Individuals fall away and die; the mass goes on relentlessly. Tens of thousands of people each evening cross the Plaza La Ceja of El Alto. Before boarding packed old buses to complete their return from work to home, family and shelter in rustic adobe dwellings that sprawl over the altiplano to form the giant satellite community of E1 Alto.
La Ceja means edge or precipice. At the edge of the confusion, overlooking the basin that cradles the capital of Bolivia, a long phalanx of fortune-tellers' shacks, built of weathered wood and rusted iron sheeting, stands behind a big statue of Christ, with outstretched arms reaching at nightfall across the darkening chasm of La Paz toward the last traces of light that fall upon the deep, shifting snows that crown the great mountain, Illimani, 21,000 feet high, cold mother of the city. The corrugated metal roofs of the fortune-tellers' shacks are laden with stones to prevent the night wind from blowing them away. Just before nightfall, men in overalls and women with sick infants on their backs form lines in front of the fortune-tellers' shacks in desperate searches for substitutes for clinical assistance.
Chilling gusts of wind from the altiplano sweep across the Plaza La Ceja, biting into the bodies of the shadowy droves of processioners filing past rows of Aymara market women who squat in the dim light of kerosene lamps and candles wrapped in old newspapers. Many with swaddled infants on their backs or at the breast, these comerciantes sit on the ground behind their merchandise, neatly arranged on plastic sheets: sacks carefully folded open to display spices and vegetable dyes of many colors, tripods of carrots and cucumbers, pyramids formed by piles of potatoes, tomatoes, flashlight batteries, toilet paper and candies, as well as more informal displays of soap, bread, old magazines, religious literature, plastic bowls and baby clothes. Many of these wares are imported, showing Bolivia's continuing ability to obtain consumer goods if not producers' goods. The women's goods are spread out in meager quantities on sidewalks and empty lots, in alleys and alongside railroad tracks in the Plaza La Ceja and its vicinity to await the favor of the passing public.
The passing public is usually in a hurry . However, it must pause to pick and haggle over the comerciantes' wares with increasing care as each passing week and month brings its added dose of poverty. Over the past year, the black market price of the dollar has risen from 3,000 to 250,000 Bolivian pesos. Senior government officials thus find themselves earning the equivalent of $50 monthly while pensioners get $6. While the rate of inflation is harder to measure precisely, it appears to have taken more than a tenfold leap over the past year, from less than 300% annually to more than 3,000%. The government has fallen behind in paying salaries and pensions, aggravating the plague of strikes, slow-downs and blockades of highways that weaken economic activity even more. The government cannot invest and thus must confine its activities to paperwork. However, it even lacks money to buy paper to do its paperwork.
The street life of La Paz may be more intense than any other Latin American capital, greater even than that of giant cities like Mexico and Sao Paulo, each with a population of more than 16 million. The passing public mills about in crowds and forms lines as the market for goods and services invades every open space and breaks down into different sections. Three blocks from the Plaza, across the railroad tracks, young men with ravaged faces congregate what is known as the barrio chino, or thieves' market, offering for sale old clothes and shoes, dishes, a used cocking stove and a bicycle wheel. A fight breaks out, and policemen intervene, when a housewife and her brother when they find a young man trying to sell their stolen blanket to the passing crowd. At the edge of the Plaza, food stalls serve api (a warm corn-based beverage) and biñulos ( huge crisp pancakes made of subsidized wheat flour). On either side of the plaza buses and trucks come and go, stopping only to load and passengers as small boys rush to each stop to announce destinations, which is one of the ways small boys make a living in the Plaza La Ceja. The process of survival remains a mystery, but the procession not only survives but grows. As it grows it breeds greater confusion over the basic legitimacies of urban life, even over the "right" to live, embracing the price of bread and a bus ride, both officially controlled at less than one U.S penny each during field research for this report, or two U.S. pennies for a liter of gasoline (8 U.S. cents per gallon), one-tenth the local cost of an equal volume of Coca-Cola.
