Monday, January 25, 2010

The Great Day

Not everyone can pronounce the word wiphala, even though it is as Bolivian as potatoes. The puff of air that is supposed to follow the p works for us English speakers (we-paula) and is a must in Aymara and Quechua, but is just not something Spanish speakers can manage without a lot of training. The aspirated p, on their tongues comes out like either a naked p, with no burst of air, or an f. In either case it sounds wrong and foreign.

Over the last few days, I have heard many radio and TV announcers struggle with that treacherous sound. Like it or not, the ability to speak it well shows your relationship to Bolivia’s native tongues or to the former national language and speech of the conquerors, Spanish. It easily suggests your politics.

The important daily from Spain, El Pais, in its excellent reporting on Bolivia, even managed to misspell the word. Like some misplaced cockney, they put the h where they thought it should go, as if it were an English word, “whipala”.

Unfortunately for the Children of Cervantes, both those who work for strengthening the international reach of Spanish--the language is almost as important as English in a global sense--and those who grew up with its glory in the old Bolivia, the country that was born in the two days between Thursday and Friday as Evo Morales was inaugurated into a second term as president removes Spanish from its throne of privilege. Officially it is now just one among others, although it still has immense power in society.

The wiphala is a rainbow of colors cascading in step like fashion and is now, according to the new constitution, an accepted symbol of the Plurinational State that Bolivia has become.

Formerly new Bolivia presidents would go to the Cathedral. next to the “Burned Palace”, as the palace of government is called, to celebrate their new presidency in a Te Deum mass with the Catholic hierarchy. Evo refused that. Instead, on Thursday last he helicoptered to the ancient city of Tiwanaku at the south end of Lake Titicaca to undergo rituals of purification and investiture that claim the indigenous past.

Almost two millennia ago, Tiwanaku rose to be a power that knit together highland societies and ones from the Pacific coast to the Amazon jungle. But it collapsed in environmental change a scant few hundred years before the rise of the Incas with their much larger empire of much shorter duration. Nevertheless the Incas were in awe of Tiwanaku and claimed the mythology of Titicaca origins and wisdom to justify themselves.

The Spanish tore the ancient city apart; stones were taken and re-cut to build the baroque church in the eponymous Spanish town of Tiwanaku, as well as to La Paz. The ruins became a quarry for the growing Spanish city on the trade route between the myth-making silver mines of Potosi and the Pacific ports.

Now little remains, though what is still there is impressive, with its mound that once was a pyramid-- Akapana, its semi-subterranean temple lined with stone heads, its massive monoliths with their unusually detailed carving, and its gate of the sun. Tiwanaku, for Evo, became the new Cathedral. And he became not just a president but an ancestral spiritual leader.

As if Evo were a figure from off the frieze on the gate of the sun, he was given two staffs of authority, each of which has heads to show his calling as a bringer of fertility. After asking permission of the site to enter and perform ritual, Evo purified himself, changed into new clothes and made offerings to the earth, to the cardinal directions, before standing on ancient stone steps in front of a doorway to speak. He first spoke in Aymara, and then in Quechua; He finished his speech in Spanish.

He declared an end to colonialism and capitalism, and called for respect for the earth and wisdom in consumption at the same time he declared the rebirth of Andean culture.

In this he was reminding people of Julian Apasa, the great Indian rebel against the Spanish towards the end of the colonies who almost overthrew the Empire. The Spanish section of La Paz keeps alive vivid memories of when in the late eighteenth century the Indians besieged the city and it almost collapsed from hunger and thirst. That memory came alive again, when the people of El Alto cut off the city and forced Goni (Gonzalo Sanchez de Losada) from office as the country’s president a scant seven years ago.

Goni may have been overthrown, but Julian Apasa was captured by the royalist army.
Four horses were tied to his extremities; one to each arm and one to each leg. On command they were quirted into a sudden gallop and he was torn apart. But, before this happened in the late eighteenth century, the Indian rebel known as Tupac Katari, or Noble Snake, promised to return, only now made thousands. His words, in an Andean story of resurrection, spoke of the historical task to change time, to bring about the Great Day, the Jach’a Uru of rebirth.

Instead of being at Tiwanaku among the crowds watching Evo’s investiture, I made my way down from El Alto to the US Consulate, once again, to see if finally my passport would be ready. By now I was familiar to the staff. Though I still had to go through the punctilious routine of credential checking and search, I was talking and laughing with the consulate’s workers, all of whom were Bolivian. I did not speak with another American.

