When I passed through El Alto de La Paz for the first time in 1954, I didn’t even notice. The city—just a few minutes outside of La Paz—consisted of just a few little houses and market stalls at the end of the immense altiplano. La Ceja (the “eyebrow”), reaching some 13,500 feet into the air, suddenly tumbles down toward the river and the city of La Paz, about a thousand feet lower, as if it were another Grand Canyon filled with buildings at the bottom, and on either side, little houses of unprocessed red brick virtually hanging off both sides.
Towards the end of the colony (1780- 81), this Ceja—the border of present-day El Alto—was already conspicuous for having sheltered thousands of Aymara rebels led by Julián Apaza (Túpaj Katari) and his wife Bartolina Sisa. From the vantage of the higher point, they laid siege to La Paz for six long months. Residents in La Paz endured famine and death until the rebels were routed by Spanish troops arrivng from Lima and Buenos Aires. That encircling of La Paz has remained deeply engraved in the collective unconscious, with guilt and fear buried within in the descendants of the besieged population, and as a model and battle flag for the Aymara people, despite the fact they were defeated.
In 1985, El Alto was declared a independent municipality. Since 2007, it actually numbers more inhabitants than the capital city (although El Alto is part of Greater La Paz). In 2011, it is likely that the population will reach a million, 300 times greater than its population in 1950. Although El Alto is already Bolivia’s second most populous city (after Santa Cruz) and although its human development index has improved from 0.59 in 1992 to 0.66 in 2005, it ranks in 47th place among the country’s municipalities, considerably lower than all the department (state) capitals and other smaller cities. But the city is changing. In the 1980s, most of the housing was only one story high. Now, there are more and more highrises, some in an art nouveau style particular to El Alto, in which the lower floors house stores, residences, extravagant event salons and, sometimes, luxurious chalet residences on the higher floors.
In the last census in 2001, 74% of El Alto’s residents defined themselves as Aymara, although only 48% spoke the language. Younger generations born or raised in the city have few incentives to use Aymara. Most alteños own their own lots and are constructing houses; the census also found much self-employment and many family-style businesses there.
El Alto has been strengthening an identity distinct from that of La Paz, which residents refer to as “La Hoyada”— the hollows. But together they make up the same metropolis, the largest in the country, so their interdependence is very strong. About 200,000 workers from El Alto travel down to La Paz every day in the thousands of minibuses that ply between the two cities. And another huge quantity of people travel on Sundays in the other direction to the 70-block 16 de Julio open air market that sells everything from needles to Volvos. If La Paz is the political heart of Bolivia, El Alto is still its lungs. The bureaucracy of La Paz is getting old; El Alto is an adolescent in the prime years. At important moments, La Paz and El Alto have united to function as a single body working together on the political future of the country.
But all this only represents half of the key role of El Alto. The other half is the city’s enduring ties to the Aymara altiplano. There’s been no census to determine how many El Alto residents also maintain a place in the countryside, but it is evident that, on the level of individual families, the bonds between city and countryside are very strong. With the exception of a few very inhospitable places, the altiplano has not emptied out, though it has somewhat stagnated, distributing members of its families between the country and the city, as if the city were another socially complementary productive niche (and one that is certainly privileged). This fluidity between city and country taps into the ancestral Andean strategy of combining access to different microclimates in order to guarantee survival.
The concept of “resident” has emerged as a new and very important social category in the countryside; this is the name locals have developed for those who live in the city. Many of these citydwellers organize associations based on place of origin and keep strong ties with their home communities. Family celebrations help seal these ties through rituals that cement exchanges, rights and mutual obligations. These residents know that if they fulfill their sundry communal obligations— including holding communal offices and sponsoring patronal fiestas— they will maintain their rights to the land. With the 1994 Popular Participation Law, rural municipalities have obtained many more resources, and some El Alto residents also run for mayors and councilmen in their home communities. Quite a few rural municipalities even have a second informal seat in the city—which could be the urban home of the mayor—to attend to the needs of residents from the community paisanos.
