The Bolivian Aymara
Since colonial times, the term “Aymara” has been used to refer to the aymar aru or Aymara-speakers: the indigenous inhabitants of the Meseta del Collao, descendants from any of the numerous “kingdoms” or chiefdoms that shared out the land across the former Tiahuanaco/Tiwanaku territory since pre-Inca times. Curiously enough, they did not recognize themselves as such until very recently as the form was considered a foreign name imposed by outsiders.
Among other archaeological remains, Aymara “kingdoms” left behind burial towers called chullpas and several fortresses known as pukara. Towards 1450 these chiefdoms were annexed to the Tawantinsuyu by the Inca army, and became part of the western “province” known as the Qullasuyu. In 1535, Spanish Diego de Almagro began the conquest of the Bolivian Altiplano, which was joined to the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1542.
During the colonial period (16th-18th century) a number of Aymara uprisings took place. One of those rebellions was led by Julián Apaza Nina (“Tupaq Katari”), his wife, Bartolina Sisa, and his yourger sister, Gregoria Apaza. After twice laying siege to the city of La Paz, Tupaq Katari was captured in 1781 and was sentenced to the same cruel execution as Tupaq Amaru (José Gabriel Condorcanqui) in 1742: be drawn and quartered by four horses pulling his arms and legs in opposite directions. Oral tradition has brought to the present day a sentence allegedly uttered by Tupaq Katari before his execution:
Naya saparukiw jiwayapxitata, nayxarusti waranqa, waranqanakaw kut'anixa... / Nax jiwäwa. Akat qhiparux waranq waranqanakaw kutt'anïxa...
[Today you kill me, but tomorrow I will return as millions.../ I am dying. But millions shall follow me...]
After three centuries of colonial rule, of plundering and stealing their resources, of humiliation and subordination, neither Independence nor the Republic gave the Aymara a better chance in life. They continued being economically exploited and paid nothing by the ruling classes, marginalized, politically ill-treated, regarded as second-class citizens in their homeland and caught between acculturation and exclusion. Then, during the second half of the 20th century they would organise in cooperatives and unions. Different Aymara-speaking communities of the Altiplano would recognize themselves as being in the same situation and similar to others in terms of social organization, beliefs, and most of all, the language they used.
Most present-day Aymara population (or Aymara-speakers) live in the basin of Lake Titicaca (Peru and Bolivia), on the shores of the Desaguadero River and around Poopó Lake (Bolivia), and in the Norte Grande (Big North) of Chile. The largest urban centers in the Aymara region of Bolivia are Chuquiago Marka (La Paz) and El Alto, at one time a “suburb” of the capital is today one of the country’s largest and fastest-growing urban areas over 750,000 inhabitants.
Urban Aymara make a living mainly as street vendors, stallholders and working in the service sector, though they also serve as professional staff and hold political and academic positions.
In rural areas they are basically agriculturalists and herders. Coarse grass gives pasturage for llama, alpaca and sheep. Staple crops include potatoes, oca, ullucu, quinoa, corn (maize), beans, barley, and wheat. They make cheese and a freeze-dried potato product known as chuño (black) and tunta (white). Fishing is done from rowboats and totora-reed rafts. In addition, they also work in textile (i.e. wide belt hand-woven on a waist loom called wak’asawu) and create musical instruments (i.e. those made by famous luriris or manufacturers of the Walata Grande community, province of Omasuyos, department of La Paz).
The basic social unit is the ayllu or extended family, a community closely bound by family ties. The community’s authority rests on the leadership of the jilaqata, who is in charge of maintaining order and keeping good social relations. The ayllus, in turn, join together to form larger communities known as markas (“headquartered” in the main villages), whose leader is the mallku. Each community has a qulliri or traditional doctor, and a yatiri or wise person, the community’s spiritual and moral guide, who, through a method of divination that involves the reading of coca leaves, guides individuals in their personal decision-making.
Among the many traditional collaborative practices within the ayllu are the ayni or mutual help (the Quechua mink’a) and the apthapi or community lunch. Gestures such as sharing the ch’uspa, the small pouch used for carrying coca leaves, or playing together traditional wind instruments (forming tropas or large groups of players) also indicate a great level of social cohesion within the community.
The Aymaras are a deeply religious people whose culture is permeated with the idea of the sacred. As a sign of gratitude, at crucial times during the agricultural cycle (divided into three seasons), the Aymara give wax'ta (offerings), wilancha (llama sacrifices) and ch'alla (sprinkling alcohol on the ground) to the achachilas (the protecting spirits of the family and community ancestors that live in the mountains) and to the Pachamama (the spirit of the land). Finally, there are the underworld spirits such as the Sereno (the owner of the music and the good sounds who surfaces in the springs), “deities” such as the Ekeko, and the deceased souls, which are welcomed to the music of alma pinkillos on the All Saints Day.
The Aymara divide the universe in three different worlds: the Alaxpacha, or upper world, where the stars reside; the Akapacha, our world or the middle world; and the Manqhapacha, the under world, where music, among other things, would come from.
At present, Aymara people are, along with the Mapuche, one of the Andean native peoples most active in political and social terms. They are also among the best-known and most widely recognized: on the one hand, for their distinguishing clothes, their music and their festivals; on the other, for such elements as the wiphala (Andean flag), the suma qamaña (“Aymara philosophy”), and the celebration of the willka kuti/machaq mara or Aymara New Year. The latter are part of an identity constructed during the last few decades. Even though these elements lack historical background and authenticity they, as happens with the round native-made wool derbies used by Aymara women in La Paz, are considered as a kind of icons — sometimes artificially imposed. They are modern icons (almost new age) that do not favours and sometimes make more harm than good to this ancient people.
A matter that has little to do with Aymara identity, which flows in a continuum from the crammed streets of La Paz to any of the communities located on the shores of Lake Titicaca and across the wide and desolate expanse of the Altiplano.
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