The explosive growth of street selling in the Plaza La Ceja took place in the economic crisis of the early 1980s. Throughout La Paz the street markets, with their relentless proliferation of comerciantes, press themselves upon every open space in crowded sections of the city. In the Plaza La Ceja, land once occupied by a municipal storehouse, demolished to make room for a parking lot for construction and road maintenance equipment, was invaded suddenly in early 1983 by comerciantes from poorer markets in outlying areas who quickly set up stalls, tents and stables under big, tilted umbrellas, In this news market, Aymara women sit behind rows of wheelbarrows loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables from the Yungas valleys while others sell hot food, coffee and native soft drinks to the passing public. Among the leaders of this invasion were Julio and Victoria Sallaco, who tell of the pressures and circumstances under which the new market was created.
Victoria: They gassed us. They wanted to get us out of there. With teargas they have made us suffer. This place has cost us much sacrifice. Also, the other sellers just in front of us, who sell along the railroad tracks, won't leave us alone because they're afraid of the competition. They curse us and bribe the mayor to get us out. They say we are just ambulantes (roving street sellers). Because we were ambulantes before forming our union, we suffered much. The gas they threw at us made us sick. Two babies died because of the gas.
Julio: Even when she just began to sell in La Ceja, Victoria occupied a high post in the sindicato of sellers. She was Secretary of Conflicts. To back her up, I also became active and now am Secretary-General. Our sindicato is called El Progreso and now has 250 members. We are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with another sindicato and have become affiliated to the Confederation of Retailers and the COB (Central Obrera Boliviano). With such good affiliations, we are struggling to formally acquire this land to build a new market. The former mayor wanted to kick us out, but the new mayor is on our side. We fought for the change of mayors. We even had an audience with President Hernan Siles Suazo, and the new mayor is from his party. The new mayor has signed the paper allowing us to stay here.
Victoria: That's where I sell, serving hot food. I leave my house at 8 am and stay there all day. I get up at 4 am each day to cook for that day's market. Sometimes the sales come only in little drops. On some days I can sell only two or three plates of food. On Saturdays and Sundays I can earn 10,000 pesos (67 US Cents) clean for the whole day, and during the week I can earn 5,000 pesos daily. The advantage is that you can feed your family the food you can't sell. On the other hand, much of what we earn is spent on taxis. The bus drivers won't take us aboard with our bundles, pots and the food we have to buy for the next day. The buses are too crowded. What we earn goes mainly to buy more food and to pay for taxis. We always are in danger of losing our capital. There's also lots of competition, lots of women selling food. People like my cooking, but I lack capital. I lack money to buy pots big enough for the amount of food I can sometimes sell. My regular customers like me to alternate dishes from day to day, so one day I cook chicken and the next day roast. I buy backyard chickens instead of the ones from farms because my customers find them more tasty. A chicken can cost about US$ 1 and is good for about 10 servings in luncheon dishes that sell for 15 cents each and contain rice, noodles, potatoes, vegetables and a little meat. On a good day I can sell 20 of these dishes. Then I can also make big platos extras, loaded with lots of chicken, which people can pay $ 1 each to eat. I can sell around 30 platos extras per week. That makes the competition very envious. They just shout to announce their dishes and nobody comes. There's free competition and no deals about prices or amounts of food in each dish. Most of my customers are sellers in the same market, selling vegetables and fresh meat. There are also men who come to the market each day to eat. And on Sundays there are the men who come to our little market to buy and sell plots of land in new villas being created in El Alto.
Julio: We're doing much better here than we were in the little neighborhood market in front of the school in Villa Pacajes. I was born in the province of Pacajes and knew lots of people in Villa Pacajes here, but there just wasn't very much business. In the neighborhood market I sold hardware, mainly nails, that I spread on a plastic sheet on the ground. But sales came in drips and drops and I've stopped selling. You need capital to increase sales. Now I just help my wife. Food sells much faster.
Victoria: I used to make trips by bus to Desaguadero on the Peruvian border, three hours away, to buy things there and sell them here; But the children suffered when I made these trips and sometimes didn't eat. So now I just sell food in La Ceja. Now we talk about building a big covered market on the land conquered by our sindicato. But we don't know whether we can afford the sacrifice. There are people who hate us around here, especially the women who sell across the way, alongside the railroad tracks.
Julio: We are thinking about a building of three stories to house the new market. This will crown our efforts of many years. We've been living in El Alto since 1968, he year we joined our lives, and I have done many things.