Friday, the next day, had been declared a national holiday to celebrate the inauguration and the birth of the Plurinational State, as the new constitution came into full force with a new congress and new president. The police women and men who worked in the consulate were smiling as they spoke of how much they were going to enjoy that day off.

After crossing the sunlit patio between the first round of security at the wall and going through the second scan at the entrance to the embassy-consulate tower, I approached the window where for the last couple of days I had been turned away. This time the woman there greeted me in Spanish, in a very friendly voice, and said “Now I definitely have it for you.” Always before she had spoken English. I took my eagle-covered, blue book from her hands, thanked her and wished her a happy holiday and left to go watch what I could of Tiwanaku on television.

Signs greeted me on the street from language schools that once trumpeted their offerings of English classes. Now they offered classes in Aymara and Quechua for Spanish speaking Bolivia professionals, so they could meet the requirements of the new Plurinational State. Knowledge of Indian languages is now a must. Spanish may still be the language of most bureaucracy, but it no longer reigns supreme. It has been joined in majesty by the tongues of Tupac Katari and the Inca, among others.

Friday morning I got up early to join the crowds in the Plaza Murillo, the main square named after a Spanish hero of independence from Spain. It may well change its name to something more appropriately indigenous, if Evo’s followers have their way.

The vans and busses filled with people were turned off from the main streets that went close to the seat of government. Instead we were routed above the central bus station to a narrow street in the colonial part of town. We could hardly move, there were so many vehicles trying to negotiate that stretch. So I got off and walked, making much better time than my van.

I passed the Riocinio Park, with its trees and flowers, by which a seventeenth century manorial building stands, before turning down the very narrow Calle Jaen, which looks for all the world like a brief stretch of Seville. I felt if I looked up I could see towering above the minaret off Seville’s Cathedral known as La Giralda and perhaps still hear a muezzin’s call to prayer, though the grand Mosque of Seville had already been turned into a cathedral by the time the Spanish carried their conquest from Al-Andalus to La Paz.

From Calle Jaen, I made my way over and down, until I could walk past the barricade of green uniformed police. Vehicles could not go through but people could. I joined the knots of people walking forward.

We could not be inside at the formal events, where the congress, the vice president, and the president would be sworn into office, following the requirements of the constitution, though they were broadcast over loudspeaker and on a large screen on the front of the Burned Palace. Nonetheless, I wanted to be among all the people outside.

As I arrived, a troupe of people danced into the plaza in Indian dress. The Spanish Viceroy Toledo declared at the end of the sixteenth century a massive reform which required Indians be settled into towns and that each group would have specific dress. Those costumes became sedimented into consciousness as matters of both pride and stigma.

Prejudice against Indians was strong. Evo, in Tiwankau, said that as a matter of law Indians could no longer be considered animals. Even I heard them called animals on many occasions. In fact, Indians--which meant people in Indian clothes--were banned by law and common decency from entering the Plaza Murillo up until some sixty years ago.

As a result, in recent times people would tend to wear indigenous dress in their home villages, and for ceremonies, but when outside they would dress in an urban style that carried more prestige. Only a few groups would break this practice and wear Indigenous clothes to the city.

Once I rode a truck from the mining area of Punutuma and the Indian community of Yura to the city of Potosi. As we waited by the highway for the dump truck loaded with rock to stop and let us sit on the stones for the eight hour ride, I was the only person dressed in urban clothes. At a stop on a high prairie, where there were springs of running water, we stopped, and most people changed their clothes. Instead of Indian dress, they now wore the urban code known as Cholita dress, although one woman changed into professional clothes. She was a school teacher.

In common parlance the identity of Indian was as fixed as the stones we were riding on. But in reality, people were putting it on and off in an alchemical change of dress.

Around Lake Titicaca, where I have done research, even in the Aymara-speaking communities people had already adopted Cholita clothing--here I mean women although there is a male variant that is not as marked.

I talked a lot with an old woman in the town of Copacabana who would sit on the sidewalk, outside her store, sunning herself and her very pale skin, She dressed as a Cholita, though she was proud of her European heritage. She would explain that the “real” Cholitas were people of status and class from the towns with Spanish blood. She thought the rural, indigenous people now dressing as Cholitas, with their derby hats, embroidered shawls, gold jewelry, and broad pleated skirts, were funny and a bit sad as wannabes.

