Change in Bolivia

Norma Barrancos Leyva is one of few female indigenous journalists working in Bolivia. She came to UEA last month to give a lecture on journalism in Bolivia, and Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President.

Norma conducted the talk in Spanish with UEA’s Royale Literary Fellow, Nick Caistor, translating. She is a fairly short lady who always wears a bowler hat, a traditional piece of clothing amongst the indigenous Aymara women of Bolivia.

She spoke mainly about the work her radio station, Radio San Gabriel, has done to help promote and retain the indigenous language of Aymara, one of Bolivia’s 36 native languages.

A number of drastic changes have occured in Bolivia since Evo Morales became president in 2006. Where the Spanish language once dominated in urban areas of the country, such as La Paz, people are now speaking in their indigenous tongues instead. This is what Norma believes to be one of Morales’ greatest successes; now the indigenous population of Bolivia are starting to be heard within their own country.

A 2001 census found that there were over a million Aymara speakers in Bolivia and other parts of South America. Radio San Gabriel has been working hard over its 57 years on the air to help promote the Aymara language through the use of both news and educational programmes. The station is located above the centre of La Paz in a high up city known as El Alto. The radio station’s target demographic is primarily Aymara speakers who live in the rural and poorest parts of Bolivia.
Before Morales, there was concern that Aymara speakers would forget their native tongue in favour of speaking Spanish. Norma said that even her own mother used to ask her to speak in Spanish and not Aymara.

Under Morales, however, bilingualism is now being heavily promoted. The Ministry of Education has begun paying for teachers to be sent to the rural areas of Bolivia through educational programmes like those created by Radio San Gabriel. This helps give people in poverty, and those who had to drop out of full-time education, the incentive to go on and gain a possible college education in the city.

Norma herself had to work all day with her parents at the orhards in the east of Bolivia. With the money she earned she was able to attend university in La Paz for six years, in the social sciences school. It would take Norma two hours to travel from El Alto to the centre of La Paz in order to attend university.

After graduating, Norma won a competition to work for Radio San Gabriel as one of their social workers for six months. It was during this time that she learnt how Radio San Gabriel produced its news and educational programmes. Once the six months ended she received a phone call asking her to join their production team.
From November 2008, Norma began working as a full-time journalist for Radio San Gabriel. Speaking about the experience, she said that her time at the radio station “felt like a second university.”

Norma continued with her education and eventually obtained two diplomas in Communication. After this she decided to focus her journalistic work on the experiences of women and young people in Bolivia.

She argued that under Morales, conditions for indigenous women in Bolivia have greatly improved. “Before Morales only 5% of women were in higher education, but things have started to really improve since he came to power. For example, there is now a target that 50% of the Bolivian Congress should be women. Although this target is yet to be met, there have still been great strides forward.”

However, discrimination against both Bolivia’s indigenous people and women still exists in the country. Norma said that “this is not something that can be rid of overnight, but the government is doing all it can.”

Morales’ government have brought out an anti-racism law, and media outlets such as Radio San Gabriel, have helped by running campaigns to teach the indigenous people and women that they are equal citizens to the non-indigenous population. Nick Caistor went onto say: “the indigenous population of Bolivia had always been treated as third-class citizens in the past. They now must be taught that they are equal citizens and have the same rights as the non-indigenous people. This is something that is now starting to happen.”

While in the UK, Norma has spent most of her time in London working for BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish language news network, she has also been researching the lives of Bolivian people living in England and learning about video and internet journalism. Norma hopes to someday work on a streaming service for Radio San Gabriel, so that people living in the rural parts of the country will be able to see the images accompanying the news on a television or computer screen.
She had the opportunity to visit and work in England thanks to the Lola Almudevar Foundation, a programme that pays for UK and Bolivian journalists to spend two months working in each other’s country.

The foundation was set up by the mother of Lola Almudevar, a young English journalist who wanted to bring wider media coverage to parts of South America, such as Bolivia.

She had chosen to travel to Bolivia herself and hoped to report on a country going through great social and political change, which was not being featured enough by the Western media.

However, on 25 November 2007, Lola was killed in a car accident whilst travelling to report on the “water wars”, an indigenous protest against the possible privatisation of water in the country. She was 29 years old.

Nick Caistor, who had met Lola before she travelled to Bolivia, spoke about her death at the start of the lecture, describing her efforts to bring greater coverage to a part of the world that was reported on very little in the UK. Hopefully, as a result of the Lola Almudevar Foundation and public talks given by Bolivian journalists such as Norma, this will begin to change.


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August 2022
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