“Who Are You Calling Exploitative?” Defensive Motherhood, Child Labor, and Urban Poverty in Lima, Peru
This article examines how motherhood is imagined in relation to the charged subject of child labor. Based on fieldwork with families of children who work on Lima’s streets as jugglers, candy vendors, and windshield washers, I argue that child labor eradication efforts merge the development and rights rhetoric of the neoliberal era with longstanding civilizing discourses to characterize poor, brown-skinned mothers as the primary agents of their children’s exploitation. In response to the moralizing and criminalizing encroachment of the state into their everyday lives, mothers and children practice what I term defensive motherhood. In contrast to common assumptions that child labor is primarily a way of satisfying immediate economic needs and/or a backward cultural tradition to be reformed through education, I show that mothers, deeply aware of their own mortality in the face of an uncaring state, teach their children the value of work as an investment in their futures.