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.

domingo, octubre 26, 2008

An Outing with Architecture Students

Five years ago, during my last Tulane sabbatical, I taught in the Architecture School at the Universidad Mayor, Real y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Churquisaca (South America´s second oldest university founded in 1624.) My friendships with both facuty and students have made this time in Sucre most enjoyable. This year, I was named Docente Honorario (Honorary Professor) and, on occassion I have been invited to participate in design reviews and other classes. The school is planning a new building and on Tuesday afternoon, I will join in on discussions of proposed alternatives. The following photographs were taken during a field trip with Arq. Guillermo Layme and his students to a site for a class project, one of the few times I have been able to enjoy the countryside.

It seems that all of the photos in this blog from Sucre seem to be taken on sunny, cloudless days. Indeed, cloudy days are rare. So, here are a group of photos taken in softer light conditions. San Lázaro was Sucre´s first cathedral. It was built on a terrace which served as an outdoor atrium, a space for the conversion of the indigenous population. Santo Domingo was the center of the Dominican Order and the Inquisition.

Santo Domingo

San Lázaro

Calle Oruro - once a street of craftsmen.

Gran Fiesta presented by the School of Finance and Business Administration of the UFXC. Note the menu - stuffed potatoes, piquante noodles, basically spicy meat sauce, and (mmmmmmmm) spicy tiny flavorful potatoes (papa lisa.) All of this plus music and dance for 5bs or 75 cents.

miércoles, octubre 15, 2008

A day in the Life

The House on Abaroa Street

Santa Mónica

Spring, in all its glory, has arrived in Sucre. This morning, rather than going directly to the Archivo Nacionál, I decided to take care of a few errands. But first, I wanted to take advantage of the early sun angle to photograph the facade of a colonial courtyard house on Calle Abaroa that I have been looking at for years. The elaborate portal was decorated in a style which relates to the clearly mestizo facade of Santa Mónica. Half of the palacio has been demolished allowing a revealing sectional view of the typical adobe construction.

While I was clicking away, a charming young woman approached and as she unlocked the carved wooden door, she asked me where I was from. I was able to get myself invited into the remarkable patio and took the photos included in this post. As you can see, it contains a truly remarkable and completely unexpected staircase. The austerity of the patio itself and the baroque exuberance of the stairs suggest that they were a later addition. But they also point out the love of contrast found in most colonial buildings here – direct basic bearing wall construction largely of unadorned walls with a few simple openings combined with rare but with richly sculpted entrance portals.

On my way to the Brazilian Consulate (to enquire about visa requirements – I will be returning via Rio), I joined the Dino gym (Sucre is noted for its dinosaur tracks recently discovered at the outskirts of the city.) It is on the top floor of the MultiCentro Céspedes on the Plaza. The penthouse gym has a terrace with a panoramic view. Unfortunately, their aerobic equipment is meager and in bad repair but it appears to be the best-equipped gym in the city. I should have joined a month ago but, now that my research path is clear and I have completed a body of work, its time to work on my own body.

Fortunately, he Brazilian consul was not in. I will have to return this afternoon. There I was, only a few blocks from the Colonial neighborhood, Los Tres Molles. (A molle is a native tree with clusters of small red berries.) It occurred to me to photograph the remaining examples of colonial architecture in the area. I had just read a document from 1740 certifying the purchase of a lot and house by Nicolás de Herrera, a silversmith (platero) I have been studying. It occurred to me to see if the name “Tres Molles” meant anything to current inhabitants. A shoemaker directed me to a corner store and its elderly (can I use this term) owner. He was quite familiar with the term and described the neighborhoods boundaries. When I told him about Nicolás de Herrera, he said that Calle Destacamento 111 was once known as Calle Herrera. Also, a Doctor Herrera had offices near the corner on property possibly part of the original purchase. I will be speaking with him this afternoon.

Aha!!! I now have a whole new avenue of historic research and a brilliant excuse to change focus and escape from the Library from time to time.

