The Bolivia I didn’t want to know
THE WOMAN WAS ON HER HAND AND KNEES, harvesting some sort of plant from the city park lawn. I tried not to stare as she collected handfuls of the plant and laid them to dry on a magenta and yellow striped blanket.
“Indígena,” Maria Rene said, gesturing toward the woman with her jaw. My host mother was stating the obvious. In her white straw hat, two thick braids, pleated velour skirt, and sandals, the woman certainly seemed to be part of Bolivia’s majority indigenous population. But I decided to give my host mom the benefit of the doubt: she was probably just trying to be a thorough guide.
“What’s she gathering?” I asked, hoping to show my interest in something beyond the woman’s race. Maria Rene shook her head and walked on. It’s possible she didn’t know the answer. But the wrinkle that spread across her nose suggested that unlike the time I’d asked her for the name of the purple flowering trees outside my window, she wouldn’t seek out her neighbors to inquire on my behalf.
The night before we flew from Seattle to Cochabamba, Bolivia, I jotted Maria Rene’s name, address, and cell phone number down in my journal. The director of the language school my husband Ben and I were headed to had emailed me these details, along with a short note explaining that she’d arranged for us to live with Maria Rene, her daughter, and her grandson. Our host mother would meet us at the airport. On the same page I had written the contact information for the only other connection I had in Bolivia: the NGO where I’d be writing about human rights and social justice issues.
Maria Rene had photos of both Ben and me, but we knew only to expect a woman who’d been around long enough to be a grandmother. In our minds, this meant gray hair, wrinkles. Instead, as I buckled the waist strap of my pack and exited the Cochabamba baggage claim, I looked up to find Ben in the embrace of a perky woman in fitted jeans with sequins on the back pockets.
“I’m your mama,” she said. Two young boys peeked out from behind her legs.
On the cab ride home, and over a welcome dinner of chicken soup, we chatted. Despite Maria Rene’s energy and fashion, she was indeed a grandmother. Each of her two daughters had a son, but only one daughter and one grandson shared the house with her. The others lived across the courtyard, with Maria Rene’s grandmother. Ben and I explained that we were newlyweds. I had just graduated from a masters program and Ben had quit his job so that we could spend six months in Bolivia, volunteering at NGOs, visiting tourist attractions, and improving our Spanish. Neither of us were Catholic, which Maria Rene dismissed as no big deal. “We’re Catholic, but we’re not fanatics,” she told us. “We accept everyone.”
As welcoming as she was, it didn’t take long to recognize the tone of voice Maria Rene used to show disapproval. On our first Friday night out, we walked around the plaza of an old convent, hoping to come upon some street performers we’d read about. A group of young people sitting along a fountain caught my eye. Where most of the young Bolivians sported sleek-fitting pants, polished shoes, and neat shiny hairdos, this crowd had loose-fitting layers, scrunched-up wool socks, and dreads.
“Hippies,” Maria Rene said. The way she spit out the only hard consonants of that single word punctuated her disgust. We were walking shoulder to shoulder, but she didn’t notice when I stepped out of sync with her to consider my reaction. I thought about telling her how many times I’d had that word assigned to me, back in what my grandmother called my “earthworm stage.” In truth I was only modestly crunchy and took a certain amount of pride when some guy yelled at me from a passing vehicle: “take a shower, hippie.” But as I watched Maria Rene navigate the crowd, careful not to touch anyone or anything, I decided she wouldn’t get it. The following morning in the shower, I took a razor to my furry legs and underarms.
The next time Maria Rene sidled up to me to share one of her observations, we were pushing our way through a festival on the city’s downtown prado. I saw the young couple and their child approaching us, and predicted that Maria Rene would have something to say about them. They were hippies without a doubt — the woman in her bare feet and flowing skirt, the pony-tailed father. But what Maria Rene focused on was the way they carried their belongings. “Mochileros,” she said in her now familiar stage-whisper: backpackers.
If the other festival-goers hadn’t separated us at that moment, I think I would have called her on her superficial judgment. What, after all, had she thought of Ben and me when she first spotted us at the airport, giant packs strapped to our backs? But the crowd came between us, and instead of speaking up, I stashed the comment away for a later laugh with Ben.
