Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Man, I feel like a womyn"


Just another 20-hour day in Bolivia (14 hours of work, 6 hours of play). Yeah, that whole balance thing is going really well. It began with our usual breakfast feast of freshly baked empanadas (meat or cheese), salteñas (the sweet and messy breakfast version of an empanada), apple strudel, juice, coca tea, and a whole bag of the same (unheated) to carry with us to El Alto to eat on the hoof for lunch. A thousand vertical feet later we were careening through our fourth day of blitzkrieg fieldwork. At the (Women's) Citizen Action headquarters, our delightful contact and now friend Norah Quispe met with us for the third time and, as she was not entirely satisfied that we were talking to the right people, took the liberty of calling them all up and inviting them to come meet with us all in one place at the same time. Quite the gift. By today (Thursday) we had already begun to follow up with individual interviews with several of these community leaders, but having them all come to us at once was a huge time saver, as we only had to explain ourselves and win their trust once (which is more time-consuming in Bolivia than in Peru or Ecuador, chiefly because the Alteños have had such a brutal time and have wisely learned to trust slowly). When the tape recorder comes out, the eyebrows go up. Just wait until we try the iPod/iTalk digital recorder!

Our meeting with the Colectivo de Mujeres (Women's Collective) was extremely powerful. Beginning in May 2003, these women have organized themselves in protest of the sale of natural gas, stating that it threatens the future of their children. They worked hard to inform the public about the issue, putting flyers under doors and putting up graffiti slogans in the dead of night. Slowly, Altenos (people from El Alto) began to realize the significance of the sale of natural gas (and natural resources in general) and how it further threatens Bolivia's ability to be an autonomous nation. The actions of the women (along with other groups such as the FEJUVE and the COR) resulted in the famous mobilizations of October 2003, during which time all of El Alto worked to shut down both El Alto and La Paz. During this time, about 80 Altenos were killed by soldiers, there was very little food, and no access to medicine. Many of the women of the Colectivo received threats and one woman was almost beaten to death by an angry mob. In the face of vast repression and scarcity of much needed resources, the citizens of El Alto banded together, creating community food kitchens in order to feed the children and using ingenuity to fight against the attacking soldiers. We learned of how the women from the Colectivo made their own bombs and how people brought whatever they could think of into the streets in order to make blockades.

At the end of October, after a month of community resistance against natural resource exploitation (and a terrible government in general), President Sanchez de Lozada fled from the national palace to the U.S.

I think we all left feeling extremely overwhelmed at the power and intelligence of these seemingly harmless women. Exploitative governments, watch out!

It was a full, long day, and we already had an evening full of plans ahead of us when Norah invited us to the Sagrada Coca dance concert. Sagrada Coca is a group of women from La Paz who do traditional Aymara dances and play music. The performance included interpretations of the various traditions used to greet different seasons. At the end of the concert, we went on stage and danced with everyone. Very good fun.

After the Sagrada Coca show, we went to dance salsa (mixed in with techno and dancehall music) at a bar that was full of tourists but still a very good time. We left at 2:15am to Shania Twain singing "Man, I feel like a woman." Indeed, indeed.

Wednesday: Making Lemonade from Lemons Requires a Decent Night's Sleep

So, after four fantastic days of fieldwork, we more or less met our match with going to sleep at 3 am and getting up at 7 am. Today's fieldwork actually had some great successes to it, including our most emotionally profound interview yet (involving state and para-military violence), but overall I'd say it took us 10 hours to get 5 hours of work done, instead our usual reversal of those figures. A lot of little things went wrong, like failing to tape part of an interview, wasting time waiting for people because we neglected to call and confirm an hour ahead of time (which no one expects, but it is the only way to make things happen on time), and a few other minor but time-consuming mistakes. In our style of field work, this kind of thing happens a dozen times a day, but the difference is that usually we are mentally sharp, proactive, and inventive about making maximum use of our time even though things rarely go as planned. But today we were all too tired and we just kind of waited for the world to come to us -- and it never showed up -- so we eventually chased it down (slowly).

Our final appointment of the day was to present ourselves at the Regional Workers Central (COR) of El Alto council meeting. This was our official opportunity to ask permission to begin interviewing COR leaders, have the blessing of the COR leadership, and get contact information. Of course, we've already completed interviews with three COR leaders (we're not very patient), and wheedled our way into 90% of the contact info we needed, but it was still an important moment. As I stood up before the assembled leaders at 5:00 pm, I momentarily calculated how many of the 34 hours I had slept (four) and wondered exactly what would come out of my mouth given that my fluent Spanish has collapsed down to Spanish 101 levels during the last couple hours due to lack of food. But, I've done an awful lot of these speeches for groups in Lima and Quito, and this wasn't much different except for the intensity of the Q&A. They seemed to like my answer to their critique of the role of the United States in supporting economic and political violence in Bolivia (I explained that their vision of the U.S. government was far too limited and that the civil liberties and human rights of thousands of people in my own country and community were also under siege).

By the end of the meeting they were floating proposals for how to gather everyone together for rapid-fire interviews of all the 51 leaders (it sounded like speed dating, but with social science), which we declined, since we only need to talk to about 12 of them, and each in depth. But it was fun seeing them enthusiastically jumping on board.

In another week we'll be joined by documentary photographer James Lerager, who worked extensively in Bolivia on the 2005 Evo Morales presidential campaign, but who has not yet worked in El Alto. We expect his high-tech camera will evoke suspicion and fear among some of our subjects, but I called James tonight and told him to bring a sure-fire calling card: a great pic of James and Evo mugging for the camera on the campaign trail. I think that will about cover it!

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