Saturday, January 3, 2009

Bolivia. Leaving.


The rim of El Alto

I went back to El Alto drawn to a city, an indigenous, self built city, that had served as a space of resistance against so many things wrong with the world. The now infamous gas wars, when Altenos prohibited natural gas destined for the US from leaving the Senkata Plant in 2003, brought down three presidents. There is an effective civic structure that can mobilize tens of thousands of people instantly. I saw it with my own eyes. But, I am not going to make it out to be the romantic notion of collectivity that I wish it was. It is not. Many people are aspiring, making money, figuring out this capitalism thing pretty well. Others are remaining poor, but trying to better themselves. Some people are financing all of this through the banks, and many others are doing it on their own. Class frictions are growing everyday, as some of these indigenous migrants are hitting a gold mine within urban commerce and real estate, while exploiting others in the process.
Life is hard for children
The quest for size, space, and status has become intense. A local housing activist was telling me how hard people have to work just to maintain such a large home, and that they often sacrifice other things (food, health, sanitation) to build a bigger house. It is a hybrid and confusing mix of everything I could imagine. Urban, yet deeply rural: Six story buildings sit next to empty lots where potatoes are grown and sheep graze. Collective, but now more and more individual: Social networks are deeply entrenched and established, but people are living their lives behind walls. Traditional, yet deeply influenced by the products and desires of the modern world: The yatiris (spiritual healers) using coca leaves leaves to tell fortunes and llama fetises for sacrifices are right across the street from internet cafes with kids playing the latest games. Dependent on La Paz, but wielding tremendous power over La Paz: While a majority of people depend on La Paz for their livelihood, they can shut down access to the entire city instantly.
Llama fetises
I left El Alto on November 5, we had just elected Obama. I felt a collective sigh of relief from people around the world. It is something so many of them have dreamed and hoped for. I walked to the window and watched the arrival of AA flight 922 from Miami. I thought about my country, its opportunities, its hopes, and dreams. And specifically, what that airplane represents to so many people. It is a ticket out of here, it is a connection to a new and different world, it is a dream. I am overwhelmed with emotions, as I gaze out upon this hard, tough vast city. All the people that have been asking me how much it costs to get to the US. Leon was always wanting to know how he could get a Visa. After giving his family some money to put their roof on, I went back to their place a few weeks later to say goodbye and see if they had finished their roof. Leon was gone, hardly any work had been done on the roof, and even though early in the day, his wife was already blistering drunk.
AA flight 922
But, I also think about Eloy, who is carving out his space here in El Alto, building a future for his kids, with no reason to go to the US. He has Evo. He has hope and a solid foundation and future ahead for his him and his family. It is very inspiring to me, as many people can build their future with their own hands and wealth and strength and initiative, in spite of all the things stacked against them. At the end of the day, however, I am not going to get to crazy about this reality in El Alto and what is represents. It is a harsh.
In some ways, I like to think that the election of Obama is the real reach of our country, that can still affect little people in deep ways, well beyond the markets and products that we offer so wonderfully to the rest of the world. I still can’t help but think and relate our feelings of new beginnings to those of the campesinos here in Bolivia with Evo Morales. They have fought, been raped, pillaged, taken advantage of, and stomped upon. Now, it is certainly not a rosy picture, but the country has fundamentally changed in a lot of ways. Bolivia has so much to offer because it is really different. The greening of the world is taking place in the forests and jungles here. A new movement of indigenous, and predominately poor are taking hold and pushing new power and changes. So much of the changes have symbolically come against the interests of the US and the predominant world order. And in El Alto, the people are working hard, busting their ass, building the city by themselves. In many ways, the urbanization of El Alto is no really different than what is happening in most other places. The form here is a bit different and very homogenous. It feels like a sense of solidarity among people, even as people build bigger, and put single family homes on top of these buildings.
As for design, I came back hoping to find a clear space where I could exercise my wonderful skills and architectural knowledge gleaned from around the world to apply to the many problems there. But, it began to sink into me, that once I again, I didn’t understand the issues. And while people kept aspiring to be modern there, one of the jokes in La Paz was that Altenos would build these big houses, but not have a bathroom. I understood it after getting to know some folks there. While the current older generation has moved from the country to the city, they are still very much bringing with them their rural lifestyles. So, they still cook in one room, go to the bathroom outside (or in a rudimentary space) and many people sleep together in one room. It is one of many ways they negotiate this shift. But, they all seem to be thinking about the future and their children. And these children growing up in El Alto will know and expect a very different world from their parents with more modern comforts. But, in a weird way, El Alto is one place where becoming modern may not come at the sacrifice of everything traditional and indigenous. Time will tell, especially with all the convulsions that have been going on politically.
As an architect, I can’t force people to live a certain way. If I design them a sweet bathroom, integrated into a passive solar adobe building with a tight envelope that is uniquely beautiful, are they going to feel at home in such a space? It very much depends. But, the issue of future change is one of the most striking here is the notion of future space and flexibility. People are building with what they know from each other, or from TV, or from Zona Sur. These tastes and styles will probably change in the future. But functions also change. Unfortunately for Remijio and his family, they are all crammed into a small dark space that is supposed to be a store. A little planning could have designed a much higher quality space that could function as both a store and a living unit, to give the owner more flexibility while maintaining a higher quality of space.
El Alto, overlooking La Paz
But, I do know a couple of things. The home very much allows people to stake a claim, keep that claim, and improve upon that claim to the city. Each home in El Alto is an incredible economic engine, allowing many people to not be so dependent on the markets and opportunities in the modern metropolis of La Paz, as well as the global economy. People are able to build new and bigger houses only because it happens ‘poco a poco’ or little by little. Each step in the building process allows them to fund and support the next step. Rooms get rented out. Stores are built. Pay phones are installed. Candies are sold. Photocopies provided. Shoes are sold. Bedrooms added. Kitchens are built. Hot water is installed. Walls are stuccoed. The house remains unfinished. People live and move forward. This is the world home.
The unfinished home
I returned to the US, a very different landscape at a very unique time.

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