Sunday, January 24, 2010

Once and Future Name

Officially two cities, La Paz and El Alto join where the very high plateau crumbles into a deep gorge with very steep walls. That edge that is gradually collapsing is called the ceja, the eyebrow, as if El Alto were the crown of the head and La Paz the steep and falling cheeks against the solid jaw.

Built by the Spaniards on that tiny flat space of the chin, almost where it collapses into the descendent neck, La Paz claimed glory and forgot about the Indian settlements already there. It pretended to be as noble as any city in Spain with its Andalusian architecture and jumble of skyscrapers.

But in the last eighty years, people from rural Bolivia flowed to the city, as if water ran up hill before plunging to the Amazon. They built around the city’s edges until their adobe, and then multistory brick and concrete houses, climbed right up to the eyebrow. Once they came, the Spanish abandoned the city center to them, other than for work, and built on the shoulders. Soon the rural people came to the shoulders, and here the metaphor of the body fails. They built upwards from the shoulders along the neck and then whatever else could rise upwards from the shoulders.

As a result, La Paz is vertical. It has precious little flat land. To sit on the eyebrow and look down is to see shimmering rooftops in waves of sunlight plunge downward, always downward, with a little respite here and there, until one reaches the jaw where skyscrapers rise so far down they could be an optical illusion and are often beneath the clouds.

El Alto is new. It is the spill over of concrete and brick, and still some adobe, onto the plain of the head. But it is flat and stretches as if somehow a perpetual extender machine where inside it. Every time I come it has grown outward, ever outward.

Both cities have something like a million people, as if anyone really counted and knew. Numbers allow comparisons, as do buildings. But, there is nothing else like these paired cities on earth.

If nothing else, they are further up in the air than any other city. Even Lhasa is below them. And though urban and, hence, modern, they still are indigenous. Aymara is heard every day on their streets, along with the sound of indigenous music and the sight of native dress. Even the Spanish Bolivians, despite their pride of origin, have been Indianized in speech, food, and thought. Just don’t tell them. Promise?

Since cars cannot just leap off the eyebrows’ edge and land gently down below, about two thousand feet below, a four-lane toll road winds downward in a jagged slice across the cheek until turning toward the jaw. Built by the dictator Banzer--yes, his last name is German and yes, his family is far from the only Germans here or even the only German named dictators amongst all the Spanish ones in Bolivian history--the highway is almost overwhelmed with traffic.

I am staying with my friends Romy and Juan Carlos in their house in a neighborhood of El Alto. Called Santiago II, it is a zone of former miners. Juan Carlos’ father was a miner and he was resettled here with his colleagues when mining collapsed in 1985 because the international price of tin plunged to below the cost of production when the US sold off its strategic reserves very suddenly. As they say: “The US sneezes and Latin America catches a cold,” though that does not seem to be true int he current recession that has hit the north. Here it is a minor irritant, rather than the major problem it is in the north. Something about the global economy has changed.

Yesterday I had to visit the US consulate (I almost never go) to get more pages in my passport since it is almost full.

So, I joined the hoard of commuters folding themselves tightly into white vans to become like electrons rushing densely downward on the wiry scar. I sat in the front seat by the door, to let someone else sit in the bulging middle; I am too tall to fold into most of the seats in the back. The driver, once the van was full and the toll paid, rushed downward, at more than 120 kms. per. There was no seatbelt to keep me in place, Just the pressure of another, large man sitting next to me and holding me against the door which I surreptitiously locked.

On the radio, all the way down, they announced that the night before a bus from Chile, going a similar speed, slammed into a Volvo truck that had been parked on the highway with no blinkers, no warning cones. It was invisible in the dark.

I could imagine the sudden impact, no warning, like when the Eastern airliner rammed into the 22,000 foot, glaciated peak named Illimani that hovers over the city--as I said it is vertical. Suddenly a shadow and then BAM.

They read the names of the dead. And then those who were hospitalized. A litany of suffering and disaster. People who were traveling and had their hopes snuffed on the road to La Paz.

