Pacha Mama, Pentimento and Paradox

By Jheri St. James

     The Republic of Bolivia is sometimes called “The Tibet of South America” due to its high, isolated location, minus coastline. Bordered by Brazil in the north and east, Paraguay in the southeast, Argentina in the south, and Peru and Chile in the west, Bolivia was once home to an advanced Ayamara civilization around Lake Titicaca that was subjugated by the Incas. The city of Potosi became the richest on the South American continent when the Spaniards found silver in the mountain Cerro Rico. Paradoxically, the mining of silver was of great importance for the development of Spain, but a big tragedy for the Indians and the slaves who were brought here from Africa. More than 7,000,000 of them died during a 200-year period. The country won its independence in 1825 but lost much valuable territory in wars with Brazil, Chile and Paraguay for the next 100 years. Another paradox.

     Even the story of the naming of Bolivia carries a dichotomy. Simón Bolivar (1783-1830) was the famous South American soldier and statesman responsible for several liberation movements against Spanish authority. After several abortive attempts during the 1810’s, he led the battle for the liberation of Venezuela in 1821, and created the federal state of Greater Colombia, including what is now Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. He went on to free the people of Peru (1824) and to form the republic of Bolivia (1825). Bolivar envisioned a united South America, but secessionist movements arose, and Peru and Bolivia turned against him in the 1820’s. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from Greater Colombia in 1829, and in the following year Bolivar resigned as president. Today he is regarded as the liberator of South America, one of the great heroes of its history. So, the people of Bolivia loved him enough to name their country after him, and subsequently abandoned his dream by seceding.

     La Paz is the highest capital city in the world and it is said to look like a moon crater. The city is two miles above sea level, situated on a canyon floor, which shows only a hint of greenery. Other outstanding features of Bolivia include Lake Titicaca, which is traditionally regarded as the highest navigable body of water in the world at 145 miles from northwest to southeast and 60 miles from northeast to southwest. The lake has an indented shoreline, 36 islands and exceptionally clear sapphire-blue water. Titicaca is revered and loved by the Indians who live on its shores, and the Islas del Sol and Islas de la Luna, two islands in the lake, are the legendary sites of the Inca’s creation myths.

The Capital of Bolivia, La Paz

     Bolivia is a spectacular country with a strong identity and a profound respect for Pacha Mama. In the Quechua language, Pacha Mama means Mother Earth and she represents the polar opposites of heaven and hell, God and Satan. Since Pizarro’s time in the 1500’s, the Incans gradually adopted the European catholic symbols, as a façade to their own beliefs. While praying in church, the locals often visualize Pacha Mama, who is associated here with the Virgin Mary. Offerings to Pacha Mama can be found all over Bolivia and include adult and baby llamas. Llamas are found at high elevations, in places like the Andes Mountains that embrace La Paz.

     Healing herbs, traditional remedies, love potions and blessed objects of worship can be found in central La Paz at the “Mercado de las Brujas,” the Witches’ Market. A remedy for altitude sickness (soroche) is mate de coca made with the ubiquitous coca leaves that outsiders associate with the illegal white powder. This plant presents the greatest paradox of all in this high country.

     Bolivia is the third largest producer of coca leaves, following Columbia and Peru. The plant has been part of the Bolivian culture and the Andean Ridge since approximately 3,000 B.C. During the Incan period, the plant was considered sacred, and consumption of the coca leaf was reserved for the upper classes. The Incas also used the coca leaf in religious ceremonies and as traditional medicine. One legend derived from the Aymara Indians is that Khun, god of lightning, thunder and snow, angry at men for their lack of respect for their mountain home near Lake Titicaca separated them from their homes and banished them to live a nomadic life, concealing their return route. Deprived of their ordinary sustenance, the Aymara began to eat forest plants. It was then that they discovered the coca bush. Chewing on the coca leaf, their hunger and fatigue subsided, the path became more accessible and they eventually found their way back to Titicaca.

Llamas on Pacha Mama

     Spanish domination served only to expand the traditional use of the coca leaf, although initially consumption was prohibited by the conquerors. Because of its sacred role within the indigenous belief structure, coca was considered an “instrument of the devil” and an obstacle to the propagation of Catholicism. However, the Spaniards quickly discovered the advantageous side of coca. When the indigenous population was forced to work in the gold and silver mines, chewing coca alleviated hunger and fatigue and miners could work longer. Coca thus was converted into a form of compensation or was sold to workers at an inflated price and the use of coca rapidly became more prevalent throughout the indigenous communities.

     Coca is used as a physical and mental stimulant, to combat elements such as altitude, hunger and cold, and as a remedy for a wide range of medical complaints. In addition, the offering of coca in Andean indigenous society is a traditional social gesture. Social relationships and celebrations of all kinds involve the exchange of coca, which is believed to have unique value. Coca invites the soul to extend and strengthen the bonds of affinity and reciprocity, retaining its spiritual significance.

     Perhaps the most famous use of the coca leaf was in the formula for Coca-Cola, developed in the late 1800’s. The formula included the coca leaf (with the cocaine alkaloid intact) caramel syrup and kola nuts. In 1904, due to reports of negative side effects, the company removed the cocaine alkaloid from its product but continued to add flavor by using a coca leaf that underwent a “decocainization” process--the paradox of “Coca” Cola. Also in the late 1800’s, small amounts of the cocaine base were added to many different tonics, elixirs and over-the-counter products, as well as a French wine. Famous consumers of Mariani Wine included Thomas Edison, Jules Verne and Pope Leo XIII.

     The sacred leaf of the Incas is now the focus of a heated battle between the U.S. and Bolivian coca growers. Ironically, coca growers report that the soldiers who come in to remove their crops often work with a ball of coca leaves in their mouths. It is this image that perhaps most succinctly captures the contradiction for Bolivian coca growers regarding the criminalization of a harvest that is simultaneously an essential element of their society—pure paradox.

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     Vallegrande in western Santa Cruz area belongs to the Andean highlands. Numerous rock art sites have been registered with a great variety of paintings and engravings that span at least several millennia. The oldest representations are more than 20 negative hand stencils. In later times a large stylized human figure was painted in white holding a staff and another object. Some animals were partly painted on top of this anthropomorph in red and white. A few abstract motifs in yellow and red represent the next phase and finally there are white paintings belonging to the Colonial period, including a human figure holding up a cross, apparently scaring away another anthropomorph pictured in a frog-like fashion. This is pictorial, pentimento history.

Andean Cave Painting Pentimento

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     We have little narrative information regarding the collection of our Bolivian soil. California Senator Marta Escutia was kind enough to participate in our project and forward Bolivian soil to us. We know that she attended a World Women’s Rights conference in Bolivia in May of 2003, as a result of Gary Simpson providing the Senator with a concrete countertop and narrating the story of his project. It is believed her soil came from Tiawanaku. Perhaps she will see this journal and read about her country and contact us with more exact story details. In any event, it is certainly a privilege to think about a Senator taking the time to support our project

     Bolivia is a land of contrasts. Even its seasons are opposite those of the northern half of the world. Summer runs from November to April and winter from May to October. The “Tibet of the Americas” sits high above the world, pondering its many historical oppositions. Its reputation of drug barons and revolutionaries is greatly overstated, says Lonely Planet Guide. “It’s one of South America’s most peaceful and welcoming destinations.” It is the inarguable soil of that Bolivia that we welcome to Common Ground 191’s pentimento, layered and combined peace fresco.

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