From Bolivia’s High Plains to Enslavement or Death in Brazil

Out of a bloody family tragedy that briefly shook Brazil, reporter Rocio Cespedes opens a window into the hard and hidden world of Bolivian migrant laborers in Sao Paulo’s underground apparel industry.

Tacamara (Bolivia) and Sao Paulo (Brazil) – To Edilberto Yanarico, the city of Sao Paulo represents his only opportunity to find work sewing clothes and to save some money. That is why he says he must go back soon if he is to move on with his life. But ‘soon’ for him might mean a month from now or an entire year, the time it takes him to face his memories: because, to Edilberto Yanarico, Sao Paulo also represents the city where his 5-year-old son Brayan was murdered with a gunshot to the head.

It is noon on a Saturday in January and the main square of the Bolivian town of Tacamara looks pretty desolate. A hunchbacked elderly man walks with the help of a stick through the narrow gravel streets and a woman in a pollera (a typical Bolivian skirt) carrying a large load on her back walks down a slope that leads to a soccer field. The only store open is dark and it is closing its old and heavy wooden door. The houses, some made of brick and some made of adobe, look abandoned. If this were a painting, it would be a gray landscape with an emaciated sun whose rays are lost among clouds that announce a storm is coming.

Tacamara is a small town in the province of Omasuyos, part of the La Paz Department, and is 3,200 kilometers away from the industrial jungle that is Brazil’s city of Sao Paulo. Tacamara counts less than two thousand inhabitants, and it is 2 1/2 miles above sea level. A three-hour drive from La Paz to Achacachi, the province’s capital, followed by another 45 minutes inside a minibus is basically the only way to get here.

The town was formerly a hacienda that belonged to a family of landowners called Rada, who only came out to Tacamara to collect the hacienda’s production of livestock and agricultural goods, fruit of the labor of indigenous families that the Raba treated as if they were their property. But after the Bolivian Agrarian Revolution of 1953, those lands were given to those copper-skinned men and women that worked day in and day out, regardless of the weather, to fulfill the demands of “the owners”.

The flight of the youth

Edilberto was born 28 years ago in this Aymara community. According to an essay by Benedicto Yanarico on the history of the place, he is a direct descendant of Saturnino Yanarico, the man who led the movement that drove “the owners” off their land after centuries of numberless abuses and slavery. Feliciano Yanarico, Edilberto’s father, always did what he could to provide for his family, even though he always knew that if he wanted to have something, he would have to work without the constraints of time and strength. “My father died when I was just a toddler, so from a very young age I had to learn how to do everything. I would sell ice cream, and then I worked as a mason, a plumber, an electrician… I would do a bit of everything, because I had to save money to support my four children”, he says, forgetting to mention that he is also a farmworker.

In this community, children grow up knowing that as soon as they are strong enough, they should join their parents or other families on their farm work. Plowing the fields with cattle carts and sowing potatoes, beans, corn, barley or quinoa seeds and what grows with bare hands is as common around here as waking up and cooking breakfast.

When harvest time comes, after giving thanks to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, with their ancestral rituals, the inhabitants gather to communally collect the fruits and sort them: the best ones are consumed by them, and the rest is sold in farmer’s markets of larger towns or in the city. This mutual aid system has been used for centuries and it has survived the test of time.

For some time now, this ceremony has been losing participants; because the town of Tacamara has seen so many of its youngest sons leave to work as tailors and seamstresses in Brazil. In its streets, one can see many infants under their grandparent’s care, or under the care of people over 50; there are very few babysitters between the ages of 18 and 30. Even though official data about the community from the 2013 census hasn’t been divulged yet, if you randomly ask people in the streets you’ll find out that virtually everyone knows or is related to someone who has left town.