It seemed excusable to keep silent in the moments when her remarks were aimed at groups that I identified with, and had been known to mock myself. But when she shared her opinions about race or class, my dilemma grew complicated. It would be condescending for me, an outsider, to try to enlighten her about her own country’s recent triumphs over an oppressive, colonial past. If she’d been the frail grandmother I had expected, I could have allowed age to explain her antiquated beliefs. But Maria Rene couldn’t have been more than fifty. Her own generation of Bolivians had put forth the country’s first indigenous president and created a new constitution that transitioned the old Republic of Bolivia into a new, Plurinational State of Bolivia that recognized 36 indigenous languages in addition to Spanish as official tongues and set the country on a path towards decolonization.
Maria Rene didn’t celebrate these changes. Her look would turn sour at the very mention of Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales. And though she never criticized any of his policies explicitly, it was clear she had problems with the state of her country since an indigenous president had taken charge.
“The indios are becoming just like us,” she said, and she scrunched her nose in the same way she would to indicate ugly weather in the sky.
I respected Maria Rene as my gracious host in a foreign land, but I didn’t want to hear her talk about her dislike of Bolivia’s indigenous people. I worried that my silence would give her the impression I agreed with her, yet my instinct was to keep the peace. Later I would brainstorm the things I could have said — at the park, about the backpacks or the indígenas — to make her think twice about trusting me with her biases. But in the moment I’d lower my eyes or change the topic, hoping she’d get the hint: I’m not interested in your rendition of Bolivian history.
In the mornings, while her daughter and grandson tore out of the house to catch a cab, skipping breakfast altogether, Maria Rene took the opportunity to tell us about her past. Her family’s story was not filled with the exploitation, violence, or oppression of history books, but with domestic drama: affairs, fights over money, abusive men, thieving friends, and estranged family members. When remembering made her cry, I reached for her hand, or walked around the table to offer a hug. “La vida es grave,” she’d say and begin to clear the table, “life is hard.”
There was no question that Maria Rene’s life had hit low points. A widow for twelve years, her husband’s death left her with two teenage girls who quickly became mothers themselves. When her boss also died, leaving her a backlog of unpaid wages, she thought she’d go to Spain, to find work taking care of someone else’s children. But her mother got sick and Maria Rene abandoned those plans, staying to play nurse and help with medical expenses. Her mother died, her daughters went to work, and Maria Rene found herself at home in the days with two grandsons. She began hosting international students to supplement the household income.
Before Ben and me, she’d hosted only two others, and it was clear she still felt new to the job. In the kitchen, she was in charge, but not always confident. We’d wait at the table while she ran across the yard to ask her grandmother’s advice: Can you serve orange juice with pork? How about eggs with avocado?
“She didn’t know how to cook when she was working,” Maria Rene’s grandmother explained. “She had to learn.”
“I used to have a maid,” Maria Rene said. “I was a career woman. I made more money than my husband.” When we mentioned that we needed to buy a bus ticket for our upcoming trip, she lit up with information about which lines had the most comfortable seats or the nicest televisions. Until four years earlier, she’d worked for a company that imported buses and other vehicles from the United States and she remembered all the details. She missed her job. She insisted on accompanying us to the station, verifying the ticket prices, and then hassling the men about not allowing us to carry our large packs aboard with us.
Despite their misfortunes, Maria Rene and her family lived comfortably by Bolivian standards. The taxi that picked us up from the airport had taken us past makeshift brick and corrugated tin shelters, generic highrise apartments, and riverside encampments before finally carrying us up the north hills of Cochabamba and into the Cala Cala neighborhood. From here there was a view of the valley, and the houses climbed three and four stories to take advantage of it. Maria Rene’s house, like all the nice homes in the city, was separated from the street and sidewalks by a wall and an iron gate.
Though Maria Rene didn’t own a car, the house she lived in belonged to her. Some of the houses in their neighborhood were newer and grander — concrete mansions with pillars painted to look like marble and guards standing watch at the gate — but Maria Rene had a matching living room and dining room set, three large bedrooms, two bathrooms, and wood floors. Her mother had paid for the house as a gift to Maria Rene; she had it built on family land, next to Maria Rene’s grandmother’s home. When Maria Rene’s mother was alive, the family contained in those two houses included members of five generations: Maria Rene, her grandmother, her mother, her two daughters, and her two grandsons.
