The Uru –“individuals of the water” — would assemble a sort of household island of reeds if they wed and would live on what they can harvest from the broad, shallow lake in the highlands of southwestern Bolivia.

When they fell in love, the couple built their own raft,” explained Abdón Choque, leader of Punaca, a town of some 180 people.

What was Bolivia’s second largest lake is now gone. It dried up about five decades before, victim of shrinking glaciers, water diversions for farming and contamination. Ponds reappear in places during the rainy season.

And the Uru of Lake Poopo are left clinging to the salt-crusted former shoreline in three little settlements, 635 people scrabbling for ways to create a living and trying hard to save even their civilization.

“Our grandfathers thought the lake would continue all their lives, and my folks are near extinction since our source of life has been dropped,” said Luis Valero, chief of the Uru communities around the lake.

Before the lake was missing, the language of this Uru-Cholo had expired as well. The last native speakers gradually expired and younger generations grew up schooled in Spanish and functioning in other, more common Indigenous languages, Aymara and Quechua.

To save their identities, the communities are trying to revive that language — or at least its closest sibling. Aided by the government and a local foundation, they’ve encouraged teachers from a related branch of the Uru, the Uru-Chipaya near the Chilean border to the west, to instruct that tongue — among 36 formally acknowledged Bolivian languages — for their children.

“In this times, all changes. But we’re making efforts to keep our civilization,” Valero said. “Our kids have to recover the language to distinguish us from our neighbors”

“The teachers teach us the language with amounts, greetings and songs,” said Avelina Choque, a 21 year-old student who said she one day would like to teach mathematics. “it is a little hard to pronounce.”

The pandemic has added to that struggle. The teachers have been unable to hold in-person courses throughout the pandemic, leaving pupils to learn from videos, texts and radio programs.

.Punaca Mayor Rufino Choque said the Uru began settling on the lakeshore several decades back as the lake began to shrink, although by then, the majority of the lands around them were occupied.

“We’re historical (as a people), but we don’t have any territory. Today we have no source of work, nothing,” stated the 61-year-ild mayor, whose town consists of ribbon of around, plastered block homes along an earthen road.

With no land for farming, the young men hire themselves out as laborers, herders or miners in nearby cities or more distant towns. “They see that the money and they do not return,” explained Abdón. A number of the girl make handicrafts of straw.

The broader Uru individuals once dominated a big swath of the region, and branches stay around Peru and Lake Titicaca to the northwest, across the Chilean border and close to the Argentine border.