Our program is primarily a research methods program, but one specifically geared towards “field work.” Although our program teaches both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, field work is the common thread. By learning to “do” research in Bolivia, you will learn about Bolivia (and the Andes more generally) in ways that would be difficult in a classroom back home.
Welcome to the blog for the 2017 cohort of the University of Mississippi’s Social Science Field School in Bolivia, in partnership with the Universidad Católica de Bolivia (UCB). This is an online field notebook for our students, who will be posting here about their experiences, once the program starts.
Public transport in La Paz is unlike any I’ve ever experienced anywhere else in the world. Unlike most large cities, La Paz is unable to have a subway or train system due to the elevation and unevenness of the city. In addition to this, buses are rarely seen and are in fact a newer addition to the public transit system. The most popular way of transport would most likely be the minibus. Minibuses can carry up to around 15 people, although one cannot expect much personal space.
The most interesting form of transportation in my opinion however is the Mi Teléferico, the gondola lift style of transportation. While in the lift, one gains a bird’s eye view of the city. This is my favorite form of transportation in La Paz most likely due to its uniqueness. I love being able to look out over the city and see things that I would not be able to otherwise. Riding the Teléferico has been one of the most interesting things I’ve done while in La Paz. It would be something I highly recommend to any tourist coming to La Paz. Something I find rather funny about the situation is that typically locals will avoid the touristy attractions of their city, however in this case, when one rides the Teléferico, they’ll likely be sharing the experience with La Paz locals as well.
During my time here in La Paz, I have been able to see many different culturally or historically important places across the city, from the Prado in the city center, to the dirt-paved roads of outer El Alto, to the Office of the Vice-president, where the congressional archives are located. Out of everything I’ve seen, la Plaza Murillo has been my favorite. Originally built as part of the old Spanish colonial city, this beautiful plaza has design elements from the both the Greeks and the Spanish. In the center of the plaza, there is a huge statue of Pedro Murillo, a hero in the Bolivian struggle for independence. Surrounding the central paved portion of the plaza are Grecian statues of the nine muses. I’m not sure of the significance of the statues of the muses, but for me, they seem to represent the rich mixing of cultures and traditions in Bolivia and an appreciation for the arts.
The plaza is surrounded by some of the most important buildings in the city. Some of these buildings include the Presidential Palace, the La Paz Cathedral, and the Plurinational Assembly, Bolivia’s congress. Within the plaza, in addition to the beautiful statues and plants, you will find grandparents and their grandchildren feeding the hundreds of pigeons that reside in the Plaza. This is a La Paz tradition that’s gone on for generations. The historical and cultural significance of this place makes it an ideal place for people-watching. I have found that the times I’ve appreciated Bolivian culture the most were when I was observing the sights around me in this plaza. I wish I had more time here to really immerse myself in the history of all the buildings here.
Earlier in the program I talked about the similarities between certain aspects of Southern culture and certain aspects of Bolivian culture. Most of those were pointed out by Dr. Miguel on a 15 minutes teleférico ride, but they still rang true and I was able to find more on my own not too long after.
I was able to find more of these during our visit to
Texas Santa Cruz. The most obvious was state, or rather departmental, pride. Much like Texas (who saw that coming?) Santa Cruz is very proud of its heritage and departmental culture. Most, if not all, of the flags I saw in Santa Cruz were the departmental flag: the white of purity and the green of agriculture. How much more Texas can you get? or is it the other way around?
But deeper than the surface similarities are the similarities between race and ethnicity issues. Much like Texas, Santa Cruz found itself in a period of stark division when it came to race and ethnic status. But to be fair, so has most (if not all) of Latin America at one point.
For the rest of the time that we are here in Bolivia, I’ll be keeping an eye out for any more similarities. This is something that I would like to research outside of the program because I find southern culture itself very interesting.
(Fun Fact: There is a town in Texas called Santa Cruz)
One of many things about Bolivia I really want to have an in-depth understanding of? That would be racism and its history and impact on how people live, what resources they have access to, and the impact of racism on identity.
One thing I can’t help but notice in La Paz and Santa Cruz as well, are signs against racism. The banner pictured above was a new one I hadn’t seen before outside of La Paz. In Santa Cruz as well as La Paz, I’ve seen many small signs on windows noting, “Somos iguales antes de la ley” or something very similar to that. But this sign (pictured) really got to me. “Libre de racismo,” okay, that sounds unbelievable. Perhaps it’s more “aspirational” for Bolivia to be free of racism. I am curious how the Morales government has handled this issue and how it intends to combat or “end” racism. I am assuming this sign must be a government-supported campaign, and if so, I can’t help but question the manner in which this sign aims to signal an end to racism.
