On our second morning in Potosí, we paid a visit to its child workers’ organization, CONNATSOP (Consejo de Niños, Niñas, Adolescentes Trabajadores). Originally we had planned to pair every student with a child worker, shining shoes in the plazas or selling newspapers on the streets, but because of last minute changes, we were only able to work in the organization’s bakery for the morning.
As we split up jobs for the morning, I volunteered to sit outside the bakery with one of the child workers, Vania, to sell bread to passerbys. She was extremely shy, and after showing me which breads cost 0.50, 1, 2, and 5 Bolivianos, we resorted to several minutes of awkward silence as we stared out at the workers paving the street in front of us. Through our intermittent conversations, I learned that she had at least four other siblings, and that her dad worked as a miner in the nearby Cerro Rico (the Rich Hill). After much prompting, she told me that he would leave the house at four or five in the morning, and usually wouldn’t be back until six or eight in the evening. I learned that her favorite class in school was sociales, where she would learn about different countries around the world. She had been working with CONNATSOP for seven or eight years now, and she was only fifteen years old. We eventually started passing the time writing different people’s names in Chinese characters.
As Vania got her day’s pay in ten or so pieces of bread, I couldn’t help but think about what I had been doing when I was fifteen. When I was fifteen, I was told that my main responsibility was to study hard and well at school; I certainly had no responsibility to support my family. Why are our realities so different? Why do I have the opportunity to travel to all these places in her home country that she’s not yet even heard of? Looking up at the Cerro Rico, the hill with so much silver that it bankrolled the Spanish empire for nearly three centuries, I was reminded of the exploitation and poverty that the indigenous people suffered, and how relevant that image still is today. I don’t know nearly enough about Vania’s family, but will her dad eventually develop silicosis and leave her siblings without a father? Will her younger siblings also have to work to support the family, or will they be able to enjoy their time off, playing in playgrounds and on the streets, like I did when I was younger?
Three hours is nowhere near enough to experience the daily life of a child worker. Even in Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia, when a few of us sold magazines for an hour with another organization of child workers, it was hard to grasp what life was like for them: going to school for half a day, and needing to work for the rest of the day selling trinkets and magazines in the plaza (to sometimes disrespectful tourists) in order to have enough money to buy school supplies.
I know I don’t know the whole picture of the situation of child workers in Bolivia, but at least next time a kid selling gum or magazines comes up to me, I will not brush him/her away as hastily as I did before. Instead, I will remind myself of how much respect each of them deserve for how gracefully they are facing their respective realities.