A group of Korean-American students and myself had traveled to Bolivia for a mission trip. It was a chilled winter morning on our last day in the small town of Calera in El Torno. “We have to hurry!” exclaimed one of the local people guiding us to the airport. “If not, they will start blocking the roads and we won’t catch the plane.” We all glanced at each other in bewilderment.
“What!?” “Why?” we called out in unison.
“Lately, once a month the teachers have been giving out a warning that a protest will take place. This warning is given so that people can take the necessary precautions and plan ahead. However, we didn’t know the specific time they would actually start blocking the roads. We just knew it will be anytime from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.,” the local finished explaining.
Worried, we finished loading up the trucks as quickly as possible. We rode in two separate trucks. Some were in the back of a gray Toyota pickup truck. Others were in the back of a red vintage Toyota pickup truck with a plastic covering and uncomfortable wooden benches as seats. The trucks advanced as fast as they could through the rocky roads, crossing river after river, some deeper than others but all equally dangerous to get caught in. We finally arrived to El Torno. From the inside of the truck, I witnessed massive piles of what seemed to be dirt on the side of road. Every couple of blocks once again, there were more mounds of dirt. I wondered what they were until an epiphany came to mind. These must be what they are going to block the streets with!
The closer we got to the inner city, the more police began to appear. I was expecting a barricade of police with rifles or semiautomatic weapons. However, to my surprise all I witnessed was a group of policemen gathered to the side of the pile of dirt just standing talking to each other as if blocking the streets were just another mundane event. The streets became narrower as each pile closed in. This served as a warning to the people that soon everything would be completely blocked. Streets crowded with even more cars, buses, taxis, trucks, and even people crossing in front of cars trying to sell their food. Mothers and fathers with children pretended there were no cars on the streets, crossing at their own risk. Each vehicle tried to squeeze by the barricades of dirt as it closed in on them. What an interesting way to protest. Where were the people with picket signs? Where’s the angry mob of people yelling out nonsense, and why are the police just standing there? A doctor who currently resides in Bolivia then said, “The protests here are very different from the United States. People here can say whatever they want, but nobody really cares what they are protesting about.”
Often humans fight for justice, for human rights, or for their belief system; and this battle is fought with many strategies. One of the most known strategies is protesting. At the young age of 12, I was recruited to my first protest by my aunt. It is all a blur now, but there I was, a 12-year-old marching on the streets of inner city Providence, Rhode Island, with a crowd of older Hispanic/Latino people advocating for immigrant rights—advocating for the people I identified myself with. Although I was just 12 years old and did not have a clear picture of what I was even marching for, I believed that protesting, marching and lifting up posters with catch phrases would help the cause.
Protesting in the United States varies. There is no specific outcome. There can be simple protests that turn into what the media calls riots and chaos, those protests where cars are turned over, buildings are on fire, and people are breaking the law by smashing store windows. Then there are those like the one I attended. A crowd of people marching and blocking the roads to make a statement. In Bolivia, teachers, professors and janitors were taking a stand to fight the low pay they receive. Yet, these people can protest every month and block the road. They can close the streets with piles of dirt and they can cause a disarray of people and cars on the streets. They can stand around and lift signs up, but the government will simply see it as a small tantrum, like those protesting are children who will eventually get over the fact that they will not get what they want and will not receive what they want simply because they decided to block the streets with dirt. Protests are seen as negative because of their potential “harm” or their “waste of time” to others. It saddened me to find out people put so much energy and attention to actually participate in these protests. The underlying reason is strong. Yet, their voices are drowned among the corruption of those with power.
Free speech is a birthright every human should have. However, free speech isn’t always free; with it comes many sacrifices. It costs time and money, but mostly time. Free speech demands peace of mind, and courage because of all the hate thrown at those who choose to speak up. Free speech isn’t free because when a person who is not a citizen but merely a resident tries to voice an opinion, their voices are trampled by the louder ones. The right to free speech is underestimated. Complaints and judgment exist among those who exert this right. The power behind this event that brings forth both love and hatred.
The image of careless policemen and careless politicians is a frightening thought. Once protests become ineffective, will there even be such thing as free speech? Is free speech free only when the expected outcome takes place? In the case of the teachers in Bolivia, they exercised their right, yet nothing was made of it. It just cost them time and money and led to disappointment.