They called for the family of the wounded to come to the hospital right away. I wondered what family would come to help the tourists; how would they even know. Would the hospital provide care without someone there to pay? I imagine they would, but I do not know. They often don’t for locals until the family comes up with money.

The radio voices talked about bodies piled on the ground in the morgue, among other bodies from lover’s fights, hospital deaths, and paybacks. “Come for your loved one’s bodies”, they said. “The morgue is a place of horror.” And, that horror was our companion as we went ever downward. More and more detail, a fiery crash in the night.

When I got off, way down on the chin, I felt like falling to my knees and crossing myself in gratitude in front of the barque facade of the St. Francis Basilica, as if I were Catholic. I felt like honiring the naked woman on the Church’s facade, despite the priests, from whose sex sprouts flowers, as if I were indigenous. But my legs recovered their movement and I reclaimed the courage to keep going.

The US Consulate is a fortress, stories high, surrounded by a wall with black, metal spikes and machine gunned guards. A long line of people, papers and folders int heir hands, stood waiting, but the police man waved me to the front. Double security and I was in. A form to fill out, shifting from Spanish to English, then a “receipt” to turn in saying the process had no cost, and I walk out without an identity. My passport stayed behind.

“How soon do you need this back?” the Bolivian woman at the desk asked in faintly accented English. “Um...” Like right now, I thought but did not say.

Instead I said “On Saturday I am going to Copacabana and since it is on the border I will need it.” “Come back tomorrow, it will be ready, as long as our computers’ system does not go down.”

My identity stayed there, since all the rest I had with me was just inside. You know, people lie. Why should anyone believe I am me without some document to prove I am me.

I walked out with not proof of self, no proof of connection, nothing but my two legs, my mind, my arms and hope tomorrow they would let me back in to claim once again my blue passport to my self.

In Berlin, one day, I was walking along Friedrichstra├če. I got halfway across the majestic Unter den Lindens Boulevard when I was stopped by a demonstration of people on bikes waving flags and “shouting down with borders, let people be free to go where they will”.

As I left the consulate, and walked past the line of people hoping to be lucky and get a visa to the US in the unpredictable process inside I remembered that moment and wondered what would be my identity, and how would anyone know, if there were not borders. In my arrogance I hoped I could just be the me without the blue booklet, but I have always had that book since I was 18. It has told me who I am when I travel. If the borders fell, and I wish they would, who then would I be. I frankly don’t know.

Romy and Juan Carlos know me. They know who I am. We met decades ago. I have stayed with them, or their extended family, whenever in La Paz since 1979. But they have always known I had that blue book. Yes, inside I have a strong identity, but that requires props too, to stay stable. And anyway officials do not necessaily believre you without proof, my blue booklet.


“Oh stop it.” I said to my self. “This goes no where. There is no answer.”
When I got to the embassy today, after lots of phone calls back and forth to see if I was really me and if they would let me in, since my identity remained inside, and passing the double security, I got to the window where I had left my passport. “I am so sorry sir. Our system is down. We cannot finish your passport. Could you come back tomorrow?”

I walked up the street, identityless for a second day. Yes it is up even though on the sort of flat chin. The Brazilian embassy, across the street, had black SUVs in front with brooding, muscular men inside, eyes staring forward. All around them were cones marking a no parking zone.

The British embassy had a single guard and a sign saying the public is welcome, beneath the Union Jack, but there were no lines there.

I walked past the Isabel the Catholic plaza, named after the queen who sent Columbus sailing and “discovering” this place, before turning up the hill.

The Honduran embassy had no guards outside. It was in the facade of an old building from which rose an apartment tower.

I kept going up until in the next block I cam to a park, the Abarroa square, by the Minsitry of Defense. It is named after the Bolivian hero who in the war with Chile told the Chileans to F. their grandmothers when they surrounded him on a bridge and demanded he surrender.

Finally, I reached Alexander’s Coffee, on the street in front of Abarroa’s brooding statue. No British tourists, or any tourists for that matter, in this coffee house. This is a zone of diplomats, businessmen, academics and upper-middle class residents. I did see another American anthropologist come in, get his coffee, and leave. I know him, and he knows me. But we did not have a chance to talk.