Maria Rene and her grandmother described the courtyard as abundant with all kinds of fruits, vegetables, and small animals for the family. There had been peaches, figs, ducks, rabbits, and chickens. The space that separated the houses by the time of our arrival held no such riches. It had a crumbling patio, a square of lawn that the boys and the dog had worn paths in, a bouncy wire clothesline that hung low enough to decapitate even the shorter adults, and a large plot of hard-packed dirt they said belonged to Maria Rene’s cousins. A tomato plant had volunteered itself in the midst of this dry square, but nobody watered it and the one red fruit turned to a black pocket of dust. The dozen or so terracotta pots that decorated the yard were cracked from the impact of the boys’ soccer balls, and so were the house’s blue plaster walls. Purple flowering jacaranda trees dropped their petals over the wall from neighboring yards, but this courtyard stood barren of foliage.
I sifted through Maria Rene’s past for links to the country’s history, wanting to explain her opinions by connecting her family’s financial decline to Bolivia’s recent political changes. As far as I knew, her family hadn’t lost property when Morales institutionalized his agrarian reform, or lost jobs due to his affirmative action initiatives. Instead I gathered that their diminishing economic status had something to do with the notable lack of men in the household. The picture album that Maria Rene’s grandma showed us was full of wedding photos, but the only male who got a good rap among these women was Maria Rene’s grandfather. The rest, it seemed, were better dead or out of the picture.
The family’s nostalgia for the past was evident in the stories they told about Maria Rene’s grandfather who had lived long enough to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary. Everyone remembered the party as the last of the great family events. “The invitations were printed in the United States,” Maria Rene’s grandmother told us. “He made me the happiest woman alive,” she said, and then looked pointedly at her single granddaughter and great-granddaughters.
“We had the best band in Cochabamba. And the best venue,” Maria Rene said.
She described how her grandfather traveled all over Bolivia and always returned bearing gifts. He worked for a private domestic airline that, since the president created a state-owned Bolivian airline, no longer existed. “Wonderful company,” she said, “gave each of its employees a free ticket every year.” Her grandfather provided for his family, and took it hard when, in his old age, he could no longer guarantee them the luxuries of the past. “Once he looked out his window when his great-granddaughter was washing her clothes in the sink,” Maria Rene told us. “He cried when he saw that. He never wanted his children to do their laundry by hand.”
Maria Rene did our laundry in a washing machine that she kept in her utility room, but sometimes when I caught her hanging our clothing out to dry, or scrubbing a stain in the outdoor pila, I felt the eyes of her grandfather at my back.
“Am I what you expected?” Maria Rene wanted to know. Ben and I stumbled over our Spanish trying to explain that we hadn’t come with strict expectations. “You probably thought that everyone in Bolivia would be a cholita,” she said. She snickered and gyrated her hips to suggest the full skirts worn by the indigenous women. “We’re not all campesinos,” she said.
I tried to recall what image I’d had of my host mother, or any Bolivian woman, before arriving. I remembered an interaction Maria Rene and I had during my first week of classes. I had felt sick, so I sneaked off to my room, propped my pillow against the wobbly headboard, and opened my book to the dog-ear I’d folded the night before. It was an account of recent Bolivian social movements; I was in the middle of a chapter about the “Cochabamba Water Wars,” in which Cochabambinos fought a transnational company to regain public control of the municipal water. The picture that illustrated the historic citizen victory showed a woman in indigenous dress taking on the Bolivian army with a slingshot.
In 2000, during the Water Wars, this woman’s photo appeared in newspapers around the world. She embodied the international community’s impression of Bolivia: a country whose citizens were quick to revert to protests and blockades; a country whose indigenous peoples were reclaiming power from its colonizers; a country that had had enough of exploitation of human and natural resources; a country of Davids standing up to the world’s Goliaths. Ben and I had come to Bolivia out of fascination with this reputation.