Some migrated out more than a decade ago, like a number of Edilberto’s cousins some of whom now own “a beautiful house in Sao Paulo”. The idea of pursuing a better quality of life is what motivates their departure. Because even though there are schools, a hospital and a couple of (indoors and outdoors) soccer fields here – all of them works finished within the last five years -, the town has no sewer system and potable water and electricity grids are a new thing. But the real negative aspect about this situation is the fact that the younger generations cannot imagine a steady professional future for themselves in the community. “There’s no work for us here. Some work as masons, some as drivers, but there isn’t always work, because each person builds their own adobe house, and salaries are very low in town”, says Feliciano, a thin man of dark complexion and long, bony hands.

As a consequence, the town is filled with people who have finished high school, but very few continue their studies because reality intrudes, forcing them to start working in order to help their parents and younger siblings instead of allowing them to think of an academic future. In the case of men, as soon as they graduate from high school they go into mandatory military service for a year, only to return to town as heroes, now able to form a family. As for women, they see their aspirations frustrated much earlier, because their role in society is to accompany their husbands, help in the farm work, and raise children.

bolivians-brasil21-01Edilberto and Veronica at their home in Bolivia

Edilberto patiently waited for his son to grow up a little bit before he could move to Sao Paulo with his family – in fact, he was the last of the four Yanarico brothers to leave. He knew full well that life there would be much harder; his younger brother Efrain after all had died from an unknown disease in a hospital in Sao Paulo on the very same day he father was to buy a 400-dollar plane ticket to visit him in October 2011.

So, on January 2012, six months after his son’s fifth birthday, Edilberto, his 23 year old wife Veronica Capcha, and their small son took the bus to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. From there they boarded another bus that carried them to Puerto Quijarro, a city on the Brazilian border, and, following instructions given to them by relatives who had migrated previously, they legally crossed the border with nothing more than their identity cards, as established by a binational agreement between Brazil and Bolivia. There was no need to resort to the false ‘coyotes’ who frequently scam Bolivians into believing that it is almost impossible to cross the border and charge 100 dollars to help them do it.

“It was a four-day trip. We took only the clothes in our suitcase, as people had warned us to do”, he remembers, while sitting on an old chair in the second floor of the house his father gave to him so he could raise his family there. The house is located 15 minutes away from Tacamara’s main square, and to get there one has to walk through narrow pathways where cars cannot even fit. With a dark complexion, salient cheekbones and black hair, his lack of body mass makes him seem frail, despite his height. But, when speaking, he tends to be clear and straight-forward. “My idea was to return. I wanted to go, make some money and come back, so Brayan could study in a local school, like I did. We were supposed to have enrolled him this year, because I didn’t want him studying in a Brazilian school. So, the idea was to leave Veronica here with my son, and I would return to Brazil once more. Once more I would work, send them money and so on. I would travel alone so she could remain here peacefully with our son, and then I would return, because I never intended to stay in Sao Paulo forever.”

The Yanarico-Capcha family first arrived at the home of another of Edilberto’s younger brothers, named Carlos, who helped them to quickly set themselves up. In a short time they bought sewing machines for each parent, and became part of a work system followed by most Bolivians who migrate to Brazil: the family co-op.

Carlos was their link with the Koreans who had commissioned the job they were to perform, which consisted of sewing together the front and back of t-shirts without collars or armholes. The fabric would arrive already cut into the shape of their molds; the family’s only task was to sew them using their machines. Edilberto had learned to sew back in Bolivia, as part of his plan for migrating. For each shirt sewn together they would receive 1.5 reals (roughly 75 cents): the more t-shirts they could sew, the more money they would get. They used to deliver between 150 to 200 shirts a day.

As it usually happens in these cases, the shop in which they worked was located in the very same house that the families of Edilberto, his brother Carlos, his sister Francisca, and his wife Veronica’s younger brother Wilson had rented in a neighborhood called Sao Matheus, in the outskirts of Sao Paulo’s capital. When Brayan was killed in June 2013, the family had only two months left on their rental contract and were considering moving to a “safer neighborhood”.

