Risking Their Lives to Survive Poverty

After traveling just half a mile inside the mine the closeness of the air, the withering humidity and the instability of the rocks become unbearable.

Gutierrez wanted us to go 45 feet down a hole to the next level while dangling from a thin rope.

"How many exits are there," I asked as I looked down a dark hole with no ladder on the side. "It is the only way in and out," he said.

Deep inside the remote mine, with no safety equipment and facing a deep, dark vertical shaft with no exit, we said no. The risks seemed overwhelming.

So instead they took us to another area where they are mining.

They lift rocks in a canvas bag using a crude winch. The stifling heat is overpowering so the men and boys often go shirtless, the dust coating their skin.

As the youngest in the group, Gutierrez gets the most menial of tasks: lugging heavy rocks from one place to another.

"It's twice as hot when you go deeper," he said.

He is not yet ready to work with dynamite. For now, that is reserved for the older boys and men. "You have to learn how, before you can work with it," he said. But Gutierrez isn't sure that he wants to learn how.

"It's very dangerous for me and anyway, the sound is so powerful; I know dynamite can kill you."

Balancing Schoolwork

Gutierrez's brother Luis Alberto started working in the mine when he was 15 years old. He is now 21.

"Sometimes it can be very dangerous," Luis Alberto said, "because the dynamite moves everything and things can fall."

They all know people who have died in the mine from blasts, collapses or poisonous air. Miles deep in the mine, farther than we could go, the conditions are intolerable. It's oppressively hot. Dust fills the air, and the lungs.

Back on the surface on the slope of the mine sits the new community center built by CARE USA.

The focus is on women and children. Mothers are seen to be the key to changing the culture. They are taught crafts and other skills that help bring in a few extra dollars. Gutierrez's mother hopes that with CARE's help she will find a way out of poverty and a way to keep her sons out of the mines.

For the children there are activities and classes. There are games and remedial classes for older boys like Gutierrez.

"Unless the community or a parent or teachers or families begin to think that a problem exists there is nothing that CARE or anybody can do anything about it," Care USA's Trew said. "What we are talking about is incremental successes, small successes moving them from less hazardous conditions into more appropriate conditions for their ages or for their mothers."

CARE is working to improve the desperately underfunded school system in Potosí. At the school we visited we didn't see a single computer.

Incredibly, Gutierrez tries to juggle high school classes with a full shift in the mine.

He told us that sometimes he doesn't get home from the mine until 2 a.m. but he is still passionate about school. English is his favorite subject.

"I would like to be going to university," he said when asked about his dreams for the future. "I hope I'm not working here anymore."

He wants to be a civil engineer. That is a dream. For now Gutierrez is happiest at the end of each day when he's leaving the mine and sees that light at the end of the tunnel.

He knows that he has survived another day of hard labor.

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