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Nathaniel Loewentheil

Nathaniel Loewentheil

Posted: December 27, 2009 01:59 PM

Bolivia: One Llama's Great Incan Adventure

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"We dedicate this animal to Pacha Mama, and ask for a year filled with health and prosperity," the mayor prayed. Four men lifted the bleating llama on to the rock and held her down. The cut was swift and deep, and blood gushed from the neck. I'd never seen an animal slaughtered before, and couldn't quite believe just how much it bled - think Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2. The viscous liquid literally pooled across the ground.

As the legs slowly stopped kicking, the llama was flipped over. I could tell the town's leader had some experience with these ceremonies - he cut a small hole in the chest, peeled back the skin, plunged his hand in to the elbow and came out immediately with the fading heart. "Ha-ya-ya," the small assembly shouted in support, as the organ was reverentially placed on the coal fire smoldering alongside the broad, flat rock. A local elder dipped his finger in the blood, and gave each of the men a fingerprint on the forehead. Drinks were poured out to Pacha Mama - mother earth - and then the party resumed. Chicha (a Bolivian corn mash) was shared round, as young musicians struck up beats on tanned drums and flutes and reached into the communal stash of coca leaves. If it had not been for the eagerly-wielded camcorders, Nike-emblazoned t-shirts and Coke bottles being shared among the children, I might have believed I was in the midst of an Incan festival.

The scene was all the more dramatic for the surroundings - three hours south of Cochabamba, we were in a large, sparsely populated valley deep en el campo (the countryside). A few hundred feet below us, the remains of the bonfire from the previous night's party still smoldered amidst a small clearing populated with ramshackle tents and lean-tos. On the plateau around us were the remains of a large Incan city - some 2000 people had called the valley home five hundred years ago, and large sections of buildings stood extant. Besides the village ran a deep ravine, in to which fell a stunning 20-meter waterfall. Tall mountains surrounded the valley, running for a hundred kilometers in every direction.

"We are here to celebrate a new year and to bring luck for the seasons ahead," the mayor continued, blood-stained and heart-smoked. "And we are blessed to be able to do so during a historical moment of change led by our own president Evo Morales. Today, we can all take pride in the heritage of los pueblos originarios and embrace their relationship to mother earth - a relationship that provides us with an alternative vision to the capitalism that threatens our traditions, our communities and our world."

I had heard a few of these speeches over the last 12 hours. We'd reached the gathering around 9 pm the night before, spending the last hour of the trip navigating our way along the dirt track that covered the last few dozen kilometers from the highway (I use the term generously) to the remote site. It was a miracle we'd made it at all; we had to deboard our ancient sedan to ford multiple rivers that flooded across the narrow path, which I was sure we're going to sweep the car downstream. Crossing an ancient log bridge lit only by the meager light of our cell phone screens and shivering in the cold country air, I had nearly regretted agreeing to the adventure; all 8 people who'd squeezed in to the car were guilty of not only gross vehicular negligence but of a noteworthy lack of preparation [predictably, my camera ran out of batteries five pictures into the evening].

Despite the mishaps, the party was only just beginning when we finally arrived, and lasted through hours of darkness, gallons of booze and a thunderstorm that graced the valley from 4 to 8 am. While the party had itself been an unforgettable blur of dancing and shadows, it was that moment of sacrifice that best encapsulated the flavor of the festival, a blend of equal parts ancient tradition, questionable historical and cultural narratives and political rhetoric (add alcohol, coca and tobacco to taste).

The night before, over cups of chicha, a local guide had explained that the ceremony, which was marking its 14th anniversary, was to celebrate the traditions of the Incans who had lived in the ancient town. From its heights, they had ruled the surrounding region, employing innovative farming methods and spreading their language and religious practices.

