Academic journal article Journal of Global South Studies

The Indigenous Neighborhoods of la Paz Urbanization, Migration, and Political Activism in la Paz, 1920-1947

Academic journal article Journal of Global South Studies

The Indigenous Neighborhoods of la Paz Urbanization, Migration, and Political Activism in la Paz, 1920-1947

Article excerpt


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. …

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