lunes, agosto 17, 2009

El día de Santa Clara

Last Wednesday, as a break from the Archives, I decided to visit the Museo del Convento de Santa Clara. Much smaller than the Museo de Santa Teresa in Potosí, the local museum has a small but excellent collection of 18th century paintings, sculpture and silverwork. On my way out of my B&B, I mentioned Santa Clara to my landlord, Osvaldo, and he asked me if I was going to pick up some of their famous empanandas (filled meat or cheese pies) which hadn't occurred to me, but...

When I entered, I realized that I would not be allowed to take photographs. The ticket seller/guide (I was the only visitor) indicated I needed to go around the corner to request permission. I expected I would find something like an office where I could plead my case. Instead, off to the side of a small courtyard was a staircase, a large landing and a number of people standing in line to buy empanadas. Not seeing any other possibility, I joined the line. When the nun, behind a small green wooden revolving door asked me how many I wanted. I said none, thank you, but I would like permission to take photographs in the museum. She said a nun would meet me in the museum. I returned to the museum, presented my card and explained why I needed the pictures and that I would not use flash. She agreed but suggested I make a contribution to the museum which I did. At that point, the once officious guide became my gracious assistant.

This morning, I was invited to my friend Darío's Mother's house for the Canseco annual participatory Empanadas de Santa Clara bake. We all helped roll the dough, stuff, finish the edges and bake. When they were fresh from the oven, there were more than 25 of us feasting. The filling consisted of sautéed green onions, hardboiled eggs and olives cured in red wine. Of course they were delicious. I hadn’t realized that Wednesday was Santa Clara's saint’s day and the one day in the year that the Santa Clara nuns offer their famous empanadas to the public.

By the way, as I left the museum, I asked the guide if the nuns ever offered him an empanada. He said no, so I went back to the green rotating door and bought two for each of us.

sábado, julio 25, 2009

Silver, Sucre and La Virgen de Guadalupe

One of the advantages of wearing a coat outdoors is that it permits me to carry my digital camera with me at all times. This morning, I was able to get into the Chapel of the Virgin de Guadelupe. The Chapel, adjoining the Cathedral, contains a miraculous image of the Patroness of La Plata (Sucre.) The image itself, Mary and baby Jesus have painted faces which were placed on a gold-plated silver triangle, is encrusted with jewels (pearls, diamonds, emeralds, etc.) and is rumored to be so valuable that, if cashed in could pay off Bolivia's national debt.

In the Plaza, along the side elevation of the Cathedral, a line of cars were being readied for a procession and eventual Mass in the Guadelupe Chapel. The cars were covered with family treasures (weavings, silver bowls and plates, and stuffed animals and dolls.) I missed the procession itself, but I spoke with one of the women sewing silver objects to the weavings. She told me that it was a family celebration. Years ago, in Cochabamba, I saw a similar ceremony. Then, I learned that each year, a family becomes the protector of a religious image for a year. The procession and fiesta occured when the next branch of the family takes guardianship. Perhaps, this was a similar occassion.

My Piece of Bolivia's History

I first came to Bolivia in 1964, when I was 22. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I taught at the state university in Cochabamba (La Universidad Mayor de San Simón.) Twelve years before, Bolivia experienced the first major social and economic revolution after that of Mexico in 1910. The MNR (National Revolutionary Movement) initiated land reform, the nationalization of the mines, health reform, public education and unversal suffrage. Bolivia's revolution was supported by Washington. It preceded Cuba's revolution by seven years, a revolution definitely not supported by Washington.

This comes to mind after a conversation, last week, with a recent graduate of the local School of Architecture. He is working, part-time, for my best friend here, Arq. Darío Canseco. Mario (his name) is from a village near Zudañez, a small city about 50 miles from Sucre. His father works the land and plants potatoes, wheat and corn. I can't vouch for this, but it very likely the land was once part of a hacienda and was distributed to the peones who worked for the hacendado five days a week to be able to work a small plot of the master's land the other days. Clearly, Marios' family made major sacrifices to enable him to receive a university education. While in architecture school, he worked as a waiter in one of Sucre's tourist restaurants.

What I am trying to say is that the education and land reform MNR revolution has had a major impact on the lives of Bolivians. Evo Morales' presidency is a direct result of the 1952 revolution and the increasing participation of indigenous groups in national politics. On my way back from the Archives, I passed through a group of "originarios" (the latest term for indigenous peoples) from the community of Qhara Qhara. For the past two weeks, the members of the local allyu (traditional tribal group) have been protesting over their political leadership. At present, they are represented by a "sindicato de campesinos" (peasant union.) I haven't figured out whether this has to do with the strength or values of individual leaders or the authenticity of the governing structure. What I do know is that the "sindicatos de campesinos" was the mechanism used by the MNR in the 1950s to organize the new land-holding ex-hacienda peones. The syndicatos were used by the government to channel campesino votes in their favor. Evo Morales is similarly marshalling "originario" votes emphasizing traditional political organizations with the same objective - maintaining political power. In a complex society with conflicting interests and needs, in the end, is the concentration of power productive?

martes, julio 07, 2009

The Other Sucre

I realize that almost all of my photographs show Sucre at its most picturesque. This has alot to do with my fascination with the Colonial Period, with my stay in the historic core and the chaos of unplanned rapid development which surrounds the center. When I first came here, in 1965, Sucre had about 60,000. One hundred years earlier, the population was 18,000. Now, forty plus years after my first visit, Sucre has the current population of New Orleans, 350,000.

