Julianne Chandler, Latin America Program Director
Julianne Chandler, Dragons Latin America Program Director, shares how a community is undeterred in their endless commitment to each other…
It’s Friday morning and I’m up early, the crisp early winter cold biting through the mountain air. Only in the Andes can you awake to frost on the grass and find yourself battling blistering rays of sunlight by 11 am, with temperatures jumping over 40 degrees F in a few hours. I sneak out of my gate before the kids are awake, stuffing my hand-sewn mask into a pocket as I roll my rusted old cruiser onto the dirt road. I’m still taken by the striking calm that fills the air in the absence of motor vehicles, and our little road is deserted save for a flock of sheep as I head towards the main avenue. When I reach the corner I pause to take in the morning stillness, and my gaze stretches into a horizon that is crisper than ever before: Tiquipayaya lays spread out below, a patchwork of urban sprawl interspersed by large expanses of agricultural fields that predominate farther to the west. To the southeast the city of Cochabamba takes shape, crowned by Cristo de la Concordia, allegedly the largest christ statue in the world. In the far distance I can even make out the lomas of the Zona Sur, Cochabamba’s sprawling working class sector, where trouble is brewing. Bumping down the Montecillo hillside I pass neighbors and families making their way home by foot, their weekly provisions in tow. Technically only one adult member of each family is permitted to leave the house each week, for a 4-hour window designated according to your national ID number, but I see couples and mothers toting children on their backs, stopping to eat a salteña or sip a glass of mocochinchi on the side of the road.
I am reassured by these simple acts of normalcy in the midst of pandemic, by small gestures of disobedience in our little Bolivian town.
I find it uncomfortable to ride with my mask, but slip it over my face as the cobblestone gives way to potholes and clouds of dirt, the abandoned remnants of a paving project that was paused way back in September, just before national elections threw the country into its last crisis. In Bolivia, there are layers to our state of emergency, one overshadowing the next until you can’t tell where one was left off and the other begins. As I roll into downtown Tiquipaya I find the streets lively but also eerily quiet. Lines snake their way out of shops with some semblance of social distancing, and a truckload of military men look serious but a bit aimless on the corner of Pablo Jaimes and Avenida Reducto. I know that in some communities thought to be “undisciplined,” such as the Zona Sur, the security presence is not so passive. They stare down the loan gringa as my bike squeaks past, but fortunately don’t ask to see my ID; it’s not my designated day and I’m breaking quarantine regulations by being out of the house. In some pockets of the country protests are stirring as we head into month three of draconian quarantine measures, and images on the news show violent repression by members of the armed forces in K’ara K’ara, El Alto, Yapacaní. In a country with the largest informal economy in the world, people are starting to go hungry and need to work to survive.
On Avenida Cochabamba I slip into the ATM amidst a line that stretches three city blocks all the way to the central plaza. People are seated on lawn chairs and perched on the curb at a scattered distance from one another, peering out over masked faces as they wait to collect a measly government bonus of 500 Bs. (less than $75). In El Alto there are reports of people spending all night in line to retrieve their bonus, wrapped in blankets to protect against the biting cold at 13,000 feet. These are our elderly, our sick, our most vulnerable. Our transition president Jeanine Añez, who increasingly governs as if she has actually been elected for office, likes to group these people in with the “undisciplined” protesters, as if reprimanding children for staying up past their bedtime. Lately language of “obedience” and “discipline” are pervasive in the news and incessant TV propaganda, revealing coming from a regime that has no legitimate claim to office. Under Añez’s newest decree, you can be imprisoned for spreading “disinformation” – even in the form of art – as a threat against public health. If only the same enthusiasm were being directed to testing and medical supplies.
Coming out of the ATM I recognize the eyes of a friend on the corner donning a colorful mask, and we both light up in recognition. Facing each other we pause and hesitate under the watchful stare of the police, and then both decide in the same moment to embrace each other because we haven’t been able to properly greet a friend in weeks. Our kids are in the same class at Kusi, and we lament the fact that they haven’t been out of the house in more than 60 days. Caro gives me a squeeze on the shoulder as I jump back on the cruiser, and my heart shines a bit brighter as I head for the countryside.
I reach the shaded bench across from Hotel Regina 10 minutes early but see that Valentina and two of our homestay mamas are already there. I embrace Doña Leti instantly because she’s like family, but Doña Pilar is nervous about being out of the house and we greet each other at a distance.
Instantly we are laughing and exchanging community gossip, and we are all wrapped up in the absolute joy and simplicity of sitting on a bench with women friends.
Doña Pilar tells us about the recent loss of her corn crop, her primary source of income this time of year, which collapsed after the abrupt end of the rainy season. Soon Paola and her mother Doña Elsa join us as well, with stories about the grandchildren and farm animals and how they’re faring without the essential weekly income they bring in selling chicharrón in the cancha every weekend. Leti is the last to join us, who came from Villa Oruro by foot with the news that her uncle passed away the day before, leaving 9 young children orphaned on the altiplano outside of La Paz (his death was not COVID-related). Her parents, Doña Carlota and Don Abdon, had rushed to La Paz in the cover of night, risking bribes or fines or worse at security checkpoints, to reach a mourning family in need that could not be accessed by Bolivia’s precarious medical system.
Before bidding farewell to our Collpapampa neighborhood families, Valentina and I hand over the modest donation from Dragons that had brought us together. We explain that while we won’t be able to receive students for an indefinite future, Dragons has started a fund to support our key host communities during this time of uncertainty and economic scarcity. They are deeply moved that Dragons has thought of them, and share with us what they’ll be able to do for their families with this support: a quintal de arroz (220 pounds of rice), much needed medication, stores of potatoes, flour, cooking oil, beans, and other staples to weather the certain precarity ahead.
