Note from Bolivia
Written by Bwog Staff
In the vein of our dispatch from Mongolia, Bwog friend Ernest Herrera, CC ’09, tells us what’s going on down south.
Since no one ever assumes I’m a ‘gringo,’ I can’t always tell when my cover is blown in this country. However, I know better than to think I can completely ‘fit in’ when a rabbi in La Paz tries to convince me of my Jewish heritage as I don my Bolivian fedora, or when I – more through fatigue than misunderstanding the language – ask the money-changer how much a shoe-shine costs. But after a few months in South America, at least I’m comfortable enough to slip up with Spanish phrases in paragraphs I’m trying to write in English.
[At right: The scarred face of Cerro Rico, or ‘The Mountain that eats men.’ A mining mountain whose resources funded Spain’s 17th and 18th century wars in Europe, and whose tin kept food fresh for Allies in World War I.]
Thanks to a crazy suggestion from our study abroad dean to travel sooner than later, I am spending this semester studying in Bolivia with the School for International Training (SIT). The group consists of twenty-six American university students, with interests ranging from theater to economic theory, based in Cochabamba, the just-right-porridge city in a country with regionalistic politics and extreme climates. We attend lectures from university professors, academics, and political and social leaders regarding ‘culture and development’ – a mix of history, politics, and anthropology. We also travel and have ‘class’ in the form of visits to places like the ‘Birthplace of the Sun,’ where the 2700 year-old Tiwanaku empire held its seat on an island in Lake Titicaca, and Cerro Rico, a mountain in Potosí that has claimed the lives of nearly eight million miners over the centuries that its silver and mineral ore have been exploited.
It was on Cerro Rico, probably the least conventionally attractive of touristy stops, that I could most clearly sense the intensity of its history. Wearing miner’s garb and a helmet complete with electric lamp, a man aware of his striking resemblance to Hugo Chavez gave our group a tour. Before entering an unused mining tunnel, he showed us a pile of raw mineral ore and instructed us to turn our gifts of coca leaves, Coca-Cola, fruit juice, and plantains over to children or women whom we wandered by. A number of the workers on the cerro have their homes on its faces. The heads of these homes are not necessarily men–life is often cut short in the mine by collapses, explosions, and poisoning. Boys, who can begin work at 12 to 14 years of age, take over that paternal role. In the middle of the ore explanation, one cerro resident, a boy appearing to be around eight years-old, walked away from our group, looking back and smiling. Chavez’s voice faded from my hearing as I watched the kid disappear around the mountain just as easily, somehow erasing the euphemisms and justifications that seem readily available when speaking of the deadly exploitation of the mines.
[Above: Rioso Villaroel, my ‘brother’ from my stay with a campesino family in Koari, stands listening to cumbia and with an extinguished field fire on the hill peak in the background.]
For my fellow political junkies reading this, I highly recommend you put down your books about China or Obama for a minute and read about the process of change occurring in Bolivia. If you are at all interested in learning Spanish and being informed about Latin American politics, you should study this country. For those of you interested in learning Aymara or Quechua and witnessing the re-writing of a constitution, you should study in this country. Our group had the fortune to visit La Asamblea Constituyente (Constitutional Assembly) in Sucre, where elected representatives from around Bolivia are duking it out in their constitutional capital to establish a new state system. This would be the equivalent of international students coming to the United States to have a conference with members of Congress. Perhaps I exaggerate, but I have felt more than privileged during my time here.
As a student, I have found the level of access to information here to be amazing. Through luck and well-established SIT connections, I have been able to direct questions at people such as Oscar Olivera, a national labor-union leader who headed the protests that ran out the San Francisco-based Bechtel after it privatized Cochabamba’s water system and raised domestic service rates by 200%. Through my homestay family, I was able to chat with a ‘relative’ of mine, Imbert Acosta, who is the national president of one of the indigenous confederations that pushed for the formation of a political instrument, the Movimiento Al Socialismo (MAS – party of the current president, Evo Morales). However starry-eyed I have been though, I have been sure to keep my wits about me. [Above: Vendors work on a busy sidewalk in La Paz, the seat of the Bolivian government.]
I recognize a certain political leaning that comes with the institution I study under here. They do not try to hid this, and I don’t think it hinders their program. I entered the program with a certain bias against US policy in the region, and the staff don’t shy away from talking about the damage our coca-eradication efforts have had on local communities. Although I tend to lean in their direction, I become wary of some of the structure when I think it obvious that Professor Jeffrey Sachs (he designed controversial neoliberal economic adjustments imposed here in 1985) has not received a fair shake in our lectures, or when we only meet MAS representatives at La Asamblea. Despite any suspicions, I always walk away from such experiences more convinced of the significance of a student’s impact in this country, negative or positive, by way of studying and writing about the people and issues here. Though I am inclined to tell myself that ‘none of this is my fight,’ I cannot help but empathize with a government that acts more democratically and seems so much more representative of the people.
Transcending polemics and highlighting my privilege is my experience of Cochabamba. While writing a report on urbanization with a small group, I visited the south of the city. In this ‘Zona Sur,’ how politics might help becomes less clear and cynicism creeps in. Among interviews regarding the lack of potable water and the absence of parents due to immigration to Spain, Argentina, and the States, I spoke with one woman whose lack of words was more informative. To questions about the community and its history, my friend and I received single word answers after long pauses and stares. We figured that she was new to the language, probably a native Quechua-speaker. Her business of selling ice cream from a foam ice chest demonstrated the norm in this community of informal employment. Like the boy from Potosí, her looks more than adequately explained
systemic inequality as a living fact, not a historical theory.
With all lessons learned, and at the end of my semester here, I expect to be so in love with the place that I will have no choice but to return. While all of my compañeros in New York have almost two months left, our semester nears its end before we set out for our month-long independent study projects next week. I hope to study the affects of militant rebellion against outside cultural and political influence on the nationalistic identity of an indigenous Aymara community in a western province of La Paz. It will be fairly cold there, but it should be a good warm-up for when I get to see all of you again in the dead of New York winter.
At left: Don Juan reads coca leaves and tells me in Aymara that success and a woman taller than me await me after college.
Below: El Christo overlooks Cochabamba from the East.