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Photo: Reuters.
An inmate reads the Bible in prison, where she and fellow inmates have access to a small library as part of a La Paz, Bolivia, program to spread literacy and offer the chance to get out of jail earlier.

Sharing stories like today’s, I can see why someone could accuse me of being a Pollyanna. But it’s not that I think people convicted of crimes will be completely transformed if shown a little kindness. It’s more that I see no harm in testing how small kindnesses might add up, especially for people who may have experienced few kindnesses.

In 2017, Philip Reeves at National Public Radio conducted an interview in a Brazil prison about a program that Bolivia is now testing.

“Brazil’s prisons are dangerous places,” Reeves, noted, “blighted by overcrowding and drug gangs. But literacy is offering a way to shorten some inmates’ sentences: Read books, reduce your time behind bars. …

“REEVES: About 30 men are sitting behind desks in a classroom. They’re writing with pens and paper. The teacher is standing up front issuing instructions. … We could be in any school anywhere but for a couple of details. One, a wall of iron bars separates the teacher from her class. Two, the paper each man’s writing could win him a little bit of his life back. … These are inmates in a giant penitentiary in southern Brazil called the Casa de Custodia de Piraquara. …

“MARILDA DE PAULA SOARES: (Through interpreter) I am an educator. I really believe people can change.

“REEVES: Marilda de Paula Soares is the class teacher. Her students are participating in a project pioneered by the southern Brazilian state of Parana. Prisoners get four days lopped off their sentences for each book they read. To get those days of freedom, they must write a short paper about the book. They’re doing that now. Soares says each prisoner’s paper must explain …

“SOARES: (Through interpreter) … what’s caught their eye, a specific character, the language, the theme …

“REEVES: … in sufficient detail to ensure that cheating is … impossible. Douglas Seixas, an inmate here, says it’s true. You really can’t skip the reading. …

“SEIXAS: Because we need to read a book to understand. If you not read the book, no, no way.

“REEVES: Only certain books qualify under the reading program, including foreign and Brazilian classics and kids’ books for prisoners learning to read. Books with very violent themes are banned. … There’s a maximum of 12 books a year. That adds up to a month and a half remission. Admilson Rodrigues is doing 10 years for drug trafficking but is steadily whittling down his sentence by reading. … Rodrigues said he loved Gone With The Wind and also Les Miserables. Les Miserables seems particularly popular here. Rodrigues believes that’s because it’s about an ex-con who’s trying to create a new life on the outside. …

“REEVES: Is this project window dressing by Brazilian officials? Are they trying to put a gloss on a dysfunctional penal system where inmates sometimes wait years before being tried? It’s hard to know. Yet, prisoners here do seem to be benefiting. Edson Reinehr says he’s on his fourth book, which is about the adventures of Mowgli the wolf boy.

“EDSON REINEHR: Helps a lot because to keep the mind — occupied mind inside the cell instead of thinking about other bad things.

“REEVES: Staff here say the project’s about much more than just helping prisoners pass the time and get a little remission. Teacher Agda Ultchak says it’s about fundamentally changing lives.

“AGDA ULTCHAK: (Through interpreter) We hope to create a new perspective on life for them. This is about acquiring knowledge and culture and being able to join another universe.”

Meanwhile, at Reuters, Monica Machicao reports on a version of the program that was launched recently in Bolivia.

“The state program ‘Books Behind Bars’ offers detainees a chance get out of jail days or weeks in advance of their release date.

Bolivia does not have a life sentence or death penalty, but pre-trial detention can last for many years due to a slow judicial system.

“The program has been launched in 47 prisons that do not have resources to pay for education, reintegration or social assistance programs for prisoners, the Andean country’s Ombudsman’s Office says.

“So far, 865 inmates are sifting through prose, improving their reading and writing skills. One of them is Jaqueline, who has already read eight books in a year and has passed four reading tests.

” ‘It is really hard for people like us who have no income and who do not have family outside,’ she said. ‘There are people here, for example, who are just learning how to read and write.’ …

“With a daily salary of 8 bolivianos ($1.18), incarcerated Bolivians are forced to work to be able to eat and pay the high court costs to be released. The country’s prisons and jails have long suffered from overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with some detainees staging protests over the lack of health care, according to Human Rights Watch. …

“Said Mildred, an inmate at the Obrajes women’s prison in the highland city of La Paz, ‘When I read, I am in contact with the whole universe. The walls and bars disappear.’ “

More on Brazil’s program at NPR, here, and on Bolivia’s at Reuters, here.

