Issue - November 2008

November 2008

In this issue of the cocha-banner: Catriona Knox interviews Leonardo de la Torre about internal aspects of migrants in Bolivia; Perry King explores the practice of Yoga in Cochabamba city; Encouraging people to donate blood is the topic of Barbara Walter's article; finally more...

November 2008

Absence and Presence

Catriona Knox
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Cambridge -United Kingdom

Migration forms an integral aspect of modern Bolivian life. Currently it is estimated that 3 million Bolivians live abroad, more than 30% of the total population.

This phenomenon has had an enormous impact on society, both economically and socially. The work of Leonardo de la Torre Ávila represents a unique insight into migration in Bolivia. In his book No llores, prenda, pronto volveré he studies the effects of migration from Arbieto, a village in Valle Alto half an hour from Cochabamba, to Arlington in Virginia, USA.

Through interviews with migrants and their families, both in Arbieto and Arlington, he explores the causes and consequences of this dispersion of local people.

Cocha-Banner: For how long have you been studying the topic of migration?

Leonardo de la Torre Ávila: I originally came across the subject in 2002 whilst working on a magazine report called “Adios Muchachos”. I soon realised that for all my life thisfascinating topic had passed me by. I researched migration in Arbieto for my thesis and it is such a huge area to explore that, six years later, I am still working on it.

CB: Why does this topic fascinate you so much?

LT: It wasn’t the topic of migration itself which captured my attention so much as the intensity and emotion in the stories of migrants I interviewed. I realised that migration is an extremely intense experience. It is not a simple decision but a search, a desperation for work, a sacrifice for one’s family and future. I spoke to mothers and fathers, happy in their families here, who left everything and everyone behind for the sake of future security. It was the intensity of these narrations which inspired me to pursue this topic.

In No llores Leonardo writes of the link between modern day patterns of migration and historical traditions of movement. For instance, in Incan culture, groups of families known as mitimaes were taken from their native communities and transferred to recently conquered settlements to work. This ancient practice bears many similarities to modern day Bolivian migration. In both cases, individuals work in foreign communities in order to benefit their families in the long run (or to benefit the Incan state in the case of the mitimaes). For both there is an eventual necessity to return to the homeland left behind.

CB: To what extent do you believe that modern migration is a continuation of historical traditions such as those of the mitimaes?

LT: I don’t think of these traditions as an ancestral cause for modern migration so much as a symbol and poetic means of describing the current phenomenon. However, there are definitely aspects of modern migration in which you can still see the footprints of these ancient practices. As before, the necessity for movement is a part of Bolivian identity. As one of my interviewees said, “We were born to migrate.” Today’s migrants leave in order to improve the lives of themselves and their families and, as with the mitimaes, always with the intention of eventual return.

CB: You mention in your book the concept of “el sueño andino” (the andean dream) which, unlike the “American Dream”, values reputation over wealth and the community over individuality. What are the effects of these distinct goals?

LT: Migration patterns from this region are very unique, and the concept of “andean values” allows a clearer explanation of these practices. The migrants I spoke with from Arbieto have maintained strong links with their community whilst abroad. These individuals are in continual contact with their families, through the telephone or annual visits home. Generous financial donations, both to relations and the community at large, also represent a type of presence, as well as a means of achieving a prestigious reputation.

However, the “andean dream” is an idealised set of values and it is important not to generalise. There are of course a number of cases where migrants have forgotten their hometown, and there is no evidence of community solidarity.

In his book, Leonardo cites many examples of the ways in which migration has improved the quality of life of migrants’ native communities, specifically Arbieto. On a visit to Arbieto, direct evidence of these positive consequences is everywhere. In the principal plaza stand a new statue and football ground, financed by migrants in Arlington. INCOPEA, an organisation founded by migrants in the US, saves between 7 and 15,000 dollars annually for projects such as these.

A particularly good example of the benefits migrants have brought to Arbieto lies in the development of the local peach industry. Wealthy migrants are able to invest in land, irrigation, and fertilizers which previously would have been unaffordable. Aside from financial help, migrants also bring the “know how” of more effective agricultural techniques to their native communities. These peach farms have created a multitude of new jobs for non-migrant families, and thanks to the industry’s development, Valle Alto is now the second most important peach producer in the department of Cochabamba.

CB: In Arbieto, the community has clearly benefited from migrants’ investments. However, many critics argue that the majority of wealth saved overseas is shared only with direct family, increasing the divide between the rich and poor. Do you agree with this view?

LT: Not completely, although I am well aware of these criticisms. Migration is not an ideal model for development, but it does entail positive changes for a community. Even if migrants do not invest directly in the wider community, their wealth leads to an increase in the amount of money in circulation in general. Building a family house for example generates new jobs in the construction industry for non-migrants.

But yes, there are social tensions between those with family members abroad and those without. Violence and discrimination does arise because of the social and economic power migrants hold in a community. However, non-migrants also hold a type of power over those who have spent time overseas. Because of their stronger long-term involvement with community affairs, they are more likely to be involved in local politics for example.

CB: In many cases, couples migrate overseas leaving their children and extended families behind in Bolivia. What are the reasons for this decision, and what are the consequences of this fragmentation of the family?

LT:? Life is tough for migrants, especially in their first few years abroad, parents have to work constantly and live in difficult conditions. However, even with enough funds for a comfortable house and good education, many believe Bolivia is a better place to raise their children than an unknown foreign country.

It is important to realise that the decision to migrate is not made by individuals but by the extended family as a whole. This family support means that parents always have the confidence that their children will be looked after by those relatives who stay behind.

Critics argue that children in the care of relatives are unprotected resulting in problems with drugs, alcohol or loose values. However these criticisms are poorly founded. Bolivia is still a highly patriarchal society and many do not agree with the idea of an independent woman migrating to work overseas. This is an area which these critics latch onto in order to condemn migration as an unethical decision.

Contrary to what the critics say, migrating parents are not abandoning their families. In fact, it is the opposite: the chief motive for migration of this kind is for the sake of longterm financial security and a better future for children and family.

CB: You write that the lifestyle of migrants contains aspects from Bolivia and also from the country of residence. Can you describe in more detail the characteristics of this transnational identity?

LT: Identity is not an individual notion but a means of presenting yourself to others. It is a flexible concept which can be shaped to fit the social situation. In the case of migrants, their identity depends on whom they are standing in front of. For instance, when trying to find work in the US, a migrant will likely come across as more American in order to increase their chances of employment. But at other moments they might defend their Bolivian heritage with passion.

An Aymara is not labeled as such when in an Aymaran community. It is only when that person leaves and is placed in front of other ethnic groups such as whites and Quechuas that being “Aymara” becomes a defining feature of their identity. It is the same with Bolivians. Because of their foreign surroundings, many migrants preserve typical food, dances, or customs with more strength than they would at home. This patriotic identity is a means of establishing yourself in an unknown place and telling your neighbors, “look, we didn´t come from nowhere.”

Bolivia is a country overflowing with examples of migration. Some return, some maintain contact, some leave forever. These decisions depend on a complicated combination of factors. Leonardo emphasises that you have to study each family one by one in order to understand why they have decided to undertake this journey. This personal focus to his research is what makes it so fascinating. Readers of his work will agree that Bolivian migration is a topic which deserves a great deal of attention in order to deepen our understanding of these decisions and their consequences. For those interested in this area, Leonardo has recently published his second book La Cheqanchada which explores the contrasts in migration patterns between two different Cochabamban communities.

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