Jumping back on our bikes, Valentina and I continue on to visit the homes of other families. As we ride through open fields and down tree-lined lanes, I am again taken by the sweet liberty of this moment, another small act of rebellion in a time of masks and security checkpoints and social distancing enforced for some at gunpoint. Nearly 10 years have gone by since Valentina and I walked these same roads together for the first time, stopping in at the homes of farmer families and single mamas and Aymara weavers to gauge their thoughts on receiving young Dragons students into their homes. They were so shy and skeptical at first, with young children peeking out wide-eyed from pleated skirts at the idea of a gringita or gringito sharing their homes. “But here, in the campo, where we have dirt floors and chickens roam free? Why would an American student want to live here?” And why not here, Valentina exclaimed, with the authority of someone who raised her sons free on these same country roads.
Here where we mark our days by the agricultural cycle, where the sweet cadence of Quechua hangs in the air, where the protective gaze of Mt. Tunari peers down at us from a height of 16,400 feet along the eastern flank of the longest mountain chain on earth.
Those children who peered up at me all those years ago are grown up now. They’re studying medicine at the public university or working at factories or helping in the fields. These women have been there through my pregnancies, they grew the flowers at my wedding, their younger kids climb trees and play hide and seek with my own daughter on the program house farm. By now they have received countless Dragons hijitas y hijitos into their homes, encouraging their Spanish, nursing their illnesses, laughing across seemingly impossible distances – cultural, economic, spiritual – that fall away in an adobe kitchen over a warm meal.
Riding past the Program House farm, we make our way to the farming communities of Apote and Totorkawa. Doña Marta lets out her deep and infectious laugh when we appear at her store front, beaming as she tells us about her granddaughter who is still managing to bring income in for the family at a meat factory as the public health crisis unfolds. She complains that her braids are untidy when I ask for a photo, and gives me a firm hug when we head on our way. Doña Marta has seen plenty of other crises unfold, she has survived dictatorships and the loss of children, and she’s unphased by COVID-19. We’ll get through this, she says, que mas podemos hacer pues?
Heading further down the road we stop at the homes of Sandra, Doña Eugenia, Susana, Doña Mari and her sister María. They invite us in, offer tea and mandarinas and fresh pacay from the tree. They share stories of past students and inquire about our kids and send their surprised and dignified thanks for the support more with their eyes and gestures than with their words.
All of these families depend on informal labor to make a living, much like most Bolivians. They sell produce and hot meals at the weekly farmer’s market, they are gardeners and carpenters and gifted weavers. They run dental offices out of their homes, and serve as local leaders in neighborhood associations. They look out for each other, just as they worry when students aren’t home as night falls on Tiquipaya. Last fall they saw their sources of income run dry after the political crisis took hold, when a predominately middle and upper class popular uprising paralyzed the country for 21 days. Bolivia was still contending with the effects of political turmoil when the public health emergency descended, snaking its way into corrupt political systems and the embers of recent massacres and the halls of deficient medical centers. Now our homestay mamas face the loss of Dragons income as well, which has provided a steady supplement to their income these past years.
I ride up the hillside back to Montecillo just before curfew kicks in at noon, and am filled to the brim with the presence of these strong women, laughter in their eyes as they face increasingly tenuous circumstances.
Without their generosity, their kindness, their patience, the work we do of connecting young people to a landscape and slice of life different from the one they’ve always known would not be possible.
A donation from the Dragons fund will provide a small boost to their livelihoods in the coming weeks, but we will never be able to repay them properly for what they’ve offered us all these years. How can you even start to place value on the memories, the stories, the intimate folds of their lives that they’ve shared with our students?
I’ve been in this work for a long time and honor the effort that Where There Be Dragons has made to extend support to our host communities in a time of global crisis. In my years as an international educator, I have never come across another organization that seeks opportunities for extended homestays in communities like Tiquipaya or El Alto, locations that would not be on the radar for your average traveler. International travel programming is rife with inequities, both in terms of access to a carefully crafted intercultural experience, but also with regard to recipient communities and the many layers of power and privilege that subtly or overtly shape the exchange. As the travel industry faces an unprecedented global crisis, I am grateful that Dragons has paused to acknowledge the disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities and populations around the world. As far as I know, no other student travel organizations are directing fundraising efforts directly to communities in need.
When I slip back into my gate, my girls are frantic to see me and I realize it’s the longest time we’ve been apart in two months. Inara is eager to hear all about Tía Vale and the mamas I’ve visited, and I wrap my arms around my daughters who have not left our land since March. As I get back to work that afternoon, there’s an update from Ana on the community grant we’ve sent to her in El Alto. “Lxs chicxs are mobilizing” she says, talking to me from the front lines of Jeanine Añez’s assault on Bolivia’s indigenous and poor. “The situation is serious.” They are militarizing El Alto and residents have to get more creative about transporting emergency provisions to the families that have been hardest hit on the barren fringes of the city.
‘They have created human chains to transport goods by foot to more remote areas,’ she explains.
“Lxs chicxs” – referring to the youth activists and artists that make up Teatro Trono, one of our strongest partner organizations – take turns moving goods on their designated days as the security presence closes in. “We have three brigades getting supplies to the wounded in Senkata, to distrito 11, to families in more remote neighborhoods.” My heart chills at the mention of Senkata, the site of a government-orchestrated massacre that left 9 people dead and dozens wounded in November of last year. “We’re calling it the Cadena de Abrazos que Alimentan.” The chain of hugs that feeds…
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