Raphael Fernández is a dumpsite boy. Though he hates to say it, the thing he finds most often at the dumpsite is “stupp,” which is human excrement. It’s often wrapped in paper and thrown in the trash, on account of the city’s lack of toilets or running water. The overwhelmingly large dumpsite—which one can smell long before one sees it—is named Behala, and the dumpsite people crawl and sort through mountain-sized piles of trash all day long. Raphael and his friend Gardo usually never find anything interesting—only stupp. But one day, Raphael does find something.
The novel’s opening paints a visceral picture of the abject poverty in which people in Mulligan’s fictional city live. Mulligan uses sensory details like the prevalence of human feces (stupp), the pervasive odor of the landfill, and the imagery of people perpetually crawling through trash to portray the unimaginably appalling conditions in which children are forced to live in this society.
Raphael has been a “trash boy” since he was three. These children look for plastic (which can be sold by the kilogram) along with paper, metal cans, glass bottles, and clothes. The kids wear clothes that they find, but mostly they weigh up cloth and sell it like anything else. Raphael wears hacked-off jeans and a large T-shirt but no shoes, because the kids feel out the trash with their feet. Down the way, a hundred or so kids sort the fast food waste, picking out straws and cups to weigh and sell. On a good day, Raphael will make 200 pesos. On a bad day, maybe only 50. A trash boy lives by his “hook,” which he uses to sort through trash. Gardo and Raphael work together, rapidly sorting through the stupp and gathering plastic.
Raphael’s claim that he started working when he was three shows that impoverished children are often forced into child labor in appalling conditions (emphasized by how they feel for plastic and paper with their bare feet as they wade through human feces). Nonetheless, Raphael shows how enterprising the community is: despite having no formal education or resources, they have organized their scavenging into an efficient, fine-tuned machine of teamwork that functions like a business.