When we first arrived to Tocaña the only vestiges of human life were the paintings and pictures on the walls. I was admiring a picture of Bob Marley, Mick Jagger, and Peter Tosh, when Pulga, the first Tocañeno I met, came out. With his short stature, contagious energy, and wild mane, Pulga lived up to his name, which means “flea.” Pulga greeted our group with open arms, enthusiastic to show us around Tocaña, a predominantly Afro-Bolivian community.
Shortly after Pulga’s debut, Jony, or “Zulu” as Pulga calls him, came out to greet us. Jony was much more reserved than Pulga, but the two seemed to perfectly balance each other out as they walked us around Tocaña.
Tocaña is known for its cultivation of cacao, a variety of fruits, vegetables, coffee, and the controversial coca leaf. We were able to tour a coca farm. As we walked through the rows of coca, which contrasted the distant, dark green mountains, I found myself romanticizing the cocalero lifestyle. However, Pulga’s warning not to romanticize the cocalero lifestyle woke me from my erroneous daydream. He explained how the cocaleros work everyday from 9 AM- 5 PM under the blistering sun. He pointed to a piece of cloth in a tree that served as a makeshift hammock for cocaleros’ sick children, and I understood that there was much more to the cocalero lifestyle than meets the eye. For example, from a brief glimpse at the coca farms, I would’ve never known how the hard work and sacrifices of the cocaleros are devalued by the stigma that surrounds coca, as the alkaloid derived from the coca leaf can be used to produce cocaine. However, thousands of coca leaves are required to produce one gram of cocaine, which is well above the coca farm’s production capacity in Tocaña. Rather, the coca from Tocaña is mainly exported to La Paz, where its medicinal powers are harnessed through chewing the leaf, placing it on cuts, making it into herbal tea, and a myriad of other perfectly safe uses.
The difficult working conditions and the conflation of coca with cocaine aren’t the only hardships that Tocañenos experience. In fact, Afro-Bolivians were not allowed to vote until 1952. With the majority of the community of Afro-Bolivian descent, the disenfranchisement of Afro-Bolivians stripped Tocañenos of their political voice and true citizenship. In Pulga’s house, we watched a short documentary detailing the history of oppression of Afro-Bolivians. The documentary showed a recent video of an Afro-Bolivian being denied the right to vote at an election booth, seeming to prove that for Afro-Bolivians, the laws aren’t necessarily a source of protection or equality.
Despite the hardships Tocañenos experience, I was inspired by the hospitality and positivity that emanated from their community, like when Pulga generously piled delicious food onto my plate, or when young students from La Paz and young Tocañenos played soccer together. Later in the day, a group of Afro-Bolivians came to Pulga’s house to teach us a traditional dance. The men beat the drums as the women effortlessly danced to the rhythm. Together, they sang, “Si yo fuera presidente, yo haría un puente” (“If I was president, I would build a bridge.”). As I held hands and danced with an Afro-Bolivian woman, I couldn’t help but admire the resilience of Tocañenos.
Tocañenos can’t be reduced to their hardships or their happiness. They are a proud and dynamic community that has grappled with oppression, and they are also a community rich with culture and camaraderie. Without the unity within the community, there would be no coping with the hardships and no reveling in the happiness.