Ring ring, who is it? Bolivia


Photo by Elizabeth Mastroianni

Spanish 4 students introduce themselves to Basilio Vargas, a mine worker in Bolivia, via Zoom.

By Karina Lemus and Anna Zepeda

On Monday, May 2, several Spanish 4 classes taught by World Languages teacher Elizabeth Mastroianni hosted an interview with the main star of “Las Minas del Diablo” to get a more intimate insight of what living and working in Bolivia as a minor is actually like.

West Chicago Community High School students had the ability to attend a Zoom interview with Basilio Vargas, the main focus of a 2004 documentary based on the Bolivian mining experience. They asked him questions about his present life, seeing as the movie was filmed when he was a child.

“Honestly, this opportunity showed up in a very weird way. We watched the documentary about Basilio back in March. We really fell in love with the story and the children and got curious about where they are now. Some of my students (thank you!) found his social media platforms and I did some research myself and saw that Basilio had done some presentations and conversations with Princeton and other universities. So, I thought, why not? I reached out and he responded! We set up a schedule and talked about what to expect and then it happened,” said Mastroianni via email.

It was clear students enjoyed the conversation with him, and were able to collect a good deal of information through this enrichment activity. It was an opportunity for the students to speak to someone experiencing the hardships in Bolivia, and also gain valuable experience communicating with the person they just witnessed in a documentary.

Junior Bella Wiehle said, “It was a well-rounded way to understand the exploitation in Bolivia. They can teach us and show us example, but when you actually follow a personal story, it truly connects you to that person [and] you can understand what they’re going through, ‘cause you see how it affects their feelings and their entire family and community. [So] with the interview, it furthers that.” 

The students asked numerous questions during the Zoom call, which was repeated during several class periods. They were able to gain a richer understanding of what Vargas and many people in Bolivia are doing to prevent children from working in and on the mines. Some of the people in Bolivia are currently protesting against the government, asking officials to refuse to allow children on the mines, and to provide better pay and a safer working environments for those who do dedicate their lives to the industry.

The students were offered a chance to deepen their knowledge as to the hardships occurring in some parts of South America.

Mastroianni’s Spanish 4 students write down further questions to ask Vargas. (Photo by Elizabeth Mastroianni)

“An opportunity like this one is so important to offer our kids because it breaks down those walls and really can open our eyes to see what is going on in the world around us. The world is a huge place, and in my classroom, I try to emphasize just how important it is to understand and appreciate different cultures, different languages, and different lifestyles. Who knows what travel opportunities or exposure these students might have, so if I can facilitate an opportunity such as this one for these students to connect what we are studying and learning, to a real person who has lived a very different life than them, they will only grow and learn,” said Mastroianni.

“I do think [the Zoom call is] beneficial because we have studied exploitation and the path up to it, like the conquerors of Latin America. Seeing the effects of it and people’s lives today is very beneficial – to see the impact of what they did so long ago and how it affects people today can be important to learn,” said junior Mark Stavenger.

The Zoom call, however, was not only strictly business: Vargas provided students with a glimpse into his life, and his more intimate side. He was open and honest about his experience with what are known as Bolivian coca leaves, and explained that mining was not a simple task: the workers in the mines would often consume the coca leaves in order to endure the job, as the leaves would resolve hunger and drowsiness, combat stomach issues, and even reduce stress.

Vargas mentioned that the mine workers would consume “two to three bags a week” of the coca leaves, always right before each of them headed into the mines.

A blog post at G Adventures written in 2016 explains that “to make it through the workday, miners of every age fill their cheeks with large wads of coca leaves. The leaves give them energy; they curb hunger, too. Deep in the tunnels, miners chew coca as if it’s their life force, just as their ancestors did more than 500 years ago.”

Despite the challenges Vargas has faced as a miner in Bolivia, he has proven resilient and personable. Over the call, he also brought his family to light. He introduced his mother, sister, and young daughter, who is his “biggest treasure” in life. Vargas was notably open and honest over the course of the Zoom conference, and even gave the class a “treat” at the end of the call, showing students his bright, blue hair, previously hidden underneath his cap. 

The Zoom call with Vargas provided a wonderful chance for West Chicago Community High School’s Spanish 4 students to speak in a foreign language, and ask questions of someone who faced – and is facing – the problems resulting from poor working conditions in Bolivian mines. 

“It is so exciting to watch these students grow in their Spanish language skills, and then to see them develop a real interest in the way of life in other countries. I am so thrilled that opportunities like this can exist now because of technology, and I am hoping that I can bring more of these types of meetings to my classroom. It is important to expand our worldview and learn more about what happens in other places,” said Mastroianni.