“Man, I feel like a womyn”

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Pablo and Nicole • Bolivia, 6/18/08 • Just another 20-hour day in Bolivia (14 hours of work, 6 hours of play). Yeah, that whole balance thing is going really well.

This blog is written as its authors work on a new research project titled “Women on the Frontlines: Resource Battles, Popular Movements, and Gender Dynamics in Bolivia and Ecuador.” An Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) grant for innovative faculty-student collaboration supports Paul Dosh and Nicole Kligerman in an effort to craft a new model of faculty-student “complementary collaboration.” One way that they share their efforts is through a blog titled “Equal Footing: Collaboration at 13,000 Feet” (equalfooting.blogspot.com). This post is taken from the Equal Footing blog, with Paul’s writing in italics and Nicole’s in regular typeface.

It began with our usual breakfast feast of freshly baked empanadas (meat or cheese), salteñas (the sweet and messy breakfast version of an empanada), apple strudel, juice, coca tea, and a whole bag of the same (unheated) to carry with us to El Alto to eat on the hoof for lunch. A thousand vertical feet later we were careening through our fourth day of blitzkrieg fieldwork. At the (Women’s) Citizen Action headquarters, our delightful contact and now friend Norah Quispe met with us for the third time and, as she was not entirely satisfied that we were talking to the right people, took the liberty of calling them all up and inviting them to come meet with us all in one place at the same time. Quite the gift. By today (Thursday) we had already begun to follow up with individual interviews with several of these community leaders, but having them all come to us at once was a huge time saver, as we only had to explain ourselves and win their trust once (which is more time-consuming in Bolivia than in Peru or Ecuador, chiefly because the Alteños have had such a brutal time and have wisely learned to trust slowly). When the tape recorder comes out, the eyebrows go up. Just wait until we try the iPod/iTalk digital recorder!

Our meeting with the Colectivo de Mujeres (Women’s Collective) was extremely powerful. Beginning in May 2003, these women have organized themselves in protest of the sale of natural gas, stating that it threatens the future of their children. They worked hard to inform the public about the issue, putting flyers under doors and putting up graffiti slogans in the dead of night. Slowly, Altenos (people from El Alto) began to realize the significance of the sale of natural gas (and natural resources in general) and how it further threatens Bolivia’s ability to be an autonomous nation. The actions of the women (along with other groups such as the FEJUVE and the COR) resulted in the famous mobilizations of October 2003, during which time all of El Alto worked to shut down both El Alto and La Paz. During this time, about 80 Altenos were killed by soldiers, there was very little food, and no access to medicine. Many of the women of the Colectivo received threats and one woman was almost beaten to death by an angry mob. In the face of vast repression and scarcity of much needed resources, the citizens of El Alto banded together, creating community food kitchens in order to feed the children and using ingenuity to fight against the attacking soldiers. We learned of how the women from the Colectivo made their own bombs and how people brought whatever they could think of into the streets in order to make blockades.

At the end of October, after a month of community resistance against natural resource exploitation (and a terrible government in general), President Sanchez de Lozada fled from the national palace to the U.S.

I think we all left feeling extremely overwhelmed at the power and intelligence of these seemingly harmless women. Exploitative governments, watch out!

It was a full, long day, and we already had an evening full of plans ahead of us when Norah invited us to the Sagrada Coca dance concert. Sagrada Coca is a group of women from La Paz who do traditional Aymara dances and play music. The performance included interpretations of the various traditions used to greet different seasons. At the end of the concert, we went on stage and danced with everyone. Very good fun.

After the Sagrada Coca show, we went to dance salsa (mixed in with techno and dancehall music) at a bar that was full of tourists but still a very good time. We left at 2:15am to Shania Twain singing “Man, I feel like a woman.” Indeed, indeed.