When I lived in Cochabamba in the mid-sixties, Bolivia had not experienced the rapid urban migrations that had such an impact in other Latin American countries. Subsequently, the effects of the land reform initiated by the 1952 MNR Revolution and the closing of the tin mines in 1982, enabled by neo-liberalism policies of privatization, brought about this uncoordinated urban growth.

I took these pictures last Friday. My friend, the architect Dar ío Canseco, took me along on a site visit with his clients, a lawyer and pharmacist. They had purchased a property in one of the more stabilized areas around Sucre and had built a protective wall and two temporary buildings which they currently occupy. The site presents some extraordinary design challenges and I wish Darío great good luck in their resolution.

The last two photographs were taken from the property. The second to last shows an automobile dealership in its context. The last, I hope you can discover it, is a house Darío designed for his uncle. They both represent distinct approaches to dealing with the problems of finding an architecture in contemporary Sucre. I’m happy to apply my own creativity to reconstruct the texture of the social and professional relationships which formed the basis for contemporary society.

viernes, julio 03, 2009

In the Sala de Investigadores

I don't know what community he came from.(*) I will have to ask today, when I return to the National Archive. I didn't want to stare but he was fairly young, pouring over a document in his traditional clothing, which was immaculate. His was showing the utmost respect to the Archive and to his people's past. He wore sandals, cotton pants which reached his calves, an embroidered shirt and a magnificent poncho - stripes of red, yellow and blue in varying widths and quite asymmetrical - unlike those I had previously seen. He wore a chulo - a knitted cap with ear flaps common in Bolivia and on the heads of hip college students in the States - of cream and dark brown wool. Over the chulo he wore a high crowned natural felt hat - quite common among the indigenous people of this region - but his was brand new.

My photograph of the indigenous scholar in the Sala de Investigadores, sitting at a Danish Modern desk, surrounded by bookshelves and other researchers would have been a prizewinner. Unfortunately, cameras are prohibited in the Archive.

(*) I subsequently learned from a librarian that he was from Tapacarí, in the Cochabamba Province and he was carrying bolas (a weapon made famous by the gauchos in Argentina), indicating that he was a chief. Tapacarí is the mountainous area between the Cochabamba valley and the Altiplano to the West. It is sparsely populated and consists of small interconnected mountain valleys. The main route from Cochabamba to Oruro and La Paz passes through this region.

martes, junio 30, 2009

Returning to Sucre

Sunday, June 28

I arrived in Sucre eleven days ago after an absence of six months. Initially, I reconnected with my closest friends - a very enjoyable process - and returned to the Archivo Nacional and resumed my research – also reconnecting with the frustrating life of a scholar (dead ends and and rare and occasional and a restored optimism.)

Last Wednesday, I attended the inauguration of the 5th Annual Conference of the Bolivian Studies Association . (Some 10 years ago, I helped organize the first conference which took place at Loyola and Tulane.)
The conference was held primarily in the Archives. I was very conscientious the first day and selected talks related to my dissertation. The Bolivian and Latin American scholars had a knowledge so extensive and deep that I walked away feeling quite intimidated but also stimulated. My interests were only indirectly addressed. I still believe that my focus on the artisans of La Plata (colonial Sucre) and the way the urban fabric accommodated distinct social groups has largely been overlooked. So, I hope I will be able to make a valuable contribution.

My attendance diminished as the days went by and even though a star in the Bolivian Studies firmament - Tristan Pratt from St. Edwards University in Scotland - presented Saturday morning, I was pretty much used up. I was particularly impressed by several young Bolivian scholars. One, a psychologist and historian, did a brilliant job. I spoke to him after his talk and learned he had studied architecture for 3 years before switching to psychology. I will certainly keep in touch with him. Unfortunately, he lives in La Paz. A young woman presented a talk on pre-independence pasquines (wall newspapers.) She teaches here in Sucre and when she heard my name she asked me if I would meet with a group of her students who are also working on La Plata's artisanos.

Maybe I can work out a collaborative agreement to share sources.
My Internet situation is pretty erratic. My landlord, a university professor, seems to be using a university service which allows me access early in the morning (when students are not monopolizing the net.) His children and I are working together to persuade him to switch providers. I'm writing this blog off-line. It will be posted the next time I have access. Meanwhile, I have been popping into Internet cafe's to catch up on email.