Barrio de los Tres Molles

miércoles, octubre 08, 2008

The Prado Today

It´s an unexpectedly chilly morning in Cochabamba. I´m sitting in Dumbo´s, a clean and pleasant gringofied restaurant on the Prado, not far from the spot, now long gone, where David Erbe and I took pension in the ´60s as Peace Corps volunteers.

In those days, the Prado and Sundays were synonymous. Bolivians would sit at tables along the sidewalk eating salteñas (spicy meat pies), drinking the local beer (Taquiña) from liter bottles and playing “Generala” (poker dice) for beers. All this, while admiring Cochabamba´s golden youth as they promenaded (chaperoned by their parents) up and down the park-like neutral ground (New Orleans for median strip.)

The promenaders would disappear into the church in the Plaza Colón for Mass before repeating the ritual afterward. Meanwhile, the observers made plans for afternoon excursions – bike rides into the countryside or poolside relaxation at the Cortijo, a country-club like spa, now a luxurious private residence.

It could be the weather, more likely cultural changes, but the Sunday morning promenade is a thing of the past. Many of the Prado´s small apartment buildings and fancy houses have been replaced by high-rise hotels and office towers. Ground level restaurants have moved indoors and the Prado has become something else entirely.

In the ‘60’s, Cochabamba was a rather slow-moving city of 100,000 with very few private automobiles. We, along with our students and many Cochabambinos, traveled by bicycle. Today, the same streets are choked with traffic and the metropolitan area has upwards of 800,000. Sucre has its own problems of rapid urbanization but its scale and temperament remind me more of my Cochabamba.

domingo, septiembre 21, 2008

La Ciudad Blanca

I first came to Sucre in 1965, when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. The city had a population of some 40,000 and barely extended beyond its colonial core. The perspectives framed by one and two story colonial and republican buildings terminated with green hills planted with corn and other crops with blue mountains beyond. Today, the hills closest to Sucre are covered with red brick houses waiting to be stuccoed when more prosperous times arrive.

Five years ago, when I was teaching at the university, I lived near the architecture school, in the first ring of expansion. My private Quechua lessons were on the other side of the Mercado Campesino, part of the next ring of growth toward the north. Sucre expanded in all directions, accommodating both rural-urban migration and the shift in population since the closing of the tin mines, in the 1980s. Streets no longer follow the original grid of the colonial settlement. Houses no longer provide a continuous wall defining the public space of the street from the private domain yet the tendency to assert ownership and control is expressed by high gated walls.

Despite the expansion of urban terrain and population, Sucre remains tightly organized around the same plaza that was laid out during the ceremonial foundation of the city in 1538. Politicians and petitioners congregate in front of the Alcaldia (City Hall) and Prefectura (Departmental Government.) In the mornings, senior citizens - perhaps former government officials sit on sunny benches reading the daily papers. Meanwhile, small armies of school children in uniform troop across the square on their way to colegios. Most of the private and religious schools are scattered around the Plaza in buildings that were once monasteries and convents or large private homes. Their large central patios work well for their new activities.

After school, teenagers congregate on one side of the Plaza flirting just like they did when I was growing up in Forest Hills and the way suburban kids do in malls all across the States. I was talking to the parents of a friend of mine from Sucre, now living in California. In their day, they were only allowed to meet for an hour on Wednesday evenings and again on Sunday. When I visited Sucre in the mid-sixties, colonial courtship traditions were still operative. From the more liberal perspective of Cochabamba's youth, the Sucre's Sunday promenade (young women strolling around the Plaza in a clockwise direction - or was it counterclockwise - and young men in the opposite direction, gradually pairing up under protective and watchful parental gaze in the same kind of flirtatious behavior) seemed ridiculously out-moded.

During the noon-hour, the Plaza often provides the setting for blood drives and public heath exhibits, national unity pagents, and mobile phone promotions. It is the terminus of protest marches, accompained by firecrackers, with dramatic public oratory (further fireworks) directed from the bandstand. Religious processions like last week´s Entrada de la Virgen de Guadalupe also enter and circle the Plaza ending with prayer at the Cathedral's entrance. In the evening, clowns and magicians, along with salesmen of miracle cures, take over, using the monument to Mariscal Sucre as a backdrop. I haven´t been in the Plaza late in the evening but I am told that university students, as they did in Cochabamba so many years ago, pace back and forth under the lamp-posts studying for exams.