Now the Cholitia dress, itself, has become a sing of indigeneity. Frequently reporters will label photographs of Cholitas as “Indian women”, or more specifically as “Aymara women” or “Quechua women”. The male variant with fedora hats seems to pass mostly unseen in the media, although it is very evident to people who live and work here.

The troupe that danced into the Plaza Murillo as I arrived wore their costume proudly. The mean wore knee-length trousers of black homespun and woven cloth, with colorful embroidered shirts in green or blue. On top of these they wore two home-woven tunics and then a hat with metal stars as a layer on the sides.

The women wore dresses in the same blue and green that also were embroidered with colorful flowers. On top of that they wore a tunic of black wool with brightly colored woven edges that contained abstract images of condors and such. They also had a bundle on their backs in a brightly woven aguayo or square carrying cloth, in a style that said altiplano.

They danced onto the streets around the plaza, before entering it, to the sound of drums and long fipple flutes called pinquillos. The troupe carried three towers that looked as if they could be considered a kind of totem poles. The first was smaller and had only handwoven diamonds up its sides. The second had diamond shapes on three of its sides and occasional metal suns. On its fourth side it had images of a parrot, a jaguar, a flower, and a condor in ascending order. The third had diamonds on it as well as ascending flowers that also could look like stars. At the top it dived into three, each with what looked like totemic animals represented on them.

The dancing and the sound of the pinquillos was energetic and invigorating. I have travelled in Bolivia off and on since 1974 and have never seen this dress, nor the poles. Unfortunately I could not see the banner they were carrying where it announced their identity and origin. I have asked various people if they recognized the costume and could tell me where they were from. No one has been sure, yet, although they offered various theories.

The plaza glowed with shifting color and design from the Indian dress of all the different nations represented there who are now officially part of the state and are its symbolic base. As one group would finish playing their music and dancing, another would take off. Sometimes a bit of cacophony would open as two groups would play and dance at the same time.

This morning was a massive coming out of the closet and into the central public space of the plaza for all these different groups, with their radiant dress and customs from all different parts of Bolivia--highlands, valleys, and lowlands. The power of that almost brought me to tears on many occasions, because I know the strategic hiding these people have had to do in the face of the powerful and Spanish Bolivian state that was.

Not only did the event draw indigenous people from all over the country, it also brought Spanish-speaking Bolivians, including Bolivians who live in the United States and Europe. I spoke with a woman who has lived for decades in Frankfurt. She returned to be part of this earth-changing event and was dancing with the Indians as a new Bolivia, plural and united was born.

I did not have the chance to speak with the delegation from the United States, though they were on TV and read a manifesto of support for the new government and constitution. I saw Englishmen, Germans, Scandinavians and Spaniards--in fact a somewhat bored Prince Phillip of Spain was caught on TV. The plaza also had Cubans, Venezuelans, Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Argentines and Uruguayans.

The Bolivian Communist Party waved their red flags with the hammer and sickle and others opened a large banner stating Bolivian solidarity with the Cuban revolution.

Most people, when they asked where I was from, including the various flavors of Marxists, had no problem when I answered their questions with, “the United States.” One group of middle-class, Spanish-peaking Bolivians did turn away from me abruptly with my announcement.

Being from the United States is troublesome. Currently, Bolivia and the US do not have ambassadors in each other’s countries, despite the very big embassy building here in La Paz. They were withdrawn a year and a half ago when Bolivia expelled the US ambassador, accusing him of meddling in Bolivia’s internal affairs, specifically fomenting a rightwing uprising against the government. Most recently, the two countries have exchanged harsh words over the US’ sending troops to Haiti, which Bolivia sees as an act of invasion. The US‘ power is very troublesome to Bolivia which does not feel much support from the behemoth of the north for its new, Plurinational State.

After the ceremony in which Evo ascended to the presidency for the second time, and after his long inaugural speech and report on his last term in office, the various nations joined the military and police in an inaugural parade. They danced past the reviewing stand where the President and national and international dignitaries sat. By dancing, while the military goose-stepped, they were knitting the country together and healing some of its wounds in a ritual act not unlike some that pulled the Inca Empire together.

Tupac Katari was present in a portrait hung on the Burned Palace’s walls, along with the indigenous heroine of independence, Bartolina Sisa. But he was also present in the thousands of indigenous legs and arms dancing through the streets and by the formerly forbidden square. The Great Day of return seems to have come at long last.


  1. Fascinating . . . my hat's off to plurinationality!

  2. Another great post. Look forward to the next.