Community, Human Rights, Santa Cruz

Brasilito: The community with students who’ve never been to school

Nubia Vazquez and her children, Ezequiel (9) and Meylin (7), study in the house that they rent. "They don't connect [to virtual classes] because I don't have internet," says Nubia. “They give me the worksheets like this and I do what I can with them because I don't understand the classes well. I help them solve it as best as I can.” Photo: César Arroyo Castro
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In the mid-morning heat, Santiago sits at the Brasilito bus stop and confesses to his grandmother an idea that he has his mind set on: He wants the whole family to go live in La Garita Vieja.

La Garita Vieja is a town 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Brasilito, both of which are in the canton of Santa Cruz, Guanacaste.

This isn’t the first time the boy has mentioned this idea, says his grandmother, Ramona Rodriguez. “The thing is, there’s a school there, and he really wants to study!” the grandmother says with a tone that implies she knows that the child is dreaming of something impossible.

Santiago was born in 2012, the same year that the Samara earthquake took away the community’s elementary school. In other words, Santiago is 10 years old, the same number of years Brasilito hasn’t had a school.

Despite the time that has passed, the Ministry of Public Education (MEP) hasn’t been able to give the town a new one. That’s why he and about 200 boys and girls from this coastal community don’t know what it’s like to study in a school, with classrooms, hallways and a small soccer field. The last group of students that did use the elementary school are about to finish high school.

After almost two years of the pandemic, Brasilito was the only school group in Guanacaste that did not return to classrooms during the week of February 17, as shown by a list that MEP shared with The Voice.

Some families managed to enroll their sons and daughters in nearby schools. Others have tried but there isn’t enough room. The vast majority of elementary school students in Brasilito are still at home.

Due to the community’s socioeconomic characteristics, they don’t have the remotest possibility of listening to their teacher through the computer. They’re low-income families, some of whom are immigrants, moms and dads who live on what they earn from day to day. Santiago’s mom, for example, works at a local coffee plantation and has no way of taking him to another school.

That’s why, on the day classes resumed, Santiago and Ramona went to the entrance of the school with a dozen other neighbors. While thousands of boys and girls across the country went back to classrooms, they put up posters outside what was once the elementary school to protest and demand a school once and for all.

Now, four months after that protest, nothing has changed. The girls and boys are still at home with no school to learn at. MEP has now begun to build some temporary classrooms, which they began planning last year. But reopening the school is still far off. According to the Ministry, they’re still doing paperwork to begin construction.

When the school was damaged, the community soon learned that

Although the community still doesn’t have a school, it’s not because they’ve been sitting around with their arms crossed. The three boards of education that the community has had since 2012 have dedicated themselves to working toward that.

The first board of education found a 12,500-square-meter piece of land (about 3 acres) less than 100 meters (330 feet) from the town’s community hall. Not an easy task so close to the maritime land zone and when there are no funds, explained Yahaira Castillo, former president of the board and mother of two.

The board that Castillo was president of managed to buy it for a symbolic amount of ¢11 million (about $22,000 at the time), but they ran into obstacles that prevented them from building there. First, the lot needed to be filled in and needed a sewer system to handle rain waters. Second, the Educational Infrastructure Administration (DIEE for the Spanish acronym) asked them to go through processes that she describes as long and cumbersome.

The DIEE always says that it’s bad planning by the boards of education, but I don’t understand. We worked well. What happens is that the DIEE has a list of  schools with emergencies and who knows where we are in line on that list,” Castillo wondered.

The families also don’t understand why MEP authorized the purchase if they did inspections and were able to foresee the lot’s drawbacks.

The current president of the board, Wendy Meneses, summed it up in one word: bureaucracy. That’s it. On one visit we made to Brasilito in September 2021, she told us about her experience as she showed us the remains of the old school and the place where generations of 100 to 200 boys and girls received classes for many years. 

What were once classrooms now serve as storage, filled with the desks, chairs, fans and absolutely everything that used to furnish the school there.