Victoria: Julio built this little one-room house. My comadre, who owns the land, told us: "build here and you can live for free".
Julio: That was six years ago. We are just caretakers here. We don't pay rent. The land is owned by our comadre. Her husband died. He was the developer to sold lots to people all around here. I built our house and we became caretakers. I am an experienced mason. I worked at that when I was young, among many other things. Just before we moved to El Alto from downtown I worked at an iron foundry owned by a Mexican company that went broke. They fired everybody. That was just after I got out of the army. Since then, Victoria and I have been through many things together. We have had six children. Two of them died. Victoria gave birth at home, without even the aid of a midwife, attended only by me. The baby died because of my ignorance. After that I worked in a mattress factory owned by a gringo, an Argentine, as a temporary employee. I was fired after a year so the boss wouldn't have to make social security payments. After that, I went to work on the government railways but I was fired in 1971 because of calumnies about some missing things. Since then I've been doing business on my own. I traveled by train to Villazón, in Potosí Department, at the Argentine border, where I traded in things like flour, shoes, crackers, pots and pans, almost anything. I had to stop making this trip because I lacked capital. When the train fare went up it became too expensive to make trips to Villazón.
Victoria: We lost our capital when the price of everything rose. We sold all our things too cheap and couldn't replace our stock. Before this year, we could travel to Villazón with just a little capital. After the big devaluations of the peso, we ate all our capital and don't make trips anymore.
Julio: But there are other ways to get cheap merchandise with little capital. Sometimes they bring us stuff from the Peruvian port of Matarani. Other times certain friends I have in the airport among the customs agents give me other things to sell --watches, calculators and other little things-- that they take from smugglers arriving from Panama and Europe. My friends give me these things to sell and I return their capital and keep the profit. But with the devaluations, there's little merchandise coming in these days. Once in a while I find something to sell, like spare parts for cars, but mainly we now live by Victoria selling food and myself helping her.
Seated on his high shoe-shine chair in the middle of the Plaza La Ceja, waiting for customers, Juan Carlos Mamani Choque commands a spectacular yet intimate view of the comings and goings. Born 28 years ago in the rural area of Jampaturi, outside La Paz, Mamani has been shining shoes in the Plaza for three years. Every day he wears the same blue coveralls and the same floppy shepherd's sheepskin hat for protection from gusts of wind and dust and from the brilliant altiplano sunlight. He has seen many people come and go.
Mamani: Of all the changuitos (little boys) who sleep in open air here in La Ceja, many come from far away. There was one chango from Viacha who used to shout for customers at the stalls of the women who sell food, who paid them 100 pesos (US$ 0.007) each time they gave help. The changuito from Viacha slept behind my shoeshine chair during the day. He came by to sleep at 9 o'clock in the morning and awoke at 1 pm. He worked at night helping the market women. He didn't sleep at night because it was so cold that he could die. The kid said he had parents who didn't have food to give him, so he came here to earn some pesitos. He told me he was a shoeshine boy but lost his box somewhere and then started working for the market women. I gave him something for food and lots of other people gave him 20 or 30 pesos. He would come here every day and then he suddenly disappeared. I never knew his name. Now there are fewer changuitos helping the women who sell coffee because the price of coffee has gone up to 700 pesos. Sales have gone down and 100 pesos is too little to buy almost anything, so the changuitos are beginning to disappear.
Gall: What about the others I see here?
Mamani: Other changos still work at night but never return to their homes. They don't listen to their parents and join up with bad friends and work as announcers at the bus stops. They earn 80 or 100 pesos each time they shout for a bus, announcing routes to waiting passengers going to all parts of El Alto. The changuitos who are orphans sleep in the houses of the women who hire them at night. These women sell coffee and hamburgers all night to travelers, taxi-drivers and workers on night shifts down in the city and come up to El Alto after work. The changuitos help the women by bringing them jugs of water for making coffee. They work all night and at dawn they are still beside the women to wash dishes and bring and at dawn they are still beside the women wash dishes and bring more water to make fresh batches of coffee for the people on their way to work after 6 am. All they earn for a night's work is coffee, something to nibble on and maybe a place to sleep. I saw this because one night I slept here in the plaza to get my hands on a tall young man who robbed me of 150 pesos. In those days, 150 pesos was real money. I stayed here all night, but never got my hands on him.