In addition to being the first day of spring, the 21st of September is also El Dia del Estudiante. Since Friday, there have been parties in the various Facultades of the University. On Friday, I spent some time in the Museo Colonial and the excited shouts of elementary school children from the adjoining escuela primaria and the decorated hats of schoolchildren crossing the Plaza at lunch were indications of the extent of these celebrations. Sucre is enlivened, as it has been since colonial times, by its role as an educational center. The University, the second oldest in South America, brought together students from beyond the Audiencia de Charcas (Sucre was the major political and religious center in the Southern Andes.) It is still a major center of higher education and students come from all over Bolivia to study at the Universidad Mayor y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca and several private universities.

I am interested in the schematic nature of the colonial city, the way a conceptual framework gets populated by particular human beings and evolves through time. In Sucre, the urban plan called for by the Consejo de Indias, the branch of the Spanish Government that administered the colonies, was laid out on gently undulating topography suggesting, as you move away from the Plaza (which itself slopes), patterns of drainage and possible neighborhood divisions. Sucre, like Rome is surrounded by seven hills, several of these were associated with neighborhoods during the colonial period and may have accommodated different social groups, including artists and artisans. One of my research interests is the geographical distribution of classes and disciplines. My examination of the notarial archives has given me some very preliminary suggestions of this neighborhood structure.

Today, most of the buildings in the colonial core have been rebuilt or substantially renovated. Perhaps some of the original adobe walls are still present under subsequent decorative applications. The original settlers were given large lots, sometimes an entire block, and over many generations, large houses were divided among multiple heirs and had portions sold off during times of economic hardship. It is difficult to reconstruct these larger properties today. My friend Bill Loftstrom and a Bolivian architect are trying to locate and mentally reconstruct the Palacio de la Audiencia from the remaining fragments. At the fringes of the colonial core, a number of one and two story houses, built of adobe, with infrequent and unadorned openings and tiled roofs, strongly suggest the character of early colonial construction. These undecorated adobe bearing walls, wooden lintels and sloping tile roofs, are common throughout Bolivia and much of Latin America. These simple constructions were in their own way, just as abstract and schematic as the gridded colonial city. In Sucre´s colonial core, with very few exceptions, buildings are regularly whitewashed, enhancing this abstract, almost dream-like quality, especially when seen against an intensely blue cloudless sky.

martes, septiembre 09, 2008

Sucre Beginnings

My first 10 days in Sucre have been very productive on a number of fronts. After a week in the lively Hostal Cruz de Popayán, with its world travelers living out of impressive backpacks, I moved into an upscale version – small, with few guests and no backpackers. My companions, so far, consist of three French-Canadian volunteers (causing me complicated linguistic problems) and a Taiwanese acupuncturist (we had our first conversation this morning and he doesn’t necessarily use needles – more on this theme later.)

My Bolivian friends have been most attentive. I’ve been to a birthday party, had family lunches and have gone out in the evenings with former students. One of my friends from Peace Corps days, Bill Loftstrom, is a noted Latin American historian and has retired to Sucre with his Bolivian wife. Last Friday, he presented a paper before the local historical and geographical society on a group of paintings popular in the 19th century that abound here. I paid a visit to the Architecture School, where I taught 5 years ago and where I have many friends – outings to the Uyuni salt flats and to the tropical reserve at Torotoro are in the works.

