Last week Larry Buchanan and Karen Gans introduced us to Cornelio Gonzales, pictured here with Larry, who lived in the town of San Cristobal, Bolivia, before the changes recounted in The Gift of El Tio. Now a student at Southern Oregon University, about to receive his BA degree, Cornelio reflects on the progress in his town.
What is the situation in San Cristobal now?
The situation in San Cristobal is very calm; everybody is busy working. Authorities along with the community members are creating new projects that benefit the whole village. I think last year there were strikes in the mines. I don’t have the details about this, but you can google it by typing San Cristobal + mine.
How has the town changed since The Gift of El Tio was released? What do you think about the changes?
Since Larry and Karen wrote the memoir, the town has changed and is still changing. Some of the changes are good and some are not.
The population of the town has increased dramatically—from about 800 to 2500. People have come from around Bolivia to reside in the village because of job opportunities. As a result, there is more diversity than ever before. There are now people from different villages, including Pacenos, Crucenos, and Potosinos. Because of this population increase, the town has expanded its boundaries, and more houses have been built. The new housing is more comfortable with hot water, showers, washing machines, and cable TVs.
New buildings have been constructed, including the new high school. Now students have access to more computers, and lab rooms. There is also a new building where they teach vocational skills such as mechanics, accounting, and computer skills.
The streets have been improved. At a meeting, the townspeople decided the streets were too narrow and so they have now expanded the streets.
Free Health Care…
Another important change is that workers, along with their families, can get free health care. Hospitals have more personnel than before. There are dentists, surgeons, etc. Now, the company even provides flights from ‘la pista’ to La Paz, Cochabamba, and Santa Cruz for sick people.
Improved Sewage System…
The sewer system used to be very close to the town, and people complained of the smell and contamination. With the help of the company, the sewer system was moved a few kilometers away from the town and they have begun installing sewage to homes that didn’t have it before.
Money Takes on New Importance…
A few years ago, there was a lot of theft of valuables and money, which angered the villagers and they began to lose trust. The most interesting thing that came out of this is that people started playing with money. They call the game ‘pasanaku,’ which consists of a group of people getting together and pooling their money so that whoever needs it can borrow from the group. Next month, another person might need the money. Eventually a bank was opened and people now have bank accounts. The wise people have already begun to save money. This has given people more confidence in terms of money and safety. They don’t have to worry much whether their neighbor or the thieves will steal their money. This is a great change.
Local Infrastructure, More Mining Jobs, More Marriages…
The local authorities along with the villagers also decided to better organize the town, which includes more signs in the streets, and keeping the streets neat and clean. The garbage truck now comes twice a week. There are no plastic bags or people dumping garbage into the ditches or rivers.
Most of the teachers that used to work in the town have joined the mining company. They saw that other people, both educated and less educated, were making five times more than they do by working in the mines. They quickly became interested in the mine. Now that they are working there, they have way more money and have begun to donate books to the schools in the village. So, students have more access to books and school materials.
Marriages have also increased. It goes from Money to Love to Children…very rapidly. Iheard that most of my school classmates have wives and children now. I am still single and that makes me feel young.
Loss of Culture and Ancient Traditions…
On the negative side, since people have begun working in the mine, they are now busier than ever before and have little time to participate in ceremonies and other events that are part of beliefs such as making ‘challa’ or going to ‘irucancha’.
Another major change since the memoir was written is the problems with drinking. Some of the villagers, as soon as they go on a break, they start drinking and drinking. They spend lots of money just on drinking…
Since merchants, shopkeepers, and traders have seen that San Cristobalenos are getting better, and richer, comerciantes have increased the prices of their goods. Now things are expensive, including the vegetables and food.
Do you think the improvements outweigh the losses?
Overall, I believe that the changes in my village, San Cristobal, have been a good thing for many reasons. First, the residents of the town, including my own family, have experienced the changes as a driving force that is transforming their lives in a positive way that they could never have imagined before. For the first time in their lives, people in my town have high paying jobs. Whereas in the past, jobs were mostly for men, these days both men and women have jobs. As a result, the townspeople’s standard of living has improved dramatically. Many have opened small businesses and have had the opportunity to interact with people from different parts of the country and the world. Families are sending their children to colleges in the nearby cities. Students in the town have more access to books and technology. It’s true, there have been losses and challenges to the community’s social life, belief, customs, and cultural traditions. The residents of San Cristobal will need some time to adapt and transition to this new way of life.
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