SAO PAULO, Brazil — Lino Quispelaura left his impoverished neighborhood in Bolivia's capital two years ago, hoping to earn enough money in neighboring Brazil to come back a rich man.
After crossing the width of South America and settling in sprawling Sao Paulo, however, such hopes seem far away for Quispelaura, even farther than his mountainous homeland.
Like tens of thousands of other Bolivians here, Quispelaura has sunk into a grinding routine of nonstop, low-paid labor. He wakes before 7 a.m. every day to sew in a cramped garment factory until late at night, then sleeps on a mattress near his sewing machine. He earns barely enough to survive, and if he complains his bosses threaten to have him deported.
"No matter what people say, it's hard to get used to this life," Quispelaura, 20, said on one of his rare days off. "Coming here would have been worth the trouble if life were a little better than before. But I'm not sure it was worth the trouble."
Driven by dire poverty and political instability in South America's poorest country, Bolivians now make up one of the biggest cross-border movements of people in the region.
Nearly one-quarter of Bolivia's 9.8 million people live outside the country, and the money they send home makes up 9 percent of the country's economy, according to the Bolivian Economy Center, a research group affiliated with the Santa Cruz Chamber of Industry, Trade, Services and Tourism in eastern Bolivia.
The largest portion of them have gone to Argentina, where the center estimates that more than 1.1 million Bolivians now work. Another 386,000 are working in Spain, the center estimates, and 366,000 have gone to the United States.
Brazil, where the native language is Portuguese, not Spanish, traditionally has been off the migration map. But growing waves of Bolivians are discovering Sao Paulo's booming garment industry, and as many as 1,500 arrive every month. Many come from Argentina, where immigration has saturated the low-wage job market. The economy center thinks that nearly 300,000 Bolivians are working in Brazil now.
What they find in Sao Paulo is a maze of some 8,000 sweatshops — called "offices" in local parlance — that have sprouted in hidden apartments and innocuous storefronts throughout this metropolis of 20 million people. The sweatshops, some of which are owned by Bolivians, depend on the constant influx of cheap Bolivian labor. Many of their owners pay to smuggle workers into the country.
Newcomers toil seven days a week, with only a few hours of sleep allowed every night, and earn as little as $170 a month, depending on the quantity of clothing they churn out.
Brazilian federal prosecutor Vera Lucia Carlos defined the working conditions as "analogous to slavery." Health problems such as tuberculosis are rampant, as are reports of physical abuse. Many migrants toil months or even years just to pay back the expense of smuggling them in.
"The bosses are contracting this labor without paying any benefits or following any kind of labor laws," Carlos said. "It's not only hurting the Bolivians here but also Brazilians trying to compete against this kind of cheap labor."
Brazilian authorities have tried to stop the abuses by closing sweatshops and going after the retail stores that buy and sell the clothing, but prosecutors admit that it'll take years to make a dent in the problem.
Although public awareness of sweatshop exploitation is growing, Bolivians continue doing the work, which pays more than three times what they'd earn back home, said Ruth Camacho, a lawyer who's the daughter of Bolivian migrants and has counseled hundreds of newcomers.
Every Sunday, thousands of Bolivians fill a city plaza here to chat, eat Bolivian foods such as the savory pastries called saltenas and share job leads.
"If you ask Bolivians about this, some will say, 'It's great. I have work and I don't pay rent or the water bill,' " Camacho said. "Many people are putting in the same hours in their own offices."
That's what Sergio Quispe Cuellar, 57, did when he saved enough money doing sweatshop work to buy his own sewing machines and open a factory that employs other Bolivians.
"No one was forced to do what they did," he said. "It's what you have to do if you want to make money."
That promise of a quick buck, even under harsh conditions, has helped fuel the exodus from Bolivia. So has political and economic turmoil.
Many in Sao Paulo expect another wave of migrants to arrive as Bolivian President Evo Morales and opposition leaders divide the country in a politically dangerous fight over dueling government revisions.
"Our country has gone through a lot of difficulties, and it's pushed a lot of people out," Camacho said. "Bolivia is becoming a country of migrants more than anything now."
That was clear on a recent morning in the eastern Bolivian city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, which is the first stop for many Bolivians on their journey east to Sao Paulo.
In a gritty downtown neighborhood full of flophouses and long-distance telephone offices, eager job seekers crowded outside employment agencies looking for work locally and abroad.
Job announcements posted on agency walls and facades promised wages of $200 a month working as nannies in Argentina or seamstresses in Brazil, and many young people fresh out of high school waited on wooden benches with their bags already packed.
Mirian Lopez, who'd earned less than $100 a month as a secretary, said she was eager to leave, possibly by joining one of seven cousins who already are in Argentina and Europe.
"People tell me it's good over there," said the 26-year-old, who shares a room with her four children and her mother on the city's outskirts. "They say you can save money there."
Yet even in these hopeful streets, news about immigrant exploitation has been making the rounds, especially after a sweatshop fire in the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires killed six Bolivians in March 2006.
"People have come back saying they worked until 2 or 3 in the morning every day and that they were never paid," employment agent Maria Dolores Rossell said. "We're hearing from more people who say it's impossible to live there."
In Brazil, at least, hope has emerged for more than 40,000 Bolivians who have received work permits thanks to a treaty that Brazil and Bolivia signed nearly three years ago. That agreement allowed Bolivians who'd entered the country before Aug. 15, 2005, to stay legally.
Since the treaty, however, thousands more Bolivians have come to Sao Paulo, and they remain unprotected, said the Rev. Mario Geremia, who serves a downtown parish that caters predominantly to Bolivians. For such newcomers, the world quickly shrinks to their sewing machines and nearby mattresses.
"They keep coming because the situation in their country hasn't changed," Geremia said. "We see students, professionals, everyone arriving. They arrive, and then you hardly see them again."
COUNTRIES WITH LARGE NUMBERS OF BOLIVIANS
Argentina: 1.1 million
United States: 366,000
Source: Bolivian Economy Center