Being immersed back home in education about American racism and “diversity” campaigns, and as a young woman of color, I see this sign and think, “Uh, I’ve never seen a blue person in my life.” I’ve never seen a person of any of these colors. So what do these colors represent- why use these colors? It seems like a poor attempt to visually represent all peoples as equals, but how does that work when you have figures instead of real people, and all of those figures come in a strange selection of colors.
Yes, there are signs against racism in Bolivia and so shows some level of proactive measures. And because they are there, I know without having to ask that racism is most definitely an issue in Bolivia. What’s more, I’m curious and also frustrated by how racism impacts identity. Just how many Indigenous Peoples are in Bolivia? I can’t remember the year now, but one census did not include the “mestizo” (historically signifying mixed Indigenous-European) category. That had to be a conscious choice to do so. How did people feel about it? Just how strongly do people identify with “mestizo?” And how strongly do people stand by their racial identities as white, Indigenous, Afro-Bolivian, Japanese-Bolivian, etc.? What does it mean to identify with a historically mixed-race category, when historically, in other countries (can’t say I know about Bolivia) mixed-race people were exploited by white elites to stamp out uprisings of people of color. What does it say about racism and identity when people change their racial identities, especially when done so to find work or educational opportunities?
I can’t help but feel frustrated by this identity and race categorization. To put it simply, for me, mestizo is a product of colonization and racism, so what are the reasons or motivations to maintain “mestizo,” both by the government historically and the people of Bolivia? I can’t hide the fact that I loathe the term mestizo and refuse to use it for myself, yet others are proud to be mestizo.
I am very curious about census data for race in Bolivia historically, and how race and identity may change in the future. I am also wanting to know how others identify themselves and why they identify the way they do.
This past Monday, July 17th, our class headed to Los Andes Province located high in the rural Bolivian Altiplano to visit the leaders of a project in the community of “Jaillihuaya.” The project’s goal is to research ways to solve the water problem that many villages and cities in the arid southwestern region of Bolivia currently face, and to begin implementing the discoveries made. Previously, many cities in this sector of Bolivia depended on water yielded by glacial runoff high in the mountains, but because of the pressing phenomenon of global warming the glacial water has become less and less of a reliable option. The indigenous people who work daily on the project in Jaillihuaya have introduced over 15 species of plants to see which ones are able to survive in the harsh climate of the Altiplano, and they also test completely unique methods of protecting the young plants from the constant wind and cold. So far the project has found 4 species that are able to survive, and these will continue to be planted and maintained with the intention that they will release chemicals that will rectify the inconsistent water patterns. In addition, these indigenous groups have given up their own land to make the project possible – land that they would typically use to grow quinoa or other crops – meaning that people in the altiplano are sacrificing some of their own income for the opportunity to solve the environmental issues plaguing their community.
Seeing individuals from very different backgrounds cooperate on a project that aims to help themselves as well as people of other varying backgrounds was an extremely positive experience. The fact alone that Bolivian citizens are realizing the importance and necessity of working to cope with changes ushered by global warming was fantastic in itself. Considering how Native Americans in the United States and the non-native people from the US continue to struggle to cooperate with one another on even the most basic issues, I enjoyed seeing what coordination like this could resemble. Perhaps this partnership in Jaillihuaya only exists because the situation is dire, but either way it is a step in the right direction that not only Bolivian citizens, but citizens in any country with native populations can learn from.
“What I love most about rivers is you can never step in the same river twice, the water is always changing, always flowing” — Pocahontas, 1995
Amboró is without a doubt the most beautiful and breath taking place on earth I have ever had the opportunity to visit. During the day, its towering trees reach for the sun through the clouds. During the night, an infinite amount of stars illuminate the sky while the moon filters through the canopy. This kind of poetic imagery is what I was fortunate enough to capture during our time in Amboró.
The beauty of Amboró is something that I will never be able to forget. That same beauty is also what reminded me of how important the earth’s natural resources really are. Our visit only fortified my stance on the preservation of the earth’s resources, such as Amboró. I’m hoping to take that fortified stance back to the US so that I can share what I have been able to learn.
Everything that I learned in Amboró came from our guides who all had prolific knowledge of the region. This was evident in everything they did. From the knowledge they shared all the way down to their light-footed movements through the ravines we traveled through. Their knowledge and respect for the park was what earned them my respect and admiration.
I wish more people knew about the Amboró park and its history. Like Dr. Kate explained, it’s remoteness has been both blessing and curse in its preservation and lack of exposure, respectively.
On Tuesday, I got a glimpse of the famous Witches Market of La Paz.
