Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"La misma cholita con otra pollera"

We´ve spent a good amount of time in the city lately trying to get a better handle on the political situation and also continuing to investigate topics of Bolivian rural education and forms of social change. Interviews with a director at a major university in La Paz, conversations with indigenous rights advocates, campaigners for the left-wing candidate Evo Morales, ex-political prisoners, hours at libraries and research centers looking for the data we need on levels of social change have brought us to a better understanding of the social and political issues of Bolivia in 2005.
Of course we also had time to take in an important game at the stadium, to visit a similar rural university for the indigenous in Tiwanaku, to help plant potatoes in altiplano farmland outside of the city with a friend and her huge family, and to attempt to get footage of a march commemorating the deaths in 2003 of 70+ protestors from govenment repression (They were scheduled to march to the US embassy, but never reached it- some blame the rain, some blame the 300+ Bolivian soldiers guarding the embassy with dogs, tear gas, and shields, a normal sight these days) (check out for a good summary of why people marched on Oct. 17th). And of course, filming was prohibited, so we were reprimanded for pointing cameras.
Now happily back in rainy Carmen Pampa, we have to take a crash course in Waca-Waca, a traditional dance we will take part in with Veterinary students for the anniversary of the nearby pueblo Coroico. Then we´re off to Guanay, a city down in the hot flatland to the east, approaching the Amazon. We have interviews planned between dances and travels, so we´ll be busy.
Once back from Guanay, we need more footage with the profile students, including their home lives and university involvement. Only a few community member interviews after that, and we will be wrapping things up for now, free to cover the volitile upcoming elections and how they affect the rural sector.
Many are expecting massive protests and riots if the right-wing candidate "Tuto" Quiroga comes to power, and adversely, many say that the US will never allow the left-wing candidate to come to take office. The general consensus of those we talk to, from Jason´s extensive and welcoming family to university professors of political science claim that Evo will most probably win, and the US will cut off all aid to Bolivia, if they even allow him to take office. Frightening terms like golpe de estado and guerra civil are heard in bars and on the street. No one is too sure what will happen come December 4th, but people here in the campo are confident that nothing will really change, that the candidates are just "the same chola woman but with a different skirt on", and they will continue to suffer lack of political representation and grinding poverty and exploitation of resources and labor.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


The Bolivian film director Jorge Sanjinés, who is widely known in Latin America, brought his films to the University last week. He showed a different film every night for a week and a half, splitting the showings between the upper campus and the lower. His films (summerized in spanish at the link above) deal with a variety of social, political, and economic topics, and all focus on the culture of the indigenous people.
His first film, made in 1966 at age 20 is titled Ukamau, a word in Aymara meaning That´s How It Is (or Así es). It tells a story of justice and revenge for an indigenous man against a wealthy spanish man who rapes and murders his wife. The parable shows the clash between the spanish wealthy minority and the exploited indigenous people of Bolivia. Most of the films are in Quechua or Aymara, which Jason and I are both slowly learning from students who want to learn English.
The purpose of Sanjinés´ visit and free showing of his films was part of a campaign on his part to re-expose the poor indigenous to their cultural traditions, steadily being lost to neoliberalism and its imported culture and cheap goods.
Perhaps Sanjinés most famous film is Yawar Mallku (The Blood of the Condor) which won film awards in Paris and San Fransisco. The film, which exposes the practice of forced sterilization of indigenous women by the Peace Corps in Bolivia 1960s, was integral in the success of the movement to remove the Peace Corps from Bolivia following the scandal.
Most interesting to me was Sanjinés´documentary, Banderas del Amanecer. It is a documentary film of the coup and military dictatorship that rocked Bolivia in the early 1980s (SOA played a part, for those of you heading to Georgia in November. Look up Hugo Banzer and García Meza). More importantly, it documents the mass resistence movement from a united front of social movements, for which Bolivia is famous. Sanjinés captured incredible footage of Indigenous women organizing to take care of children, farms, and animals all while participating in resistence by marching and carrying stones to build roadblocks. Even more incredible is the footage of indigenous miners having their breakfast tea with one hand occupied by a piece of bread and a stick of dynamite. Next comes the shots of the miners slinging the dynamite at military groups and hundreds of poor farmers marching toward while cracking large stones together in dissent. It´s a frightening and impressive dedication to the cause of the movement, and eventually succeeded in toppling the dictatorship, though not before the deaths and torture of many, and the exile of Sanjinés and many others.
The students, as well as community members turned out in droves to watch the films, which were projected on freshly-painted walls in large open spaces where lots of chairs and benches could be positioned on the grass. Sanjinés was pleased to see the better part of the student body laugh at jokes in the film´s indigenous languages before the spanish subtitles even appeared.
Jorge, as we came to call him, stayed with us and provided the opportunity to hear his personal stories of persecution and terror (he narrowly escaped capture in Lima as a part of "Plan Condor", the roundup of dissenters and liberals in the 1970s for which Pinochet will possibly be charged for in Chile). He also conversed on current political and social issues in Bolivia (in which I believe Jorge has some power) and the US, as well as fascinating stories from the inner political and social circles of upper La Paz society.
We plan to interview Jorge for our film, and we´re keeping our fingers crossed that he can get us an interview with his friend Evo Morales, who happens to really enjoy the films.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Welcomed to share in their pain

