Geoffrey Fox

Reflections & Inquiries

Voyage to Bolivia


Susana Torre has permitted me to post these excerpts from her report on our January trip to Bolivia.

We are still assimilating the disparate experiences of our Bolivian sojourn, as it is really 3 countries (geographically and culturally) with over 40% of the population being of 36 officially recognized indigenous groups, the Aymara and the Quechua being the largest. President and former cocalero leader Evo Morales is an Aymara. Under his rule many “women of the skirt” as they call themselves (for the pollera, the abundant skirt favored by indigenous women) or cholas, as they are called more disparagingly – have prospered as merchants enough to commission flamboyant buildings in a new style developed by the Aymara engineer Freddy Mamani, outside all canonical architectural discourses. They are designed to stand out and to be profitable: two levels of a huge and an exceedingly lavish party hall and two levels of rental apartments surmount the ground floor store; on top is the proprietor’s own large chalet (or “cholet”, as the white elite calls them). The colorful façades inspired by indigenous decorative motifs vigorously reinforce the cholas’ identity. Their enhanced status in the consumer society is amplified by the sumptuous designer versions of their traditional attire, about 10 grand for a party outfit.

Cholas in La Paz in everyday costume



Mamani’s buildings, which have been published in the international popular media, are so emblematic that small models of them were for sale in the huge alasitas fair on January 24th. This is the national feast celebrating the Ekeko, the Aymara god of abundance whose coat full of pockets is filled by believers with miniatures of the things they wish to obtain. In earlier times it was food on the table, now it is cars, houses, university degrees, dollars – as Lacan once observed, desire can never be satisfied. The newer Aymara city El Alto at 13,615 feet above sea level, where Mamani’s buildings are located, overlooks La Paz, about 1,700 feet below; the exposed red brick buildings make both cities look permanently unfinished. In La Paz, the neighborhoods succeed themselves from poor to wealthy skewer-like along the main road over the river underneath. Since Colonial times the richer the people, the lower in the ravine they live, enjoying better climate and more oxygen.

A Freddy Mamani building in El Alto

Potosí is even higher, at 14,420 feet above sea level, and placing coca leaves between skin and bone in one’s mouth and drinking coca tea made with Windsor teabags that can be found in supermarkets is essential to combat soroche (altitude sickness). There we experienced the degradation of a place that was subject to predatory imperialist overexploitation for over 450 years, claiming 8 million lives. The Cerro Rico (The Rich Hill), once dripping with silver and represented as the Holy Virgin in the 18th Century is now an anthill with hundreds of mine openings where men and boys toil brutally to extract minerals, mainly tin and what is left of silver. For those who speak Spanish, the documentary La Mina del Diablo (The Devil’s Mine) is an excellent introduction through the eyes of a 14 year old to this nether world and its fickle satanic deity, El Tío. The tourists donning yellow coveralls and miners’ hats that are brought through the mines are made to avoid the sight of children working, turning the experience into a slightly strenuous but mostly sanitized physical adventure.

The streets of the cities and villages we visited (Santa Cruz, San Xavier, Concepcion, El Alto, La Paz, Tiwanaku, Potosí and Sucre) are full of cars and minivans made in China without safety devices like air bags. These and the plethora of merchandise available in El Alto’s 6-mile long open-air market, the largest in Bolivia, are the most visible evidence of China’s assertive involvement in Latin America and especially in socialist Bolivia, which still doesn’t have an American Ambassador, only a Chargé d’Affairs. Bolivia’s production of natural gas, large enough to export, affords giving incentives to convert cars to natural gas as fuel, a good thing that eliminates the gasoline fumes, dispersed in noxious clouds by the reduced oxygen in the air. This and the Swiss-manufactured cable car system that connects El Alto with La Paz, allowing domestic workers to reach their jobs in wealthy neighborhoods quickly and comfortably, are counted as two of the government’s best achievements. But the country that had the fist Mint in the Americas now subcontracts the making of its money to Canada and Chile because it lacks the technology for anti-forgery features, and 45% of its population is below the poverty line according to some surveys.
Andean textiles are rightly considered the art form that best conveys the imaginary of pre-Modern indigenous groups in the region. They are carefully displayed in two outstanding small museums in La Paz (Museum of Andean Textiles) and Sucre (ASUR). The exquisitely manufactured pieces of the Tarabuco and Jal’qa women weavers impressed me the most. Tarabuquean weavings, like historic American quilts, describe the elements of everyday life (houses, animals, people, occupations). Jal’qa weavings use only black figures against a red background to describe the imaginary elements of a magical world populated by khurus, powerful monstrous wild beasts. These black figures fill the red background in a seemingly chaotic fashion, as they are realized without previous drawings, a technique known as pallay (designing while weaving). Training in weaving begins when girls are five years old. Traditionally, an ability to weave well was essential to assuming their responsibility to clothe their family and feed it by selling the surplus. Yet while the government encourages the preservation of pre-Modern societies and traditional female roles, it must also accommodate the demands of women like the cholas in La Paz, whose political presence as Minister of Culture or mayor of a major city like El Alto are transforming Bolivian society. That, and China’s expanding influence, propels the process towards a new kind of Modernity no longer within the framework of Western culture and civilization.

Potosí, "Rich Hill"