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Photo: Luisa Dörr.
ImillaSkate athletes practice skateboarding on a downhill road near Cochabamba, Bolivia. They use indigenous attire as a statement against discrimination.

We loved the movie Skate Kitchen about female skateboarders in New York. You may have seen my post about it here. Learning how outsiders find their people, their tribe, was a revelation.

My Cousin Claire knows I love stories like that. I think my whole extended family does. Maybe it’s in our DNA. Claire sent me today’s story about female skateboarders in Bolivia and the reasons they are using their sport to stick up for indigenous people.

Paula Ramón writes at National Geographic, “The colorful polleras are a symbol of identity in the Bolivian countryside. But these voluminous, traditional skirts worn by Indigenous Aymara and Quechua women have also been the object of discrimination, some seeing the appearance at odds with modern identity. Now a group of women athletes has brought them back to the city — donning them during skateboarding competitions — to celebrate the cultural heritage of the cholitas.

” ‘The pollerasare very valuable to me,’ says Deysi Tacuri López, 27, a member of ImillaSkate, founded in 2018 in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city. ‘I wear them with pride.’

“Tacuri sees in the polleras not only a cultural expression but also a form of empowerment. … More than half of Bolivia’s population is of Indigenous descent.

“Tacuri and fellow members at ImillaSkate also among those with Indigenous ancestors. Some of their relatives still wear polleras.      

“ ‘They are my mother’s and my aunts’ clothing, and I see them as strong women. Here in Bolivia, many women in pollerasare the head of their families,’ she said in a telephone interview. ‘For me, mujeres de polleras [pollera wearers] can do anything.’

“Tacuri and her teammates spend long hours practicing moves at Ollantay Park, one of two places in the city with ramps and other structures designed for the sport. …

“ImillaSkate was founded by Daniela Santiváñez, 26, and two friends. She learned to skate as a child thanks to her brother, though it was ‘rare to see girls on skateboards.’ …

“Without women role models to follow in the sport in Cochabamba — and growing tired of listening to her mom’s complaints about her bruises from falls — Santiváñez stopped practicing when she was a teenager. She took up skateboarding again after college, where she got a degree in graphic design. By then, Dani, as her friends call her, discovered she was not the only woman with a passion for the sport.

” ‘One day I was having a conversation with the girls about why all the boys get together to skate — why don’t girls do that?’ recalls Santiváñez. …

“Over the past three years, ImillaSkate has grown to nine skaters. Being an active member means making time to practice every week in order to be able to participate in competitions, and also sharing the same principles of acceptance of diverse groups and traditions. Although the collective is based in Cochabamba, the group has generated a wider audience on social media beyond Bolivia, with more than 5,000 followers on Instagram. They also maintain a Facebook page with more than 7,000 followers, and a YouTube channel where some of their videos get thousands of views.

“Santiváñez clarifies that they wear the skirts only for performances, not necessarily as their street clothing. ‘We do it as a demonstration, as a cry for inclusion,’ she says. … ‘Skateboarding is inclusive, it brings all kinds of people together. …

‘It’s a community, and we’ve taken advantage of this to make the world a kinder place.’

“Tacuri says they first challenged themselves to embrace their own roots. ‘We ourselves have decided to get to know our culture and our identity. We have decided to revalue our clothing and encourage new generations.’ …

“The polleras’ origins date back to the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Orginally imposed by colonial rulers as a way to easily identify the native population and also have the attire conform to what was being worn in Spain by the poorer people, the skirts eventually were adapted as part of traditional Andean attire, most commonly associated with cholas — Indigenous women from the highlands. Just as their ancestors gave the skirts their own identity by mixing them with patterned blouses, local jewelry, and hats, the skateboarding imillas are making their own modifications to the garment — and trying to remove a stigma.

” ‘The pollera is associated with the countryside, with ignorant people without resources. We want people to understand that there is nothing wrong with wearing a pollera.’ …

“The group didn’t even know where to get the elaborate skirts, so they turned to their grandmothers for help.