Meanwhile, this is the week building up to Sucre’s most important annual festival, La Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadelupe. In recent years, indeed since my Peace Corps days over 40 years ago, these festivals had been considerably scaled down since the colonial period. Indeed, the Carnaval de Oruru was just about it, insofar as spectacular costumes seen by troups of regional dancers was concerned. In the intervening years, every major Bolivian city has revived these elaborate celebrations and Sucre is no exception. So, Sunday evening there was a relatively small entrada (the term for these processions of dancing troops.) My friend Darío dances with a group of Morenadas and was part of the program. Next weekend, the groups will where there most elaborate

outfits. For Sunday, however, costumes were vastly symplefied. Indeed, the male Morenos (ranging in age from 5 years old and up) wore some combination of business suits with ponchos or scarves. Different components of the larger group dressed identically – even the marching band. Surprisingly, my digital camera was able to capture some of the spirit in stills and video clips.

I have begun my works in the Archivo Nacionál de Bolivia. It’s only 3 downhill blocks from my digs. I have started reviewing a detailed index of every notarial document in the collection from the 18th Century, identifying every artist and artisan who was involved in any legal procedure. I have been developing a database of these individuals and their associates. I will identify the most interesting of these documents and the most cited individuals and look at the documents themselves. I have my reservations of this approach and, while I am moving forward, I am looking into complementary investigations. Sitting at a desk in the archives, for hours at a time, is really tough on my back and my eyes. Today, I went to a physical therapist, recommended by Bill, and was manipulated – giving me some relief. He checked my blood pressure and took the ph-factor of my saliva. Apparently, my diet is way off. He recommended the Green Tea from the Chapare region (where the coca comes from) and wants me to drink it several times a day to reduce oxidants and help purge me. OK. I’ll give it a try. I have another session early Monday morning. So, bottoms up!!!

Considering that the kind of historic research I am doing requires a long stretch of time sitting and reading, I am really fortunate to have such a well organized archive with very supportive personnel. Furthermore, that I arrived in Sucre with an already established and quite varied network of friends makes an extended stay here really quite comfortable. (Indeed, I sort of worked backwards and developed my dissertation topic to enable me to work here.) And then there’s Skype and the Internet - I am hardly disconnected from my base of operations in New Orleans and at Tulane. So, please let this be the end of the hurricane season – too much anxiety. We all have better things to be concerned about.

Desde Sucre, La Capital Constitucionál de Bolivia.

sábado, marzo 08, 2008

Black Arts Festival - 2008

I live directly across the street from the Saint Joan of Arc School. Every spring they stage the Black Arts Festival as a fund-raiser. There are always great musical acts and plenty of delicious New Orleans treats. This year, two Mardi Gras Indians paid a visit and I couldn't resist hauling out my fancy digital camera and snapping away.

Of course there was much else going on at the fair: gospel, blues and rock & roll. Nevertheless, an Indian siting is a rare and special thing, especially on my block so, I'm afraid, I had eyes for little else.

There were only two Indians in the pack, this time. However, they were accompanied by a retinue of rhythm-makers and second-liners.

The bead-work is exquisite. It is said that costumes are worn for only one year. The dancers construct their own. I'll have to find out if the feathers and beads are recycled from one year to the next.

domingo, febrero 10, 2008

The Return of the Mourning Doves

The Mourning Doves have returned to Freret Street. Rocco growls when he sees them in the rafters of my porch. Gris-Gris has learned to growl from his maestro but has a much smaller voice - disproportionately small.

At this point the doves are deciding if they want to nest here again this year. I hope they do. There is the pleasure of renewal in watching their industry and the emergence of the next generation. I will have to investigate but I do think these are the same parents who have come back year after year. I hope their kids have fond memories, as well, of the protective eaves of my roof.

Spring is returning to New Orleans. The leaves are beginning to emerge on my big American Elm. It seems that they fell only a few weeks ago and, indeed, this particular winter hardly seemed to get its feet on the ground. I was planning to visit a yarn store and get wool and a crochet needle to repair several of my old Bolivian alpaca sweaters’ unraveled bits but it may almost be time to roll them up in the mothballs for yet another season.

This afternoon, I will take a bike ride to Audubon Park. There is a small island in the lagoon where migrating birds nest on their way north. It may be early, but the activity of the mob of white herons and their friends is our own version of those National Geographic Channel documentaries. Meanwhile, I will get myself ready for early morning mournful (I couldn’t resist) coos from my straw-gathering friends.