Last week we went to a neighboring valley to a village about the size of Carmen Pampa for a wake. A university student had climbed up the mountain with some others to work on obtaining a water source for his home, his new wife and child. He slipped and tumbled off of a long drop and died while being carried down the six hour walk back to his parents´ house. A truck full of mourning students bearing flowers woven into a wreath from Carmen Pampa arrived in the evening for the velorio. We entered the adobe brick home passing under the black plastic freshly nailed above the door to find Davíd´s thin wooden casket filling the front room of his parents two-room home, sitting on a wobbly table on a cracked floor with a threadbare sheet and burning candles over it.
We were all thanked "for coming to share in the family´s pain" and fed and given drinks and coca leaves for hours. Conversation was strangely normal, even for those who knew Davíd better than I, although his wife, mother, and sister were unable to maintain the usual indigenous composure and leaned on Davíd´s clearly heartbroken father for support.
The normalcy of the event was a reminder of the high threshhold for grief and suffering that these rural people are forced to maintain. Willi, who commands a powerful presence despite his tiny stature, eloquently spoke for us all to the family, and we eventually loaded back into the truck for the hushed but dusty ride back through the lightning-lit night to the university.

Monday, September 05, 2005

peace for now

So the cocalero roadblock protests were postponed at the last second, at least until the negotiations with the government about the new military base are over.
Here´s an article from La Prensa the postponement.

I briefly helped Willi´s dad work construction today on the university´s coffee plant, and he was telling me the next time he marches with the coca farmers from Carmen Pampa, we can go with them to march and get some footage. He says it´ll be perfectly safe if we´re with him and the others- we won´t be chased out for our American origins like outsiders would be. I had mentioned our interest to him last week while we were sitting around a fire on the soccer field chewing coca. The local Yatiri was busy splashing alcohol into the fire and mumbling in Aymara. Yatiris are shamens who are paid to perform all sorts of services, from healing to fortune-telling to providing spiritual protection from evil mountain spirits. This night, the Yatiri was enlisted to bless the Carmen Pampa soccer team in their big game against nearby Caranavi. All of the players gathered at the manager´s house at about six and the Yatiri blessed them all one by one by tying string around their waists and both feet, then breaking it off and breaking it into tiny lengths while touching their heads with it and telling off the evil spirits of injuries and loss in Aymara. (He wouldn´t let us film this part, but of course Willi took our smaller camera and got some hidden camera shots)
Once everyone had been blessed, we went up to the field and had a fire, in addition to burning various plants and incense and splashing more alcohol about to complete the ritual.
Before paying the Yatiri, we sat in a wide circle and chewed coca for an hour or so.
Willi´s dad came up for this part and we got to discuss some coca politics and what else the Yatiri was good for. Willi had told stories of his being haunted by shadows that the Yatiri solved for him, and when Willi´s first son Luis was alive, Willi and Fabi took him to the Yatiri a number of times. He predicted Luis´s death due to his illnesses, and attempted to transfer his destiny to a rabbit in an elaborate ceremony.
Apparently the ceremony failed, Luis died at age three last october.
The soccer ceremony was ineffective as well...the team tied 1-1 the next day.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Mark your calendar

The interim president Rodríguez and his people won´t meet with or fulfill the demands of the coca farmers from here in the Yungas and so there will be bloqueos on the 5th of September in Unduavi and on the road from La Paz to Oruro. The road blocks, among other issues related to coca, will protest the ongoing construction of a military installation called La Rinconada which will be yet another control on what goes in and comes out of the Yungas. The farmers say that there is no cocaine coming out of the traditional coca growing region, but the government (of course under heavy pressure from the US) says that there is, and so they have the right to beef up military bases.

I think that Martín and Willi and/or their fathers will have to paticipate in the roadblock protests, as they are coca farmers and are obligated to participate as part of the syndicate. The roadblocks are very costly, as there is no other way to trade between the city and the Yungas region (and further South) . Also, the confrontation with the military has high potential of turning violent. Let´s hope the government responds with concessions and not with bullets and tear gas.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Trouble abrewin´
The coca farmers of the Yungas demand to meet with the president and cabinet.