“We had no fixed working hours or bosses to control us, but we would work for hours on end; sometimes we would start the day at 7 or 8 a.m. and worked until 9 or 10 p.m. – sometimes until midnight, so that we would make more money. We had Saturdays and Sundays off. Since my cousin owns a car, during the weekends we used to go visit another cousin of mine, who owns a house in downtown Sao Paulo, or we would go to a park with Brayan”, remembers Edilberto.

While his parents were working, Brayan would to stay in another room of their home watching TV. Since he was the only child in the house, his parents would search for different ways of keeping him entertained. To Edilberto and Veronica’s good fortune, he quickly learned Portuguese, so he wasn’t bored so easily. Sometimes he would go out to play on the backyard, and sometimes he would just stay by his parents’ side. He used to sing to them, and sometimes he would stroll around the shop to talk to the other workers. On the day he was to be killed, he showed up at home carrying a bag of cookies someone had given him. Without saying a word, he shared his gift among those present. “It was like he was saying goodbye”, says his father, now looking down trying not to cry.

The fight against slave labor

June 2013. In an operation coordinated by the Brazilian Ministry of Labor, 28 Bolivians were rescued, including a 16 year-old; they were found living in a “situation analogous to slavery” in three shops that belonged to the Restoque S.A. network, a Brazilian company that produces clothing for exclusive brands. The workers that were making clothes for two Brazilian brands: Le Lis Blanc and Bourgeois Boheme (Bo.bo), whose garments in luxury stores con reach prices of up to 2,000 reals (roughly 1,000 dollars).

The outcome of the case was that the board of directors of Restoque was called before the City Council to give explanations. And we cannot forget that in January of 2013 government passed law # 14.946, which, among other things, revokes the licenses of companies that are caught benefiting directly or indirectly from slave-labor like conditions. According to this law, such companies are to be banned from performing the same economic activity or from opening new businesses in the same sector for a period of up to 10 years.

The congressman behind this law, Carlos Bezerra, from the Social Democratic Party of Brazil(PSDB), says that passing the bill an arduous task, because “unfortunately, a lot of people accept slave labor as something normal”. Nevertheless, after the law passed, Sao Paulo became a pioneer in meting out clear and harsh punishments against slave labor.

The biggest problem is that it is not always easy to prove someone is committing that crime, because multinational companies hire third or fourth parties to do the job, making it difficult to prove that the garments that come out of those clandestine sewing shops are being produced for their different brands. So, since they hire intermediate companies which, in their turn, sub hire micro companies or family co-ops, it is hard to detect and make accountable those directly responsible. The seamstress always knows who she is working for, though.

And that was the argument used by Restoque in their defense; their CEO, Livingston Bauermeister, minimized the company’s responsibility. “Restoque would never benefit from exploitation. We demand that our service providers abide by Brazilian labor laws. Two of our clients broke their contract with us without our knowledge, and we only heard of the accusations when the Ministry of Labor notified us”, he said before the Sao Paulo City Council.

Luis Alexandre Faria is the fiscal auditor of labor, the person that is in charge of investigating such cases and then executing of police raids. Serene and amiable, it is hard to find him in his office because he is constantly conducting raids. During a presentation he made at the first Seminar on Combating Slave Labor in the State of Sao Paulo, which occurred on August 21st 2013, he demonstrated alarming figures and evidences of the life lead by the over 40 thousand Bolivians – according to his calculations – that work on the 12 thousand sewing shops estimated to exist in Sao Paulo.

He revealed, for instance, that many cases of labor in conditions similar to slavery are linked to human trafficking. The chain usually begins in the Bolivian city of El Alto, where radio shows broadcast announcements calling forth young people interested in working as seamstresses or tailor in Brazil for “good salaries”. The only prerequisite necessary, but not always fulfilled, is that the person be 18 or over. The majority of them come from rural areas near La Paz, and they easily fall prey to coyotes, the people in charge of getting them across the border. Once they’ve crossed the border, the coyote sees that they arrive in Sao Paulo, and that’s when they begin accumulating debts they will never be able to pay the coyote back. “I’ve encountered notebook sheets that showed they were charged with having eaten an extra egg”, Faria assures.

