Bolivian diversity uncovered by culture

Sara Zion

During my stay in urban Bolivia, I lived in a large house and was privileged with my own bedroom, bathroom, and even a sitting room. A domestic servant cleaned the house and served the meals. The family with whom I lived belonged to the upper middle class, but the employment of a servant was not a luxury limited to the upper echelons of society. For instance, I visited a teacher struggling to scrape a living together through her sale of agricultural products, including eggs and milk, after school hours. Nonetheless, a servant also helped her with the chores around the farm. The employment of servants clearly cuts across social classes. The servants, however, do not come from a variety of social classes or even backgrounds. They frequently migrate from a rural area to the city in the hope of a more prosperous life. The domestic employees tend to be females who are often young and are always of an indigenous background.

Bolivia’s two-tier social system that favors those of European ancestry over indigenous people creates a racist society in which the visitor is bound to feel tension. I endured complaints about the trials of employing an indigenous servant from my host mother. According to her, indigenous servants are completely undependable and for this reason it’s an act of charity to hire them, especially in the case of their particular servant. The mother claimed that the servant was mentally retarded, since she could only speak a few words in Spanish and her comprehension of the language was utterly hopeless. I, however, had absolutely no trouble communicating with the servant in Spanish.

Besides witnessing racism towards indigenous people, I also experienced difficulties in reconciling my lifestyle involving a strong education and material luxuries with that of the indigenous people inhabiting rural areas. On two separate occasions, I lived in a world still characterized by the indigenous language, Quechua, the traditional skirts of the women called polleras, and agriculture—a world cut off from daily newspapers and television news reports.

My first host family was fascinated that I was not from Bolivia and had made my way to the country by airplane. It took me a long time to become accustomed to the ages of the father and the mother, who had two children and were 21 and 20 years old, respectively. Even though I was the same age, I would have no chance of surviving in their world. I felt completely inadequate in their eyes. I was bombarded with questions: What kind of crops do you grow in your town? Do you know how to harvest potatoes? Do you know how to weave? Do you know how to make fried bread? My answer to all of their questions was a resounding “no,” to the puzzlement of my hosts.

I could not adequately describe to them the cities of the United States from which farming is absent, or the norms of life that involve entry into college at the age of eighteen. None of us Lawrentians would be able to tend to crops from the time the sun rises to the time that the sun sets! My host family was astonished by my literacy in both English and Spanish. At the family’s request, I spent the afternoon reading out loud from the few written accounts scattered around their dwelling, which included a calendar with descriptions of nature scenes in English and a manual on birth control in Spanish.

They were impressed by my knowledge of these two languages. I, in turn, was surprised by the linguistic situation in Bolivia’s rural areas. Before traveling to Bolivia, I had expected to feel like a foreigner because of difficulty communicating in Spanish. Instead, I faced difficulties because my knowledge of Spanish seemed almost useless in an environment where there were few bilingual speakers of Spanish and one of Bolivia’s many indigenous languages. Rather, the indigenous inhabitants of rural areas that accounts for seventy percent of the Bolivian population generally speak a native language, such as Quechua or Aymara.

The extent to which these indigenous languages remain intact today is unbelievable when, after four centuries, the legacy of the Spanish intent on wiping out the culture of the indigenous people still survives. The future of the indigenous languages, however, is precarious. Studies, for instance, predict that Quechua will become extinct within another century. I found evidence to support this assessment when I conducted a field-study at a rural school where the majority of the students’ parents demanded a curriculum only taught in Spanish instead of the bilingualism that had been required under national law since 1994.

The parents, for the most part, viewed Spanish as a prestigious language while they saw Quechua as a disadvantage. Quechua would not allow their children to continue their educations, since the nearest high schools as well as universities only offered classes in Spanish. Their children could not migrate to the popular Bolivian city, Santa Cruz, or to Argentina with only knowledge of Quechua.

These were the dreams that parents had for their children. One parent poignantly explained that their children cannot remain like them. Spanish was seen as an answer to their problems, a way to escape from the impoverished countryside where the schools lacked adequate resources.

One of the richest parts of my Bolivian experience involved regularly moving between urban and rural areas, which accentuated the economic and cultural differences of the Bolivian people. As the program neared its end, I spent the weekends in Cochabamba, where the streets bustled with public buses along with an unprecedented number of taxis and the countless market vendors who lined the sidewalks. During the rest of the week, I lived in the country, where silence reigned over the adobe dwellings with thatched straw roofs and majestic mountains occupied by grazing livestock loomed in the background.

I am still amazed that this experience paralleled the culture shock that I experienced when I returned to the United States. If I had not been able to live in either of these settings, I feel that I would not have gotten a complete picture of the Bolivian people. If there are in fact cultural characteristics that define all Bolivians, I did not grasp them during my visit to Bolivia.