Archive for July, 2010

24 de Julio: Buen provecho

Posted in Bolivia, food on July 23, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

It seems that, whenever I find myself overwhelmed with work or other engagements and am unable to write a substantive piece for the blog, I leave you with images to study.  Well, this week is no exception.  This time, however, rather than showing you Bolivian graffiti or NGO posters on gender, I’ll give you something far more tasty–samples of Andean cuisine.  Below, you’ll find a series of pictures of typical Bolivian dishes and other little snacks you would commonly enjoy in La Paz.  Each is accompanied by a short description. Enjoy, and I’ll see you in a week or two!

If you’re still awake and wandering the streets after 10pm, a good option is the salchipapa, a concoction of french fries and fried hot dog slices smothered with mayo, ketchup, mustard, and the spicy Bolivian salsa, ají. Street vendors in La Paz will sell you a healthy portion for US$1.  It’s best washed down with a paceña, the local beer.

A soup or salad (and sometimes both) commonly accompanies the three- to four-course Bolivian lunch.  Foreign visitors to Bolivia are often careful about where they choose to eat salad, since fresh fruits and veggies should be treated with iodine or chlorine to kill bacteria, and not all local restaurants do.  This salad includes large slices of palta, or avocado, a fruit used in many Bolivian dishes.

This segundo, or main dish, includes boiled potato, chicken, peas, a variety of local spices, and a Bolivian staple, chuño. Developed by indigenous residents of the Andes hundreds of years ago, chuño–the blackish masses on the right side of the plate–is potato that has been buried under frozen earth and then dried in the sun.  Chuño is likely the first-ever freeze-dried food.

Bolivians are generally not big breakfast-eaters, preferring a bit of bread and jam or a portion of fruit.  Although La Paz sits at around 3600 meters above sea level–not an altitude fit to grow tropical fruits–papayas, mangos, and bananas are brought up daily from the surrounding lowlands.  Whether eaten fresh or blended into juices, La Paz residents consume fruit daily.

Lomo, or beef tenderloin, is a typical segundo of the Bolivian lunch.  Even more typical is the pairing of two sides high in carbohydrates–rice and french fries–rather than a portion of vegetables or salad.  Part of this is likely due to the ubiquitousness of the potato; Bolivia is said to grow over a thousand varieties of the tuber.  A diet high in carbohydrates also allows Bolivians, the majority of whom are poor, to purchase or make just one daily meal that provides enough energy and staves off hunger for the day.

The star of this Bolivian segundo is quinoa, a nutritious local grain that has been harvested in the Andes for thousands of years.  Formed here into patties, quinoa can be eaten loose like rice or cous-cous, baked into breads and pastries, or boiled in soup.  Quinoa was the subject of an intense international struggle over food patenting in the 1990s.

Desserts are an… interesting affair in Bolivia.  Consisting of custards, fruit, ice cream, cakes, and other, more random, things, they are as varied as they are unpredictable.  After one lunch, I was served a small pile of spaghetti noodles doused in honey and sesame seeds.  The dessert pictured above–a light strawberry mousse–was far more appetizing.

Cakes deserve their own special note, especially those of the birthday variety. Tradition dictates that every birthday celebration comes with a cake, and that, immediately following the candle-extinguishing, the birthday boy or girl gets a face full of it.  Usually encouraged by party-goers to take a bite off the edge of the whole cake, someone standing behind the cumpleañera–usually a partner or sibling–will push her face into the cake as she gingerly moves forward to bite it.  As people get older, they generally stop resisting and just let the inevitable happen.

And my favorite–figs and cream!

If you’re hungry for something more substantial, head over to Womanist Musings where this week I’ve written a post on doctors who perform abortions in the U.S.A.


16 de Julio: Entre cumpleaños y el cambio

Posted in Argentina, Bolivia with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week, while Bolivia celebrated its antiquity, Argentina led the charge for progressive change in Latin America.  Today, el 16 de Julio, marks the 201st anniversary of Bolivia’s revolution for national independence.  While citizens of La Paz marched through the streets to commemorate the date, in Buenos Aires, gay men and women and their allies celebrated Argentina’s July 15 legalization of gay marriage.  The confluence of the two dates makes me reflect on Latin America’s tumultuous history, and brings me hope for more positive changes to come on the continent.

This photograph of Argentina’s presidential palace, the Casa Rosada, was provided by a guest photographer.

