She is one of as many as a thousand Bolivians who are leaving here each day. The Bolivian exodus.
Heartbreaking stories of people leaving their lives behind are very easy to find here. A Taxi driver named Johnny, who I spent a day with recently, driving out to the countryside, told me he hopes to leave for Madrid in January, with a formal invitation letter from his brother who moved there years ago. He plans to stay for three years. To get his kids ready for the absence of their father he has adjusted his work hours to be around them less and less. “I don’t want it to be so drastic for them,” he told me.
An older friend of mine, a social worker in her early 60s, left a year ago to join the large Bolivian ex-pat community in Providence, Rhode Island. Her case was different. She went in legally, the recipient of a resident visa from the US government. She left behind her grandchildren, several of whom lived with her, to work for a few years and try to save enough money to retire on. She complained to me later about the cold weather and misses home, but she made the move anyway.
It would be easy to cast judgment on many of those leaving. Some will condemn those going illegally for breaking the rules and jumping the line. Others will condemn parents for leaving their children, and there is ample evidence of an increase in child abuse and neglect as children get left behind with uncles, aunts, grandparents and others – along with promises that “Mama will send for you” or “Papa will come back.”
They know all this. They know the risks. Many get sent back from Spain on arrival, deported by officials who doubt the planeloads of stories from young and poor Bolivians who say they managed to save more than $1000 for a ticket to have a look at the King’s palace in Madrid. But they go anyway.
“In six years my husband and I have built nothing,” said my young friend, who worked as the cook in a local restaurant popular with foreigners and whose husband repairs TVs and radios. “We work just to eat day by day. We have to do something to have a future.” So she followed in the footsteps of her older sister and went to Barcelona to seek her fortunes as a nanny or a maid. She dreams of putting away or sending home several hundred dollars of savings a month. She wanted to take her son but her family convinced her that she should wait to be sure she could handle the move. I suspect that she didn’t want to go at all but the opportunity opened up and her family decided that she should go instead of another sister, whose daughter is still a toddler.
Johnny, the Taxi driver, told me, “If I go for three years I can save enough money to come home and build my own house and buy my own taxi. Then I can work and earn money for my family here and we can have a better life.”
The Bolivian Exodus to Spain has exploded in recent months, not because of any quarrel or act by the Bolivian government (the lack of economic opportunity is non-partisan here, a cruel fact of life under seven presidents for more than a decade). What accelerated things is the announcement by the Spanish government that in the next few months it will begin requiring visas for Bolivians to enter Spain. As the door looks to be closing, tens of thousands of Bolivians hope to make it through beforehand.
Arlington, Virginia, is home to more Bolivians than any other place in the US, so many that Los Tiempos, the Cochabamba daily, publishes a Virginia edition. A Bolivian colleague of ours, Leonardo de la Torre Avila, who just published an important book on Bolivian immigration, says that some of the construction crews that rebuilt the Pentagon after 9/11 were made up of undocumented Bolivian immigrants. “They were in there rebuilding the Pentagon speaking Quechua,” he told me.
If Bolivians can borrow enough for airfare and other costs, they go to Virginia to build houses or to Barcelona to be maids. Those who an only afford a bus ticket head to Buenos Aires – home to more than a million Bolivians – to sell fruit or bake cakes.
One of the big beneficiaries of the exodus are the two Bolivian airlines, LAB and Aerosur, who are filling so many seats from Bolivia to Madrid that Aerosur just added a 530 seat jumbo jet to its fleet.
And the “remittance” money sent back to families is becoming a major source of national income. Some communities profiled by de la Torre Avila have developed a community-based remittance program in which Bolivian workers abroad send the money back to their small towns that use it to finance infrastructure projects like school construction that they can’t get the government to fund.
A little over 100 years ago my great grandfather, a tinsmith, left his wife and children behind in Romania to seek his fortunes at the St. Louis World Fair. He also promised to send for his family but after two years of waiting my great grandmother took matters into her own hands (it was an arranged marriage and not a blissful one) and made the long and dangerous sail across the Atlantic with a brood of small children, one of whom almost died en route.
Governments sign free trade agreements to let capital flow freely where it will at the push of a button, but labor is offered no such ease. No one leaves behind his or her family cavalierly. Most every story in every seat flying across the Atlantic tonight (in the other direction from my ancestors) is a story of tears and of people feeling they have no choice.
For years economic pressures have been forcing so many people from the countryside here to the cities that many small pueblos face extinction. Now Bolivia is losing tens of thousands of its most ambitious and hard-working people who, facing similar economic pressures, are moving abroad. What Bolivia needs is a viable plan to make it possible for people to stay where they are, if that is what they want. So far, no plan powerful enough to achieve that is anywhere in sight, not in Bolivia and not in any of the other dozen countries in Latin America where exodus to elsewhere is changing everything.