May 8, 2012

Afro-Bolivians In and Out at Oruro’s Carnival
By Alejandro Fernández Gutiérrez
(versión en español sometido antes abajo)

Bolivia is a paradise of culture, ethnicities, and music. Oruro, located between La Paz and Chuquisaca at approximately 3710 meters above sea level, is the capital city of Folklore and celebration. Every year, Oruro during the carnival opens its door to celebrate culture, diversity, and folklore. In 2012 around 3,000 tourists visited Oruro during the Carnival according to the “Patria” a Bolivia newspaper. However, in 2003 for a very first time Oruro danced, heard, and enjoyed Saya. The sound of the drums and the powerful voices of Afro-Bolivian women told the world they are also Bolivia. That this dark skin color even though remains Africa, they are now in Bolivia and there they will stay.

In 2003 around 50 Afro-Bolivian men and women took a bus to Oruro. With two hours of trip from La Paz city to Oruro Afro-Bolivians prepared the songs, the rhythm and most important mentally. It was not going to be a surprise to meet people who would say, “These Negros must be from Brazil, Colombia, but not from Bolivia.” Others would say, “They must be African-Americans.” Yet among spectators early on the carnival people were saying, “I know Saya, I know they are from Yungas, but I never meet somebody,” or “I love her braids,” or “What a beautiful skin dark colors!” Then the carnival started, the heart of Bolivia started to beat. Women and men from all different part of the country and the world were in Oruro to see an x-ray of culture, tradition, and identity.

For a very first time Afro-Bolivians showed not only to non Afro-Bolivians, but also to the world that there is Blackness in Bolivia. The Afro-Bolivian community has existed segregated for more than 500 years. A culture and people that was invisible and voiceless among politicians, public policies, and non Afro-Bolivians. Although they face discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization from the Bolivian government, Afro-Bolivians smiled, danced, and enjoyed the carnival. During that day, more than any other, they felt proud of being Bolivians because they understood that they are part of a huge diversity that palpitates in Bolivia.

Since that day more positive things came along. People from the west and the south of the country were back to their cities remembering that in Bolivia there were African Descendents who wanted to stop being invisible and voiceless. Many non Afro-Bolivians contacted the Saya Movement through emails, phone calls, letters, and invitations to participate in other public spaces. They wanted to keep showing to Bolivia that Blackness is part of the Bolivian history and they must be recognized as part of Bolivia’s diversity.

This also was helpful for Afro-Bolivians to get together and unify their voices. The Afro-Bolivian organization became more visible and with a united voice, addressing the Bolivian government with songs like:

"Everywhere is Fruit"
Isidoro Belzu won the flag, he won the flag of the altar /
Everywhere is fruit, coffee and coca, where we live is called the Yungas /
From our culture we brought to Bolivian people the Saya 
© The Afro-Bolivian Community

With almost 10 years since that magnificent appearance at Oruro’s carnival, the Afro-Bolivian community has experienced some positive changes, but they are not enough. To my knowledge, Afro-Bolivians were not invited to dance in Oruro from 2004 to 2010, which is the year I left Bolivia. In the following two videos from youtube, you’ll notice that in 2011, Afro-Bolivians were behind the fence singing in the audience, perhaps because they were not invited to perform. Then in 2012, you’ll see that they were finally allowed to officially perform again in the procession.

Saya Afroboliviana Chijchipa - Carnaval de Oruro 2011

Carnaval de Oruro 2012: Saya Afro Boliviana

Of course, there are many gaps to cover and many things to do. Nevertheless, the music is still the same. The music that connects Afro-Bolivians with Africa continues.