Moving mountains

14 Jul, 2011 | Jack Brooker

Social issues

Four Bolivianos can go a long way in La Paz. An avocado, a DVD, or even as, I have been reliably informed, a new white board pen can be bought for the equivalent of around 40 English pence. However, perhaps the item which will see your coins go the furthest is a copy of the ‘Hormigón Armado’, a newspaper produced and sold by the lustrabotas.

The newspaper was founded from the finances of the ‘Villa Serena’ restaurant in Sopocachi and is based on a similar principle to the UK’s ‘Big Issue’. The Foundation helps young people all over the city by providing Saturday school classes, and the opportunity to earn a bit of extra cash by selling the publications. The lustrabotas can be found across La Paz and all have an array of often problematic backgrounds, but the ‘Hormigón Armado’ is attempting to bring them together and help each person individually.

Armed with a map with ‘Villa Serena’ grubbily circled in the bottom right hand corner of Sopocachi, and a bottle of water to fight away the pre­vious night’s exploits in Mongo’s, I set off in what I hoped was the general direction of Plaza España. Isabel Oroza Garrón, as general director of the foundation (Fundación de arte y culturas bolivianas) and the newspa­per, had very kindly spared me some time to talk to her about the project.

Like everywhere in La Paz it was a gruelling uphill struggle to one of the southern most points of Sopo­cachi, but a quaint little courtyard welcomed me in to the restaurant and before settling down with Isabel, I take in some of the restaurant decor. Whilst slightly gloomy even in the midday sun, the inside bar area is covered in wall-to-wall artistic inspiration. Isabel explains the central importance of art in the project’s education programme and its role in building self-esteem and nurturing latent skills: “These interesting works are just the very best, and the walls are quickly running out of space!”

On closer inspection it becomes clear that the restaurant is more like a house, with different rooms sprout­ing from everywhere, doubling up as dining rooms for guests, then in the mornings and early evenings as classrooms for the students. All of the magic happens here: all the classes for the foundation, and also, bar the printing, all the production of the paper. I ask Isabel more about the work of the Foundation with the young people who come here. With the air of the schoolteacher who al­ways knows exactly what is going on in her classroom, she explains some of the problems that the children face. Many come from a violent domestic life, and therefore she thinks the best way to support them is to provide constant human contact. The disorder with children from such chaotic backgrounds is, according to Isabel, one of the hardest social barriers to overcome. So discipline is strict. Any lustrabotas missing classes – or seminars as they are called – lose their allocation of newspapers, and are therefore not able to make any pocket money. This emphasis on structure is what Isabel believes is so crucial to helping young people de­velop. With this organization other so­cial skills can develop. Whilst essential skills, such as reading and writing, are integral to the work of the foundation she was very keen to reiterate the point that personal contact with the students is paramount, since life-skills cannot be learned out of a book.

The newspaper, in conjunction with the foundation, is also a success. Through advertising it is able to cover a large proportion of the printing costs and, with the added profits of the restaurant on top, it is able to run efficiently with the dedicated work of the volunteers. The lustrabotas are now even contributing articles to the paper as a result of their class work. This is one of the proudest parts of the paper for Isabel, as she begins to sift through not only the articles written by her students, but also the drawings and writings of some of her youngest pupils of five or six years old.

Whilst many of the students have the work of the foundation as their sole focus, some also hold down regular jobs. For example Isabel explains that one student is also a driver, chauffeuring people around La Paz. Despite the financial incentive, how­ever, this does not in any way affect his commitment to his studies, and shows that no matter what he earns from his day job, he values what the foundation can bring him in the long term. This stellar example of the foun­dation’s good work is perhaps most exemplary of the overall aim of Isabel and her team: a beneficiary who is now economically self-sufficient yet still understands the importance of education for his own future.

The foundation works with volunteers, mainly local and sometimes from abroad. This winter (see August edi­tion) some Bolivian Express Journalists organised Saturday workshops with the children and published a feature of their personal profiles and testimo­nials from the sessions. Isabel is wel­coming to people who want to get involved and help out, however she is rightly protective of the children’s expectations and safety, carefully vetting any helpers for what they plan to achieve through their work and making sure they set realistic goals in line with individual children’s needs.

Finally I ask Isabel about the future, and what she would eventually like to see the project achieve. Expecting a grand gesture along the lines of eradicating poverty in La Paz and ultimately in South America, I was slightly taken aback when her goals were rather more realistic:

‘Ultimately’, she says, ‘the ideal thing would be to have a house in which I could have the foundation separate from the restaurant. Here it would be easier to coordinate everything, with eating, studying and working on the newspaper all under the same roof.

One thing she is adamant about though, is that she would never have the facility for students to sleep at the foundation; she believes this would mean people getting involved in the foundation with ulterior motives and not purely for their social and intellec­tual development.

Isabel feels that she is helping to encourage social mobility in the lower rungs of Paceño society. Using the ad­age coined by the newspaper she is confident she can achieve these goals:

‘Little by little we move mountains’

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