Wrapped in a striped wool “aguayo,” a traditional Bolivian blanket, Francisca Jollozo casts a vacant stare at the paint-chipped walls of her apartment, tears trickling down her weathered face.
“Tell my daughter to come home,” she said, anguish hanging on every syllable. “Tell her I miss her. I want to see her. I want to see my grandsons.”
It’s been nearly a decade since Jollozo, 61, has seen her daughter, Angelica Carrasco, son-in-law and two grandsons. Carrasco and her family left La Paz, Bolivia in 1998, in search of work, greater opportunities and a better life in Buenos Aires.
They have not been back.
“We would’ve stayed in Bolivia, worked and lived happily, without having to move to another country, but the situation there is very difficult,” said Carrasco, 37, who works as a nanny in Buenos Aires.
The Carrasco family is not alone.
Every year, thousands of migrants look to better their life beyond Bolivia’s borders. And with nearly a fifth of the country’s 8.9 million people, or 1.5 million Bolivians, living and working abroad, few families are untouched by the migratory phenomenon.
“People start to see immigration as the only way to provide for their family,” said Marie Price, a visiting scholar at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based immigration think tank. “They feel like they have to leave to stay. They honestly believe that they are going to send money back and help their families.”
In 2005, more than a million Bolivians did just that.
According to the InterAmerican Development Bank, a total of US$860 million (€680.2 million) in remittances was sent home last year to Bolivia, aiding an estimated 650,000 Bolivians.
The money funds everything from necessities like food, clothing and health care to larger investments in education, real estate and businesses.
“The basic economic equation in the Americas, and throughout the world, is quite simple: developed countries need migrant labor, and families back home need the remittances,” Pedro de Vasconcelos, an IADB official, wrote in a November report on remittances.
And in Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, even the smallest amount of money sent home to families can provide a boost.
Last year’s gains from remittances equaled about 8.8 percent of Bolivia’s gross domestic product, and 33 percent of its annual exports, surpassing the country’s US$795.93 (€628.75) million profit from the exportation of gasoline.
Experts say Bolivia essentially exports cheap labor, much like a commodity.
Similar to industrialized nations that export manufactured, finished goods, developing nations like Bolivia export their populaton in hope that the migrants will send money back to their families and feed the economy, said Eduardo Gamarra, who directs the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami.
“Countries like Bolivia can solve some of their problems by exporting part of their population,” said the 49-year-old Bolivian who has spent decades in the United States. “It’s a huge problem for the developed world and a solution for the developing world.”
In the last decade, Bolivia’s economic growth has lagged behind population growth, resulting in rampant unemployment. Some 10 percent of the population is unemployed, with an additional 4 million Bolivians who are underemployed, many earning earn less than the national minimum wage of 400 bolivianos (US$61 or €48) per month.
As a result, the pace of Bolivian migration has increased.
Bolivia’s government issues more than 90,000 passports a year, said Julie Irma Martinez Montanya at the country’s International Migration Office in Cochabamba.
But that’s just a fraction of the number of Bolivians leaving the country every year, Montanya said. Hundreds more undocumented Bolivians are crossing the border every day.
“There are certain goals that every person has: to have a secure job, their own house, to live well. And if an option is to achieve that elsewhere, then, yes, there are people that will leave,” she said.
Many head to big South American cities such as Buenos Aires, Argentina and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Others venture as far away as Spain, Italy and the United States.
Often, migrants can double, even quadruple their income abroad. A worker who brings home about US$70 (€55.3) a month here, can earn the same amount in a week in Buenos Aires and less than a week in Spain, Montanya added.
The financial lift, however, does not come without its strains.
Textile work is typically the trade of choice of many Bolivian migrants, and it can be backbreaking. Workers can expect to put in anywhere from 12 to 18 hours of work everyday, losing time with family, even sleep.
“We suffer because we are needy,” said Viviano Solaras, Carrasco’s husband, who works in one of Buenos Aires’ clothing factories.
Solaras, 39, spends up to 16 hours a day bent over a sewing machine to bring home US$65 (€52) a week. Earning about 17 cents a garment, Solaras, like most of his co-workers, rushes to finish as many slacks, dresses and shirts as possible to raise his daily pay, even when it means working into the early morning hours.
“I’ve rode my bike home at all times of the night, through rain, wind and freezing cold,” he said.
This is not the life that Carrasco or Solaras envisioned before moving to Argentina a decade ago. Initially drawn by the prospect of higher pay and a spacious apartment, the family has settled for a drab one-room apartment with a bathroom and kitchen shared with 13 other families.
“This is not what we pictured,” said Carrasco, who contributes about US$40 (€32) a week to the household. “But we are not asking to live well, only to live.”
For 25-year-old Wily Edy Chirilla, however, it was the unrelenting work cycle and the lack of a life outside of the factory in Buenos Aires that eventually drove him back to his family and home in Cochabamba. Chirilla returned to Bolivia in December, after nearly two years of working in a clothing factory abroad.
“I wanted to help my family,” said Chirilla, 25, who would send about US$300 (€236.99) a month to his wife and two small children. “But everything there is work. I would wake up, work, go to bed and wake up again to work. It’s too much work.”
At home in Bolivia, Chirilla leads a much more leisurely lifestyle.
He sets his own hours, sewing men’s dress slacks from the comfort of a makeshift clothing factory he set up in his two-room home, and gets to spend all the time he likes with his family, working alongside his wife, while the children play in their dirt yard.
In the end, Chirilla said, it came down to a making a decision between living a simple life with his family in Bolivia or leading a material-filled, lonely life apart.
“I couldn’t stand to be away from my family anymore and that’s why I’m going to stay here,” he said. Chirilla added that while matching what he earned in Buenos Aires is going to be a struggle, he hopes to earn enough to support his family by selling his garments in the city every week.
Others, meanwhile, are in constant flux, always searching out new work.
Less than a week after returning from Buenos Aires, Wilson Chambi’s wife, Dorio Aduviri, was on a plane to Spain, where there are increasing opportunities for women in factories and fields. Chambi, 28, said he does not know where his wife will find work or for how long she will be gone, only that there was an opportunity and she had to follow it.
“I want to live here. Here it’s more comfortable, more easygoing,” he said. “But I don’t know. If we have needs that need to be met, I might return (to Buenos Aires).”
In the meantime, Chambi is raising their young son and working from home, sewing everything from dress slacks to soccer shorts to be sold on the black market.
“Here you live, but you don’t make much money,” he said. “There you don’t live well, but you have more opportunities.”
Everyday, migrant workers are making choices, deciding what they can give up and what they can’t live without. For many, that means leaving Bolivia and starting anew and for others it means staying put.
The Carrascos, like many other Bolivian families, might have left their loved ones and tranquil lifestyle back in Bolivia, but Carrasco says that in return they have given their children something they wouldn’t have had in Bolivia: a future.
“Bolivia is my homeland, but Argentina is my adopted land,” she said. “All of my suffering, all of my needs, everything that is most important in my life happened here with my children.”