Even though it is an old issue, it was only in 1995 that the state of Sao Paulo really took action in combating slave labor (that was 6 years after the first irregularity in those sewing shops was denounced). “In Brazil, working long hours in inhumane conditions is a crime. We have a program through which we rescue people from those conditions, calculate how much money they should have received according to Brazilian law, and we make sure that they are paid, and the exploiters, fined, he affirms.

Victims

Nevertheless, the biggest problem Brazilian authorities have been facing until now are the victims, as ironic as that may sound: in many cases, the victims themselves do not recognize their work conditions as being similar to slavery. Edwin Laime and Martin Huanca, who call themselves small-time Bolivian entrepreneurs, attended the seminar as representatives of part of the Bolivian community living in Sao Paulo. Edwin Laime says that from an early age he learned to work, and he believes that work dignifies rather than degrade him. Thus he proposed – at the top of his lungs – that the seminar should be debating the issue from a different perspective, such as trying to reduce the costs of the bureaucracy one has to go through before getting permission to legally reside in Brazil.

Later on he assured everyone that “all Bolivians” arrive like that in the Brazil and, even though it is true that many young men are subject to inhumane treatment and many Young girls are victims of sexual abuse, “with time, they establish themselves and bring their families to live here”. He regards that as an accomplishment, as if this were the natural path they should follow if they want to amount to anything good.

Short, thin and with a dark complexion, Laime says that nowadays he runs “many companies”. Occasionally sipping from a wine bottle he carried in his backpack, he says that in the outskirts of Sao Paulo where the Bolivian community lives, they face abuses from Brazilians, Peruvians and Paraguayans. To him, the way in which his fellow countrymen work is indeed hard “but is not similar to slavery, as some people say”, and it is compensated by the amount of booze they can drink during the weekends “so they can forget what they have to go through”.

The fiscal auditor, Faria, has heard endless arguments trying to justify what amounts to slave labor; but he says that when victims are rescued from slavery and are told how much they should be earning, they have no trouble seeing that someone has been getting rich off of their sweat and tears. “Maybe they were living under extreme conditions back in Bolivia, but that is no excuse. Only when they are told what is owed to them is that they realize they have been exploited. We, as a nation, cannot accept the conditions under which not only Bolivians, but many Brazilians from poorer states, Peruvians and Paraguayans work. Here [in Brazil]the law considers slave labor a crime”, he insists.

Another big problem is the fact that many migrants lack the knowledge that international treaties among both countries allow them to work here legally, without having to expose themselves to the abuses that is having all their documents remain on the hands of their bosses, who use that to further exploit them. Eunice Cabral, president of The Seamstress Union of Sao Paulo, is an African-Brazilian who has raised her children by herself while working on one of those sewing shops. Disturbed, she assures that the Bolivians’ posture when facing social struggles for better work conditions ends up damaging all other classes of workers. “If they give away their work force as a gift, our bosses understand that we [the Brazilians]have to do the same. They fire us because they know there are other people willing to do the same job for a smaller salary and under worse conditions. I personally know many Bolivians who have denounced such irregularities and today hold good jobs, with all the benefits this country has to offer to a legalized worker”, she complains.

Distant from these discussions on the subject in Sao Paulo state, Edilberto says the only thing he wants is freedom to work. When his son was killed, the Bolivian community took to the streets in protest, demanding that those responsible be punished, and the case was immediately linked to the conditions under which those thousands of his fellow countrymen live and work in Brazil. “The number the Bolivian consulate claims is 40 thousand illegal workers, but we believe this number to be much greater. Bolivians migrate to Brazil every day, because the work force is necessary here, and there’s always work for those who arrive here with the idea of improving their lives”, states Martin Huanca, a Bolivian who today is the link between the Migrant Support Center (CAMI for its initials in Portuguese), an institution linked to the catholic Church, and his fellow countrymen. Working together, both seek to make sure that upon their arrival those migrants are informed and feel we can really help them with their legalization.