I went to a party for the recent graduates of the architecture school. They named my best friend and two of his colleagues as padrinos of their graduation fiesta and expected them to pay for it. That seemed a very bizarre custom to this gringo. I was invited and beer, dinner, beer beer beer and more beer was the evening's program. When five of us were left (mainly the profs.) and the manager of the Collegio de Arquitectos - the professional organization headquarters where the party was held - insisted that we leave, we headed to a great crowded bar, where the students who had left the earlier party had reassembled. All this drinking was too much for me, I left early and got home at 2am after partying from 5-30 in the afternoon.

Monday, June 29

I returned to the Archives this morning with renewed patience and resolve. Today, I reviewed the annotated index of the Correspondencia de la Audiencia de Charcas. Subordinate only to the Viceroy in Lima and later Buenos Aires, the Audiencia governed an enormous region from Lake Titicaca to the North through much of Argentina, all of Paraguay and to the Pacific coast north of present-day Santiago, Chile. Given the distance from either viceregal center, the Audiencia acted with autonomy unless specifically directed. Even then, the principle "yo obedezco pero no cumplo" (I obey but do not comply) was operative. I was looking, unsuccessfully, for any indication of a request for a census. It would be very helpful if I could find out more about the population of La Plata during the 18th century. I would jump out of my skin if I could get a sense of how many artisans there were relative to other occupations. Relative statistics on race and class would be helpful, as well. No such luck. However, I did discover letters written by Alonso Carrío de la Vandera. He was the Viceroy's postal inspector in the late 18th century author of one of the few descriptions of La Plata in this period. That was encouraging.

In the afternoon, I started reviewing another set of documents I had not looked at previously. And, although I still haven't found any reference to a census, I did come across some artisans I had not yet noted: a master watchmaker and a silversmith. The silversmith was requesting that the Cabildo (the city government) name him a master silversmith in recognition of 20 years of activity. I had understood that this was the province of the guild of silversmiths, not the civil authorities. This seems intriguing and, once I go through the entire index, I will examine the original document very carefully. This was even more encouraging.

Some recent photos of Sucre can be found at

martes, junio 09, 2009

Tulane, Taihuichi and T-Shirts

This afternoon, I biked over to the Tulane Library to empty out the carrel I have been using all semester. After getting off the elevator, I noticed a young fellow in the upstairs lobby. He was wearing a yellow Taihuichi t-shirt. I couldn't resist mentioning that I would be in Santa Cruz a week from tomorrow.

Taihuichi is a world famous soccer academy. Many of Bolivia's most famous players (Marco "El Diablo" Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno - both stars on the Bolivian national team and DC United) trained there. It was formed in 1978 to involve youth from impoverished areas of Santa Cruz productively in sport and, through the talent of its staff and head coach Rolando Aguilera Pareja, it formed a team which was extraordinarily successful in Latin American youth competitions. Taihuichi invites young soccer players from abroad to participate in their training program and help support the non-profit academy.

Hal, the Tulane student, spent 6 weeks at Taihuichi two years ago. He said it was the most difficult thing he had ever done in his life. The training was so arduous that he was tempted to fake an injury. When he returned to high school in the states, he was offered a number of athletic scholarships. He eventually transferred to Tulane which doesn't field an inter-collegiate soccer team. However, Hal plays in a Latin-American league in New Orleans. At the moment, he was finishing a semester paper for Prof. Martin Mendoza (a visiting professor of political science from La Paz.)

So, clearly, the real function of a t-shirt is as a conversation starter.

miércoles, octubre 29, 2008


Even though my skills at interpreting the handwriting of 18th century scribes is improving, this morning I met my match in one critical document. It was written in 1700 and defines the financial and labor obligations of young Cristobál Dávalos. He was apprenticed, at 13 years of age, to Tomás de Torres, a locksmith and blacksmith. It would seem like a promising career opportunity. I have yet to find another 18th century locksmith and very few ironsmiths. Of course, I am working with legal documents and it is very possible that the others had no occasion to visit an official scribe or their documents have been lost.

I am reading apprenticeship contracts and they seem to vary little over the 18th century. Guardians are sometimes responsible for clothing but virtually all expenses from room and board to healthcare and even burial expenses are incurred by the master craftsmen. In one instance, in case the master watchmaker should die before the completion of the contract, the apprentice was to inherit the master´s tools. None of the documents mention anything related to the eventual acceptance of the apprentice into the respective guilds (gremios) but in one instance, the master guarantees the "graduate" apprentice´s work for five years.

Back to paleography. I'm hoping that a haircut and lunch will give me the patience, concentration and imagination to tackle the rest of the document. Paleography reminds me of the Sunday Times double crostic. Fragments of words, marks on paper which could go one way or another are juxtaposed against my Spanish vocabulary (which, I am happy to report, is pretty good) trying to build the most plausible narrative. It is slow going but reveals so much detail. My initial database, developed from the index summaries of the collection of 18th Century Escrituras Publicas enabled me to identify the documents that called for closer inspection. And that will be my work for the next month.