Dropout rates for Indigenous students in Bolivia remain high due to language and cultural barriers. Reformers have attempted to spur change but meet obstacles on all sides.
On his first day of school, young Valetín
Arispe was lost. Surrounded by
strangers, he found himself in a new
environment with new rules, where
everyone seemed to be speaking
gibberish. Arispe, an Indigenous Bolivian, grew
up speaking Quechua, the language of his ethnic
heritage. He had no choice but to learn Spanish while
attending school. His teacher knew no Quechua, and
Arispe struggled. The forced immersion left him
fluent in neither Spanish nor Quechua.
"There has not been a real process of bilingualism," he said in Spanish.
Arispe now works with the Foundation for Education in Multilingual and Pluricultural Contexts, a Bolivian organization pushing for teachers to accommodate students' many ethnic backgrounds. Despite Arispe's success as an adult, his childhood experience is like that of thousands of Bolivians who flounder and ultimately slip into the deep chasm of the country's education gap. That disparity widens between urban and rural schools.
Rural classrooms inherently have lower attendance than urban schools; they serve small, spread-out communities and see few students actually show up. Low student populations combined with the physical distance from metropolitan centers and resources often leave the already struggling institutions with the short straw. Village classrooms are less likely to have access to educational tools such as computers and Internet access. Many of these hurdles that stand between rural students and higher education are easier for urban students to take in stride.
Building the bridge
The majority of Bolivians identify with one of the nation's dozens of Indigenous ethnic groups, such as the Aymara, Quechua, Chiquitano or Guaraní. This issue of multilingualism and multiculturalism is the subject of a recently proposed education bill. The Avelino Siñani and Elizardo Pérez Law aims to accommodate students' varied cultural and linguistic upbringings. The namesakes of the bill, Avelino Siñani and Elizardo Pérez, were pioneers in bilingual and rural education in the Andes and created the first Indigenous education center in 1931.
The law proposes integrating Native culture into mainstream education and giving rural and urban students equal educational opportunities. The bill faced criticism and debate over its viability, which some said would require a near overhaul of the educational system. The proposal underwent a number of changes before being passed in early 2011.
"After the passage of the [law], the educational revolution has really begun," President Evo Morales said at a February 2011 meeting to discuss the law with several of Bolivia's educational leaders. "It's a revolution in the legal, institutional, qualitative, technical and productive sense."
The law focuses on offering technical skills to
promote education in rural areas. In the February
meeting, Morales said he wants to work with the
minister of education, Roberto Aguilar, to make
these communities a priority. Morales has not
mentioned when he plans to begin construction or
what the budget will be to implement the project, but
he aims to build technical institutes in rural areas so
that students need not leave their towns to earn an
"The values are different; the problem is not that [Indigenous students] are ignorant or illiterate or that they should be injected with knowledge," Simón Yampara said in Spanish. Yampara works in La Paz as a delegate of international affairs in the mayor's office. "What should be done is to respect their knowledge and complement it."
Language of learning
The crowded sidewalks of La Paz are a runway for tailored business suits, colorful cholita skirts and the foreign fashions of tourists, but, in some respects, diversity is a much larger issue in Bolivia's rural communities. Far from any airport landing strip or taxi driver's route, these rural areas are home to 45 percent of the country's Indigenous population. They are the incubators of ancient languages and Native traditions — such as fortune readings on coca leaves. But in a country where 36 percent of the population's first language is not Spanish, an education system built primarily around Spanish is bound to leave some students behind.
Spanish has been the standard language since Europeans colonized the region nearly 500 years ago, despite the continued use of Native languages. Children who grow up speaking an Indigenous language are set up to have problems in school, where they learn from teachers who generally have no training in teaching for different languages or cultures. For this reason, dropout rates are higher among students whose first language was not Spanish; in 2008, enrollment was at nearly 86 percent for students 14 to 18 years old who had grown up speaking a non-Indigenous language, while only 67 percent of their Indigenous-speaking peers were still in school.
Rather than knowing only pieces of Quechua and Spanish, Arispe said he would like to have full command of both languages.
"[Indigenous students] fail not because of ineptitude, but due to the insensibility, the lack of access to reading materials, the lack of commanding Spanish," Arispe said. "My Native language, it is important because it is going to help me to solidify and value my culture, identity, language [and] knowledge."
Empty bellies, empty pockets
Language is not the only difference between urban and rural schools. In 2002, more than 80 percent of rural Bolivians were living in poverty, compared to 54 percent of urban residents. Families under such circumstances need every boliviano they have to survive, and often children must work alongside older siblings and parents to help earn the family income. School is time away from doing chores, harvesting crops and ultimately putting food on the table.
About 90 percent of Bolivian children attend primary school. Urban children stay in school an average of about 9 1/2 years, and rural students average just over four years. These rural children are often descendants of a family line of low-educated manual laborers who work in mines or fields to support the family. In these cases, school may take a back seat to survival.
Rafael García Mora is director of Faith and Happiness, or its Spanish name, Fe y Alegría. The organization promotes education in underserved communities in 15 Latin American countries and Spain. The organization boasts that it "begins where the asphalt ends." Despite the hurdles, García said he sees hope in parents who come from far villages and line up three days before registration opens to ensure a spot for their children in Faith and Happiness' educational and vocational programs.
- Story by Andrea Vasquez
- Photos by Brady Jones and Patrick Breen