I was surprised neither to hear the story, nor to detect the note of pleasure in his voice when he implied that his townsfolk were the inheritors of these noble traditions. The desire to trace one's lineage back to pre-Spanish Andean empires has spread widely among the campesino communities of Bolivia's west and central regions over the last few decades, and with it a sense of historical pride in their (possible) forebear's accomplishments. The shift towards eagerly embracing these lines descent can be traced back to the early 1970s, when campesino social movements -- composed of rural farmers, miners and workers, of both native and mestizo descent -- began emphasizing the history of indigenous civilization as a powerful source of identity for the people of the countryside. Building on the practices and stories that survived - or emerged from -- hundreds of years of cultural intermixture, oppression, and natural evolution, social movement leaders constructed a powerful narrative of origin from which to build cultural pride and political power.

Las historias de los pueblos orginarios (historias translates as both story and history) blend together the accomplishments of both the Incan and Mayan empires with those of other regional tribes and peoples. Distinctions are rarely made among these incredibly diverse ethnic, religious, geographic and cultural groups; "pueblos originarios" is an all-encompassing term-of-art. The narrative highlights the advanced agricultural technology, astronomical knowledge and organization of the various indigenous groups. The most important theme, though, which threads through all the tribal strands and binds them together, is the ancestral relationship of balance with Pacha Mama.

Historically, the emphasis on the organic connection to nature and her gifts provided a sense of pride to campesinos about their land and its cultivation. More recently, social movements have also turned to the tradition of respect for nature as a model for Bolivia's future, confronted as the plurination is with not only a history of resource extraction and exploitation but the accelerating impacts of climate change (as highlighted in a recent New York Times article). Much of the rhetoric that carried Evo Morales to power was derived from this story - his recent attacks on capitalism at Copenhagen, for example, reference both a historical balance with Mother Earth and the effort of Bolivians to recover this sustainable relationship with nature.

Like all historical narratives of identity, the darker sides of the region's history - of internecine warfare, human sacrifice and brutal empire building - are carefully ignored. Or, sometimes, like in the case of my radical friend Inti denied completely and attributed to the revisionist European historians. While its seems pretty clear that the Incans did engage in human sacrifice, there is plenty of revisionism to go around on both sides.

Campesino traditions today both pull from these shared historical accounts and continue to inform them. Before one drinks from a bucket of chicha - it is always drunk communally - a few drops are spilled to Pacha Mama. On the first Friday of each month, kohas - small sacrifices of coca leaves, incense, and the occasional baby llama fetus - are burnt to express thanks for the blessings from the earth. Coca is chewed not only for energy but also as an act of cultural demarcation. Like many such cultural markers, these practices are also deeply political. But because of the history of oppression of the indigenous populations - of both rights and customs -- social movement and their leaders draw little distinction between the cultural and the political, between social and social movement. One of the founding documents of the campesino movement, El Manifesto de Tiahuanacu, made this point explicitly in 1973:

Our culture is of first importance...the systematic attempt to destroy...cultures is the source of the nation's frustrations...We campesinos want economic development, but it must spring from our own values. We do not want to give up our noble inherited integrity in favor of a pseudo development... Campesino participation has not been achieved because campesino culture has not been respected or its character understood...We must incorporate new technology and modernize while not breaking with our past...If they are to liberate the campesinos, political movements should be organized and planned with our cultural values in mind.

To be sure, indigenity remains far more complex than any single political narrative can capture, and pueblos originarios does not fully capture the identity of any Bolivian. Each of the 36 distinct ethnic groups recognized by the constitution have their own sets of traditions, and many speak their own language. The Aymarans consider themselves Aymarans first, and the Quechuans Quechuan. But this complicated interplay of ethnicity and culture is exactly what created a need for a more universal notion of original people, and it was this notion that allowed the campesino political movements to build - and ultimately seize -- power. To describe oneself as pueblo originario - or to sacrifice a llama to Pacha Mama, as the case may be -- is less to say something specific about ethnicity or descent and more to stake out a political position and make a socio-cultural claim. But exactly because of the broad nature of that claim, and the racial intermixing of much of the population, it is one that a large majority of Bolivians are entitled to make -- or soundly reject.

The sacrifice concluded and the barrels of chicha emptied, the locals had a final meal before dismantling the speaker system, packing up their tents in their trucks and heading back to the neighboring villages. It was Monday morning and time to go to work.