Bolivians enter a new era and shed colonial chains, guided by their Indigenous heritage.
Alejandra Escobar's skin glistens in the misty dawn light as the sun makes its first stretch across the sky. Sheis among thousands of hands, all pushing up from the bodies they came from. They are celebrating the Andean New Year and winter solstice, absorbing the first light of a fresh year. Between innumerable fingers, skin spreads taut as palms reach toward heaven to take in the day's first rays. Beams shoot up over the horizon, replacing the night that had claimed the sky moments before and illuminate the billowing rainbow-checkered wiphala, the dual flag of Bolivia that waves for the nation's Indigenous people.
On the morning of winter solstice, June 21, 2010, Indigenous Bolivians gathered nationwide to greet the new year and ask Mother Earth for a good harvest. Thousands congregated at dawn — some camping out the night before — in celebrations that stretched from Quillacollo, on the outskirts of Cochabamba, to El Alto, near La Paz, where President Evo Morales joined this year's ceremony. In the Andean tradition, Bolivians of all backgrounds left the past behind to step into a new era.
"It is the [Andean] New Year 5518. In this new year, we receive the cosmic energy from our sun," Cándido Muruchi Vidal, a Native Bolivian from the Quechua tribe, said in Spanish. He celebrated the occasion on a mountaintop in Quillacollo with Escobar, another Quechua, and hundreds of others. On this morning, Muruchi said the sun "comes up for everybody without discriminating on basis of parties [or] races. The sun comes up for all of the children of the planet earth."
While Bolivians ushered in a new year, many still fight to start a new chapter in the country's turbulent history. In a nation where 55 percent of people identify as members of 36 different Indigenous ethnic groups, millions of Bolivians are engaged in a tug-of-war. After centuries of domination by the lasting influence of European colonizers, Bolivians are trying to reclaim ancient Native heritage that has been suppressed for centuries.
"This new year is not only about myself in the world," Escobar said in Spanish. "It is a new year in which, through our rituals, we will see what measures to take to help our brothers and sisters in Bolivia."
Reviving native roots
Nearly 500 years ago, Spanish conquistadors turned life upside down in Bolivia, imposing Spanish language, Christian beliefs and capitalist values on the region's originarios, or first peoples. Like the Sioux or the Navajo of the United States, each of Bolivia's Indigenous ethnicities — the four most prominent being Quechua, Aymara, Chiquitano and Guaraní — have their own language, history, traditions and beliefs. Even after Bolivia won independence from Spain in 1825, European influence continued to overpower the culture and customs of the Indigenous people.
"To acquiesce is to lose ourselves entirely and implicitly agree with all that has been said about us," wrote acclaimed New Zealand Maori Linda Tuhiwai Smith in her book "Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples." "The past, our stories local and global, the present, our communities, cultures, languages and social practices — all may be spaces of marginalization, but they have also become spaces of resistance and hope."
The 2005 presidential election of Aymara coca farmer Morales not only ushered in the nation's first Indigenous leader, but also brought a resurgence of Native pride and a fight to resuscitate Indigenous culture through the process of decolonization. That battle has taken shape in the form of educational, economic and political reforms that aim to put Indigenous Bolivians in a place of higher power in society. Since Morales' first campaign, he has promoted the redistribution of wealth among poor Indigenous people and the assertion of stronger control over the nation's economy and natural resources.
"These [Indigenous] people, historically, we have been marginalized, humiliated, hated, rejected [and] condemned to extinction," Morales said in his 2010 inaugural speech for his second presidential term. "It's our history; these people are not recognized as human beings, [even] being that these people are absolute owners of this noble land, of their natural resources."
Morales went on to discuss building more schools and creating a more accessible higher education system with scholarships for study abroad opportunities. He also emphasized past improvements and future goals in health care, foreign debt, the minimum wage and job creation. Through these advancements, the president pushes for a nation that can be strong while simultaneously reviving Native languages, faiths, values and other cultural cornerstones.
"Many of the elder people — our grandparents — have been taught through school, the state and social institutions that we definitely do not have cultural value," said Escobar, who lives in Cochabamba. "We pretend to belong to the culture that comes from the outside … [but] we believe now that it is possible to come back to the culture of our grandparents."
Escobar calls herself an "urban Quechua." Although she has lived most of her life in Cochabamba, a city of more than 800,000 people, Escobar carries her Indigenous ancestors' legacy through the city streets. Below her wide-brimmed hat, two thick dark braids hang far down her back, nearly reaching the waistline of her long skirt. Through red painted lips, Escobar talks about her grandparents' Native blood. A clay chakana, the ancient Incan cross, dangles at the end of her necklace. She stands in the early morning glow as a warrior for her Native culture.
The movement aims to revive Indigenous Bolivians who can't agree how to resuscitate those customs or whether they would have a place in modern society.
In the distance, separating Bolivians from their ideal Bolivia, is another hurdle — the role of mestizos, people of mixed European and Indigenous descent. In the article "'Decolonization' in Bolivia," Jorge Landívar Roca calls the argument for decolonization a "racist doctrine" that ignores mestizos and imposes a process of "Indigenous colonization." Landívar, a former state minister, national representative and senator of Bolivia, is now a political analyst and columnist for several Bolivian newspapers.
"[It] romantically interprets the vision of the Native village of the past, as something pure and uncontaminated by the materialistic and individualistic western culture civilization," Landívar wrote in the article for the Hispanic American Center for Economic Research.
- Tuned out
Dropout rates for Indigenous students in Bolivia remain high
- Piledriving the patriarchy
The crowd cheers. One wrestler slams another to the mat. The fighter stands and adjusts her skirts.
- A messy success
Indigenous Bolivians, despite their majority status, historically held little political power.
'What Was Once Ours, Will Be Ours Again'