El Alto is an intense city, so close to the sun that its rays crack the skin. There, the culture and indigenous laws are imposed almost like commandments.
Its one million inhabitants exceed the population of La Paz, a few meters below, within a chalk-colored ravine.
TO 4,000 meters high, oxygen is so ethereal that the body curls into a ball and breathing is just a matter of faith.
View of the hillside that connects El Alto with La Paz, and the cable car. (AFP
In its streets, with disdain, the “Yatiri” they still do their incantation in mystical ceremonies. On this barren plain, the Aymara ritual “masters” decipher the future in magical dreamlike visions, embedded in ancient traditions.
Along a dry dirt and gravel street they stand side by side, trying to attract customers. Braziers they burn scented woods whose smoke “cleanses” the soul of believers, and blackens that of the disbelievers.
In one of the stalls a woman is captivated by the gentle words of the teacher, who delicately bites a premonitory egg. She runs her finger around, as directed, and he interprets his luck, which is never chance, but pure destiny.
Aymara priests burn offerings during a ceremony in honor of the Pachamama, on the Jacha Jilarata mountain, outside El Alto. (AP)
Next to it, a couple take a ladle with melted tin and throw it into cold water. An amorphous figure emerges, a source of inspiration for the yatiri. Each fissure or bulge has a meaning, which outlines the keys of life. Cosmological dimensions that only they can see.
There are those who use alcohol to achieve their visions, those who prefer cigarette smoke and those who appeal to the secret that the letters hide. But the greatest spell passes through the coca leaves, a source of enchantment hidden in the culture of the highlands.
A migrant population swelled the town of this high plateau in the second half of the last century. Miners from Potosí and Oruro, peasants from the Yungas, Titicaca and Chapare.
A heterogeneous population gave foundation and awareness, and nurtured the colonial memory of indigenous blood. That is why a syncretism emanates between the catholic and the pagan, and draws a parable between the native and modernity.
Defiant politics and fiery assemblies
But the Aymara community underlies everything, without fanfare drags a solid rebellion, and a non-negotiable independence.
Conservative leaders know this, such as Jeanine Añez, who in 2019 had the Senkata hydrocarbon plant blocked to show her indignation with the government and her defense of Evo Morales. The ten dead from the repression was almost an offering of loyalty. Blood that watered values, which are respected today.
So does Evo, whose origin and power emanated from that source. Several times they confronted him when his laws or his candidates did not convince. And they let him know, not always in a good way.
Its internal organization in neighborhood meetings is legendary. Since its inception the population of El Alto entrusted its community defense to the “zonal commandos”, self-managed neighborhood groups.
Something like the role of the State, without the State.
Protest in El Alto against the government of Jeanine Añez for delaying the elections in August 2020. (EFE)
Political parties and unions tried to capture them, but El Alto remains faithful to his memory, and to the deep Andean imprint. They prefer political distance, to the perks of occasion.
Less than two years ago, when social pressure slowly expelled Añez, the people of El Alto assembled their assemblies to decide as a people, and face him.
“El Alto has stood up, Mr. Journalist. Our first claim is that that Mrs. Añez leave. None of us recognize her as our president. Nobody, ”Rosmary told Clarín’s chronicler in November 2019.
What had begun a week ago with barricades and protests, turned into a rabid crowd that felt displaced by the interim government of Añez, which insisted on making a difference and delaying the call for elections.
The indigenous council was beating. The crowd on Avenida Panoramica, where the 14 districts of the populous city met, swirled, formed circles, gave their opinions. Burning political phrases, on lips cracked from chewing coca.
With the arrival of the columns of the different districts, each one waving its Wiphala flags (the indigenous multi-colored flag), the people exploded in applause and cheers.
There are many and they know it. And they also know that The people of La Paz tremble every time they go down to the center of the city, to the circle of power in Plaza Murillo, making their demands resound.
Instead of fireworks, small sticks of dynamite boomed deafeningly at every moment.
March after an assembly in El Alto, Bolivia. (AFP)
Evo was the figure, they forgave him almost everything. Underlying the idea that it strengthened the idiosyncrasy of the Aymara people, that they asserted their rights, and that feeling permeates every space in this Andean city.
“Evo gave us everything. With it we recover our identity, Our values. Now the Wiphala is respected, the poncho is respected, the coya skirt is respected, ”says Venicio Ramos, who made his way just to say that phrase.
But not everything is praise and celebration. Indulgently, Evo’s figure was also questioned at the time. Some consider that by resigning, in that confusing episode of 2019, he left them.
March against Jeanine Añez in El Alto. (AFP)
“Evo has left for his safety. But he must be present here. He must not abandon us. He should come here with the Alteños. And that he calls for the new elections ”, remarks Jaime, with rough skin and eloquent gesture. And he finished off with a warning: “Only then will the people calm down.”
The assembly was a whirlwind unto itself. In groups of 15, 20 people argued, opined, crossed political lines. A rarity in this “liquid modernity” of volatile relationships, fragile. They are more like the Soviet of Lenin or Trotsky.
El Alto has its codes, and they are more respected than the laws. Governments let go, condescending.
Fair, trade and smuggling
Commerce is the very life of the community, smuggling the essence.
Two days a week, Thursdays and Sundays, El Alto is transformed. It opens its gigantic fair, where it is sold and bought without asking. More of 10,000, stalls across 100 blocksThey offer an unfathomable variety of products.
Vendors of the freeze-dried potato vendors “chuno”, in one of the markets of El Alto. (AP)
There is the current and the archaic, the authentic and the apocryphal, the apparent and the real. You just have to choose, with subtle complacency and business acumen.
It is considered the second largest fair in South America, where transactions easily reach several million dollars. Their prices surprise as much as the products, and the color is a challenge to the senses.
The luxury of the “Cholet”
The fluid trade was outlining an indigenous bourgeoisie with high purchasing power. The Alto grows and develops thanks to this inertia. It is built in every space and in every hole. Many buildings exceed five or six stories.
A “cholet” stands out on the block, intertwining modern architecture and Aymara tradition. (AP)
It even has its tourist space. In recent years, in some sectors, the “Cholet”, luxury buildings that reach seven floors.
Its name is short for cholo -mestizo population- and chalet. It is a unique architectural style, with strong colors, fluorescent, reflecting the texture of Andean fabrics.
Its creator is Freddy mamani, the famous self-taught architect. It was inspired by the Andean construction where geometric figures proliferate, with large windows.
The interior of a “cholet” used for parties in El Alto. (AP)
The “Cholet” became icons of the Aymara bourgeoisie, whose members are the only ones who can pay them: lifting one costs between $ 250,000 and $ 600,000.
The ceremonial masters have a secret for the construction of the buildings: bury in the foundations the fetus of a flame. The yatiris assure that this will bring well-being and wealth.
There are no tools of conviction, only the certainty of faith in these ethnic groups, inheritors of the Tiahuanaco culture, and of the hurtful Spanish conquest. They maintain a living religiosity where the divinities are sources of energy.
In this arid plateau, 4,000 meters high, the yatiris continue to work their magic in atavistic ceremonies, of dreamlike visions and fiery political assemblies.