The rural origins of many of El Alto’s citizens help us to understand the weight of the neighborhood boards known as “juntas vecinales,” from the street leaders and the board of each zone, neighborhood and area to the powerful Federation of Neighborhood Boards of El Alto known by its Spanish acronym as FEJUVE, which brings together more than 500 of these boards; they are the urban version of a rural community. Some neighborhoods were even originally formed by people from the same place or occupation (such as neighborhoods made up of miners). Over the years, even though people from other places came in, the neighborhood was usually controlled by a board whose membership reflected its origins. There is not a sector of El Alto that does not have some neighborhood association. Because of this community structure, even in the midst of the chaos of new neighborhoods that with only basic services are constantly springing up, El Alto does not seem to suffer the anomie that often afflicts other great urban concentrations in the continent.
In spite of many conflicts, sinecures and scams, these neighborhood boards are recognized by everyone as the local authority. Public works, services and even complaints to the municipal authorities or other public agencies about unfulfilled promises are all channeled through these boards. Many times, the juntas vecinales resolve neighborly disputes and organize to put an end to the bad deeds of thieves and gang members. Effigies are hung from lampposts to warn off anyone thinking about stealing. When someone new comes into the neighborhood, they are expected to win their right to living space by visiting the board with a few cases of beer as a gift.
Just like in the countryside, there are fiestas and celebrations going on all the time in El Alto. It is always surprising to see the number of both traditional and new salons for receptions, parties, dinners, dances or worship services. And in spite of the great number of meeting places, the streets are not only for walking. They are also a blatantly public place for celebrating, dancing, selling, blocking vehicles and protesting.
But a city is not quite a collective entity. Unlike in rural communities, there are many people who live in the same zone or even on the same street and do not know each other or participate in the neighborhood assembies. As in any city, relationships are not always based on physical proximity, but on other factors such as jobs, religion, youth groups and studies. Cellphones also facilitate these relations over distance. In this sense, we can talk about traces of anomie here as well.
Taking into account both perspectives—the city of anomie and that of solidarity—and in both directions—towards La Paz and away from it—the city of El Alto operates as an intercultural and catalyzing hinge between La Paz and the altiplano.
The characteristic of being a hinge, a bellows, a fork in the road, in Spanish, bisagra, has strengthened the political importance of El Alto, with back-and forth fluctuations. Since the return of democracy in the 1980s, the electorate has vacillated between rightist and leftist candidates, generally favoring the most populist tendency because of offers of public works and services.
The emergence of Evo Morales and the MAS party has led to an even stronger internal polarization between neighborhoods because of their distinct histories and options. On the one hand, El Alto is characterized as a great revolutionary city, with very ethnic overtones, particularly since October 2003. After the first road blockades came under Army fire in the countryside, El Alto became the great protagonist of the mobilizations. Its residents suffered the most losses of the 60 killed and 400 wounded by the Army’s violent repression; most of the unarmed victims had mobilized around October 12, El Día de la Hispanidad (the date on which Columbus Day is celebrated in the United States.)
After the bloody events, I accompanied a street funeral wake for a girl who had come from the countryside a few months earlier. The crowd helped me up to the terrace roof of her house, where she had stacked up two bricks to be able to see what was happening out there on the avenue. When she peered out, a war bullet pierced her head, leaving a large lock of hair on the other side of the terrace as a witness to its trajectory. A few blocks down the street, another wake was being held in a church for an unidentified youth and an old man whose bodies had been brought there in a wheelbarrow.
Such vicious repression did not make cowards out of the residents of El Alto. They were infuriated. Neighborhood boards organized thousands from El Alto who converged together like a great flood from different points in El Alto to the center of La Paz. It was like a sped-up reiteration of the 1781 anti-colonial action.
This time, many of the residents of La Paz were themselves quite sympathetic to the movement, and others—such as the mining cooperatives—lent direct support. The march was successful. Finally, the Army gave in. President Sánchez de Lozada resigned and fled the country. Since then, the cry of the people from El Alto, “El Alto on its feet, never on its knees” (El Alto de pie, nunca de rodillas) has become consecrated as a popular slogan.
