Racism in Bolivia and Shaping Identity

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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.

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