Beyond the selection of sea shells (in the Andes!), powders, dried herbs, plants, and baby llamas, what immediately jumped out to me was the people attending the market. There were locals, of course, but the majority were the vendors themselves. Attendees were foreign and far outnumbered local people I saw at the market.
Although I was expecting to see tourists, as the Witches Market makes tourism lists of interesting La Paz activities consistently, it was still unsettling to see so many tourists in one space. I couldn’t help but wonder what the tourists’ perceptions of the Witches Market and products were. When I saw the dried llama fetuses, I didn’t think much of it. Based on my upbringing, I have no qualms about killing animals for food or cultural practices, and as I understand it, the llama fetuses are used for cultural practices.
Seeing dried llama fetuses might make some uncomfortable, but why would it? I was curious to know what the tourists’ opinions were. I heard many different languages being spoken and just felt curious about foreigner perception of the Witches Market and “Bolivian culture.” I write quotes around it because it is easy to confuse something that may be a part of an Indigenous culture or part of a specific subculture within Bolivia as being “mainstream” Bolivian culture. For me, the Witches Market raised questions of cultures within Bolivia, whose cultures are they, how do outsiders perceive them on a day-to-day basis and on a transaction basis. I say transaction since so much mass-produced, mixed llama-synthetic sweaters with Andean design are sold every day. The Witches Market takes consumer demand for Indigenous-inspired or authentic designs and products to a new level with llama fetuses and powders galore. I can’t help but wonder what attracts tourists to a place called the Witches Market- is it to ogle at the “strange” products and people there? Are tourists really shopping for llama fetuses, powders, and seashells?
So what was my motivation? Anything associated with witchcraft and the occult interests me, so my motivation was based on personal curiosity and interest. I’m sure plenty of others go there for that reason as well. After all, curiosity shops always draw customers. But at the same time, my mind wandered about what attracts tourists to Bolivia, what are they looking for and what do they want to see?It brought me back to my hometown in Alaska that had Peruvian vendors every summer for a festival. They sold colorful Andean style bags that were very popular because they were “trendy” at the time. Of course, the Peruvian vendors made a killing, but the eager consumption of colorful textiles from Mexico, Central, and South America has always perplexed me, as many consumers don’t care about what they are wearing and where it came from, and then there are others that reject what isn’t “authentic” to them.
Today we visited the electoral office just off of Plaza Avaroa with Dr. Miguel. We met with six of the office’s employees. They explained how the Bolivian electoral system works. The first thing I noticed, just about as soon as they started, was how very different their system is from ours. The primary difference being compulsory voting.
It took me a while to really wrap my head around the pros and cons of compulsory voting. I realized that compulsory voting really can work after having a conversation with some of the employees and Dr. Miguel.
The Bolivian electoral system is, for the most part, a well structured system with plenty of safeguards against voter fraud and most other voting concerns, like gerrymandering. I would be very very interested in seeing how compulsory voting would play out in the US. How would our elections be different? What would happen to Super PACs?
How can we as a nation continue to develop and evolve our idea of democracy? I would suggest observing other nations, like Bolivia.
One of the first things that stood out to me on my first drive down into La Paz from the El Alto airport was, aside from the astounding number of stray dogs, the impressive amount of street art on nearly every vertical surface. In El Alto most of the street art that I have seen tends to be politically oriented, for example lots of white script reading “Si, con Evo”, supporting President Evo Morales. Many of these “tags” have been commandeered by people who have a less than positive opinion of President Morales, and a diagonal line has been added, connecting the tips of the “S” in “Si, con Evo”, forming a symbol resembling the red circle with the diagonal line inside it like the ones found on “no smoking” signs. As you move further down into the city the art becomes much more inventive, and one can see massive, intricate murals depicting everything from famous movie characters, to figures of indigenous pride, to psychedelic aliens. In La Paz it is quite obvious that the local government does not mind that there is so much street art; I have even heard tell that the government sometimes pays for the creation of artistic murals in order to minimize the prominence of the politically charged ones. This is quite surprising to me considering how “graffiti” is seen in most of the biggest U.S. cities.
Here in La Paz street art serves as a perfect conduit for self expression; a way not only to push for political sentiments but also simply to express artistic talent on one collective urban canvas. As I bumble through the city in the crowded minibuses and look at the ever-present street art, I feel that the way street art changes from neighborhood to neighborhood tells me a great deal about people, young and old alike, in each place. The vibrant street art adds a degree of color to the city that I have not seen in most United States cities. Color in the sense of its most basic meaning, as well as color in the sense that the art conveys the feelings, personalities, and dynamism of the citizens who call this impressively spirited city home.