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BOLIVIA
Tomb tenders
8/7/2003
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Children hustle to make a living cleaning and watering the place of the dead.

The scent of cut flowers and the cemetery’s characteristic odor of decay are smells of survival for the "tomb tenders," children who clean and polish tombstones and the niches that hold the coffins.

The organization of tomb tenders in La Paz’s General Cemetery, the country’s largest, is made up of some 50 children ranging in age from five to 15.

These children earn about five bolivianos (US$0.60) a day, and as much as 20 bolivianos ($2.40) a weekend for shining headstones, hauling water and fetching ladders for the elderly.

"There are about 65 of us who clean grave sites. We have a boss who organizes us so that everyone gets work, not just the biggest kids," said 10-year-old Johnny. "Every day I come down from El Alto (a city on the high plateau above La Paz) at 9am and do all kinds of jobs until 6pm. Sometimes I wash the glass in the niches, then I’ll carry water for a while or bring a ladder to reach the higher niches. I eat lunch at a local market for 3.50 bolivianos. I keep little of what I earn. Most is for my family. Of my seven brothers and sisters the older ones worked like me, and now they’re married. I attend night classes at a school in El Alto."

To improve working conditions, the tomb tenders’ organization, which is neither recognized by the local nor the central government, is seeking support in the form of rubber boots and raincoats to protect them from the frequent downpours that hamper their work. Most of them are poorly dressed in what has become a kind of uniform: threadbare pants, faded sweatshirts, sneakers and baseball caps that hide faces cracked by the sun.

Thousands of Bolivian children are forced to work to help with expenses at home. Approximately 800,000 of the country’s minors work in conditions of semi-exploitation.

The administrator of the cemetery claims that the informal workers at La Paz’s necropolis are all self-employed. That said, he adds, "We do not permit children to drop out of school just because they’re earning money at the cemetery."

A network of small businesses is operating in this well-frequented place at the expense of the city government but without government protection. In addition to the tomb tenders there are mourners, old women of Aymara origin who recite litanies and indecipherable supplications in their native tongue. Musicians with guitars and drums are on hand to direct songs at the heavens above.

Among those who pray for hire, some have guitars, others are on crutches, some are blind. There are even nine-year olds who have learned to climb ladders "to be closer to the souls (in the higher niches) so they can listen to the prayers."

All of them pray with closed eyes on behalf of the bereaved. The price is the same: one boliviano for three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys. Some will add, at no extra charge, blessings for the bereaved. Sometimes they fill their stomachs with leftovers that some pious mourner brought to the cemetery.

"I pray with faith so they’ll pay me a little extra," said Lucio. He charges half price for the souls of infants "because it takes [adults] longer to get to heaven."

 


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