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"Real development has to start from the bottom, step by step"

Blancamaría Sanz Hidalgo, who has been developing various cooperative projects in Bolivia for 25 years, visited us on Thursday, December 15 and told us in an interview what her job is in the Latin American country and how things are developing. 

What made you decide to go to Bolivia? 

Life is written day by day, but everyone has their life project, right?  I think that, within my family education, my parents worked hard on the solidarity dimension that we couldn’t live separate from the situation of others. This made me study social work, then I became religious and it was clear that, although my congregation was dedicated to teaching, I always had to go to a country where I could express my need to meet people and help them live with quality of life, with some values.

It was not easy to reach this goal that was so clear to me, but, because of various circumstances, I wasn’t able to reach. I’ve lived in Bolivia for 25 years now. When I arrived, development was much more backward and I had to venture into education, which was not my first objective. My objective was to live with the people and I achieved that. I believe that all human beings should have the opportunity to develop the richness that we all carry inside, which is always great. 

What was the first thing that caught your attention?

The first thing was seeing my students and wondering how many people would die here with the potential of being a Beethoven and never know it. They are not even registered in a civil registry. For me, living with these people isn’t about romanticism, but about helping them find a path. In the beginning, this was through education and that gave me possibilities to develop educational and professional scholarship projects. After 25 years, I have all kinds of friends: architects, doctors, mechanics, electricians--boys and girls. But there are more women, given that they are more responsible, more engaged with their studies and although equal opportunities are available, many times motherhood pressures them. In any European country, it’s understood that motherhood does not need to prevent one from working, in the way that I am. Because actually the mother has to do everything here. 

What projects have you developed? 

Since the beginning, I’ve started with the theme of developing families with many children and high school dropout rates because they had to help with the field work. Education costs money and the State paid the teachers. But because the salaries were low, the students took their food to class and gave it to the teacher so they could eat and give them a good grade. 

As we all know, education is precious. but exhausting, and the time comes when one says it is time to leave, so that others can take their place. When I quit teaching, I started working with Cáritas. The type of projects they did there were more humanitarian or about social transformation as thought processes, like citizen participation projects, so that they know their rights and are not as vulnerable.  It is hard to erase history and start creating a path from a caring and humanitarian point of view.

At this time, there are parochial Cáritas in several places. One of them is San Antonio de Lomerío, a fairly modern and pretty zone in Chiquitanía where the youth who leave go to the province and leave their young children with their grandparents. The third age is very unprotected and an “Elder Classroom” was created, where we help them take care of themselves, we do occupational therapy, and they get a medical checkup every fifteen days. In addition, we have some agreements with City Hall that they have yet to comply with, but we continue to meet and insist periodically.  

To maintain all of this and all the different expenses, we have to always be doing activities, calling on the people themselves – knowing that their monthly State pension is 250 Bolivianos, equal to about 30 Euros here – and asking for small dues for the “partners” or those who make up the group of older adults, which numbers more than a hundred.  We know that we need a launchpad, but it is difficult because they need not only staples, but also cash.  All of this has made us realize there are some things that need to be remodeled.

Other parochial Cáritas are dedicated to attention to the family. There are many unstructured families, with many problems such as alcoholism, drugs, immaturity or lack of  elementary education. There they volunteer as educational psychologists, teachers, doctors…and they take a couple of hours at the end of their activities to deal with the families’ problems with different groups. 

We also carry out a project for prevention and accompaniment of PVS (in Spanish: “People living with HIV”) supported by Misereor, a German Catholic episcopal and German Cáritas project. It’s impressive because the majority of the people we serve come from a very poor situation. At the beginning, the project was just for prevention with youth, teachers, and family, but we wanted to support those who were already ill and would even die.

Throughout history, leprosy, tuberculosis and cholera were lethal diseases.  I am convinced that the scientific advances will overcome HIV and provide greater conditions for inclusion.  In my environment, as in the Gospel, when someone finds out that you have AIDS, he is already “dead.” Although hidden, these diseases create less work performance and one’s income becomes smaller. This is why this program is overflowing and now I ask for help in covering other realities. Right now, we are trying to get them to form partnerships to have more family gardens that will provide them with the food they need.

Our other big project is that of citizen participation, through which they have workshops so that they themselves make their own organic charter, have statutes in order to obtain legal status and identity cards, and have access to the Annual Operational Plan.  In this way they would also have access to municipal resources. Cáritas projects obviously not only have the baptized as protagonists, but every human being who needs to live and live well, which is the motto of Bolivia: “We all want to live well.” 

Through all the projects, what would you say was the biggest breakthrough?

I always look with great affection at the scholarship project, even though I’m not in that one now, because I believe that true development has to start from below, step by step. Nothing gets done in two days. These projects take time and hope. Now that it’s been 25 years, I’ve really been moved by bringing together those who have gone through the project saying that they want to create a Whatsapp group so that those in San Julian can live their same experience. They want to support them, doing something to give back for what they have received. That seemed like a real transformation to me.

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