Saturday, January 7, 2012

Do Not Presume

La Paz, 2003

I am staying with the Escobar family in a beautiful home they have slowly built over years in a neighborhood called Santiago II which was founded with miners from other parts of  Bolivia who lost their jobs in the collapse of mining in the early eighties.  

Every day I take a minivan which carries passengers to the Ceja, the eyebrow of the altiplano.  From there I take another one down into the city itself. Today they changed the routes to the Ceja, infuriating people and placing us in an enormous traffic jam in the narrow streets of the market district near the Ceja.  The  streets were lined with small stores selling all kinds of goods from  auto-parts to food. They would often spill out onto the sidewalks.  Many sidewalks also had Indigenous women, dressed in full cholita dress, selling small amounts of goods.  Add to that a thick knott of honking vans, trucks, buses, and private cars, with exhaust fumes filling the air, and you have a sense for this morning´s adventure. 

I   generally get off the van near the old Basilica of St. Francis.  The plaza in front of it has often been a place of gathering in La Paz, but they (the church, the city?) have fenced it in behind green wrought iron, I guess in an attempt to control the uses of this important public space.  In the middle of the square they have placed a huge, low lying historical plaque recognizing the foundation of the Franciscan mission as a bridge between the Spanish city on one side of the river that now runs under the main street, and the Indian villages on the other side. The plaque speaks of the role of multicultural contact in the formation of Bolivia. 

Curiously that sounds all pat and finished.  But one of the current struggles in Bolivia is over a very strong and resurgent Indian movement that challenges the notion of multiculturalism and the role of Europeans, even five-hundred years removed, in Bolivia´s life. 

Last February the society collapsed in riots and nineteen buildings were burned, some of them very important governmental buildings.  As Juan Carlos Escobar was explaining to his son Joaquin yesterday, in 1979 and 1982 the state attacked its people.  This was an attack by the people on the state.  

Right now I am gathering bibliographical material on the crisis of February and the uprising. My goal is to understand the current challenges and transformations of the nation state. 

But besides the academic interest, that means roaming the city looking at bookstores and book vendors trying to find the publications that discuss the event.  Books are often ephemeral down here, meaning that you depend on private collectors and used book sellers.  Already, though, I am finding a fascinating series of discussions on the new social movements such as those of the Indians, the coca farmers, and the peasants without land. 

Anyway that is what I am doing, getting lots of exercise at high altitude tracking down of books and documents. 

As I approached the red metal door breaking the expanse of wall, I saw a blue car  in front of it.  People were sitting in it.  That was unusual.  After everyone had told me how violent the Alto has become, my street sense warned me to be careful. 

I was one house away from the door when suddenly a man and several young men jumped out of the taxi with force.  I had to stop and think, “What do I do?”  

They came towards me.  As I was preparing a response, they yelled out my name. “David, you are back”.  

At once I recognized them.  They were Juan Carlos—who drives a taxi for a living and is the husband of Romy’s sister Jacqueline—his sons, and Fabio his nephew.  

Oh my, how things can suddenly change, when a different frame is applied. 

The long table at lunch was filled with family, and even more ate downstairs, as we caught up on each others lives.  Juan Carlos offered to drive me to the Ceja after lunch.  We piled into his car, the young men—his son, his nephew—Juan Carlos and I.  The young men asked me what kind of music I liked, and so I responded talking about classical and then Latin music, tropical music and Bolivian music.  I turned the question around and they asked me if I knew who U2 was.  And what did I think of this song and that song.  “I was just listening to the latest by Def Leopard” and so on.  I was at a loss.  Of course I knew who they were talking about, but I have so little knowledge of American and English popular culture that I was adrift in a sea of ignorance and could only sit there and ask humble questions for them to share their interests with me.  

Later in the evening, Romy and Juan Carlos had a gathering in their house, a kind of Family Home Evening, as Mormons call it.  They had invited several young people over from the neighborhood, only two of whom showed, and then two young missionaries.  One of the two was from a rural area outside the city of Cochabamba and the other Elder was from Valpara√≠so Chile.  I had asked him where he was from, when I first shook his hand, and he said, “Can’t you tell?”  The accent is that notorious.

His family has over five generations of Mormons, although he was not raised in the LDS Church.  Instead he had a step father who was a devout Jehovah’s Witness.  After his step father and his mother broke up, when he was a teenager, he opted for the Mormon Church.   He seems a very orthodox and committed young man. 

This is a very different Latin America, in some limited ways, that that of traditional Catholicism or of stereotypes.   I am amazed every time I walk down the main streets of the city of La Paz to see how strong and publicly visible the non-Catholic presence is.  Despite the tight relationship between Catholicism and the state, millions of people practice different faiths.  
This is a world where it is handy not to presume too much.  After all the Gringo listens to Latin music and the Bolivians listen to Anglo Saxon rock.  

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