Bolivia’s popular daily paper, La Razón, published a nostalgic piece on the anniversary of the revolution emphasizing the changing face of La Paz city and the tenacity of its residents.  La Paz, originally founded inside a giant bowl, has seen its neighborhoods creep up the bowl’s sides and spill over onto the flatlands above.  The settlements on the high plains, or altiplano, have turned into El Alto, currently the fastest growing city in Latin America.  The residents of El Alto–largely indigenous migrants from the mines and countryside–have been involved in some of the most important Latin American political mobilizations of the 21st century, such as the 2003 overthrow of neoliberal President Gonzálo Sánchez de Lozada.  Sian Lazar’s El Alto, Rebel City (2008) and Lesley Gill’s Teetering on the Rim (2000) offer insightful accounts of El Alto’s role in radical Bolivian politics.  Back in 1809, El Alto did not yet exist, but the region’s radicalism was already apparent.  On May 25, 1809, Bolivia’s city of Sucre hosted the first revolt for independence on the continent.

View of the “bowl” of La Paz from the city of El Alto, about 350 meters above.

Bolivia’s La Razón also reported on Argentina’s historic passage of gay marriage, making it the first country in Latin America to do so.  Argentina–likely the least Catholic of the nations on the continent–legalized gay marriage in a Senate vote of 33 “yay,” 27 “nay,” and 3 abstaining.  Mexico City, which also allows gay marriage, immediately followed by offering the first gay couple married in Argentina a free honeymoon in Mexico.  While in Buenos Aires 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the yearly gay pride parade, and was surprised at how small it seemed.  Fortunately, much seems to have changed in the last decade.

In short, today is a good day.  Working on issues affecting women in Bolivia, it is easy to become discouraged by stories about and statistics on violence, unwanted pregnancy, and death.  However, the “norm” is changing.  All over the continent, people are working to improve their own and other’s lives.  And lately, these efforts are producing results.

9 de Julio: Visita a Womanist Musings

Posted in blogging, sexual violence with tags , , on July 9, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

This week at Womanist Musings, I’ve written a guest post on my obsession with the World Cup–and on the sexual violence that I have learned takes place every day in South Africa.  To combat rape, one doctor has invented a device that is inserted vaginally that may help “trap” rapists.  Join the debate at Womanist Musings!

9 de Julio: ¿En quién podemos confiar?

Posted in Bolivia, torture with tags , , , , , , , on July 9, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

Over the past several months, I have commented on a variety of violent crimes against women in La Paz and El Alto, including rape, physical and psychological violence, and murder. The reason we likely know about these cases is because these events, unlike many others, were actually reported to police. The branch of police in charge of crime in Bolivia is called the FELCC, for Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Crimen–or roughly, the Special Force Fighting Against Crime. Readers familiar with Latin America may not be surprised to hear that Bolivians generally do not trust the police–any branch of it–because the organization is plagued by corruption, and the rich and connected rarely have to serve time for their crimes.

What may be more surprising, however, is that even in Bolivia–a country which has enjoyed democratic, albeit sometimes tumultuous, rule since 1982–citizens are still occasionally tortured during interrogations by police.

Many remember the brutal tortures, murders, and “disappearances” inflicted by Latin American military governments on their citizens during the 1960s-1980s.  At that time, blossoming social movements demanding justice for indigenous people, workers, women, and other disadvantaged groups sparked a ferocious backlash by military rulers fearing that communist “subversives” would overtake the country.  The United States government often supported these military measures, either indirectly or directly, with funding, training, and ideological support.  Many of the most heinous Latin American military torturers attended the U.S.-based School of the Americas.  Most of us, however–even those of us who regularly study Latin America–were under the impression that police and military torture is mostly, if not wholly, a thing of the past.

Which brings us to this story, published in late June by a La Paz daily, La Razón. The story centers on a woman La Razón calls “Fernanda,” who since May 2009 has been locked up in a jail in the La Paz neighborhood of Obrajes for a crime not identified in this piece.  Her original offense, however, and the one that led to her torture, was her alleged involvement in the kidnapping of a young man.  During the first several days of her interrogation and incarceration, Fernanda was subjected to the whole gamut of what are now considered the “normal” Latin American military torture techniques, including being beaten, insulted, and threatened while her head was covered by a black hood; shocked with electric prods; slowly suffocated, and forced to take her clothes off in front of interrogators.

