POPULATION: 7 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Quechua; Aymara
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism
The highlands and jungles of Bolivia have been inhabited for thousands of years, long before the Spanish arrived in the fifteenth century. As a Spanish colony, Bolivia was part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The city of La Paz was founded by Alonso de Mendoza in 1548. It is modern Bolivia's political capital. General Antonio José de Sucre gained Bolivian independence from Spain in 1825. He founded the República de Bolívar (Republic of Bolivia) in honor of Simon Bolívar, the fighter for South American independence. The new republic had a senate and a house of representatives.
Bolivia has been a mining country. First, it was famous for its silver mines in the city of Potosí. The mines provided great riches for Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Later Bolivia was one of the first providers of tin for the world market. Miserable conditions for miners led to the founding of a radical workers' party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR). It came to power under President Victor Paz Estenssoro in the 1950s. The government then took over the mines, and introduced agricultural, industrial, and social reforms.
Bolivia later suffered under a number of military dictators. Then it suffered by disastrous economic conditions under President Siles Zuazo, who was a leftist. Democratic elections have been held more recently. Today Bolivia is considered to be a working democracy.
Bolivia is a landlocked South American country of almost seven million people. More than 50 percent are Amerindians who speak mainly Quechua or Aymara as well as Spanish. The others are mainly descendants of Spaniards and mestizos (part Indian, part Spanish). There are a few other Indian groups, some in the rain forest of the Amazon River basin.
Bolivia shares a border to the north and east with Brazil, to the west with Peru, to the southwest with Chile, to the south with Argentina, and to the southeast with Paraguay.
Bolivia has a varied climate and terrain, or set of geographic features. In the western part, the Andean cordillera (system of mountain ranges) extends from north to south. It has some of the highest peaks in South America. The center of the country consists of fertile valleys. The lowlands extend east toward the Amazon rain forest.
The official language of Bolivia is Spanish, although many Indians speak either Quechua (the language spoken originally by the Incas) or Aymara (a language spoken by Indians before the arrival of the Incas). Most Indians speak Spanish as well, although peasants in isolated parts of the country do not speak any Spanish.
A myth of the early Incas and other Indians was that a bearded white man had come to teach the Indians and would return. He was known as the Creator God, Viracocha. When the Spanish arrived, the Incas mistook the white Spanish conquerors for Viracocha. This belief was widespread. In Mexico, the Aztecs called this figure Quetzalcoatl. It is thought that this myth contributed to the ease with which the Spaniards entered the major Indian cities.
Most Bolivians are Roman Catholic. However, among the Indian groups, certain beliefs and rituals remain from the time before Christopher Columbus. Their respect for nature is embodied in the belief in Mother Earth, known as Pachamama.
Bolivians celebrate the main Catholic holidays such as Easter, Christmas, and Corpus Christi. They also celebrate Labor Day, and their Independence Day is August 6.
A major festival celebrated in March is Pookhyái , which is held in the Andean town of Tarabuco. There the famous heroine Juana Azurduy led her people against the Spanish in the Battle of Jambati on March 12, 1816, and liberated the town. Pookhyái is a Quechua word meaning "entertainment." During the festival, dozens of groups in local costume dance and sing. The whole town, together with thousands of visitors, takes part in a special Quechua mass and procession. It is a joyful celebration in which Bolivians give thanks for their freedom as a nation.
Carnival is celebrated throughout Bolivia the week before Lent. The Diablada, one of the most typical dances, has elaborate costumes and masks of the devil. It is arranged to represent a battle between good and evil. The dancers celebrate the victory of good, represented by the Archangel Michael, over evil, represented by Lucifer and his devils. Other groups reenact the Conquest, in which Spanish conquerors such as Francisco Pizarro fight with the Incas. The feasting and dancing last several days.
Most children in Bolivia receive the Catholic sacrament of baptism at birth. They receive First Communion at the age of seven and confirmation at the beginning of adolescence. These ceremonies are regarded as important events.
During the teenage years, Bolivian boys and girls are expected to maintain close ties with their families. Many Bolivians marry in church, but they have to have a civil marriage as well. When a person dies, he or she receives a Catholic funeral. A dying person sometimes makes a final confession to a priest.
In many Indian communities, Catholic and Indian beliefs exist together.
A formal greeting will include the words "Mucho gusto," equivalent to the English "Pleased to meet you." There is also an informal greeting, "Qué tal?" which means, "How are you?" But Bolivians do not stop there. It is also considered polite to ask about other family members, and the greetings can become quite extensive.
Men shake hands, but in the cities men and women greet each other with a kiss. When people visit, they are served a small cup of black coffee.
In some small cities, Bolivians are very traditional about dating. Families keep a close watch on their daughters' friends and social contacts. In many places, girls are not supposed to date boys who do not know their parents. Parents will first find out about the boy's family if they do not already know his family. Many people marry when they are still quite young.
