Bolivia is just dripping with rich and varied cultures. The kaleidoscope of different lifestyles, culinary inclinations, and music is plainly apparent when walking down any of its various cities. Each region’s own history has given rise to unique traditions and individual characteristics, for example the carnival in Oruro or the mines of Potosí have become defining factors when referring to these towns. A unique blend of many of these traditions and modern culture is probably focused in the country seat of government, La Paz, where dried llama foetuses can be found next to the latest computer software. While never denying its rich colonial heritage, as the beautiful ‘White City’ – Sucre will show you, Bolivian culture is by far more centred on its indigenous roots with over fifty percent of its people remaining with their traditional way of life and beliefs.
The indigenous groups that live in Bolivia are very proud of their own separate identities and languages. The main sub-groups are the Pano, MatacoMac 'a, Uru-Chipaya, Quecha, Tacana, Arawak (Mojo), Tupi-Guarani, Chiquitano and Aymara. Only sixty to seventy percent of the population speak Spanish, and many then as a second language, preferring the pre-conquest languages of Quechua and Aymara to keep a strong link to the country’s past. Quechua, which means ‘of the temperate valleys’, is still spoken by millions of natives in the Andean region, and is often associated with having its roots with the Incan Empire that brought the language over to Bolivia. Aymara, thought to have originated from the Tiwanaku era, is also the main pre-Inca language of Bolivia and is spoken around the area surrounding Lake Titicaca, and in major cities such as La Paz.
Language itself seems to be a source of cultural conflict. Despite the fact that only fifteen percent of the population is from Hispanic origin they still seem to be higher up in the social and political hierarchy compared to the native speakers.
The Conquistadores left their mark in other ways; Bolivia like much of Latin America also took on their faith, so that now ninety five percent of the population accepts Roman Catholicism. The remaining five percent are mostly Protestant (Evangelical Methodist), although there are smaller pockets of other religions. There are, surprisingly, a large number of Buddhists and Jehovah's Witnesses: around seventeen and a half thousand.
However, a vast majority of the indigenous population, especially in rural areas follow their own blended brand of folk-Catholicism far removed from orthodox Christianity. They have integrated their own traditional beliefs and deities, for example Pachamama (Mother Earth) has become almost synonymous with the Christian Virgin Mary. Also, no inconsistency is seen in mixing modern technology and medicine with traditional remedies, or indigenous ritual with professed Roman Catholicism.
A perfect example of local ritual interwoven with Christian tradition is shown in Carnival. Dance and music are the most popular form of cultural expression to be found in Bolivia. Dances for example representing the legend of the Virgin of El Socavón, known also as La Candelaria, depict her defeating plagues and armies of ants, vipers, toads, and lizards sent, by "Supay" or "Huari", God of the mountains – who later became the devil of the Catholic clergy. Also, dances in honour of Our Lady of Copacabana, called El Gran Sicuri, which use drums and flutes, the puli-puli dance which is characterised by its flowery crest and feathers, and the participation of women dressed in the traditional garments of the Andes.
But the Spanish weren’t the only people to have contributed to the rich cultural tapestry that is Bolivia. I have always had the strong belief that in order to get under the skin of a country you should look to see how other cultural or ethnic groups have adapted to living in a country. As with many other countries today Bolivia also has many other ethic minorities living in its borders, which have each in their own ways added something to the traditions and way of life here.
The largest group of settlers in Bolivia have been the Japanese who began to arrive over a hundred years ago. The majority of settlers came, however, after the Second World War when Japanese government not only faced high unemployment but also had troubles providing for their people, so many Japanese came to Bolivia in hope of job opportunities and a better future.
By 1953, the Japanese government had made an agreement with the Bolivian government that would allow Japanese people to immigrate to Bolivia with the offer of property and land. In return the Japanese have given much aid to Bolivia by giving the Japanese farmers money to buy tools and by setting up schools and other foundations. It was based on this agreement that many poor farmers came to Bolivia and settled into two main colonies in the regions of Santa Cruz and Beni. It is estimated that over five and a half thousand people came to Bolivia around this time in search of job opportunities. Since the 1970s this figure has almost doubled. Of the people that decided to stay, many moved to the larger cities and set up their own businesses and began to call over family, friends, and acquaintances.
As many as eight hundred Japanese now live in the capital city of La Paz, as well as around a thousand in Santa Cruz, and over eight and a half thousand descendants still living in the Beni region. Nowadays, it is easy to find fifth generation Japanese living in Bolivia. Knowing how extremely different the two cultures are it often surprises people that so many Japanese have came to live in this impoverished South American country. Asking this of Reiko Miyazona, who has lived here for over 11 years, I was informed that it was incredibly difficult to adjust to the lifestyle, which wasn’t helped by being unable to speak the language and by differences in customs like, for example, as Reiko emphatically stated “…the fact that the Japanese tend to be more punctual.”
Reiko first came to Bolivia to study for a few years at the UMSA but then married a Japanese Bolivian and decided to stay. When she first arrived she felt that being easy identified as a foreigner meant that it took time before she was accepted into the culture. Her children, she thought, haven’t had the same troubles, being able to speak Spanish and understanding the culture better from being brought up in La Paz. However, keeping in touch with Japanese culture has perhaps been difficult, especially since the children had never been to Japan. When I enquired why she had not returned, even for short holidays, she soberly advised me that Japan was by far a more expensive country to live in. Also with her qualifications in languages, and experience of South America, she had more opportunity for better work here in Bolivia than she could hope for in Japan.
Despite this, maintaining the Japanese culture, especially with her family, has remained paramount for her. So she enforces the ‘speak only Japanese at home’ rule and remains very true to her Buddhist beliefs, as many other Japanese have done in Bolivia, although again if only at home due to the lack of temples here for her to worship at.
Walking down various streets in La Paz it is hard not to notice the varied culinary inclinations the city seems to have. With restaurants ranging from Italian, Lebanese, to Buddhist, you do begin to wonder how ordinary Bolivians have heard of most of these places being tucked away in the heart of South America. It’s surprising to know that many of these places aren’t Bolivian owned, and then you wonder how most of these people have heard of Bolivia. Ali Kakhar is one such owner, of Keren’s restaurant in central La Paz.
Living in Bolivia now for three years he has faced many of the same complications as Reiko Miyozona. Most Indians that live in La Paz live in the suburb of Calacoto, (all 8-10 of them) although I was told that there are many that live in Sucre. So, being one of a tiny minority of Asians in La Paz, his only comforts in reminders of home is listening to out-dated Indian music he has sent over from Pakistan and by talking to some of his Indian costumers. However, like many of the other settlers to this country he did not come to Bolivia to be constantly reminded of home and he maintains that “It’s not a big deal that there isn’t much here to do with Pakistan”. Having seen much of the rest of the world Ali came to Bolivia because it was a place where “the people speak to you nicely, and treat you well”. Like Reiko he made the decision to stay after marrying a Bolivian, and seeing plenty of business opportunities for an Indian restaurant.
There are a variety of many different people from all over the world. Many simply travel through, or volunteer and live out here for a year. Significant numbers of Europeans migrated before and during the Second World War; in the mid 1980s, large German-speaking communities existed in La Paz and Santa Cruz.
On the surface Bolivia appears to be a very simple country, but look under the covers, there is more there than that meets the eye.