At the time she was arrested, Fernanda was working as a taxi driver.  One day in May 2009, Fernanda was hired by a customer for a series of rides over a period of hours.  She also sold the man a number of calls from her personal cell phone, which he made while in the taxi cab.  Evidently, once the man was able to pick up the ransom money owed him for a kidnapping he had helped orchestrate, he ran off.  The entire time the rider was in the car, he had a gun pointed at Fernanda.  Realizing that her customer was involved in a crime, Fernanda reports that she voluntarily went to police.  That’s when she says her interrogation and torture began.

According to the police report, Fernanda did not present to police voluntarily, but was randomly discovered in her car at a gas station and taken in for questioning.  However, the FELCC has no record of holding Fernanda for the next few days when she reports being tortured.  This despite the fact that, after the incidents of torture, Fernanda was examined by a forensic doctor and by the Institute for Therapy and Investigation of the Consequences of Torture and State Violence (ITEI), both of which certified that she had been tortured.

Who to believe?  Who to trust?  Considering the stories you hear–some of which are in print–and the country’s history, I am inclined to trust Fernanda. But then, who do we go to when we are harassed, raped, attacked, or accidentally involved in a crime in Bolivia, if not the police?  Basically, we would be wise to find our own allies–because I am not sure we can trust those that the government has chosen for us.

If you currently live in La Paz or El Alto and have been a victim of a crime, or have been victimized by police, one of your allies is CIDEM.  Please contact them for more information.  Si usted actualmente vive en La Paz o en Al Alto y ha sido la víctima de un crimen, o si ha sido victimizada por la policía, uno de sus aliados es CIDEM.  Por favor, comuníquese con ellas para más información.

4 de Julio: Un caso de abandono

Posted in Bolivia, child abandonment with tags , , , , on July 4, 2010 by eugeniadealtura

When you ask people in La Paz and El Alto whether there are many children abandoned in Bolivia, they will often comment on the infants that are left in garbage heaps.  I have always been under the impression that so many cite these cases not because they are common circumstances in which children are abandoned, but because they are so horrible that they make a lasting impression.  The garbage bin stories, however, seem to be sometimes true–last Thursday, La Paz’s daily La Razón reported on a two-month-old child that died after being found in a garbage can.

One of the questions I often ask people in Bolivia is why some individuals facing unwanted pregnancy abandon their children rather than having an abortion during the pregnancy.  Many believe that those who abandon their infants are typically adolescents who were unable or unwilling to “deal” with their pregnancies during the gestational period. Others, such as some orphanage workers, note that many abandoned children suffer from a variety of physical and psychological disorders that may have been factors in their abandonment.  Differently abled children or those who suffer from physical deformities not only present challenges to parents that they may not feel willing or able to face, but they also may suffer discrimination due to societal taboos.

The two-month-old that was discovered about two weeks ago in a garbage bin close to the El Alto airport had Down’s Syndrome and a cleft lip.  While Down’s Syndrome is a chromosomal disorder that can cause some developmental disabilities, cleft lip is a genetic deformity that can be treated with surgery, usually shortly after birth.  When the child was discovered by a market vendor, he was still alive, but suffered from respiratory difficulties due to malnutrition and exposure.  After being treated unsuccessfully at two El Alto hospitals, the infant died last Sunday.

This story sparks compassion in me from many angles.  On the one hand, it is crushing to realize that disability is burdened by so much discrimination in Bolivia that many children–not just this one–are abandoned due to it.  On the other hand, in the poorest country in South America, parents raising children with abnormalities enjoy very little state support, even when these kids’ conditions are treatable, such as the cleft lip.

Finally, we must return to the image of the garbage bin.  Why do some who abandon their children choose to leave them in garbage bins? While the idea of a parent leaving their child in a garbage can obviously sparks the thought that the parent thinks of their child as something unwanted and disposable, the reality could actually be quite different–perhaps parents leave their kids here because they know it’s a place where the child is likely to be found, either by neighbors or city workers.  Or maybe they leave their kids here because, despite the filth, it is a communal place where any person may take responsibility of the child–rather than leaving him or her on an individual doorstep, which targets one family as the new caretakers.  In any case, this story sparked a sort of realization in me this week–not only do these stories of garbage bin abandonment indeed leave an impression; sometimes, they are true.