Part III: The Ongoing Revolution

The year 1952 is a watershed in Bolivian history, perhaps the first time the peasants in the Bolivian countryside were affected on a large scale by political activity since the days when Pizarro came searching for gold some four centuries earlier. The Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR), an essentially middle class party engineered a revolution in 1952 that transformed Bolivian society by mobilizing support among the nation's poor.

The MNR armed the mineworkers, traditionally the most leftist group in Bolivia, with rifles and organized them into local militia units. And, correctly assessing the potential of the dormant masses in the countryside, MNR representatives moved into the towns and villages around La Paz and Cochabamba to awake the peasants to an awareness of the injustices they had suffered for so long. Were the peasants to continue to work as slaves, the MNR asked, to put meat on the tables of the hacendados, the large estate owners, while they themselves had to eat potatoes?

On the appointed day in April, 1952, truckload after truckload of gun-toting peasants, many of whom had never traveled more than ten miles from their native communities, were driven to La Paz, where they marched through the streets chanting the slogans of the MNR and, within three days, had assured the success of the Revolution.

The peasants received their just reward from the revolution they had sparked. The reforma agraria, or land reform, distributed among the peasants the land they had already seized from the huge plantations in the countryside. The former peons became small landholders, each with his own individual tract. And, with their new economic position, the peasants experienced a rise in social status. No longer were they to be called indios, or Indians, a term Europeans had used to stigmatize them as inferior beings. From now on they were to be called campesinos, a word whose literal definition--"peasant"--conveys nothing of the sense of pride and identity it implies for this once tyrannized people.

In the more than two decades since the Revolution, Bolivian politics has largely returned to its former instability. A military coup in 1964 ended the 12 years of democracy, and three successive displays of power by the military in 1970 and 1971 have returned the Bolivian political scene to its normal unpredictable state. The campesinos are once again an oppressed people, deprived of political rights, socially scorned and economically submerged. But the effects of 1952 and the reforma agraria persist. No longer can the peasants remain isolated from the rest of the nation. Most have been integrated into the national economy. More and more learn Spanish in place of their Indian tongue and replace their traditional costume with modern dress. The Indian world finds itself simultaneously tugged in two directions, both backward by its inherited past and forward by the allure of modern Western society. The sacrifice of the past to the present is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, however, the contradictions of the transition persist, and perhaps nowhere are those contradictions as apparent as in the religious life of the Bolivian people.


The bright morning poured throught the wide open doors of the church, intruding on the thick chill that hung within the heavy stone walls. The bell signalling mass had rung a few minutes before, and campesinos were now entering for the Sunday service. Few of them actually lived in Morochata, the village served by the church. They were, instead, from the surrounding campo, the countryside, where they lived and farmed in small communities of clustered huts up in the mountains. Their full dark-skinned faces and thick skull and cheekbones showed that they were pure Quechua Indians, unlike the people of mixed blood who lived in the town. As they entered, the men took off their traditional woolen caps and held them timidly in their thick-fingered, beaten hands. The women entered behind their husbands, a number of them carrying babies in a type of backpack improvised from a bright-banded, carefully-woven cloth. Soon 25 or 30 people were sitting on the hard wooden benches of the church, silently gazing at the two candles that stood unkindled on the small platform at the head of the rectangular church.

Within a few minutes the padre entered from a door to the right, accompanied by a strong-bodied assistant whose thin, darkish face showed him to be a resident of the town. The Catholic priest was white, a Maryknoll missionary who had lived in the village for almost 10 years. From a small speaker on the wall an organ version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" was playing. As the padre walked to the modest altar, his assistant passed out to the peasants sheets with prayers written in Quechua. This service was for those who spoke only that Indian tongue; in the previous hour the padre had said mass for the Spanish-speaking inhabitants of the village. Almost none of the campesinos spoke Spanish.

Most of those seated in the church did not look at the sheets handed to them. Instead, they continued to stare at the altar, their faces in-different as they watched the priest, who flipped through the pages of his Bible in search of the day's reading. Finally, after the prayers had been distributed and the silence was broken only by a dog barking in the plaza outside, the padre began to read in Spanish, his monotone voice dry and perfunctory. After he had read a few lines, his assistant, who, stood to the left of the altar, read the lines in Quechua.

After about 45 minutes the service was over. I had been anxious for the eucharist, to see whether or not the campesinos would partake of it, but I was disappointed; the mass ended right where the eucharist usually begins.

When the priest had closed his Bible and the assistant had walked up to the altar to extinguish the half-burnt candles, several women got up and went to the wooden tables in one of the aisles of the church and carefully lifted the small boxes and icons they had placed there on first entering. The icons were small dioramas and images, most of which depicted Jesus on a horse, a sword flashing in his hand. Invariably, Jesus was strikingly handsome, his long hair flowing around his proud face and fiery eyes.

One woman hurriedly carried her box up to the padre, who was now standing in front of the altar platform. As she held the pathetic scene out to him, the priest extended his hands, mumbled a blessing in Spanish, and then flicked on the box a drop of holy water from a tin cup in his hand. The woman, her face drawn and her hair white, smiled almost imperceptibly and, hugging the box close, moved to the door.

The padre and I had lunch together that afternoon. We ate slowly in the patio of the small adobe restaurant, for the day was already hot. I wanted to ask him about the religious beliefs of the campesinos. I mentioned the dioramas and icons I had noticed in the church.

"Yes, those images have a lot of power with these people," the padre said. "Every mass someone comes up to have their own image blessed. They're almost like idols." His face was expressionless, but his voice was weary.

"It's like the rockpile just outside the village, on the side of the road. Every time a campesino passes by there on the way to his field, he throws another stone on the pile, so that the devil will stay away." The padre took a long sip of beer from the glass on the table and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Or their custom of spilling out some of their drink before they have any of it to give thanks to Pachamamma, their Mother Earth. It's left over from their pagan beliefs."

I asked him about the eucharist. "Well," he said, "I tried to administer the eucharist when I first came here. But it didn't last too long. I tried to explain it to them, what it was all about, but they just wouldn't listen. They wouldn't have anything to do with it. I think they were a bit scared. It was too mysterious for them."