“Not all of them jumped on board immediately, concerned they would be stigmatized. Even as the descendant of a mujer de pollera, Luisa Zurita struggled with getting her family to understand the premise behind the wardrobe. Only after she was invited to participate in a local television program for a skateboarding performance did her grandmother give Zurita her blessing — and her favorite pollera.”

More at National Geographic, here. As you would expect of National Geographic, the photos are terrific.

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Image: Casto Vocal
Virtual reconstruction of northernmost section of pre-Incan temple in Bolivia.

Here’s why a general education may equip the workforce of the future better than job-specific training: you never know what skills will be needed. In this example, a new breed of adaptable archaeologist is expanding the use of 3-D technology to reimagine lost worlds.

George Dvorsky writes at Gizmodo, “The 1,500-year-old Pumapunku temple in western Bolivia is considered a crowning achievement of Andean architecture, yet no one knows what the original structure actually looked like. Until now.

“Using historical data, 3D-printed pieces, and architectural software, archaeologist Alexei Vranich from UC Berkeley has created a virtual reconstruction of Pumapunku — an ancient Tiwanaku temple now in ruins. Archaeologists have studied the site for over 150 years, but it wasn’t immediately obvious how all the broken and scattered pieces belonged together. The surprisingly simple approach devised by Vranich is finally providing a glimpse into the structure’s original appearance. Excitingly, the same method could be used to virtually reconstruct similar ruins. The details of this achievement were published [last December] in Heritage Science.

“First, some background on the structure. Pumapunku, which means ‘door of the puma,’ was a temple designed and built by the pre-Incan Tiwanaku culture, who lived and thrived in what is now western Bolivia from 500 AD to 1,000 AD. …

“Pumapunku displayed a level of craftsmanship that was largely unparalleled in the pre-Columbian New World, and it’s often considered the architectural peak of Andean lithic technology prior to the arrival of the Europeans. …

“Unfortunately, the ruins of Tiwanaku, and the Pumapunku temple in particular, have been ransacked repeatedly over the past half-millenium. Archaeologists have virtually no idea what the structure actually looked like. None of the blocks that once comprised the original structure are currently located in their original place, and many of them are badly damaged or decayed. …

“To overcome these difficulties and limitations, Vranich and his colleagues integrated historical archaeological data with modern computer software and 3D-printer technology to reconstruct the ancient temple, and by doing so, devised an entirely new approach to reconstructing and visualizing ancient ruins that would otherwise be impossible to build.

“The team created miniature 3D-printed models, at 4 percent actual size, of the temple’s 140 known pieces, which were based on measurements compiled by archaeologists over the past 150 years and Vranich’s own on-site observations of the ruins. … The researchers could have performed this work exclusively in the virtual realm, but they had better luck with tangible, physical pieces they could freely move around.

“ ‘It was much easier to use the 3D-printed models,’ Vranich told Gizmodo. ‘You can quickly manipulate them in your hand and try position after position. It is much slower and less intuitive on the computer.’ …

“Satisfied with their Lego-like configurations, the researchers keyed their creations into an architectural modeling program, culminating in a single hypothetical model of the temple complex. This wasn’t terribly difficult, as the construction methods used by the Tiwanaku people, and how they formed their incredibly geometric stones, are well documented, explained Vranich. But the exercise yielded some new findings.

“ ‘What we found out is that it appears they were making prototypes for each type of stone type, and then would have copied one after the other. It’s almost like it was a pre-Columbian version of Ikea.’ …

“Another interesting finding was that the gateways scattered around the site were lined up in a way to create a mirror effect. That is, ‘one big gateway, then another smaller one in line, then another,’ he said. ‘It would create an effect as if you were looking into infinity in the confines of a single room.’ ”

Read more here.

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In Bolivia, an indigenous woman who would have been disenfranchised before the presidency of Evo Morales has become a popular wrestler. And  she loves what she does.

connects with Angela La Folklorista in La Paz to report her story at WBUR’s Only a Game.

“She calls herself, ‘Una mujer de la pollera.’ Woman of the skirt. That’s another way of saying ‘I’m a cholita.’ Cholitas are indigenous women of Bolivia, usually ethnically Quechuan or Ayamaran. You can recognize cholitas by their ankle-length puffy skirts and their tiny bowler hats, which seem like they’ll fall off any minute. …

“Until recently, cholitas were second-class citizens, boxed out from higher education and often stuck cleaning homes,” generally relegated to the kitchen.

