AuthorSierra, Luis M.
PositionLa Paz, Bolivia - Report


Bolivia's working-class and ethnic-based activism has a long and distinguished history. (1) This history is often examined in the context of land dispossession and the oppression of rural indigenous people or as part of labor and working-class activism in Bolivia's mines. In this essay, I examine the ways migrants to La Paz transformed the city politically, socially, and physically. Residents truly built their own neighborhoods, negotiating with the government for infrastructure and services they needed. In so doing, they worked in tandem with city and national government officials to create what I refer to as a negotiated modernity.

The so-called indigenous neighborhoods were home to recent indigenous migrants from rural areas, urban transplants from other cities, and mixed-race and socially and economically diverse populations born in La Paz. (2) To call them "indigenous neighborhoods" is somewhat misleading, and yet this is the label by which they were known, partly because they were so strongly associated with Bolivia's indigenous populations. Geographically, these neighborhoods had once been traditional indigenous villages, and many of the migrants (though by no means all) were of an indigenous background. (3) In addition, the activists living in indigenous neighborhoods employed many of same strategies labor activists--many of whom were also indigenous--used in the mines and indigenous activists used in the countryside.

In the twentieth century, Bolivia, like much of Latin America, experimented with liberalism and populism and experienced a nationalist revolution. One of the pivotal moments of the century was the Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay, which Paraguay won. The social, political, and economic aftermath of the war laid bare the racial discrimination inherent in Bolivian society and drew attention to the possibility of class-based social reforms. After the war, the national discourse on race changed to open a pathway to political participation for indigenous people. This change coincided with the urbanization of La Paz. Residents of indigenous neighborhoods became activists who seized the opportunity to build their neighborhoods as part of the modern Bolivia that political elites envisioned.

Postwar neighborhood associations drew on networks that had been formed before the war. The Villa Potosi Neighborhood Association, which was originally settled by migrants from Potosi province, illustrates the evolution of indigenous neighborhoods and the activism of indigenous residents. Justo Roman, the president of the association in 1945, recounted how it grew out of the neighborhoods Catholic lay brotherhood, which coordinated the yearly May 4 celebrations to commemorate the Intervention of the Holy Cross. In early 1940, Villa Potosi's residents organized a "true neighborhood association with a new mission to bring progress to the neighborhood." (4) Postwar neighborhood associations, Roman said, let the government "know the sad conditions in which the worker lives and [that] he is the true nerve and muscle of the nation." (5) The language Roman used linked the worker, the "nerve and muscle" of the body politic, with the health and progress of the nation as a whole.

In Bolivia, lay religious organizations and craft-based unions were a source of popular urban activism and political participation in the first half of the twentieth century. Lay brotherhoods, unions, and neighborhood associations brought together a diverse group of residents who identified variously as indigenous and as workers. Before the Chaco War, these institutions held meetings, organized petition campaigns, and called strikes in order to assert the rights of residents, pressure government institutions, and claim membership in the Bolivian nation. These tactics have a long history in Bolivia and remain important tools in the repertoire of politically marginal groups in Bolivia. (6) Even though some historians argue that the war constituted a major rupture in Bolivia's history, there was great continuity in the organizing work brotherhoods and unions did before and after the war. (7)

After the war, the military social governments, inspired by fascism in Europe, made laws and promulgated decrees that stipulated that corporate institutions be created to represent groups of people before the government. This led to the creation of various bodies. During the military socialist dictatorships of Col. David Toro Ruilova (1936-1937) and Col. German Busch Becerra (1937-1939), neighborhood associations developed FEDJUVE (Federation de Juntas Vecinales; the Federation of Neighborhood Associations) to demand goods and services from the city government. (8) From the late 1930s through the 1950s, FEDJUVE was the umbrella institution that mediated between residents and local and national political structures. (9)

The associations skillfully pushed urban leaders to follow through on their stated agenda of making La Paz a modern city. Together, neighborhood activists and urban officials forged what can be seen as a negotiated modernity, one that was not strictly imposed from above but was negotiated from below by activists who had their own reasons for wanting to better their neighborhoods. The desire of social and political elites to create a modern nation and a modern city was rooted in a longer process of building a coherent and unified nation out of Bolivia's diverse population. The desire to overcome racial divisions, poverty and its associated diseases, and backwardness drove the government's push for modernization. After the Chaco War, La Paz's elites shifted from a focus on beautification and projects in the city center to a more comprehensive project of creating infrastructure and remodeling the city.

Indigenous neighborhood residents pushed government officials toward this shift with their demands for infrastructure and services in their neighborhoods. In the period 1936 to 1952, urban leaders focused on a holistic plan that saw the city as connected. During this period, municipal elites saw the city as a "living and integral organism." Mayor Munoz Cornejo argued that the city's housing and its markets "must function in an ordered fashion and should be clean" and that the infrastructure "should be remade and its proper functioning ensured" for the benefit of the entire city. (10) The political importance of the indigenous neighborhoods increased because of these goals.

In the post-Chaco War period, military socialist dictators oversaw the professionalization of urban bureaucracies. The military socialist and subsequent governments also made sure that some municipal public servants stayed in office. The longevity of their service helped these men implement urban planning programs that included massive additions to urban infrastructure, including building roads, providing electricity and potable municipal water, channeling the valley's rivers underground, constructing sewer systems, and building new markets. (11) The city government's postwar modernization project coincided with rapid growth that included an explosion of the population living in indigenous neighborhoods.


In early twentieth-century Latin America, indigenous people's capacity for political participation was undermined by the discourse of racial exclusion. In Guatemala, indigenous peoples were considered legal minors and were required to carry work papers or risk being forced to work in sugar cane fields in the lowlands. (12) In nineteenth-century Mexico, governments eroded communal landholding rights and marginalized indigenous peoples politically. After the revolution, the revalorization of Indians focused on the great civilizations of the past (the Aztecs and Mayas) and sought investment in education to prepare the Indian of the present for assimilation into the "cosmic race." (13) Similarly, in Bolivia the discourse of indigenous incapacity and inability was a legacy of nation-state formation in the nineteenth century. Bolivia's Creole elites answered questions about indigenous peoples' intellectual and political capacities with empty platitudes of liberal equality that failed to hide the real politics of exclusion and marginalization. In addition to these long-term issues, the 1899 Civil War, in which Bolivia's Liberal Party elites betrayed Aymara allies, helped shape portrayals of indigenous peoples as savages. (14)

It is true that Bolivia's defeat in the Chaco War engendered a fundamental transformation of the nation's political organization and discourse, but it is important to acknowledge that those changes were limited. (15) The Chaco War and its memory catalyzed a series of transformations that took place in the period from 1936 to the outbreak of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) revolution in 1952. As political and social leaders began to expound the discourses of classism and nationalism, a middle-class movement developed that sought to replace and reorganize Bolivia's political structures in ways that excluded certain elements of the traditional Creole political elite. (16) Reformists among Bolivia's political and intellectual elite began to see the structure of the nation's economy and political system as the reason why Paraguay was able to win the war. Their analysis suggested that Bolivia had lost because its political leaders had neglected its indigenous peoples and then sent poorly trained, uneducated Bolivians into a war that slaughtered them. In this analysis, Bolivia had allowed its out-of-touch traditional politicians and elites to avoid service in the war and their blunders had led to defeat. (17) For reformist elites, defeat in the Chaco War was a consequence of Bolivia's racial divide, a direct effect of Creole elites' failure to incorporate indigenous peoples into their definition of the nation. In order to address the structural inequality that...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT