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Andean priest and spiritual leader, Don Fabian Champi Apaza. Photo by Tom Pablo, Andes & Amazon Semester.

The people gotta dance!

it’s wednesday evening, and i walk with Jackson, Owen, and their host family through the streets of tiquipaya, passing the remnants of the blockades that covered the city all day. We walk by plastic chairs turned on their sides, laced with wire, and rocks shoved to the side of the streets. The country is at a standstill on many levels; the election, for awhile at least, was too close to call, and the blockades that choke the streets of all the major cities stop most forms of traffic. There’s standstill as fraud and human rights and presidential term length are all at odds, and there’s standstill in our group as our plans are so subject to change. There’s propaganda on street posts, with posters for the Comunidad Ciudadana with Carlos Mesa’s face torn out and graffiti painted over Evo’s blue and white murals. We are headed to an ensayo- a dance rehearsal for a big Tiquipaya parade happening Saturday. This, among other reasons, is why the streets have been cleared: even in a standstill, the people need to dance.

We stop and watch one youth group dance, and we stood amazed at their coordination and fast footwork while clearly having so much fun. They announce their next dance is a cueca- we learned the cueca during out first week of Spanish classes, so we smile, thinking we know it- but we are in over our heads. With all few expert flicks of their pañuelos, they start dancing way beyond our amateur level. We keep walking, and eventually enter a gated outdoor area with a large tent structure set up in the back and a few tables and chairs scattered around. But our focus is drawn to the music- a wide circle has formed, men on one side playing charangas and guitars and women singing on the other side, their high, almost wailing mix of Quechua and Spanish matching the tone of the instruments in harmony. We enter the circle, someone passes us the lyrics on a sheet of paper, and we join in.

I was struck by how peaceful the ensayo was; even in the midst of threats to democracy, blockades interrupting cities, and a harsh divide growing in Bolivian politics, all of these people had shown up to share and communicate in song and dance. I was also struck by one guitarist in particular- his guitar was annotated with doodles; a hand in playing position, a vase full of flowers, and a crescent moon setting over a city skyline, and he had it slung around his neck on a colorful woven strap. He picked along with the tune using his carnet de identidad (ID card). I was reminded of an anecdote that Lia shared after Election Day- at the polling station, her host mom had been comforting a woman whose purse had been stolen, along with her carnet, effectively stealing her vote. In an attempt to lower voter fraud, transportation is illegal on Election Day. There’s polling stations in every neighborhood, so everyone registers to vote at a specific location, and only those registered can vote there. When you show up to vote, you present your carnet de identidad and vote in a closed room, and fingerprint a card to prove you voted (important to show to banks to be able to get loans, etc.). Without her carnet de identidad, this woman was unable to vote, and her identity as a voter was robbed.

Especially in an election so charged with voter fraud (many of the blockades and protests are in direct response to voter fraud in favor of Evo, which could be the deciding factor in pushing him into the winning spot), it was powerful to see this man use his very access card to democracy as a tool for music and ultimately building a stronger local community. Blockades willing, we will join him and dance on Saturday, each of us building- through song, charanga, and dance- this same community hope among rift.