“Where Angela works is nothing like a kitchen.

” ‘In the ring,’ Angela says in Spanish, ‘I have a technical fighter style. I’m not rough. I’m on the nice side. There are bad cholitas, as you would call them, but my style is technical.’

“Angela is a cholita luchadora — a Bolivian pro-wrestler. She fights in a league similar to Lucha Libre in Mexico or the WWE in the United States. It’s the kind of wrestling with heroes and villains, entrance songs. Angela gives me two ringside tickets for the upcoming bout in El Alto – La Paz’s sister city. She’s the headliner. …

“Angela doesn’t fight other women. She fights the men. There’s some weird sexist stuff happening, but by the end of the match Angela is always the winner. …

“ ‘I’m very happy and content to have another night of fighting,’ she says in Spanish, ‘another night of art, adrenaline and strength, another night that I’m in the center of the ring, happy, doing what I like most.’ She’s covered in sweat.

“ ‘Mi madre es luchadora,’ Angela’s middle-school aged daughter Theresa says.

“ ‘It’s a pleasure for me that she’s a wrestler,’ Theresa says in Spanish, ‘I’m very proud of her, I’m her number one fan.’

“Theresa describes the cholitas luchadoras as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But she doesn’t want her mom’s job. It’s too dangerous for her. And unlike the cholitas who came before her, Theresa can choose her own dream.”

More here.

Photo: Trevin Spencer/Only A Game
The cholitas luchadoras of El Alto. Angela La Folklorista is on the far right.

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Azzurra Cox at the Atlantic‘s City Lab website wrote recently about design students and a nonprofit theater group that “created a ‘park-in-a-cart’ to serve the fast-growing city of El Alto, Bolivia.

“One bright July afternoon in El Alto, Bolivia, a playground paraded across a busy intersection.

“In the country’s second-largest city—and, at approximately 13,500 feet, the highest major urban settlement in the world—desfiles are a frequent occurrence, even a way of life. …

“But this parade was different. Dodging a stream of minibuses, a few individuals wearing carnivalesque costumes tugged two colorful metal carts—one resembling an astroturf bee, the other an elephant—to the center of a nearby plaza.

“Working in the harsh sunlight, they set about disassembling the carts. The shell of the bee became a series of green mounds, while the elephant trunk revealed itself as a slide.

“In a matter of minutes a playground was born, and the sounds of children playing rippled across the plaza. …

“In this dense city, driven by commerce at all scales, streets, sidewalks, and communal spaces are often transformed into informal markets, where vendors and minibuses compete for real estate. While this competition brings vitality, it requires novel methods of occupying urban space for play.

“The pop-up playground aims to do just that. Over three summers, the International Design Clinic (IDC), a ‘guerrilla design’ collective, has collaborated with Teatro Trono to design and build a pair of mutable, movable playspaces …

“Toward the end of that July afternoon, the park collapsed its way back into the carts. As one mother convinced her five-year-old to take her last turn down the slide, she asked one of the designers where she could find the playground next. Megan Hoffman, who studied anthropology at Temple University, recalls a grandmother who offered the group a sleeve of crackers to express her gratitude.

“ ‘That day,’ Hoffman says, ‘our pop-up playground was a space of joy.’ ”

More at City Lab.

Photo: Megan Hoffman
The mobile park on parade in El Alto this summer.

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The Associated Press had a story not long ago about some energetic Bolivians  competing at handball.

“A group of Bolivian grandmothers and great-grandmothers have a pretty nontraditional way of easing the aches and pains of old age. These Aymara women get together every Wednesday in the city of El Alto and play handball.

“The ‘awichas,’ as grandmothers are known in the Aymara language, don sports jerseys over their traditional skirts and look forward to meeting and exercising with friends every week. …

“Team handball is an Olympic sport; two teams pass a ball using their hands to throw the ball into the opposite team’s goal.

“The handball team is part of a program where about 10,000 older people are practicing sports and playing Andean music; they also get free medical care.”

See some great great quotes and photos at NBC News, here.

Photo: Juan Karita/AP
In this Feb. 4, 2105 photo, 72-year-old Aurea Murillo prepares to make a pass during a handball match among elderly Aymara indigenous women in El Alto, Bolivia.

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