“A lot has been tried to get the Brasilito school back, but I don’t know what the government expects to speed up the process. It’s so much runaround,” said Meneses as she walked into the classroom stacked with desks.

Back in February, The Voice of Guanacaste requested an interview with MEP to understand why they haven’t resolved Brasilito’s lack of a school for a decade. We specifically requested a conversation with the person in charge of the DIEE or someone from MEP who’s well-versed in the entire situation that has happened in Brasilito and who can explain the entire context since 2015, when they stopped using the old school.

The ministry only sent us an audio file from the director of the DIEE, Catalina Salas, on June 1st.

The hope would be that in the second half of this year, the children will return to in-person classes while the new educational center is being built,” she said. She added that they are just in the design phase and that they hope to achieve its planning and development starting in 2024.

It’s a temporary solution, but one that several mothers believe would solve a critical problem, which is distance education. “The classrooms are made for the purpose of in-person attendance since many children don’t have electronic devices for virtual [learning],” said Meneses, the president of the board.

The Attempts

For a time after the earthquake, the nearly 200 boys and girls took turns having classes in two classrooms, the least affected. Later, the entire school was moved to the community hall, divided only by partitions or folding walls that did little to soundproof. So the vowel sounds being taught in kindergarten ended up mixing with the first basic math problems in first grade.

“My daughter told me how hot it was, and how was I going to contradict her complaints? If I was going to pick her up in that heat of more than 30 degrees (Celsius or 86 Fahrenheit) and imagine her trying to attend classes,” said Meneses as she opened the community hall for us.

With the pandemic, even that last option was buried. If they returned to the hall, they couldn’t guarantee physical distancing. Students and teachers would have to share the only two bathrooms. The situation was incompatible with health measures.

In the community hall, they taught classes from kindergarten to sixth grade, taking turns with lessons in the mornings and in the afternoons. Their classrooms were divided with partitions and everyone shared only two bathrooms. Photo: César Arroyo Castro

So now they continue to study remotely with guides and with the limited virtual access that some families have. Some of them go to an organization that helps them with classes

Most of the families who live in Brasilito worked in agriculture. In recent years, mainly after the Reserva Conchal hotel opened in 2011, the community transitioned to a small-scale tourism model: tours, small restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarkets. But it’s not enough.

In fact, Conchal (located in Brasilito) is one of the few tourist centers that has a lower Social Progress Index (SPI) than the canton to which it belongs (65.6, below 73.3 in Santa Cruz), according to the most recent index (2019) that studies 32 communities taken into account in the 2017-2021 National Tourism Plan. 

The most recent one, published in 2019, shows that most tourist centers have higher scores than those of their cantons. Conchal, located in Brasilito, is one of the exceptions to this pattern. The SPI there is 65.6, which is below the SPI of its canton, Santa Cruz, with 73.3.

The town has other hardships in addition to the lack of educational infrastructure. According to the SPI report, the most critical items in Conchal are intolerance towards immigrants, violence against women, human trafficking and low participation in elections. There are some families who feel that, with difficulty, they have managed to support their sons and daughters educationally with all the responsibilities that virtual education demands.

This is the case for Sharon Urbina and her daughter, Nayuribe, a curious girl who is passionate about creating drawings, paintings, stories and even audiovisual productions.

“My mom set up internet and we share it so that they’re connected,” said Sharon in the living room of her house, which is decorated with works of art done by her and her daughter. “Of course, Nayuribe has asperger’s and she goes crazy when the internet goes down, because she wants to be in her classes.” Sharon laments what she sees in the community: children who started working with their parents on the beach, selling soft drinks or doing tours. “There are other cases of children who don’t even have access. They send them the guide, but they don’t make progress,” she added.

Notes from the journalist:

  1. Research for this report was done during several weeks between September 2021 and May 2022. Nubia Vazquez and her family no longer live in Brasilito. Nayuribe is now in seventh grade at the high school in Cartagena.
  2. This text was updated on 06/11/2022 to indicate that the lot was purchased in 2019.