Saturday, November 28, 2009


I am quite aware of the expectation that I'm not supposed to have favorites. But since she's the only girl her age that I know in the town of Caranavi, I think it's safe for me to proclaim that Paola Calle Ticona is my favorite 8-year-old friend in the sweltering river town located three hours from Carmen Pampa.

Paola Calle Ticona.

Paola is the oldest daughter of Tito Calle and Flor Ticona--who also happen to be the first UAC-CP students I met when I first arrived to Carmen Pampa in December 2003. [You don't forget those kind of things--the people who first showed me kindness.] Six years ago, Tito and Flor were young parents, financially strapped and struggling to make their way through school. Paola was their first and only child at the time--a gorgeous, polite little girl who everyone on campus knew and loved and, in some ways, helped raise.

Today, Paola is a bubbly second grader at a private school in Caranavi. She's a brilliant little one (I offer unbiased proof: she carries the flag in all school events, which means she has the highest grade in her class). Her favorite subject is math and she wants to be a mathematician when she grows up. She spends her free time doing extra-curricular activities, playing Barbies, reading books, coloring, and helping to care for her three younger siblings.

A year ago, Paola learned to play chess at an after-school program. A skilled player, she now helps her teacher coach other students at her school.

I marvel at Paola's life as it is an almost unbelievable leap from that of her parents'--her mother, especially. Flor, the youngest of nine children, comes from a remote Quechuan community located in the rural area outside the town of Apolo--more than 24 hours from Carmen Pampa by public bus. Faced with no other educational opportunities, Flor came to Carmen Pampa at the age of 15 to study at the boarding high school. "I earned 70 Bolivianos ($10 US) a month," she told me, to help cover costs. "And I rarely afforded to go home, so I would normally stay and work over summer and winter break."

On a scholarship, Flor continued her studies in Agronomy at the UAC-CP where she met Tito, had Paola, married, and now lives with her family (they have four children) in Caranavi, where Tito is the regional manager of ANED (a micro-finance company). While Tito graduated from the College, Flor is still one class and a thesis defense-away from officially being counted among the titulados. She wants to finish and has people willing to make that happen, but it's more difficult with children, she told me. Truthfully, she dreams of returning to Carmen Pampa and I dream of helping her do it.

Flor and Tito with their children: Alex, Alda, Alan, and Paola outside their home in Caranavi.

In any case, Flor has experienced the transformative power of education...and it shows, especially as I see it trickle down to her kids. Though her poor, Quechuan roots are evident in her reserved, stoic personality, when Flor speaks of her children she exudes confidence and tenacity. "My girls," she said, motioning to Paola and 3-year-old Alda, "they are going to go farther than I could have ever imagined for myself."

Paola is one of very few children living in rural Bolivia who can claim that both of her parents are college educated. In Paola (and the other children of UAC-CP students), I see the power of education as it gives them opportunities that their parents only dreamed of and their grandparents never imagined possible. "When you think," Flor told me, "that my parents can't speak Spanish--they can't read or write in any language--and then I went to college. Now I look at Paola and all the opportunities she has that I never had because my family was so poor..." Flor stopped talking and looked over at her daughter quietly reading a book. Neither of us said anything. If you don't believe education can lift people out of poverty, I thought to myself, try telling that to Flor Ticona.


Hands down, Paolita is one of my favorites. And, I admit, it makes my heart happy to know that I think she classifies me, in some way, as her favorite, too. "Is that your aunt?" I heard one of her little friends whisper to her in Spanish as we sat watching Tito play soccer on a Sunday afternoon in Caranavi a couple weeks ago. "La Sarita?" Paola responded in a confused sort of tone. Then she looked up at me and smiled. "No, she's my good friend!" she if every 8-year-old in rural Bolivian towns have 32-year-old gringa friends. "No ve, Sarita?" she asked, as if to confirm that the feeling was mutual. "Sí, Paolita." I told her. "We are good friends."

1 comment:

Sue W said...

Amazing family story, Sarah. Mil gracias for sharing it!