Before I had turned the first page, Maria Rene slipped through the door that I’d left ajar. She carried a saucer and a teacup. “Mate de coca,” she said, “to calm your stomach.” It wasn’t the first time she’d brewed a tea from the infamous Andean leaves for me. Like many in Bolivia, she prescribed them for altitude sickness as well as traveler’s diarrhea. But when I’d asked her whether she also chewed the leaves on occasion, she had said no: “that’s for the campesinos.” Then she’d lodged her tongue between her teeth and her cheek so that it bulged out like a wad of leaves. She waited for me to agree that it looked ugly.
“Why do you have it?” I had asked her, referencing the bag of coca on her refrigerator shelf.
“For the foreigners,” she said.
So I accepted the mate, setting the cup and saucer down on my bedside table and thanking her. But instead of leaving the room, Maria Rene sat down on the edge of the bed. She asked for more details about my stomach pains, and responded to my blunt descriptions and gesturing with concern. And then we just sat there. My right hand held my place in the book that I wanted to get back to, but Maria Rene showed no sign of leaving. I scooched over to offer her more room on the bed and then held my book out for her to see.
On the cover was a painting of a woman in one of the bowler hats that are typical of Aymara women of Bolivia. In the background were colorful adobe homes with red tiled roofs, and in the foreground, a large bag of coca leaves. “I’m reading about Bolivia’s political history,” I said. “The Water Wars, the World Bank, silver mining—”
“Oil, natural gas,” Maria Rene finished the list for me. She took the book in her hands. She couldn’t read the English words that condensed the history of her country into a single paragraph for the book’s cover, but of course she’d lived through the story herself. I drew my knees to my chest and Maria Rene lounged to fill the now-empty space. Her wide-necked t-shirt drooped off one shoulder, revealing a purple bra strap. For a moment she locked eyes with the woman staring out at her from my book, then she returned the book to me.
“It’s good for me to learn about all this,” I said, “for my volunteer position.” But I felt suddenly sheepish and slid the book beneath my leg.
“And what exactly will you be doing?” she asked.
“I’ll be writing about current events in Bolivia. But in English, to inform people in the United States about the reality here in Bolivia.”
“Good,” she said. She dug her elbow into the mattress and rested her head on her hand. Then she smiled at me as though she believed I was just the one to set the record straight.
Our first full week in Bolivia ended with reports of police violently repressing a group of indigenous people who had been marching towards La Paz to oppose the construction of a road through their home in a protected national park. I had told my Spanish teachers that one of my goals was to be able to follow Bolivian news stories, so the march became the go-to topic for conversation. My teachers plopped the newspapers down on the desk before me and, under large red headings like “CONFLICTO,” I devoured features about the history of the protest. In my notebook I jotted down vocabulary for things like “rubber bullets,” “bows and arrows,” “tear gas,” and “to bind with tape.”
The march, which had begun over a month earlier, brought a slew of Bolivia’s current issues to the surface. President Morales, who was an Aymara coca-grower, supported the construction of the road, highlighting improved access to clinics and markets for those who lived in the park. His stance pitted his purportedly pro-indigenous administration against the indigenous marchers. They said that the government had ignored its constitutional obligation to consult the people who were native to the territory. Environmental organizations backed the marchers, arguing that because of its biodiversity and importance as a carbon sink, the area ought to be preserved. Opponents of the road said the project’s real beneficiaries would be the coca producers who had settled in the park. They accused Morales of having more loyalty to the cocaleros than to the country’s diverse indigenous groups.
When footage of the police crackdown aired on television, our host mother appeared alarmed. But she never aligned herself directly with either side. Instead she threw up her hands whenever the march was mentioned: “Que macana; what a disaster.”
Two days after the violence erupted, Maria Rene informed us that a nationwide strike had been called in support of the marchers. Cochabamba’s streets would be shut down for an entire day. “No classes for me,” my host brother chirped. His enthusiasm wore off when his mom pointed out that without public transportation, they wouldn’t be able to go to the movies.