Weeks before Brayan was shot, Edilberto and Veronica started having strange dreams. One night the father dreamt he saw the murderers on the street corner by his home. It was dark and they were there, like they used to do. “What does it mean, I thought”, he now tells. Veronica, in her turn, saw in her dreams that her child would be stabbed and felt that something bad was about to happen.

bolivians-brasil21-02Brayan’s mother Veronica at a demonstration after his murder

In the night of June 28th, her omen became true. When Edilberto and his brother Carlos came back home by car, at 10:40 p.m., five young men with guns assaulted them and demanded they hand out their money. “I don’t remember it very well, it was like a movie. I couldn’t understand what was happening. We gave them all our cash, we had 4,500 reals (roughly 2,250 dollars), but they wanted more. We even gave them my son’s piggy bank, but that wasn’t enough for them”, says Edilberto.

Brayan started to cry, and Veronica held him tight against her breast. “He never screamed. He would only say ‘don’t kill me, don’t kill my mommy’. And then tears started falling from his face. And we heard a loud noise”, she says. Edilberto’s memory stops there for a time. When he returned to his senses he was at St. Mathew’s General Hospital holding his son in his arms asking desperately that he be saved. It was already too late; his son had died on his way to the hospital.

The crime caused an uproar, for the cold-blooded behavior of the attackers. After shooting Brayan in the head, they fled with the money, leaving behind a devastated family. “We organized demonstrations because we felt unprotected,” says the entrepreneur Edwin Jimmy Laime. “At that time, we only wanted the Bolivian ambassador or some other authority to give us words of hope. It was as if my own son had died”, he remembers now, taking a long sip from his wine bottle.

Because of the tragedy, Edilberto and Veronica returned to Tacamara carrying their son’s coffin so they could bury him at a cemetery located some blocks away from their small home. Bolivian authorities helped them with their repatriation and promised Edilberto a steady job so he could stay in Bolivia. Believing in the promise, days later he travelled to Bogota and went to the Office of the Chancellor, like they had told him to do; there he was told there were no job openings. “I went there a second time and they wouldn’t even let me in the building. That is why I plan on going back to Sao Paulo as soon as I’ve overcome this. I left my sewing machines there, and they must be deteriorating right now. I am only waiting until my wife feels better and, I don’t know, maybe I’ll wait a while longer, because I don’t know what it is going to be like going back to Sao Paulo and not seeing Brayan anymore.”

Veronica became ill from the stress. Short and dark, with chubby hands, during the interview she remained in a state of mourning silence that has been hard to break. Ever since the tragedy occurred, she can’t stop thinking of her son; she is 23 but looks like a woman in her 50’s. Wrapped in a scarf to keep the off the Andean cold, she says that she too plans to go back to Sao Paulo, though, in her own case, going backs will be more of a torture than a hope for better days. “I also dream a lot. In my dreams, Brayan tells me he is all right, he is no longer afraid of sleeping in the dark, like when he was alive”, she utters.

But such consolations are not enough. She doesn’t cry anymore, and her sadness is stronger than tears. Maybe that is why she does not know or does not care that her son’s killers were themselves killed in prison, after they were captured. The five criminals were all under the age of 20, and according to the Brazilian media, the case caused such outrage even among prisoners, that they killed Brayan’s murderers in an attempt to avenge the boy. “I don’t know, we haven’t been told anything, the lawyer that helped us won’t even call us… and just what can we do about all of that?”, says Edilberto.

Both the parents are aware of the fact that they need to go back to work if they want to make a living. As for now, Feliciano, Edilberto’s father, gave the couple a car for them to use as a taxi, especially on Thursdays and Sundays, when there is a farmer’s market in the town of Achacachi, but they usually make only about 90 to 100 Bolivianos [around $14]. The rest of the week they spend at home, helping with the farm work or just sitting by the yard in front of their room, where Brayan used to come out singing and clapping for them: “Is that mommy, is that daddy?”.

Rocio Lloret Cespedes Translated from Portuguese by International Boulevard