Issue - May 2010

May 2010


In this edition, Rocío Carranza writes of her experience at the Climate Change Conference, Sradhanjali Kootungal distills Cochabamba’s confusing transportation network, Husein Meghji uncovers the story behind the political graffi ti around the city, Jamie Bassett looks at one of the city’s oldest festivals and Walter Sánchez unearths the origins of Santiago the Indian-killer. read more...

May 2010

If These Walls Could Talk

Grafitti is as much a part of Cochabamba´s urban scenery for Cochabambinos. Husein Meghji investigates the phenomenon and its impact.

Husein Meghji
Projects Abroad
London-United Kingdom

The briefest of walks in Cochabamba´s city centre suffices to make a newcomer aware of the extent to which it is a politicized city. Awareness of politics is not confined to the educated few who peruse the pages of ´Los Tiempos´ or surf the current affairs channels; the innumerable graffitied political messages which adorn the walls in bold, legible characters naturally draw the eye, indiscriminately forcing politics down the throats of all but the illiterate.

The “authors” of this graffiti are acutely aware of politics. The slightest of moves by the government can provoke, overnight, an array of messages, supporting or criticising the action. Whether denouncing the latest strike or attempting to influence an upcoming vote, the graffiti is a contraband form of political commentary running parallel to other news sources. Its authors see their medium as untainted by the corrupt influences which permeate the traditional media: “Crees en los medios?” reads one message. “Yo tampoco”. They are exercising the freedom of speech which they have a right to, as members of a democracy. Their motivation is purely political, and this is reflected in the total disregard for aesthetics in their graffiti; the merging of art and politics favoured by international graffiti artists such as Banksy has little place in Cochabamba.

Of course, political graffiti is not confined to Cochabamba; however, its quantity and pervasiveness here are remarkable. Two accepted truths can explain this. It is known that youth and graffiti go hand in hand and it also a fact that university students, in South America as in Europe, are a particularly active political group. Cochabamba, with four major universities on its soil, is therefore home to plenty of young, idealistic rebels who may be inclined to write graffiti. Of the four, Universidad Mayor de San Simon (UMSS) is the largest, boasting over 55,000 students; a formidable force when they intervene in the politics of the city. The streets surrounding the campus are among the most heavily-graffitied in all of Cochabamba, with the student political parties vying for space on the walls, by now totally covered with jumbles of acronyms, slogans and messages such as those in the preceding images.

The university campus has suffered much the same fate, although doodles and insults rub shoulders with the politics. Present too, are criticisms of teachers and their methods, which students dare not make publicly:

There is a clear link between student politics and the above messages of protest against professors; the way the university is run is top of the agenda of student parties and professors are often the target of their criticism. Th e parties denounce their poor attendance, lack of imagination, teaching methods and salaries.

This is one reason why so few students are actually involved in writing graffi ti; a mere 10% - the most politically active - according to the estimate of a source at UMSS, a 23-year old linguistics student now in his third year. “Before entering political life, students need to think twice about the consequences,” he says.

He goes on to tell me about a friend who cannot pass a class because the professor is hostile towards the party he belongs to and vice-versa.

“Sometimes, although they may identify with the political groups and their actions and graffi ti messages, many students do nothing.”

However, is writing political graffi ti any better than “doing nothing”? Or, to put the question another way, does it actually change anything?

Mujeres Creando only achieved international attention when they swapped paintbrushes and spray-cans for Molotov cocktails and dynamite.

Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), a radical feminist group born in La Paz in 1992, certainly believe that it does. And with good reason; their graffi ti, characterized by its creativity and provocative nature, has perhaps been the most important of the so-called acciónes callejeras (street actions) which have publicized their cause and earned them the notoriety that they enjoy today. In an interview conducted by journalist Katharine Ainger, one of their members described graffi ti as “one of the communicative forms that really gets through to people”. For her, “the street is ‘a common patio’. Th ey have told us that it is quite messed up in Europe… that everything is controlled: whether you can protest, whether or not you can sell things. Here in Bolivia, you go out into the street and you can see it belongs to the people: people doing things, people selling things – the street is ours…[w]hat we do in the street interacts with people.”

“No, no way.” My student source at San Simon has quite a diff erent view about whether graffi ti changes anything. However, he understands the need for a channel of expression: “When there’s no place to make your voice heard, graffi ti is the best way.”

Introduccion a la lingüística es fácil porque sólo repite los exámenes y todos se copian con sus chanchullas

Introduction to Linguistics is easy because the teacher repeats the exams and everyone copies each other with cheat sheets.

Furthermore, he maintains that while no direct change may occur in the university as a result of graffi ti messages, they do play an important role. Th is role is spreading information, particularly the kind that aff ects the students but is withheld from them; information about the increasing of salaries, the funding of faculties, decisions that impact some students groups, and so on. However, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the information is often incorrect, coming from unreliable sources. Furthermore, while graffi ti may be one way for students to make their voices heard, it does not always suffi ce; periodically, the fragile equilibrium maintaining peace and order breaks down, with spates of protest, often violent, as famously occurred in Cochabamba on June 15 2007, when teachers and students fought it out on the San Simon campus.

In the case of the Mujeres Creando, too, graffi ti has not been enough in securing change. Although their graffi ti campaign successfully introduced their radical anti-machismo ideas into the public domain, they only achieved international attention when they swapped paintbrushes and spray-cans for Molotov cocktails and dynamite during the occupation of the Bolivian Banking Supervisory Agency in 2001. Th ey were acting on behalf of Deudora, an organization of those indebted to microcredit institutions, who had exploited campesinos with extortionate rates of interest.

So are we to conclude that, while political graffi ti plays a role in informing and publicizing, its impact is limited? Or perhaps, to take a more negative standpoint, that it is a symptom of malaise, rather than the cure?

Certainly, if we assess its power to make changes that are observable, we are lead to a pessimistic conclusion. However, graffi ti does make changes, if not ones we can see. For once on public display, the thoughts, messages and grievances of the individuals responsible for graffi ti demand to be read. Once they line the streets traversed, each day, by innumerable men and women, they enter the public consciousness. Th e changes they achieve are not in political policy or the law, but in the public mentality. No-one who has walked the streets of Cochabamba could remain oblivious to the fact that many students, women and individuals feel alienated and politically discontent. Surely the very fact that this knowledge, through graffi ti messages, is common to all the city´s citizens is the fi rst stage in leading to real change.

Some examples of Mujeres Creando graffiti messages:

Mas vale una chola conocida que una gringa con SIDA

Somos lindas somos listas somos feministas

Si Evo tuviera útero el aborto seria despenalizado y nacionalizado
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The Luz Mila Patiño festival is more than just any festival; it is a celebration of traditional Bolivian music in an increasingly globalised world, attempting to preserve Bolivia´s distinctive styles of music before they are lost forever. Later this year the Simon I. Patiño Foundation will be hosting the nearly forty year old festival at the Palacio itself,.

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