To Be Well Seen: The Cultural Economy of the Urban Poor in Bolivia
Widmark, Charlotta, Ibero-americana
Following the UN Millennium Development Goals, poverty reduction is the overall goal of development cooperation.1 Yet very little is known about poor people's own strategies to mobilize economically, politically, and socially to overcome their own predicament. If we were to follow Amartya Sen's assertion that development is to "expand freedoms" and to give people the capacity to live the life they value, and have a reason to value (1999:18), then we need to explore what life poor people in different places value and what strategies they adopt in order to reach their life expectations (see McNeish, 2005:231).
This article looks at the moral and social dimensions of poverty among urban dwellers in La Paz, and how they manage or resist poverty by both exploiting and contributing to social networks of friends, kin, and ritual kin and/or through development projects aimed at people with scarce resources. In a focus on fiesta participation in Bolivia, I want to try out the thesis of Stephen Gudeman (2001) that economy is something more than market exchanges alone. It is rather about maintaining community, but not with the alleged effect of undermining the conditions for sound markets. Instead, prosperous economic activities are always generated through community. Gudeman's thoughts contrast with the individualist perspective of dominant neoclassical economics and the idea that the market is the prime regulator of the economy. Instead, economies revolve around both market and community. "Community," in Gudeman's terms, refers to "onthe-ground-associations and to imagined solidarities that people experience" (ibid.:1), whereas "market" refers to "anonymous short-term exchanges" (ibid.:1). The market and the community exist in a dialectical long-term relationship since market systems need the support of community, i.e., the shared languages, mutual understandings, and the culturally sanctioned ways of doing things (ibid.: 11). I will argue that in the case I am about to describe, what people do through fiestas (the way community is strengthened through material transactions and spending time together) is one of their ways of creating conditions for the economy to prosper. In order to try out whether it is reasonable to see fiesta making as economic activity it will be important to understand the economic dimensions of social life, to see what the practices are that legitimize authority in the social sphere and what it is that lends prestige and power to the different social agents of the fiesta.
Empirically I rely on the study of a grassroots organization in La Paz, Bolivia, which I have called Wawanakaxa (see Widmark, 2003).2 This organization exemplifies "community" in Gudeman's sense. It was a parents' cooperative that consisted of approximately thirty families organized around a child and youth center. The center was located in a barrio on the fringes of La Paz that I have called Villa Alta, and it received approximately one hundred children between three months and eighteen years of age. The activities of the center were financed by a combination of fees, other income-generating activities, and donations from abroad. Wawanakaxa is an example of the now common networks and urban communities formed to handle and resist the vulnerability of poverty. It was founded in the 1980s, in part by external funding. Created, like many similar organizations, in an attempt to solve a practical problem such as the need for additional incomes, childcare, and education, the network soon began to serve multiple other functions, such as alleviating poverty and providing security, job opportunities, loans, contacts, and possibilities for enhancing social status. Most of the members of Wawanakaxa were bilingual Aymara-Spanish speakers who were first- or second-generation migrants from the rural areas. As such, most of them also had a sense of belonging to a larger Aymara community.
Almost every month there are fiestas to be celebrated in La Paz. …