Real-world social issues in Spanish: SPA102 welcomes Bolivian miner Basilio Vargas

On April 20th, the students of Spanish 102 had a rare opportunity to converse with Basilio Vargas, miner from Potosí, Bolivia and protagonist of the critically acclaimed documentary The Devil’s Miner (2005), filmed when he was just fourteen years old. The students, who had seen the film for class, described the experience of meeting Basilio as “incredible, emotional, and unique.”

Designed and coordinated by Adriana Merino and taught by a team of lecturers,* Spanish 102 places a strong emphasis on social issues in the Hispanic world, and encourages students to combine their interests, knowledge and skills to become both global citizens and agents of change. It is for this reason that the course incorporated the documentary about Basilio and his brother as representative of children working in dire conditions in the Bolivian silver mines of Cerro Rico. Sixteen years after the documentary, Basilio accepted Professor Merino’s invitation to speak to Princeton students from Potosí. Although he is close to graduating from university in Bolivia with a degree in tourism, the pandemic and lack of visitors to the region have delayed his plans, forcing him to return to mining.

The conversation with Basilio was far from a typical university talk since he joined via Zoom from Cerro Potosí, the “man-eating” mountain according to the locals, immediately after his shift in the mine. Speaking to students at an altitude of 4400m, with his hands still dusty from work, Basilio answered questions ranging from his family, childhood and local legends about the mine to socioeconomic circumstances in Potosí, child labor laws in Bolivia, and beyond. The students, who were able to get a literal glimpse of the Andean sky and hear words in Basilio’s native Quechua language during the conversation, mentioned how moved they were by the experience as a whole.

Paul, a student in the class, said afterwards, “This was very important to me because we need to see someone from another culture, not only read about those people, but actually speak to them. It is a very different experience to just reading about someone.”

Zeph, another Spanish 102 student, was moved by how deprived Basilio’s childhood was compared to her own, “Knowing that he didn’t have toys when he was little, that he couldn’t go to a movie theatre—these are things I take for granted. It is very sad for me to hear about this.”

Nathan, another classmate, was amazed by Basilio’s capacity to stay positive in the face of adversity, “What impacted us most were his [Basilio’s] optimism and struggle to move forward,” he noted.

Teaching initiatives like this one are particularly important in the time of pandemic as they are able to transport students from the enclosed spaces of their home and university dormitories to distant landscapes, expose them to different cultures, and raise their awareness about real-world issues thereby promoting social change.

*In the Spring of 2021, Spanish 102 was taught by Adriana Merino, Raquel Mattson-Prieto, Daniela Salcedo, Jovana Zujevic, Luis Goncalves, Manuel Malia, Eliot Raynor, Ryan Goodman, and Sean McFadden. Special thanks to Raquel and Daniela for co-organizing the event.

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