- but not what they learned in church. (They drew pictures for their stories with crayons and markers.) Even the parlance in Miami and elsewhere is the same. Children use the biblical term "spirit" for revenants, never "ghost" (says one local nine-year-old scornfully: "That baby word is for Casper in the cartoons, not a real thing like spirits!"). In their lexicon, they always use "demon" to denote wicked spirits.

Their folklore casts them as comrades-in-arms, regardless of ethnicity (the secret stories are told and cherished by white, black, and Latin children), for the homeless youngsters see themselves as allies of the outgunned yet valiant angels in their battle against shared spiritual adversaries. For them the secret stories do more than explain the mystifying universe of the homeless; they impose meaning upon it.

Virginia Hamilton, winner of a National Book Award and three Newberys (the Pulitzer Prize of children's literature), is the only children's author to win a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. Her best-selling books, The People Could Fly and Herstories, trace African-American folklore through the diaspora of slavery. "Folktales are the only work of beauty a displaced people can keep," she explains. "And their power can transcend class and race lines because they address visceral questions: Why side with good when evil is clearly winning? If I am killed, how can I make my life resonate beyond the grave?"

Steve Satterwhite
The Blue Lady, depicted by 9-year-old Phatt, throws up a bulletproof barrier to protect two homeless children, drawn with soiled faces and clothes. The Horned Demon entered Miami via a "Hell door" concealed by an abandoned refrigerator (at the figure's right). The NationsBank building, an angel hangout, glows in the distance.
The Blue Lady, depicted by 9-year-old Phatt, throws up a bulletproof barrier to protect two homeless children, drawn with soiled faces and clothes. The Horned Demon entered Miami via a "Hell door" concealed by an abandoned refrigerator (at the figure's right). The NationsBank building, an angel hangout, glows in the distance.

That sense of mission, writes Harvard psychologist Robert Coles in The Spiritual Life of Children, may explain why some children in crisis -- and perhaps the adults they become -- are brave, decent, and imaginative, while others more privileged can be "callous, mean-spirited, and mediocre." The homeless child in Miami and elsewhere lives in a world where violence and death are commonplace, where it's highly advantageous to grovel before the powerful and shun the weak, and where adult rescuers are nowhere to be found. Yet what Coles calls the "ability to grasp onto ideals larger than oneself and exert influence for good" -- a sense of mission -- is nurtured in eerie, beautiful, shelter folktales.

In any group that generates its own legends -- whether in a corporate office or a remote Amazonian village -- the most articulate member becomes the semiofficial teller of the tales. The same thing happens in homeless shelters, even though the population is so transient. The most verbally skilled children -- such as Andre -- impart the secret stories to new arrivals. Ensuring that their truths survive regardless of their own fate is a duty felt deeply by these children, including one ten-year-old Miami girl who, after confiding and illustrating secret stories, created a self-portrait for a visitor. She chose a gray crayon to draw a gravestone carefully inscribed with her own name and the year 1998.

Here is what the secret stories say about the rules of spirit behavior: Spirits appear just as they looked when alive, even wearing favorite clothes, but they are surrounded by faint, colored light. When newly dead, the spirits' lips move but no sound is heard. They must learn to speak across the chasm between the living and the dead. For shelter children, spirits have a unique function: providing war dispatches from the fighting angels. And like demons, once spirits have seen your face, they can always find you.

Nine-year-old Phatt is living for a month in a Salvation Army shelter in northwest Dade. He and his mother became homeless after his father was arrested for drug-dealing and his mother couldn't pay the rent with her custodial job at a fast-food restaurant. (Phatt is his nickname. The first names of all other children in this article have been used with the consent of their parents or guardians.) "There's a river that runs through Miami. One side, called Bad Streets, the demons took over," Phatt recounts as he sits with four homeless friends in the shelter's playroom, which is decorated with pictures the children have drawn of homes, kittens, and hearts. "The other side the demons call Good Streets. Rich people live by a beach there. They wear diamonds and gold chains when they swim."

He explains that Satan harbors a special hatred of Miami owing to a humiliation he suffered while on an Ocean Drive reconnaissance mission. He was hunting for gateways for his demons and was scouting for nasty emotions to feed them. Satan's trip began with an exhilarating start; he moved undetected among high-rolling South Beach clubhoppers despite the fact that his skin was, as Phatt's friend Victoria explains, covered with scales like a "gold and silver snake."

Why didn't the rich people notice? Eight-year-old Victoria scrunches up her face, pondering. "Well, I think maybe sometimes they're real stupid so they get tricked," she replies. Plus, she adds, the Devil was "wearing all that Tommy Hilfiger and smoking Newports and drinking wine that cost maybe three dollars for a big glass." He found a large Hell door under the Colony Hotel, and just as he was offering the owner ten Mercedes-Benzes for use of the portal, he was captured by angels.

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6 comments
donnac84
donnac84

Bloody Mary is not new or original, she has always been summoned by chanting her name three times in front of a mirror.  I first heard of her as a child in the 60's, in New Jersey

cynmccollum
cynmccollum

@donnac84  No she is not new, but I'm guessing you did not grow up with the folklore of the homeless kids. Middle class white kids play with the occult, the desperate live it. Do not condescend to that which you do not know.

fake_off
fake_off

@donnac84 You clearly didn't read the story in its entirety, so why leave a comment?

barefootmama0709
barefootmama0709

@donnac84 The point of the article is the way in which street children are repurposing common legend. 

asjdhasjdkh
asjdhasjdkh

@donnac84 No shit. The rest of the legend is unique though, which makes it interesting. You're not some sole arbiter of secret information.

 
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