However, other neighborhoods of El Alto simply did not participate. One of the main representatives of this group, the son of El Alto’s first mayor and now an important leader of the domestic opposition group known as Unidad Nacional (UN) considers that these activists described above reflect only “a minority of leaders” who “impose their intolerant decisions” and who “commit excesses in the name of healthy neighborhood corporatism.” After the events of October 2003, USAID—and other organizations—devoted much more money to the mayor’s office for streets and other basic infrastructure. Since 1999, the mayor’s office has been in the hands of populist Pepe Lucho Paredes, a former member of the MIR party (then in the government) who severed his ties with that party after the 2003 events. Paredes marched with the rebels from El Alto and later founded his own party, “Plan Progreso” (PP). In 2004, he was reelected with 53% of the vote, compared to 17% for the MAS candidate; a year later, in December 2005, while 77% of El Alto voted for Evo as president, Pepe Lucho narrowly won public office, as prefect, this time in an alliance with the rightist party PODEMOS, (although this time with a narrow difference with the MAS candidate, 39% vs 38%).
Evo Morales and MAS have continued to dominate the political stage in El Alto: in December 2009, they gained control of more than two-thirds of the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly, with El Alto reelecting the president and his congressional representatives by an astounding 87%, since the four previous years had been filled with bonanzas, subsidies and comparative tranquility.
But cracks began to appear, and by April 2010 the MAS won the mayoralty with a mere 39% of the vote. In the streets, people were talking about having to choose between a “ratero” (thief ), refering to the MAS candidate who finally won, accused of corruption and a “cholero” (a man who goes after “cholitas”), referring to the MSM candidate who years before had been implicated in a scandalous affair. But in the election the biggest surprise was the unknown 30-year-old Soledad “Sole” Chopetón (UN), whose polls were showing at two percent in February but on April 4, garnered 30 percent of the vote—a very respectable second place. A significant number of El Alto residents opted for Sole, because she emphasized that she was a warmi (woman), young and on the fringes of traditional electoral politics.
At the end of 2010, the Evo government surprised everyone with a decree that immediately raised gasoline prices by a whopping 83% without enacting significant compensatory measures for the majority of the population. The president invoked the problem of contraband as a justification for the measure, but even if his reason was probably valid, the gas price hike set off huge increases in transportation and food prices. Huge mass protests erupted, even in those sectors that had been very loyal to Evo’s political process, including El Alto. Only a few of the leaders of the popular movements (mostly in rural areas) accepted his reasoning. But the disenchantment, protests and loss of credibility were so generalized that Evo, one hour before the celebrations of the New Year, revoked the decree in person, declaring the necessity of “governing by obeying the people.” His new stance was that the measures continued to be necessary, but that neither the moment nor the way of putting them into practice were opportune. In the short run, everything calmed down and New Year’s fireworks also celebrated the reversal of the measure. Yet prices of most goods could not be rolled back, nor did it appear possible to return to a state of unconditional love for Evo and his government. Now not only the opposition was marching—much of the popular sector rediscovered that the old style of protests such as marches and road blockages still got them what they wanted.
In April 2011, the previously weakened Bolivian Workers’ Union (COB) called for an indefinite general strike. Its main demand was higher salaries, especially in the areas of health and education. On the hidden agenda of certain leaders was a desire to strengthen their organization internally in the wake of union elections. The workers ended up with some pay increases, but not as much as they had asked for. In this sense, the government was strengthened more than the COB.
Significantly, all the street demonstrations with their noisy miners’ explosives and inevitable confrontations with the police affected only the city of La Paz, although a few of the marches originated in El Alto and included teachers from that city. This time, El Alto was quiet and most schools kept their doors open, unlike the situation in La Paz. “Why?” I asked a group of youth. They answered, “Here, only a few people earn a salary.”
Thus, in spite of government efforts to reverse the unfavorable new situation of higher prices and prevalent protests, Pandora’s box appears to have been opened. It may be impossible to close it.
Xavier Albó is a linguist, anthropologist and Jesuit priest who has lived for many years in El Alto.
Republished from ReVista