By Published On: April 19, 2006Categories: Indigenous peoples2 Comments on Basilia

Her shower-wet hair spread out like a black curtain. "I am practicing for when I am in Spain," Basilia smiled. "You are not allowed to wear your hair in plaits there or wear the pollera, blouse or shawl." My friend Bill protested: "Where did you hear that? That’s not true. You can wear what you like…" I tried hard to imagine Basilia without her two long dark plaits, pleated basket-like skirt (polera) and colourful blouses.

Two weeks ago, 25-year-old Basilia told me that she was going to Spain. She had been promised a good job working with a family in Madrid. Her round face, which seems to always bear an infectious smile, beamed as she talked of the new opportunities, the friends and family she already knows there, the chance to make more money then she could ever make in Bolivia. For someone who has never been out of Bolivia, she seemed remarkably unafraid. "I can save some money and then come back," she said.

Basilia will be joining the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people who uproot from their countries to seek new opportunities abroad. She gave a face to the waves of moving humanity whose stories are nearly always lost in newspaper headlines of "immigration floods."

Thankfully, unlike many, she won’t be crossing perilous sea strips in precarious fragile boats or trying to steal across barbed-wire hostile frontiers designed to protect the unjust wealth of the rich.

However as I thought about what she had said about supposed laws against certain clothes, it made me realise her friends were no doubt referring to the unwritten laws of racism where prejudice feeds on cultural differences, where a beautiful pollera becomes an excuse for suspicion and hatred.

I asked her what she thought about not wearing the traditional indigenous dress. "All right," she said. "I like it because it’s comfortable but I can get used to not wearing it." I kept quiet, hoping that Spain would not unravel her identity and return her safely back to Bolivia still full of her lightness of spirit.



  1. lindsay April 19, 2006 at 12:11 pm - Reply

    Our friend Estella, a 22 year old Bolivian woman from Santa Cruz, facing the challenges of being a a single mom, also left for Spain to work.
    During the year we knew Estella, she grappled with the idea of uprooting herself from her family where she lived in a dusty barrio on Sta Cruz´s 5th ring. She was drawn to the possibilty of making money, being able to spend her savings back home to secure a better future for her daughter. Her dream is to save enough money buy a small piece of land and build a house.
    When Estella first came to our 3rd floor apartment, she always took the stairs. Does she need the excercise I thought? When I asked her about it, she said , rather embarrassed, that she didnt know how to use an elevator. How would she cope with an airport, an airplane, an escalator, Spanish society and bureacracy I thought?
    Estella is bright, extremely hard-working and loyal. She is a classic case of a young Bolivian full of promise and potential, with no opportunities for advancement. She is one of the millions who are affected by a system rife with corruption and dicrimination.
    When estella´s work as a domestic dried up a few months ago, and under pressure from her family (and her daughter´s dead-beat dad), she decided to leave her life in Bolivia behind and go to Spain. She joined the hundreds of other job-seeking Bolivians who take the regular LAB flight direct to Madrid.
    Estella is now working 3 jobs, seven days a week, and living in a crowded apartment with some family and friends from Bolivia. She misses her daughter desparately. I don´t know how much money she is able to send home after expenses and paying off her plane ticket.
    Despite being separated from her daughter I hope she is happy and her delightful sense of curiosity and adventure is being engaged by being in different country.
    And I hope she gets that peice of land and builds that house.

  2. Nick Buxton April 23, 2006 at 1:41 pm - Reply

    Lindsay, thanks for sharing the story – it’s one of many here. I remember seeing BBC photo story of a village near Cochabamba which has lost half of its population due to emigration ( You reminded me that Basilia’s dream was also to save enough money to buy a house here.

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