Bridge apart

By Published On: October 17, 2005Categories: Indigenous peoples1 Comment on Bridge apart

Well, I am glad to say that the overwhelming response from my poll is that you would like me to write more about Bolivia’s indigenous people.  Ok, so it wasn’t, but bad luck… that’s what I am going to write about. I will probably write about my love-life soon 🙂

It’s almost the first place you end up as a tourist here. An old colonial church backed onto a cobbled street full of divey, musty-mattressed hostels, dreadlocked gringos wearing silly hats and elderly men shiftily trying to sell you fossils.

It’s a church bound to the history of La Paz. It was built in 1548, a year before the city of La Paz was formally set up. The city was given a religious name, Nuestra Señora de La Paz, and was established on the site of an Aymaran village in order to access gold found in the Choqueapu river which ran alongside the church. Religion and greed as ever combined unashamedly.

San Francisco church now looks slightly out of place, its brickwork and jumble of statues visibly greying with the exhaust thrown up by hundreds of minibuses racing past. Outside the front courtyard of the church, indigenous women cram the pavement selling finger-puppets, peach-juice and bowls with large bones floating unappetisingly above an unquantifiable soup.

Rewind the clock back a few centuries, and the view would have been slightly different. The church of San Francisco at the time backed onto the indigenous part of La Paz. In front, instead of a packed dual carriage-way crammed with beeping minibuses, it had a bridge that stretched out across a now hidden-river into the Spanish quarter of La Paz.

But this wasn’t a bridge bringing together two cultures. It was more like an an escape route in and out of indigenous Bolivia for the Spanish elite. Because strangely the church, which was exclusively for Spanish worshippers, had been built in the indigenous quarter. Indigenous people who had built the church were not even allowed through the main door, let alone permitted to freely cross the bridge.

I didn’t notice it when I looked up at the jumble of statues that cover the church facade until a friend pointed it out to me – hidden amongst the saints and Virgin Marys a provocative statue of Pachamama (the indigenous mother-God of fertility and land) with her legs wide open exposing herself to the world. A 16th century form of erotic yet religious grafitti. It seems a suitable reposte by an indigenous craftsman to a world that seemed determined to exclude them.

According to the friendly guide that showed me around San Francisco museum, indigenous people weren’t freely allowed into the church until the 1840s. More shockingly, I found out recently that indigenous people couldn’t enter the central Plaza Murillo (that now houses the Congress and Presidential palace), which was in the heart of the Spanish quarter, until the revolution in 1952. In a macho society, white/mestizo women managed to get the vote in Bolivia before indigenous people.

Bolivia much like the southern states of the US in the 60s, South Africa for much of the 20th Century or the occupied West Bank today had a segregated society where separation was used as an excuse for domination.

As you wander La Paz’s streets now, it’s easy to forget this history as you take in the extraordinary diversity of businessmen shouting down their mobile phones mixing with indigenous women in bowler hats selling dried llama meat. But the ongoing legacy of a colonial apartheid filters into today’s La Paz and Bolivia in many ways, both subtle and stark.

It’s intertwined with the surprise of Pacesa, an indigenous woman, who comes fortnightly to clean our clothes, when I offer her a cup of tea and food when she arrives. It’s represented in the lack of indigenous people within the NGO where I work. It’s on the television when the vast majority of those who speak "for the nation" are invariably lighter-skinned. It was in the comments I received when I arrived in Santa Cruz from young Cruceños who asked why on earth I wanted to go to La Paz where "people are so closed." It’s shown in statistics tables which reveal that the vast majority of those who live below the poverty line are indigenous.

But like the carvings of the indigenous craftsmen, it is also increasingly present in resistance. Indigenous movements were at the heart of the protests about gas and oil in May and June – asserting not just the need to control Bolivia’s natural resources but also the need for an economy and society that worked for, rather than against, the indigenous majority.

Typically over the last five to ten years, the resistance has been focused on protests, bloqueos, as well as assertions of indigenous culture through language and symbols – politics of protest, obstruction and identity. But the tide is now turning to ideas of taking power with the real possibility in the upcoming election that the very first indigenous person (Evo Morales) could be elected as President.

The rise of indigenism is a phenomenon that is taking place right across Latin America and indeed the world. In Ecuador, indigenous people are also playing a growing high-profile role in politics, in Chile the mapuche are asserting rights to territory taken over by forestry firms, in Guatemala indigenous people are speaking out about years of disappearances and repression. "Indigenous rights" has suddenly started appearing in all sorts of official documents from World Bank papers to multinational company reports.

Talking to some analysts here, the current phase of resistance really took off in 1992, when 500 years of Spanish conquest were marked. Typically they were called "celebrations" by the mestizo elite in many countries whose cities still host statues of Christopher Columbus, portrayed as an adventurer rather than a conqueror. Indigenous people talked instead of 500 years of conquest and resistance.

Interestingly, in Bolivia, I have heard indigenous people refer to a concept of "pachacuti" which means "new time" – their time, a time of crisis and opportunities, a concept perhaps like "kairos" in the Bible where power is overturned and reassembled.

Of course, with resistance comes counter-resistance from the powerful. And even taking power does not necessarily mean that justice will be delivered. We have seen too often throughout history that the oppressed can become the oppressors. Moreover, in a globalised world, even those who are determined to seek justice can find their hands tied by a thousand invisible chords of restraint, control and greed.

However, there are many indigenous concepts – such as profound respect for the earth (Pachamama) and forms of community ownership of land and politics  – that the whole world could learn from.  Sadly, when I chatted with young people in Santa Cruz, they had far more interest in Europe than the indigenous cultures in their own land. Most of my mestizo friends here can’t even speak an indigenous language. It is all too easy, for me too, to hide myself away in middle-class La Paz neighbourhoods and fail to make the effort to bridge cultural divides and gaps.

Yet as indigenous people rightfully assert their rights and dignity and start to shape forms of political power across Latin America, it will be vital that we get rid of those bridges that allow  us to merely surf in and escape with merely an exotic superficial image of indigenous life. We need bridges that close gaps and encourage understanding, ones that hold the hope of shaping a more just and sustainable society.

Tags: Bolivia | Indigenous


One Comment

  1. Miguel (MABB) October 23, 2005 at 12:39 am - Reply

    If I may suggest a place. The town and church of Laja is a very interesting place to visit. Laja is the place where the city of La Paz was really founded by Cap. Alonzo de Mendoza.
    If you get there in the opening hours of the curch you’ll see some very interesting paintings. These paintings were created by indigenous artists. Their motives are religious. It is a strange mixture of indigenous and western culture.

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