Bolivia is one of the poorest countries of the Americas. Many Bolivians, particularly in rural areas, live completely outside the cash economy. They have a very simple lifestyle. In the major cities, such as La Paz, Bolivians live a more modern lifestyle.
Many people do not have a car and use buses and trucks for local and long-distance travel. Practically all towns are connected by extensive bus routes. Pack animals are used in the more remote highland areas.
In one sense, women have a lower status than men in Bolivia, but in another sense they are seen as very important. They are at the center of family life in their role as mother, wife, and member of the extended family. In the lower social and economic classes, women provide the economic support of the family. Since colonial times, Indian women have been part of the business and trade activities of Bolivia.
Although this is changing, Bolivian families have traditionally been quite large. Having six or seven children is not uncommon. A family is not only a father, a mother, and their children, but includes other relatives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. This traditional extended family is the main social-support system in Bolivia.
In the cities, men wear trousers and shirts, or suits. Women wear skirts and blouses, or dresses. Men in the countryside often wear ponchos, which developed from the Spanish cape.
The foundation of the Bolivian diet in the Andean highlands or altiplano is the potato. Main meals in the major towns include some meat, but there is also rice. Often both rice and potatoes are served, as well as salad or vegetables. Bolivian food tends to be plain and filling.
A typical Bolivian snack is the salteña, a spicy version of the empanada, a type of turnover popular all over South America. The salteña is spicy, and is filled with a mixture of chopped chicken or meat, potatoes, raisins, olives, onions, hard-boiled eggs, and spices. Both salteñas and empanadas are shaped like half moons and are fried or sometimes baked.
In La Paz, pieces of beef heart grilled on skewers are popular. They are known as anticuchos. A hot, peppery sauce called llajua is often served with meats.
Primary education is officially available to all Bolivian children. However, it did not really come to the villages until the 1950s. Since then, high school education has been more attainable. Most Bolivian cities, including La Paz, Cochabamba, and Sucre, have universities, some of which have existed for hundreds of years. The largest universities are funded by the government and are practically free to students who qualify. There are also many private universities.
Bolivia has many fine churches that date from colonial times. One of the painters who was an expert at portraying religious subjects is Holguín. His paintings of the birth of Christ and the birth of the Virgin Mary are in the Church of Merced in the city of Sucre. The church was built in 1581.
One of the best known Bolivian writers is Alcides Arguedas (1879–1946). He was also a sociologist and a diplomat (representing Bolivia to the governments of other countries). He even served for a time as Bolivia's minister for agriculture. He wrote about major aspects of Bolivian Indian life. His novels include Raza de Bronce (The Bronze Race), Vida Criolla (Creole Life), Pisagua, and Wata-wara.
Another important modern writer is Augusto Céspedes. In a novel called El Metal del Diablo (The Devil's Metal) he examined the lives of the very wealthy men who controlled the tin business.
In rural areas, many Bolivians work as farmers on small plots of land. Mining has a long history in Bolivia, from the colonial silver mines of the Potosí to the tin mines of today. When the international tin market collapsed in 1985, thousands of tin miners were lost their jobs. So as not to starve to death, many miners moved to the lowlands. They began growing coca leaves for the illegal cocaine industry.
In the towns, people work as street vendors, in the construction industry, as maids and housekeepers, or as plumbers, electricians, or carpenters. There is also a middle class of professionals. In addition to doctors and lawyers, there are more and more engineers and technicians of various types.
All kinds of modern sports are played by Bolivian young people. There are inter-school athletic competitions. There are also professional basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams. Probably the most popular sport is soccer, and major towns have stadiums filled with enthusiastic crowds during matches. One of the best-known stadiums is the Hernando Siles in the city of La Paz.
As in many other Latin American countries, there are many movie theaters in Bolivia and people enjoy going to the movies. Most of the main cities also have theaters where plays are performed.
In the town of Santa Cruz, there are modern discos, which are very popular among the young people. There are also discos in La Paz, Cochabamba, and Sucre.
One of the most enjoyable events in Bolivia is Carnival , the period preceding Lent. It is celebrated everywhere, but with interesting variations according to local costumes, dancing, and music.
One of Bolivia's major crafts is weaving. Most young girls in rural areas learn to weave and spin. Patterns and colors vary according to the region. Patterns use geometric shapes or depict animals. Occasionally they show aspects of daily home life. Alpaca and llama wool have been used traditionally, but sheep's wool is also used today.
Many interesting musical instruments are made in Bolivia, including the charango, a type of guitar, as well as native violins and a wide variety of woodwind instruments.
The most pressing social problem in Bolivia is poverty. Despite many efforts to stamp out the production of coca (from which cocaine is made), hundreds of thousands of people are employed in growing and distributing it. Many peasant farmers, who are often desperately poor, have attempted to grow other types of crops. The crop-substitution programs begun by the Bolivian government offer crops to replace the coca, such as coffee and bananas. Unfortunately, these crops cannot produce anything like the income that coca farming provides.
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