This post is also available in: Spanish
Rebekah Nimtz is an MCC Service Worker in the cross-roads, bread-basket city of Cochabamba, Bolivia. This blog post is part of our series on migration.
“Nadie parte fácilmente y quizás nunca del todo.” -Emma Villazón
Migration throughout the heart of South America, the region of Bolivia and surrounding countries, is nothing new. The Incans expanded south-east across the Andes followed by the tumult of the Spanish conquest and wars. The Bolivian national revolution and land reforms of the 1950’s shifted people around greatly while the severe droughts, violent dictators and dramatic inflation of the 1980’s sent waves of jobless peasants and miners to farm the lowlands or to Argentina. These movements continue today, due to factors including climate, economics and opportunities.
South-to-south migration such as this makes up over half the world’s migration patterns. In contrast to south-to-north migration, south-to-south tends to be more temporary and less documented. (1)
While on a large, overnight bus meandering through mountainous roads, I chat with Ximena* who shares that she left Bolivia with her husband 24 years ago to start designing and selling shoes in La Salada in Buenos Aires, Latin America’s largest black market. “If you apply yourself…you can make it,” she says, showing me the new sandal design she’s wearing, mentioning she’d be hunting for new ideas on a family visit. Though prior to Argentina she lived in Cochabamba, she is originally from Potosí. On her experience being back in her mother-land, she says: “Everything is different now. My family and I have grown accustomed to life there. I don’t think we could move back.”
Erlinda, 35, is from Potosí. Once known as the wealthiest and most populated city in the world due to the exploitation of its silver filled Cerro Rico, it is now the capital of Bolivia’s poorest department and also has the highest emigration rates. Known as a ‘ciudad campesina,’ the majority of the migration into the city takes place when those from the countryside arrive to work the mines in the agricultural down season. But when mineral prices fall, they then migrate to eastern Santa Cruz or Argentina, where they are often mistreated for their customs, attire and Quechua affected Spanish. They can easily find themselves exploited. Many migrants end up stuck in harvesting or factories in poor conditions without the option of leaving. Erlinda remarks that they are sometimes called “bolitas,” a play on “Bolivian” and “bolita” (little ball), denoting something to be kicked around.
Four years ago Erlinda, her husband and their three young daughters left for Buenos Aires, for the free leukemia treatments available there for her daughter Rosse. They lived there 2 years, but missed their customs and food, even though they enjoyed seeing and experiencing new things, often exclaiming, ‘What’s this?! This is a dream!” Rosse passed away soon after her 14th birthday, but Argentina allowed her to fulfill her dream of seeing the sea.
Catalina Mamani, also from Potosí, chats with me while milling large cooked corn kernels into a paste for making humintas, a traditional food of the Andes. Many emigrate because of the climate–Potosí has an elevation of 13,420 feet (4,090 meters). Others stay because they would have difficulty acclimating to the heat and air-pressure in the lowlands. High altitude is beneficial for overall health but inhibits the healing process. The complications of aging in altitude send many to neighboring Sucre or Cochabamba. Catalina, however, has decided to stay: “I have a good position—my husband and I are consultants, nevertheless, he’s always working in Sucre.” Our conversation took place after a month long strike in Potosí last year, with demands from strikers for more economic investments and industrialization, of which there is little aside from mining.
In contrast to the majority, Catalina would prefer things not to change, mentioning the recently finished silver smelting plant, which has been functioning off and on: “Smoke from things like this and from mining contaminates the water, land and air.” In reference to the economic situation she says, “Not even when mineral prices are good and investments could be made here does the money stay. It goes…elsewhere. Maybe sometimes Potosinos don’t invest in their city out of fear of failure, and prefer to go. Maybe the arrival and oppression of the Spanish lowered the self-esteem of those who lived here and it’s been that way ever since or maybe things have been cursed, that some kind of witchcraft has been played. Sucre wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Potosi—there are more Potosinos there than Cruceños. But in this city nothing happens… I think I’m lamenting.” She adds, “But from these injustices one needs to learn and work to change things.”
In the early 90’s just over half of Bolivia’s population lived in cities. Since 2012, two-thirds of Bolivians now live in urban areas. (2) While there is a constant stream of young people leaving the countryside to continue their education, this rapid urbanization has been most affected by the combination of poverty and drought. This year because of El Niño the rainy season began two months late, contributing, along with mining contamination, to the recent evaporation of Bolivia’s second largest lake, Lago Poopo. Indigenous communities, dependent for centuries on the lake’s ecosystem, are forced to migrate elsewhere. The past several years shifting weather patterns have caused the usually gentle rains to arrive in torrents or crop-destroying hail. In the department of La Paz, indigenous farmers look up at the mountains and see the glaciers disappearing. Difficulties such as these contributed to the birth of the explosively growing migrant city of El Alto.
Juana, 43, is from the small town of Yunguyo, Peru, located just over the border with Bolivia. One of 9 kids, she helped her mother pasture animals while her father worked making hats. The family could not care for all of their children, so at 12 her parents sent her to Bolivia to work as a nanny. Her new situation was rife with abuses. The passing of the years has led her to reminisce all the more on her family’s village, the foods her father grows and how they have lessened in variety and color over the years. Also living in Cochabamba, my co-worker Fabiola offers me a taste of the choclo (large-kernel corn) her family grows in the north of Potosi. It seems to satisfy a craving, and she adds that the potatoes of the altiplano are her true food weakness.
South-to-south migration can lead to more economic opportunities in contrast to the extremes and poverty of rural situations, but as these stories reflect, it is still all-too often accompanied with a sense of loss. Many Bolivians, in the indigenous manner of remembering the bigger picture, “looking back while moving forward,” are quick to point out that it is something their country was simply born into (Avila, 2014).
1. Phelps, Erin D. (2014, Feb 6) South-south migration: why it’s bigger than we think and why we should care. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://themigrationist.net/2014/02/06/south-south-migration-why-its-bigger-than-we-think-and-why-we-should-care/
2. Trohanis, Zoe Elena; Zangerling, BontjeMarie; Sanchez-Reaza, Javier. (2015, May 1). Urbanization Trends in Bolivia: Opportunities and Challenges. [Report]. Retrieved from http://documentos.bancomundial.org/curated/es/2015/07/24740146/urbanization-trends-bolivia-opportunities-challenges#
3. Avila, Tania. (2014, Mar). “Andean Cosmovision.” [Lecture].