Before they released us from school that day, our teachers had us watch the last scenes from a film about the Cochabamba Water Wars. I watched protests turn places I now recognized upside down. The bridges were checkpoints manned by armed men, the post office was an emergency hospital, and the streets around the Plaza 14 de Septiembre were war zones. The images reiterated the picture of the Cochabamba I’d read about, and in the context of an emerging conflict, they were a tantalizing, if scary, glimpse of what I thought I wanted to witness myself.
Our teachers assured us today’s demonstrations would be nothing in comparison. Still they cautioned us against going anywhere near the center. Their warnings only added to our curiosity. Ben and I decided not to tell Maria Rene that classes had let out early. We planned to check out the protests, and we doubted she’d support the idea.
But in the end we had no reason to hide our outing from our host mother; the real demonstrations had taken place in the morning, and by the time we arrived at the plaza the only people who hadn’t headed home for a siesta were holding a quiet vigil. With the streets cleared of cars, the center was quieter than we’d ever seen it. And when we returned home to confess to our host mother where we’d been, the thing that impressed her most was the distance we’d covered without public transit: “You walked to the Plaza?”
Maria Rene dismissed my interest in current events as mere homework. “Your teachers shouldn’t focus so much on politics,” she said, “You’re here to learn Spanish.”
When a pamphlet about candidates for Bolivia’s upcoming, first-ever nationwide judicial elections arrived at the house, I thought it might make an interesting conversation topic: “My dad was a judge, so I’m interested in how judges are elected,” I told her.
“Your dad must make a lot of money,” Maria Rene said. And when I tried to turn the conversation back to the elections, her eyes wandered to the dishes piling up near the sink.
I flipped through the pages of the pamphlet and tried again. “These elections are actually a pretty big deal. In most countries, judges are appointed. This seems like it should be more democratic.”
Maria Rene smiled at me in a way that made me feel like her overeager student. “The elections are a nice idea,” she said. “But it’s all the president’s people.”
The approaching elections seemed to bring Maria Rene’s frustrations with her indigenous leader to the surface. She dropped dismissive remarks about Morales and the indios into all manners of conversation. In a cab one night, we passed through a poor section of town. “Lock your door,” she said, “it’s awful around here.” Then she struck up a conversation about the elections with our driver: “You know the campesinos are coming to town with extra ballots stuffed in their pockets.” I lined my face up behind his head so that he couldn’t see me in the rearview mirror. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended when the cabbie appeared to agree. “Could be,” he told her. “I’m not going to bother voting.”
Like Maria Rene, most of my teachers were of Spanish or mixed descent. If they had indigenous heritage, they chose not to announce it in the way they dressed. Many of them worked two or more jobs to support themselves, but they considered themselves middle class. Besides one who was a diehard fan of Morales, most rolled their eyes at their president. I think they only talked politics to humor me. Everyone I asked admitted they knew little if anything about the judicial candidates. Over and over I heard the claim that most of the candidates had been preselected by the president’s own party, so it didn’t matter who won.
Their apathy shouldn’t have surprised me; I knew plenty of people in my own country who felt similarly about electoral politics. But I had wanted Bolivians to be different. Instead I learned that the high voter turnouts I’d read about were largely due to the fact that citizens were mandated to vote. Bolivians went to the polls. But many went with a grudge.
A teacher whom I’d pinned as a fellow progressive told me about her friend’s voting strategy: “I’m going to look down the ballot and if anyone’s last name sounds indigenous, I’m not going to vote for them.” I sat confused in my chair as she giggled about what she’d shared. This teacher was not much older than I was; we’d agreed on everything from living abroad to gay marriage to legalizing marijuana. Though it was possible I’d misjudged her, I decided to take a risk with her that I always avoided with Maria Rene.
“Sure,” I said. “And same goes for women, right?”
My teacher laughed, and then looked me in the eye: “It’s horrible, isn’t it?”
I wanted to feel relieved at finding a like-minded Bolivian. But her story, and the possibility that she was only agreeing to satisfy me, pointed to a portion of the Bolivian population that was getting harder to ignore.
Despite the disinterest of nearly everyone around me, I couldn’t wait for election day. I was fascinated by the steps the government took to ensure an engaged and informed electorate: no alcohol could be sold for the entire weekend, the clubs and the bars shut down, and people were not allowed to have parties in their homes. And on the Sunday, the day of the elections, nobody had to work and the government banned all automobile traffic from the streets.
