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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

A Walk With Nilo


Tocaña (4,400 ft) is a small farming community in the Department of La Paz, outside the town of Coroico. According to the most recent census Tocaña is home to only 45 families or 162 people. 35 of those families identify as Afro-Bolivian and the remaining 10 identify as Aymara (one of the most prominent indigenous groups of Bolivia). There are around 25,000 Afro-Bolivians in Bolivia, less than 1% of the population (the total Bolivia population is around 11 million), while Aymaras make up around 43% of the total population. The most famous Aymara is Evo Morales Ayma, the current president of Bolivia. Evo made history in 2006 when he became the first indigenous president to be elected in Bolivia’s history. Despite his more recent corruption scandals and his announcement that he will be running for his 4th presidential term in the 2020 race (you can legally be president for two 5 year terms), Evo is still seen by many as a fighter for indigenous rights.

One of the most widely praised efforts of Evo’s legacy has been his work with bringing the complexity of Bolivian identity into the forefront. In my experience, the vast majority of United Statesians would likely struggle to find Bolivia on a map. Before I came to Bolivia I had a single story of this complex place. I imagined it as a cold mountainous place, tucked away in the Andes, rich in only Quechua and Aymara indigenous cultures and traditions. I knew nothing of the Afro-Bolivians nor the other 35 officially recognized minority groups of Bolivia. Under the Evo administration, drastic measures have been made to maintain these minority cultures. In 2012 the Linguistic Society of America and anthropologist Wade Davis estimated that there were approximately 5,000 languages spoken in the world. With a language dying out at a rate of about one every two weeks, experts project that by the end of the century half of these languages are likely to permanently disappear.

Now, due to progressive legislation implemented here in Bolivia, all schools are required to teach in both Spanish and the local indigenous language of the area. Sure, the vast majority of classes are still held in Spanish but now students are required to reconnect to languages like Quechua, Aymara or Guarani. Despite these impressive measures the fight for Afro-Bolivians, much like the fight for African Americans, is far from over. Discrimination and racism are still very much present in Bolivian society. The history of Africans in Bolivia is directly connected to Potosi, where we were just a few short weeks ago. Africans were brought to Potosi by the Spanish as slaves to work in the silver mines. The mines of Cerro Rico presented horrors beyond our imagination. Thousands upon thousands of African and indigenous slaves died in those mines. Its estimated that over 8 million people have died in the mines of Potosi. When the Spanish noticed that the slaves were quickly dying in the harsh climate/altitude of Potosi they relocated them to an area called Los Yungas, where Tocaña resides, to grow coca for the mines. Nowadays many Afro-Bolivians live in large cities such as La Paz or Santa Cruz but many still live in the lush, semi-tropical town of the Yungas.

The other day I went for a walk with our homestay coordinator Nilo. We talked about the coca harvest and how comically horrible the Bolivian soccer team is. Then, I’m not really sure how, we ended up talking about the current issues facing Afro-Bolivians here in Bolivia. He began to speak about the outspoken activists and members of government who have been working tirelessly for more Afro-Bolivian representation. He talked about movements where the people of Tocaña (and other communities) marched on La Paz and demanded the abolishment of racist, backwards laws.

I am not proud to admit it but I can get rather cynical. I can at times turn to despair when I see publicly elected officials fighting to build walls of racism or implement travel bans on entire religions. Upon hearing Nilo talk with such passion I said in a state of surprise and admiration that I found it impressive that the community was so proactive in fighting for their rights. He responded, “Claro que si, que otra opcion hay? (Of course, what other option is there?)” Be strong in these challenging times. Now, more than ever is when we need to stand up.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin, American Novelist (Watch the film I Am Not Your Negro)