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Monday, February 25, 2013


       Since I started writing this blog almost a year and a half ago I have composed the majority of the entries after a particular moment or event that I felt warranted documentation. To this point, I have been unable to comment on my connections with individuals that I have interacted with not just in O’Leary, where I live, but in Paraguay in general. For volunteers all over Paraguay, and I assume all over the world, it is easy to generalize the people we live, work, and develop relationships with as an amorphous categorization. Classifying every host country national as “The Paraguayans” is what I say. The Paraguayans this and the Paraguayans that have become a second nature to me, and dominate my own individual categorization for my interpersonal relationships for numerous reasons. Principally I believe that the bulk of my conversations I have with non-Paraguayans are with other volunteers in Paraguay.  The obvious reason for that is that they too are relatively isolated within a similar cultural context. I feel as though that limits my ability to candidly discuss my Paraguayan friends and contacts to people who don’t know the individuals I have grown close to in any finite detail, or to anyone who reads this blog. I feel as though it is essential that I somehow delve into the relationships that I have formed over my time here, but I have struggled mightily to find someone to write about that I feel encompasses what it means to be a Paraguayan now and will it’ll mean in it’s future. After much thought on this topic my interaction with one student at the school I live next to have provided me with the inspiration to scratch the surface of the impacts the people here have had on me. I feel strongly that no one including  my neighbors, friends here, or even families I feel I don’t know well who see my passing by their house on my bike everyday know it or not the people here have had more impact on me than any other aspect of this experience. In particular my limited but significant interaction with a 6th grade student named Miguel has given me a fascinating perspective of being young and in Paraguay more than he will ever know.
       Before I go into details about the interaction I have had with Miguel it important for me to mention that many of the details, events, and facts of this story are things that I inferred from somebody telling me something, or are my own interpretation of details I heard from hearsay. That in and of itself is important to point out because of how prevalent the nature of orally passing information is in small communities here in Paraguay. At times I feel as though I get most information about news in Paraguay, things happening in the community, and problems from gossip or just hearing people talk. Too often I don’t get it. Some of that has to do with language ability, and my lack of familiarity with the historical social interactions between groups of people that live here. I also often miss colloquialisms that people use when describing certain situations. To date, I am sure that my own personal existence here was and is a big topic of conversations amongst people around me that I am not wise to at all. With that being said I’ll remind anybody reading this that again these are my opinions not always based on fact or logic; two things that are not always the most important in the tittle-tattle of the community.
       I first met Miguel about a year ago when school started. He stood out for a couple of reasons the most being that he had red hair in a class of seven other 6th grade students who all had darker hair At the time, my language ability was shoddy and I had a hard enough time communicating in Spanish let alone Guarani. That meant when I walked into the 6th grade classroom for the first time to do an activity as a precursor to the world map we later painted,  I must come off as a big joke. I still remember struggling to instruct the students to draw to the best of their abilities a map of the world. Everyone in the class sat their in silence, including Miguel, for at least 2-minutes before the teacher came back and said something in rapid fire Guarani that got them sort of working. Miguel lives with his uncle and 5 cousins at one the houses down the street from the school 40 yards from where I live. His uncle, a short man everyone refers to as Torito (Little Bull) for reasons that always seem to come back to his genitals, had built my bathroom on my house with help of Miguel. During the school year when he wasn’t in school I would see him wondering around the neighborhood shooting birds with a sling shot, picking fruit, or playing soccer. I would see him almost everyday doing something, but remarkably enough he would never talk to me. I found Miguel, for unknown reasons, to be incredibly shy towards me. I assume a lot of it had to do with his tendency to speak Guarani first over Spanish, but I also thought it could be as simple as me being intimidating looking and foreign. As more time past he would reluctantly come over to my house with his cousin Allie to pick mandarin oranges. With time, and candy I had shipped from the states, he would come over to watch me do whatever I was doing at that time. It didn’t matter if I was just sitting outside my house, working on my garden fence, or cooking Miguel would just show up. He wouldn’t say much if he said anything at all, and would leave after no more than a half an hour. This was a regular visit several times a week for my first couple of months in my house until all of a sudden it stopped.
       He was still going to school, but with a noticeable lack of frequency. After a while I asked the teachers what happened to Miguel. They told me that he moved back in with his mother who lives in the next barrio (neighborhood) over from me. I remember asking this question on a random school day in which he should have been there. I asked if was going to another school, and was told no. I then had to ask the seemingly obvious question of where was he. The remarkable thing about what teachers said to me was how nonchalant they were in their response. It was as if it was common for a kid like Miguel to be that situation that it barely warranted a second thought. They informed that his mother was very poor and was making him work at one the brick making places that are riddled throughout the area. Furthermore they mentioned that not being in school wasn’t good for him, but for obvious reasons were powerless to do anything about it especially given the seemingly dire financial straights his mother appeared to be in. I felt powerless, but I too was helpless to do anything because his mother is his guardian. Moreover, I got the impression that while this is more than likely extremely illegal to make a kid work instead of go to school that nothing would really be done about it. Throughout the rest of the school year I would see Miguel, but I had a sneaking suspicion that he was falling further and further behind his peers, and would more than likely struggle after leaving elementary school at the end of the year. Unfortunately, I think I might have been wrong with thinking that there will be a next year of school.
       One day not too long ago I was with Iris, my host mother and principal of the school where I work, who told me that Miguel will be working full time instead of going school. She didn’t provide details, and obviously there was little evidence from the impacted party that I could collaborate with, but in my heart I knew it was true. Having fallen behind in school and having to work at the tender age of 12 to help support his mother, or at least that was the claim, would drastically limit his perceived need for more school. After all, he knows how to make bricks, drive a motorcycle, and build stuff. He does his work quietly, listens to his elders, and is able to make some money in the process. Now with all that being said I cannot 100% confirm how accurate this account is, but during this summer I have seen him all over doing a variety of odd jobs with men twice to three time his age. That indicates to me that school is probably not on the horizon for him.
       I am not sure why this bothers me so much, or why I find it so impactful that it inspired me to write it down? I guess it is because in the year that I have known Miguel he went from a prepubescent elementary school kid who was slowly but surely emerging from shell in school to a much taller working man helping to support a family that isn’t all his own. The men he works with almost all come off to me as men who were cast into similar situations when they kids 5-30 years ago. While this isn’t something that is as common as it was before, or for that matter even something that considered wrong, it pains to see him not school even if he was cast into an uncompromising position that he making the best of. I think seeing that transformation in such short a time is an interesting corollary to Paraguay as a whole. A generation ago the country was half the size and poorer than it is today. Families had to work to subsist, and given that it was not long ago those residual effects still trickle down to the poorest Paraguayans today. Despite major developments since the fall of the Strossner regime and even during his time Paraguay it is still very much a developing country. Opportunities exist more now than ever as globalizations impacts become more prevalent and the standard of living increases, but all that development doesn’t mean a fair opportunity for everyone involved in those complex mechanisms. It will take generations more for Paraguay to get the point where all children stay school graduate, and are not forced to work to provide for their families. I guess what I am saying is that reading something, making inferences, or talking a class on how globalization and development works is one thing. Seeing a boy in the context of developing part of the world and the challenges he faces is quite different.
       I still see Miguel all over the place, and he always greets me with a big smile and thumbs up. I always respond in the same way. The hand that he was dealt is tough one, but I take comfort in seeing that smile that he will figure out a way to make a life for himself in ways that I’ll probably never know about. He might not come around like he used to, or stop me in the street to say a few passing words like he did only a year ago, but he is still a great kid from what I have seen of him and that I find inspiring in spite of those tough odds he faces moving forward.              

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