The whole family walked up the hill to the school together so that the women could cast their votes. Ben stopped along the way to take photos of the campaign propaganda that had been plastered on light posts or spray painted on the walls. Some of them touted pro-government messages: “Your vote counts.” Others urged people to boycott the elections by casting blank or voided ballots. This campaign appealed to people who were upset with the Morales administration’s treatment of the indigenous marchers. Ironically, the “vote null” campaign also appealed to people who wanted to undermine the elections because they objected to indigenous leadership. And if the number of signs around our middle-class neighborhood were any indication, the campaign had more than just fringe supporters. I wanted to ask our host mother and sisters how they planned to vote, but when my six-year-old host brother asked if their choices were a secret, Maria Rene said yes. He and I both zipped our lips.
The voters had to dip their thumbs in ink and leave a fingerprint before collecting their ballots, which I thought was cool. I imagined I’d leave the stain on my finger for a day or two, the way I always kept my “I voted” sticker front and center until the results had been announced and my contribution was either upheld or shot down. But as we left the polls, Maria Rene and her daughters rubbed their fingers so clean they might’ve been able to convince the officials to let them vote again. The girls wanted to head home and escape the heat, but Maria Rene insisted we check out the food vendors. She took us on a discursive walk past showy cement castles, along crumbling sidewalks and cobblestone paving, and then through the neighborhood market. Without cars, the streets became fair game for kids on bicycles and vendors of everything from sausage sandwiches and cotton candy to pet goldfish, hermit crabs, and painted turtles.
The activity made us forget about politics. Maria Rene called out to people we passed. Once or twice she stopped to introduce us, but most times she gave a little wave and walked on. Her friends greeted us without making a show of their curiosity, but their eyes lingered on our pale faces and blue eyes for a few seconds more than normal. The attention animated Maria Rene, who slid her arm around my waist and hammed it up as our neighborhood tour guide: I’ve known that little girl’s father since I was a child; That restaurant doesn’t look clean but the food is delicious; Can you believe all the trash in their yard? We walked the streets connected at the hip and I let her buy me a chocolate-covered strawberry on a stick.
When we moved out of Maria Rene’s house and into our own apartment, it seemed like our stuff would never fit back into our packs. Maria Rene sat on the bed and watched us shove the final pieces into place, fighting to zip them in. “Aren’t their bags lovely?” she asked when her daughter stopped in for a look. I smirked and wondered whether she’d laugh if I made a joke about our being mochileros.
We stayed in touch. We had them to tea, and they invited us to watch the boys’ end-of-school dance performances. When Ben took a work trip and left me alone for three days, Maria Rene called to check in on me. And on Ben’s 30th birthday, she was the first to congratulate him.
For his party, she arrived dressed to the nines in a black pantsuit, heels, and a ruffled red blouse. She chatted normally to me in the kitchen, then grew timid on the patio among a crowd of young expats. But when one of them shared her most recent medical ailment with us, Maria Rene perked up. “I was having the same problem,” she interrupted. “A woman from the campo asked me why I didn’t drink mate de manzanilla. ‘No,’ I told her,” and here she inserted a perfect imitation of her own face, contorted in disgust, “but I tried it, and it worked. It’s a little white flower, yellow in the center.”
I thought back to the moment when I’d first guessed her attitude toward Bolivia’s indigenous people. I still didn’t like that attitude, but I realized I’d also shortchanged her, imagining she lacked curiosity, and overlooking her capacity to change. Maria Rene wasn’t the guide I had been looking for; she denounced the results of social movements that had sparked my interest in Bolivia, and she resented the people whose defiance I admired. Yet she’d shared with me the Bolivia that was hers to share. And now here she was, taking small steps outside her world, exploring the parts of her country that were almost as foreign to her as to outsiders like me. I caught her eye across the patio, and though I wasn’t sure she’d understand the English, I hoped my tone of voice could convey my gratitude. I smiled and offered her my word for the piece of wisdom she’d provided: “chamomile.”
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]