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Across the Americas, Indigenous Peoples Make Themselves Heard

October 19, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

EL ALTO, Bolivia — Above the rocky bowl of La Paz, this vast township of brick and adobe homes stretches across a dry plain. This is where the Aymara Indians of western Bolivia come to live and work when their farms can no longer feed them.

For the past week, the hardscrabble order of El Alto gave way to a fervor of rebellion. Armed with the traditional weapons of the Aymara people -- sticks, slingshots and muscle -- its residents fought the army, built barricades and derailed a train, cutting off and shutting down the capital below them.

"We are not going to allow ourselves to be pushed around anymore," said Bernaldo Castillo Mollo, a 37-year-old Aymara bricklayer and jack-of-all-trades who was shot in the foot during the protests. "So that our children have a better life than us, we are willing to die."

The Indian-led movement that brought down Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada last week was only the most recent and startling expression of a growing militancy and political assertiveness among the native peoples of the Americas.

In Ecuador and in Guatemala, indigenous leaders arguably wield more influence in local and national affairs than in any time since the Spanish conquest. And in Chile and Mexico, resistance to the changes brought by the global economy are helping to feed a renaissance of indigenous organizations.

"Everyone thought that globalization would wipe out local identities and cultures," said Alejandro Herrera, a professor at the University of the Frontier in Temuco, in south-central Chile.

"Instead, the opposite has happened. People are embracing their indigenous identities against these outside threats."

In recent years, the Mapuche villages around Temuco have been the site of a smoldering, low-tech war against corporate tree farming that has landed a handful of Mapuche Indian leaders in prison on charges of burning logging trucks.

Similarly, Bolivia's plan to export the country's natural gas reserves through a pipeline to be built by a multinational consortium helped coalesce Indian resentment against a government dominated by politicians of European descent.

Castillo Mollo, the wounded bricklayer, has only a fifth-grade education. Until he moved to El Alto in 1986, he worked the land, growing potatoes and other crops. But like many other residents of El Alto, he is well-steeped in the anti-globalization rhetoric that has swept through Latin America.

"It's not just the gas that we're angry about," Castillo Mollo said from a La Paz hospital ward he shared with a dozen other El Alto residents injured in the uprising. "Look at all the privatization [of government enterprises] and how many people they threw out of work.

"People are going hungry," he said. "In the cities you see people working on the streets in exchange for food."

What Soweto was to the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, El Alto has been to the indigenous movement in modern Bolivia: an overpopulated slum of internal migrants that has been transformed into a caldron of activism.

In El Alto, ideas first expressed by left-leaning economists a decade ago -- that U.S.-inspired economic policies would benefit only a small minority of Latin Americans -- have found fertile ground among the poor.

Brought into the national debate by a handful of Indian and union leaders, they have percolated down to the community's neighborhood assemblies. According to activists and residents, there are more than 150 such assemblies in El Alto, a city of 750,000.

The assemblies are the urban equivalent of traditional Aymara and Quechua communes. All decisions are made by voice vote. The opinions of elders carry additional weight. And all members of the community must carry out responsibilities, such as participating in safety patrols.

"What we're seeing in Bolivia is really a clash between civilizations," between Western individualism and Indian communalism, said Jacqueline Michaux, an anthropologist who has worked in the community.

"In the countryside, all the members of the village work together in the harvest," Michaux said. Similarly, during the conflict in El Alto, "everyone worked together to build the barricades and to feed the marchers who were arriving from out of town. They had to. It was their obligation to the community."

In Mexico, too, indigenous consciousness appears to be gaining momentum, nearly a decade after the Zapatista uprising that first brought worldwide attention to the plight of Mexico's native peoples.

The movement's charismatic leader, Subcommander Marcos, is moving the Zapatistas toward Indian self-rule in the southern state of Chiapas. Zapatista leaders have sworn in five "good government boards" to oversee a scattering of rebel-controlled indigenous communities there.

They set their watches on "Zapatista time," an hour ahead of what they call "Fox time" (after Mexico's president). The Zapatista army seizes drugs, alcohol and illegally cut timber trafficked through its territories.

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