Gall: Were you a changuito like these kids?
Mamani: We were four children: Eugenia, the oldest; Juan Cruz, Lorenzo and I the youngest. Mama was raising us in Jampaturi. But then she got another husband and went with him to the hot valleys of the Yungas. Eugenia stayed behind to raise us, but then she got sick and my mother took my two brothers with her to the Yungas and we were abandoned. We had some sheep, but some got sick and died and others were stolen from the corral. So my mother came back again and took Eugenia and I to the Yungas. It was hot in the Yungas and there were no potatoes their and no chuño, only bananas, which I didn't like. My sister and then my stepfather died there. I found better work raising chickens for a man named Roberto Mantilla in the town of Chulumani. That's where I really grew up. I earned according to the number of chickens I raised. I started raising chickens when I was 16 left the job when I was 20 because the lime we used in preventing disease among the chickens was affecting me. Then I met my wife and we had our first son, Marco Antonio, who died when he was two years old. He had diarrhea and we were waiting for him to get better but he become skinnier and died. We didn't take him to a doctor. We took him to a woman tried to cure him but couldn't. She helped us bury him in the General Cemetery.
The scene of the interview shifts to Juan Carlos Mamani's adobe dwelling in Villa Rosaspampa, the part of E1 Alto where MNR peasant militia were given lots three decades ago by President Hernan Siles Suazo in his first term of office (1956-60). The house is built against the rear wall of a yard where Mamani and his family have been permitted to live rent-free as caretakers by a widow who lives in the front of the yard. With him is wife, Delfina Canqui de Mamani, 30, born in the Indian community of Caciaviri in Pacajes province, who began work as a housemaid in La Paz at age 10. The house contains one room with an earthen floor. Most of the floor area is occupied by two beds huddled together and covered with heavy homespun blankets, where the couple and their two young children sleep. At the back of the room are large bundles of old clothes. Cooking is done on a tiny kerosene stove in a corner. Nine chickens, raised by the couple, forage in the yard. The muddy street outside, lined by monotonous adobe walls, is liberally studded with turds, usually deposited by residents early in the morning. Inside their house, seated on the beds, the Mamanis tell their story of shoe-polish:
Mamani: I get 300 pesos for each shoe-shine and can earn 3.500 pesos (23 U.S. cents) clean each day. That means I have to be very careful about shoe-polish. Bolivian polish costs less, 6.000 or 6.500 pesos a can, but doesn't many shines. The imported Peruvian stuff is much better, but costs more: 7.000-9.000 pesos. The imported stuff gives a better shine with less work. It has a nice smell. Bolivian polish has an ugly smell and hurts your eyes. Sometimes it is so hard to feed your family and buy polish at the same time that I become very sad and think of going somewhere else. I think of going to Santa Cruz or Tarija to find new work. I leave at 5:30 in the morning to walk to the Plaza La Ceja and come home at 8 at night without enough money to feed my babies. My friends say living is expensive in Santa Cruz, but there's work. I was going to leave yesterday, but my wife said I should stay. The man who urges me to go says I can buy flour and rice and shoe polish very cheap. But my wife discourages me. Once I took a trip for two weeks and when I returned my little girl was sick. I feel sorry for my babies. My wife tells me to stay, not to travel. She says I may have to go without food and sleep in the street. But if one suffers, he may earn money. The unknown is difficult. There may be more hope here now because my wife went to Desaguadero and brought back two dozen cans of Peruvian polish: one dozen of black and one dozen brown.
Delfina: They cost 1.700 sols (Peruvian) a dozen. Then I took the bus back to La Paz. But near Guaqui a station wagon full of customs agents chased us down. They asked who owned those earthen jars and what was in them. Our driver didn't answer and neither did the passengers when we were asked, one by one. The customs agents unloaded the jugs and took us back to the Peruvian border and locked us all up. The 10 soldiers told us that if we wanted to go free the next day each of us would have to pay 40,000 pesos. Some of us had money, others no. I only had 5,000 pesos left after paying the bus fare. Then they started hitting us and calling us thieves and outlaws. They took away three cans of my shoe-polish, but I hid the others inside my skirt and kept the baby on top of them. They came back to hit us three times and said we would die of hunger. But a gentleman among us told us not to cry; he would help us escape. Later a little girl, about nine years old, came near the door. A woman told her we would give her lots of money if she opened the door for us. She opened the door and there was a boat tied outside. I climbed in with four other women. We took a long turn around to make our escape and landed where you get the bus for La Paz. I handed out the cans of shoe-polish to the other women for safe-keeping and got them back when we came near to La Paz.
