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Muchacho Economics

August 22, 2012

Muchachos [moo-chah-cho] are teenagers.

I’m often surprised by how teenagers in the Comarca act similar to teenagers in the states:  exaggerated hair and clothing styles, an obsession with music and pop culture, and a constant preoccupation with the opposite sex. If I run into a teenager I know at the high school, they usually put on a ‘too cool for school’ attitude that reminds me of myself when I was younger and snobbier. But, if I see them at home then they are all love and smiles. It makes me feel like a dorky aunt trumping around the high school where I don’t belong.

This, needless to say, is part of the reason that I don’t work much in the high school. I was once a hormone-driven, evil teenager and now I have a healthy fear of them. I give respect to volunteers who work with teenagers as their primary project. But, it does often come at the cost of working with the wider community, which was my priority.

Despite my resistance to trailblazing in the hormone jungle of the High School in Chichica, I have managed to spend time with the species in their natural habitat at home and can therefore analyze them with a curious, yet objective eye.

Photos: My favorite muchachos ready for a parade. Left: Lucho (short for Louis) poses in his band uniform. Right: Albania (in front) poses with a gaggle of girls before the parade… I think they are baton-twirlers. 

Most muchachos don’t have jobs but are nonetheless the apple of their parents’ economic eye. To incentivize attendance beyond primary school, the government offers a “Universal Scholarship” of $20.00/month to all students (well, most students – some slip through the bureaucratic cracks), who achieve a certain grade point average. This direct payment is intended to cover transport, school uniforms, and supplies.

While it seems to do a good job keeping kids in school, it is dubious whether it is enough to cover all costs incurred in the process of going to school. One the one side, teachers and administrators use it as an excuse to demand students to have very specific supplies (ex. colored pencils and poster board) and make photocopies of homework. On the other side, parents need to use the additional funds to pay for transport and cover additional food costs to keep up nutrition. In elementary school, students get a calorie-packed cornmeal snack during the day to decrease hunger. High school students do not.

Chichica high school serves a wide area. Many students have to walk up to 1.5 hours and then hop on a truck transport to arrive at school on time, which is usually $0.25 each way, or $0.50 per day. At the end of the week, it adds up to $2.50, totally $10 by the end of the month (provided that they go to school every day). That is half of the monthly allotment. It is easy to see how students in this situation may struggle more than their counterparts who were lucky enough to be born within a reasonable distance of secondary education. Those who live close enough to walk or choose to walk save that $0.50, which they can use on consuming throughout the day (such as on crackers or ice cream). For many reasons, the farther you live from the road, the more you have to fight to get by.

As usual, no blog update is complete these days without mention of how everything around here is changing. Recently, the government gave every high school student in the country one of those cheap $200.00 laptops (produced in Spain ….) and then hooked up the high school to free internet. Within hours most muchachos had created a facebook page (I have a looming list of friend requests to prove it) and figured out how to download music illegally. Aw, the power of information. I’m sure that those laptops are being put to pedagogical use behind the walls of the high school, but I haven’t ventured to find out.

My initial inclination was to sigh and comment that this whole situation smells like government paternalism. In many ways it does. But, if we analyze it differently, it really isn’t so bad. The goal of the government in this area has been to maximize education in the face of some serious obstacles – namely rough mountain terrain with little road access and no electricity. Arguably, building roads and schools is a long-term investment that does little for the current generation. Instead, the government focused on patch-work solutions that give this generation the chance to be more competitive against their city-dwelling, electricity-consuming counterparts. Given that many students here will graduate from high school and move to the city to find work during their twenties, these programs might actually make a big difference in the medium-term.

Places with even tougher access than Chichica (which is pretty mild compared to other volunteer sites) are seeing students in their communities with laptops and internet as well. The furthest I’ve heard is a place on the other side of the Comarca with requires a 1 hour boat ride on the ocean, a 3 hour boat ride up-river, and a 20 minute walk. No cell service, no running water, no electricity, but there’s internet!

Taking advantage of a new economic opportunity, many small stores and families with solar panels have put up signs that read “Laptop charging – $1.00.” Just another expense that families will have to take into account in their already meager budgets.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. oldsalt1942 permalink
    August 22, 2012 8:34 pm

    Down at the bus terminal in David I’ve seen kids huddled around those little computers working away at their Facebook pages. And there’s anyone under 30 on a computer at an Info Plaza there’s even money they’re on Facebook, too. My friends in the States have some strange idea that Panama is some barely third-world country one generation up from a wheel barrow. That may be true in some pockets of the country, but whenever I get on a bus it seems that at least half of the riders have their heads bowed in supplication as though they were in church. But if you look closely you’ll find they’re texting away like crazy on their cell phones.

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