In nearby Chulumani, the heads of the coca farmers for the Yungas have demanded that the present president Eduardo Rodríguez and his cabinet come to Chulumani to discuss the issue of coca with them. The threat is a blockade of the roads to the Yungas. The farmers can easily cut off the city from the Yungas with the blockades, which consist of piles of stones, tires, and scores of coca farmers. (the protest situation outside of Bush´s ranch right now is slightly reminiscent of these ultimatums, only with less serious consequences and results)
The proposed bloqeos would directly affect Carmen Pampa´s access to La Paz, and all goods/services form La Paz. So it could make things kind of tough here, and it puts a lot of pressure on the government to respond-hopefully peacefully, occationally violently with military intervention.
Our buddies Willi and Martín, vet students working on their theses, have marched and blockaded and have been tear-gassed and shot at with the coca farmers before and may have to go again this time. This is because both of their fathers are coca farmers, and theyre getting a little old for this. Also, Martín is from Chulumani and is there now working on the thesis- We´re thinking of going there to stay with him if the president actually comes, and maybe if he doesn´t as well. Although our gringo faces will not be welcomed at all at the blockade. Well maybe Jason´s a little more than mine. He is a pretty pretty man, afterall.

Here´s some photos from recent blockades and protests concerning coca, the first on the Yungas road, the subject of the title of our film. The second in La Paz in the central plaza called San Fransisco. The third in El Alto. All three of these locations deserve an explanation as to how and why they host coca protests- Maybe that´ll be in the film. Or at least another blog soon.

a doctor without borders

This morning we were up at 5:30 to meet with Carmen Pampa´s doctor who is also a professor at the UAC. We loaded up his truck with medical supplies and he went to wake up the sleepy nursing student who was slated to help for the day. Chela proved us all wrong- she wasn´t sleeping in, she was already on her way, obviously not a slacker as she´s the head of her class in the third year of the nursing program.
Every sunday Dr. Zavaleta brings a nursing student with him to run a free clinic in one of the communities of the Yungas, the mountainous rural region that the University calls home.
This day we bounced around in the back seat for 3 hours to get to tiny Suapi, which lies next to Tocaña, one of the Afro-Bolivian communities of the Yungas (the communities were established long ago with the forced migration of african slaves, generally brought to work the copious Bolivian mines. More on this later-We´ve been invited several times to stay there for a weekend or so). Chela is one of seven UAC students that come from Tocaña, so she is familiar with the area and with Suapi.
The doctor begins unpacking boxes of pills and gauzes and syringes in an abondoned building in the plaza ofSuapi, a town about the size of Carmen Pampa(about 40 families). Immediately there is a line formed outside the door, and Chela starts documenting the names, height and weight of the various patients. We got some good footage of the doctoring, of course we felt like we were invading the privacy of the patients, but no one even noticed us, and the other patients all chip in with their advice for the problem being explained to the doctor. Pants are dropped and shots are given, babies cry, and we get the very rare opportunity to see what the underwear of the traditionally dressed chola women looks like. I admit I had been curious what all of the mass under the layered dresses consisted of, now I know.
Children with massive infections are treated and some older people need translators to explain to the spanish-speaking doctor their symptoms that can only be expressed in the native Aymara.
A crying teenager timidly approaches me and tells me that her mother needs the doctor right now, that she can´t breathe. Once brought to the doctors attention, we jump into the truck with the girl directing us to her home. We run down a zigzagging path to an adobe house tucked into the jungle, and Victoria´s mother is sprawled in the doorway hyperventilating. Victoria can´t hide her fear and paces about shedding worried tears. Once the mother is calmed down she explains thaat another daughter had caused her to lose her temper by trying to claim a mule that belonged to the family was actually hers. The doctor patiently listened and gave her some sedatives and told her to calm down or she would have serious health problems in addition to her stress.
We drove back with a visibly relieved daughter and the doc resumed doctoring. Skipping lunch, the doctor attended to everyone in the extensive line that loosely wound out the door. Meanwhile Jason and I got footage of the doctor and of Chela, who was impressive in her professionalism. We also interviewed some of Suapi´s population, a shop owner who had been the first in line and some older gentlemen who clearly frequent the bench outside the shop. There was also a particularly talkative Chola woman drying her coca leaves in the sun who gave a great interview about the need for medical attention in Suapi, located over two hours from the nearest hospital, and whose residents can´t afford the ambulance or the medical attention given there anyway.
She also couldn´t help but launch into a scathing monologue about how much she mistrusts the politicians in the area and in the country, who always just "use the campesinos" for their votes and then never look back.
After the 3 hour ride back to Carmen Pampa and interviews with the Doc and Chela, we unloaded the truck at sunset that had been loaded at sunrise. The Doc claims that the Sunday trips don´t usually take thirteen hours. He also split up the bananas and papayas that had been given to him by the community to say thanks for all of the free medical attention.
All and all the day was an encouraging display for the future of the area, but with ugly realities about the public health and malnutrition of the Yungas also revealed. Chela´s development in medical practice and the doctor´s altruistic commitment to the rural people remind me once again of the positive mission and effects of the university. It promises to contribute to an evolution of social change in the region and country, and correct the underlying problems of a lack of political representation and fair services and opportunites for the Yungueños.
Of course, seeing traditional underwear of elderly Indian women was also very rejuvenating.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A new semester, a new home