In the back, I settled into a couch, plugged in my laptop--which had been thoroughly screened for explosives at the consulate, and began to write. But my fingers did not flow smoothly. Ideas seemed diffuse. The would not come together for me to write.

Officially La Paz. Officially El Alto. But behind those guises many other identities circulate like vans and cars on its streets. The alternative identities matter, despite what the official documents say

The city is known in Aymara as Chukiyagu Marka, or “Potato Field Center” though many here would rather translate that as “the city of the field of gold”. Vanity.

Potatoes are not good enough, even though that is what ch’uki is in plain Aymara. They are a pretty complete nutritional package all by them selves and were the Andes gift to the world. They caused a population explosion in Europe, and when blight hit they cause the Irish famine leading to there being so many Irishmen in the United States. but potato is not good enough. I probably would not be an American if it weren’t for those exported potatoes.

Despite this almost overwhelming story of potatoes power, proud citizens here feel, instead, their city’s name must be gold, a noble substance and not the starchy, common food.

OK. Gold and other precious metals from America´s in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries created a massive economic expansion in Spain, including their war with the Turks to “recover” the Holy Land for Christians, and ultimately an economic collapse far worse than the one the north is presently living.

The city has many identities, but one is official. Potatoes are back staged so that the front stage may gleam.

Carnaval is approaching. The time of play. Television is filled with word of all the preparations. Many people will have fun escaping from their official identity. Clowns and mockery will fill the streets.

Outside of carnaval, they do it secretly, like the graffiti that I saw on a wall by Alexander’s which announced in a scrawl: “Tonight I am garbage”. But today, and tomorrow he is locked in an official identity and its ideas of propriety and family pride. Only that black scratch on a wall announces his intention to be different, to break his norms.

More importantly, tomorrow begins a process of change in the official identity of the Bolivian state. No longer will it be a single nation-state, that is a government attached to notions of ethnicity and identity, a national people. Tomorrow, as the president Evo Morales begins his second term in office with a dual ceremony, at the ancient temples of Tiwanaku, and in the halls of congress, the country becomes “a pluri-national state”--a government formed of many peoples, many nations.

The government’s symbols change as well. They will keep the Bolivian tri-color flag, but add to it the wiphala, a zigzagging rainbow of colors to represent the plural reality of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples and to refer back to when Bolivia was one of four quarters of the Inca Empire. The established official identity stays, but to it will be added some of the other, once hidden and secret identities of languages called dialects, and peoples called minority groups.

Now they move to the foreground by the side of the red, yellow, and gree flag that has represented their country. Aymara is now officially a language, no longer a dialect, as are other indigenous tongues. People who wish official standing as professionals now must show competency in one of these, and not just Spanish. No longer are these just private whispers. Now the president can speak them from the national platform.

Forget Spanish gold, we are returning here to ideas of the gold that formed plants, and animals in a field outside the temple of the sun in the time of the ancestors. People regularly took care and cultivated that field so that everyone’s potatoes would grow and there would be no hunger. That is a very different gold, from the Spanish pludner that funded the beginnings of the industrial revolution. It is tightly tied to the growth of potatoes and children.

La Paz’ other name takes on new significance and meaning as the wiphala flies from all the governmental buildings, in this capital that is not really a capital. They say it is simply the seat of government and that Sucre, a city far off in South Central Bolivia is the official capital. There is a movement afoot, however, to make La Paz the complete and final capital, and not just the place where government takes place, since Sucre resists the wiphala and all it signifies.

In any case, this city with its multiple twinning--La Paz/El Alto and La Paz/Chuikago is the largest city in the country. From it new symbols, music, economy, and laws flow into the rest of this vast, mountainous country that stretches seemingly forever on Amazon plains until suddenly, almost without warning, it is Brazil. La Paz is the country’s head in far more than metaphor. It is vertical and it rules as the countries ancestors once again walk its streets and memory comes out of the closet.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, David, I really enjoyed this essay. Very informative, and uplifting of spirit. I only hope Obama could bring off in el Norte what Morales has done there. I always think of you and always wish you the best. Thank you for your friendship, and your inspiration.