Mamani: Shoe-polish is made of gasoline. When the dollar rises, the price of shoe-polish rises also because it is brought all the way from Arequipa (Peru). When you don't have enough capital to buy shoe-polish, then you're in trouble. People give up and do other things. Milton used to work next to me shining shoes in La Ceja but now he works as a cargador (burden-bearer) in the 16 de Julio market. He is a cargador now because the polish was very expensive and he drank a lot, so the money he earned didn't go very far. People say his wife didn't let him in the house because he didn't give her money to buy food and cook. They had a fight and he went away. I knew another agile shoe-shiner, about 40 years old. He had trouble and sold everything. Finally he sold his shoe-shine chair. People in offices gave him old clothes. He worked at a fixed spot in the Plaza Perez Velasco. But after he sold his chair he wandered around with a wooden shoe-shine box. He sold me his water boots and he also had a big overcoat for sale. Finally, some company gave him a new chair as a present but I haven't seen him for some time. Another poor man failed who had a bad foot, like mine. He worked in the Plaza 16 de Julio and ruined himself by drinking. A friend of his had a tape-recorder that he stole and then sold. The little man walked with a wooden crutch and lived in the street, since he had no house. His wife was half idiot and also sick. His friend, seeing that he had sold the tape recorder, took away his shoe-shine chair and had him arrested. The little man couldn't earn a living until he got a shoe-shine box, but he kept on drinking. He died in the street. In El Alto, we shoe-shiners aren't united because we are poor. There's a shoe-shiners' sindicato but all it wants is our money. They took away the little man and carried him to the morgue, where they say they burned the body. Later the shoe-shiners from downtown La Paz came up to El Alto blamed us for not letting then know. They told us the poor are buried by asking help from the funeral parlors.
It's hard to rise in life but very easy to fall. Before I started shining shoes, I worked in a pissoir (mingitorio) for two years. In the Mercado Felix Hinojosa in the great market district of the Avenida Buenos Aires downtown. My wife and I were selling food in the market when we got to know the father of the owner of the pissoir, don Lucho Tintal. After some discussion, he asked me to take charge of the pissoir. I was contracted after I showed him where I lived and my identity card. I was the cashier and controlled the money. The men paid 20 centavos to piss. Don Lucho had other businesses: he imported radios and phonographs from other countries. I also was responsible for keeping the pissoir clean. When the inspectors came, I had to present myself. I had to beg them not to fine me when they found the pissoir dirty. If they fined the pissoir, they would deduct the fine from my salary or kick me out altogether. To not get fined, I hard to do all kinds of tricks. I paid little boys sometimes six pesos, sometimes 10 pesos, to clean the place. To not get fired, I had to drive them very hard. In the two years I worked there I never was fined. I left the job because the salary was too low. When I left the pissoir I was earning 1.500 pesos monthly. I never saw the sun and developed rheumatism from staying inside so much in such a humid place. Apart from the cold and the humidity, the pissoir had many problems: the pipes were always leaking and then the roof fell in. After I left the job, don Lucho came looking for me and asked me to go back. But I was sick by then and, besides, the pissoir had been closed by the inspectors because the roof was so bad.
Market activity in El Alto is not limited to the teeming crossroads of La Ceja or the great twice-weekly fair of 16 de Julio. Throughout the sprawling adobe villas that fan out over the altiplano, peasant-type markets are held weekly or twice-weekly at strategically-located bus depots, soccer fields or schoolyards, while small groups of women spread out tiny quantities of fruits and vegetables every day at street corners of remote communities. One of them is Elena Huanca de Reloba, born 30 years ago on the site of the ancient city of Tiahuanaco, who sells at a corner of Villa Brazil, Sector Rio Seco, El Alto.