The small village of Carmen Pampa has increased its population exponentially now that university students have all settled into their dorms to begin their second semester of the academic year. Close to 600 students are back in town, where many will live in dormitories that most likely dont compare to your typical concept of dorms in the states. Here, rows of bunkbeds line both sides of a cement rooms about the size of a long classroom. Veterinary and Nursing students are located on the Manning, or lower campus. For me, the mostly unfamiliar but smiling faces in and out of the facilities have all made me quickly feel at home on the lower at the UAC. In Paul´s case, he is greeted and waved at as if he were running for mayor of the town. Having been here in 2000 for almost a year, he has been welcomed back with warmth and paparrazi-like interest that can only come from truly having lived in comminity with the students. He will surely not care for the mention of the love he has here, but without it we would surely be living and filming from the periphery of this tighly-knit community as opposed to recieving invitations to student´s homes, daily futsal or basketball games, late night (10pm) conversations and anything else the students do when not in class or studying.

We are currently living in a cozy volunteer house with a tainted past. Ironically, in this large 7 bedroom house used live the wealthy padrón (owner) of the hacienda (similar to a plantation) along with his criollo (Spanish-blooded Bolivian) family and his slaves. Outside of his large ranch labored Aymaran or Afro-Bolivian campesinos as indentured servants who until only 52 years ago were freed and given their own plots of land. "Freed" may not be the opportune word, since these campesinos remained entrenched in miserable poverty with little to no opportunity of improving their quality of life besides immigrating to the city or depending on the cultivation of coca to put food on the table. Many of the descendants of these indentured slaves are sleeping right now in the communal dorms nearby while I sit in a relic of a colonial inequality and oligarchic dominance so marked and status quo in the history of Latin America (and in the US for that matter). The impromptu history lessons is telling of why we are slightly uncomfortable with the idea that we call this house "home" and not the dorms where our friends live now. For obvious reasons, the house doesn´t exactly fit where we want to be in order to learn about the intimate reality of the students here, to see the "True Life: I am a poor indigenous Bolivian college student"(it pains me to use an MTV reference, I have lost all of my values and sold my soul). Although we have great company, a great collection of books and plenty of space to set up shop for the camera equipment, the comfort and coziness will have to be partially shelved for some weeks (still gonna use it for Internet, film headquarters and maybe dinner). It´s our hope in the very near future to move in with the guys of "Vete" and "Enfe" and build strong friendships in a hypercommunal setting while soaking all we can about these students just as Paul did on the upper campus five years ago.


This semester, already over three weeks old, has been full of festivities so emblematic of the indigenous tradition of celebration. Graced almost wherever we travel with always colorful folkloric dances or desfiles (parades) and their accompanying brass + percussion bands, August in Bolivia is a perennial celebration. Take for example, August 6, the day of Bolivia´s national independence from the Spanish crown and the even more celebrated day in the rural areas of the Día del Campesino, marking the aforementioned day of the liberation of the peasant farmers from the bondage of indentured servitude. Unlike the degrading and scornful attitude of the lighter skinned folk toward their darker skinned indigenous, mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous blood) or Afro-Bolivian countrymen (yet another remnant of colonialism), the campesino is honored in places like the Yungas for his extrordinary work ethic, his indigenous roots and pride in enduring and surviving such a grizzled lifestyle. More than just a celebration, these days are of deep cultural significance to both the native Bolivian and the outsider that learns of the important traditions that are still alive in this mostly indigenous country.

Students of the U have already jokingly warned us of the amount of holidays and festivities this semester, and already we see one of the joy of life that imbues the rich Bolivian culture. Upcoming celebrations are inter-carreras in late September, anniversaries of the foundations of both villages and carreras (majors) of the UAC and God willing a favorable presidential election.