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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

Reflecting on Potosí: Doña Luz and the Children of NAT

For many United States-ians, the topic of child labor evokes anger and sadness. From the comfort of their homes, many critique the existence of child labor and the countries which permit it. Few pause to consider the conditions under which child labor emerges. Fewer still take time to understand the best way to help the children involved. Last week, we were able to talk with Doña Luz, who works with NAT (Niños y adolescentes trabajadores) in Potosí. Through our conversation, we had the chance to broaden our understanding of the complexity of child labor and its legislation in Bolivia.

We met Doña Luz at La casa de NAT’s, the house where the organization offers child and teen workers a supportive environment to play, get help with their homework, receive psychological counseling if they have violent families, and express themselves. Doña Luz greeted us with a smile and led us to the building’s grassy courtyard. She asked us to form a circle and to listen.

Doña Luz began her explanation of child labor in Bolivia with an activity. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, the activity was designed to help us dissociate from our privileged perspectives for a moment in order to make space for a new perspective.  The activity helped us view child labor as something that is real, complex, and concrete, rather than something abstract. Through the activity, we were able to see what we share and what we don’t with the children who work in Bolivia. Ultimately, the activity helped us develop the empathy to understand why children work and why they deserve protection.

Each person in our circle was given a blue paper and a marker. In the center, Doña Luz put a white sheet of paper with the word escaseces (scarcities) printed on it. She asked us to think of a quality we lack and to write this down on our blue papers. Some people scribbled down their answers in moments; others took more time. When everyone had finished, we shared our word(s) and set our blue sheets in a circle, around the sheet that read escaseces.

Many said they lacked la autoconfianza (self-confidence). Others mentioned selflessness, empathy, and an understanding of the world and its diversity. I found in eye-opening to hear the qualities people felt they lacked. In particular, I was surprised to see many of the wonderful, strong people that I know as poised, cool, and gregarious lacked faith in themselves and their abilities.

Doña Luz listened attentively to our answers (some translated into Spanish by Paola) and then spoke. She remarked on the themes of our responses and urged us to consider the nature of escaseces, of what we have a shortage of. After a moment of reflection, she passed around orange papers and asked us to write what we have in abundancia (abundance).

Once more, we shared our responses and placed our papers by the theme word. As I listened to my friends highlight their best traits–their humor, love for others, optimism, empathy, listening ability, and desire to learn–my heart warmed. I smiled to myself, happy for the reminder that world is home to so many lovely individuals.

Doña Luz began to speak again, pausing so that those who speak Spanish could translate. She spoke with such passion and clarity, describing the relationship between abundancia and escaseces, between abundance and shortage. She looked in our eyes and asked us what stops us from turning our escaseces into our abundancia. She asked us what the use was of our abundance if we do not share it.

No one spoke. Not for a moment. I wondered if everyone had the same thought, that there isn’t a good reason why we are unable to turn our escaseces into our abundancia. The silence was broken by some possibilities, but none were the answer Doña Luz was looking for. Finally, she spoke. “¿Qué es la actitud?” Sage responded, “It’s our approach, the way we approach a person or situation.” Doña Luz continued, “So, what is it that keeps us from turning our escaseces into our abundancia?” This time, everyone spoke: “Our attitude.”

Before continuing, we migrated inside, to the main room of La Casa de NAT’s. We sat down and created a new circle. Once more, Doña Luz put the paper that read escaseces in the center, alongside the one that read abundancia. She asked us to repeat the activity, but to write what the world has a shortage and abundance of. For escaseces, our answers included empathy, respect for other cultures, and caring. Doña Luz gestured to our responses and said, “Esto. Esto es porque los niños trabajan.” (This. This is why the children work).

After, we wrote what the world has in abundance. I scribbled “amor” and drew a heart. Despite all that is evil in the world, I know from experience, books, movies, and news that even in times of great struggle, there is love. Of family, of friends, of rebellion, of country, of learning, of good food, and of laughing. For many in the group, coming up with an answer was a bit more difficult. There was a painful laugh as many struggled to identify the good in the world, what our planet has in abundance. But thankfully, everyone eventually had an answer. Among my favorites were nature, love, diversity, kindness, and nature.

Doña Luz explained that NAT tries to share the abundancia of the world with child workers whose lives are so afflicted by the world’s escaseces. She said as young people, it’s our duty to do the same. We must strive to cultivate that which is in abundance and to create that which is missing.

We gathered our papers and listened as Doña Luz told us more about child labor in Bolivia. She explained that children do not work out of choice; they work out of necessity. If they want to eat, go to school, or care for there families, then they have no other option.

In the eyes of a law, their need to work becomes complicated. Some years ago, Bolivia became part of a UN-affiliated economic organization. A contingency of their participation was changing the legal working age to 14 years old. Overnight, child workers under the age of 14 found themselves in a position in which they needed to continue working, but now had to do so illegally.

What does it mean to work illegally? It means that at work, there is no safety net. That wages are unstable and unprotected. That as a child worker, you will take the work you can find and you will tolerate whatever abuse comes your way. If you complain, you would lose your job or be reported.

Factors like these drove child and teen workers to protest in La Paz, in an effort to lower the legal working age to 10. In response, the children were gassed and arrested. Coverage of the event led the public to side with the children, and faced with mounting pressure, the government relented and lowered the working age to 10.

However, the UN organization found out and threatened economic sanctions if Bolivia did not nullify the law. In response, Bolivia raised the working age once more, but behind closed doors. They lied to the children out of a desire to avoid conflict.

Today, over a million children work in Bolivia. Many do so illegally. They have no other choice.

Returning to the activity we did when we first met Doña Luz (when she asked us to write what it the world lacks) I wrote entendimiento (understanding). Doña Luz is a fighter for abundancia. She is one of many trying to help the world understand. We are human; we cannot always understand why the world is the way it is or why people act as they do. But we can listen. So please, take a seat and lend an ear.