Bolivia’s indigenous people flaunt their new-found wealth
Andres Schipani. Financial Times. December 4, 2014
It is more than 20 years since Rosalío Vera left Bolivia to seek his fortune in the bright lights of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. But Vera, an Aymara whose indigenous ethnic forebears were ruled by the Incas, then the Spanish, found success only when he returned two years ago to his home town El Alto, a sprawling city on the windswept high plateau above Bolivia’s capital, La Paz.
“Argentina is not doing very well – there’s inflation, devaluation,” says Vera, now a clothes merchant. “Here in Bolivia the situation is stable – that is why I returned. You can do businesses in any area here now. And you can do very well.”
He is using his riches to build himself a six-storey mansion – in keeping with a new affluence and assertiveness that is emerging among Bolivians generally and, in particular, an ethnic group that has been marginalised for generations.
The Andean country has long been associated with poverty. Europe-centric Argentinians tend to look down on the Bolivians – up to 300,000 of them – living in their country. But the tide is turning, and buildings constructed in the style of the “New Andean Architecture” are an increasingly visible sign of that change.
Bolivia’s gross domestic product per capita grew from about $1,000 eight years ago to $2,700 last year, according to the finance ministry. And the UN Development Programme says 1.2m people – out of a total population of 10.7m – joined the ranks of Bolivia’s middle class between 2006 and 2012. All that has fuelled a consumer boom, which is reflected in the proliferation of shopping centres across the country.
The growing number of people with more money in their pockets to spend is coupled with a new sense of pride among indigenous people. The Aymara owners of the colourful mansions are former peasants who have turned stalls and small businesses into riches and are not afraid to show off.
“There is now a vision of having a better life, of being willing to spend a little more, of buying cars, better houses,” says Kurt Koenigsfest, chief executive of BancoSol, a commercial bank that was originally set up solely to offer small microfinance loans to the very poor.
This economic confidence is a fundamental shift, says Mamani Silvestre. “Through architecture we are showcasing our culture, our essence,” he says. “Things have changed; there has been a revolution. Now, with the arrival of our president, Evo Morales, our culture is being brought to the frontline. One can now say: ‘I have money – I can do this if I want to.’” Reviewing the green and orange colours of the decorative mouldings for Vera’s cholet, Mamani Silvestre explains that his mansions usually have six or seven storeys, and nearly three-quarters are specified with lifts. The visual effect blends pre-Inca Tiwanaku culture and the strident colours of Andean textiles.
These buildings are altering the landscape of El Alto, their ornamented and brightly coloured façades slowly replacing cinder block and tin-roof structures and contrasting with the snowcapped peaks overlooking the city.
But these mansions are not just about ostentation. In each the ground floor is usually a store or warehouse that is rented out, the floors above might have restaurants or ballrooms, often a sporting facility such as an indoor football pitch, topped by apartments that are rented out, and on the top floor is the owner’s home.
The buildings “have to keep generating income”, Koenigsfest explains. Which is necessary – Mamani Silvestre says the average price is about $250,000 and some cost up to $500,000 – a small fortune in what, despite its increasing wealth, remains one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
Some critics mutter about how smuggling and drug trafficking are financing part of the cholet boom, as Bolivia is the world’s third-largest cocaine producer. But Carlos Toranzo, a La Paz-based political economist, says the trend is part of a much broader phenomenon. “With this economic boom there is an important presence of new businesspeople,” he says, “business people that come from the Aymara world and who control the trading channels. This also speaks about economic and social inclusion.”
Bolivian finance minister Luis Arce, credited by many for his country’s economic advances, is more forthright. “Everyone has the opportunity to become rich in Bolivia, because today’s economy is for everybody,” he says.
That is apparent down the hill from El Alto in the upmarket neighbourhood of Calacoto in La Paz, where renowned Danish chef Claus Meyer, creator and co-founder of Copenhagen’s accoladed Noma, opened a restaurant last year.
Gustu, which means flavour in the Quechua language widely spoken by indigenous people in the Andes, is a restaurant and cookery school that serves a tasting menu made completely out of Bolivian produce for prices that would have made locals roll their eyes only a few years ago – $140 for a 15-course meal including wine from the growing number of local vineyards.
“If there is a country with potential, that is Bolivia,” says Kamilla Seidler, Gustu’s head chef. Most of her students are ethnically indigenous, but she admits that “we still need to lure indigenous people into the restaurant” as customers.
It looks likely to happen, though. Rising disposable income and increased confidence among indigenous people have already made inroads into other areas such as fashion.
Many cholitas, or Andean indigenous women, have rediscovered the allure of their distinctive voluminous skirts, imposed centuries ago by Spanish colonisers, and the bowler hats allegedly brought to this area by British railroad workers in the early 1900s.
“Years ago the indigenous skirt-wearing women were discriminated against,” says Rosario Aguilar, a model agency manager and fashion retail entrepreneur.
Through architecture we are showcasing our culture, our essence. things have changed
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At her modelling school in the centre of La Paz, two dozen young cholitas learn the tricks of strutting down the catwalk. They have emerged from oppression to find panache. “Today, these women are businesswomen, micro-entrepreneurs, artisans, merchants,” says Aguilar. “Today, they can indulge in the luxury of dressing up with the best outfit they can find.”
And a cholita outfit can be pricey. The skirt may cost up to $100. The shawl, if it is made of ultra-soft vicuña wool, costs more than $2,000. The bowler, worn on top of braided hair, ranges from $43 to $144 if made in Bolivia, but the original Italian Borsalino hat costs $500, she says. Then there are the accessories.
Eli Mendizábal, owner of Andean Jewels, a small shop that designs and crafts its own bling and serves exclusively the demanding skirt-wearing women of La Paz, says that in a month packed with religious feasts, when ostentatious displays of expensive fashion take centre stage, she could earn as much as $40,000.
“The usual jewellery set of a skirt-wearing woman has a pin for the bowler, a pair of earrings, a brooch and often rings and a necklace,” she says. “When the customer is demanding and wants gold and encrusted precious stones, they could pay up to $25,000 for the lot.”
That amount of ostentation carries risks, though, and during festivities some women have a bodyguard or two in tow to ward off thieves. But Aguilar points out how much that too signals a change in indigenous people’s fortunes. “Those are the kind of luxuries these women can afford now,” she says.
As her models swagger round a dance studio, clacking their short heels on the wooden floor while practising their swings for an upcoming fashion show, the young Elizabeth Mamani (a common name in the Aymara community) wears a glitzy green designer version of the shawl and flouncy skirt – a high-fashion treat unthinkable only a few years ago.
She says her family is now well enough off for her to have 50 polleras, or pleated skirts, in her wardrobe.
“Today you’ll find pollera women in powerful positions – they have money, they have pride and I want to follow on those footsteps,” says the aspirant model. “Maybe one day I can have all of my skirts hanging in a dressing room in a colourful mansion of my own.”