World Cultures

Women sell fruit and vegetables at a street market in La Paz. Women play an important role in the marketing of crops, which are equally harvested by men and women.
People involved in a festival procession. The prevailing religious practices center around the Cult of the Virgin Mary and devotion to the Pachamama, the earth mother.
A man puts bread in the oven in a farm on the Rio Guapay near Santa Cruz. A typical Bolivian diet is high in carbohydrates.
A woman with a bundle of barley in the altiplano. The majority of Bolivians work in agriculture.
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Culture Name



Identification. Bolivia is named after Simón Bolívar, a leader in the nineteenth-century wars of independence against Spain. The national culture is an amalgam of Hispanic and pre-Hispanic elements with three cultural traditions: (1) Quechua/ Aymara (roughly 34 percent and 23 percent of the population, respectively), centered in the high-altitude plateau and valley mountain regions (highlands) and corresponding to the two (Quechua- and Aymara-speaking) traditions that existed before the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century; this "Andean" tradition extends from southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina and roughly corresponds to the boundaries of the Incan Empire, whose capital was Cuzco, Peru; (2) Spanish or Hispanic (roughly 87 percent of the population), derived from the cultural heritage of the conquering Spaniards; and (3) several dozen small Amazonian ethnic groups in the eastern lowlands.

Location and Geography. At 424,162 square miles (1,098,581 square kilometers), Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America. Bordering Peru and Chile to the west, Argentina and Paraguay to the south, and Brazil to the north and east, it is divided into nine political–administrative units called departments. There are three major geographic–ecological landscapes: the high and cold plateau ( altiplano ) between the eastern and western Andean mountain chains (Cordillera Oriental and Cordillera Occidental) at 12,000 to 14,000 feet (4,000 to 4,500 meters) above sea level, the intermontane valleys ( valles ) in the easternmost part of the Cordillera Oriental at an average of 8,500 feet (2,600 meters) elevation, and the vast lowlands (Oriente) beyond the eastern flanks of the Cordillera Oriental. The sparsely populated Oriente—swamp, grasslands, plains, and tropical and subtropical forest—constitutes over 70 percent of the country.

Demography. Historically, Bolivia has been predominantly rural, with most of its Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peasants living in highland communities. The 1992 census confirmed that 80 percent of the people live in the highlands and noted increasing rural to urban migration. In 1992, the population was 6,420,792, with 58 percent in urban areas (settlements of two thousand or more persons), an increase of 16 percent over the 1976 census. The fastest-growing urban centers include Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and La Paz–El Alto, which account for over a third of the population. A low population density of fifteen inhabitants per square mile is paralleled by a young, fast-growing population (over 41 percent less than fifteen years old).

Linguistic Affiliation. Spanish, the national and official language, is spoken in urban centers, while the dominant languages in the rural highlands are Quechua (the Incan lingua franca) and Aymara and in the southeast Guaraní. Members of the Oriente ethnic polities (e.g., Guarayos, Mojeños, Tacanas, Movimas, Chimanes) speak Spanish and their indigenous languages, which are members of the Amazonian language family. Many trilingual (Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara) speakers live in Oruro and Potosí. Because of the greater prestige of Spanish, between 1976 and 1992, monolingual Spanish speakers increased almost 10 percent while those speaking only Quechua or Aymara dropped 50 percent. According to the 1992 census, at least 87 percent of all those over six years old spoke Spanish, an 11 percent increase over 1976 (although many are barely functional in Spanish). In 1992, 46 percent of residents were at least partly bilingual. Several varieties of Spanish, Quechua, and Aymara are spoken, and all have influenced one another in vocabulary, phonology, syntax, and grammar.





Symbolism. Two broad symbolic complexes help forge national pride and identity and an "imagined community." The first involves symbols and memories associated with disastrous wars and the subsequent loss of national territory. Schoolchildren are taught about the War of the Pacific (1879–1884), in which Chile overwhelmed Bolivia and Peru and seized Bolivia's coastal territories, and nationalism is intertwined with ongoing efforts to reclaim access to the Pacific. The War of the Chaco (1932–1935), in which Bolivia lost vast territories and oil deposits to Paraguay, was critical for national consciousness-raising and the 1952 populist revolution. Other historical commemorations, such as Independence Day (6 August 1825) and the widely celebrated date of the signing of the agrarian reform law (2 August 1952), also serve as catalysts for collective memories. The second complex centers on commemorating the indigenous, non-Hispanic cultural heritage of most Bolivians, especially in the rural highlands, where many Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peasants see themselves as "descendants" of the "Incas," and in national folkloric music and festivals. These festivals are multilayered symbolic "sites" that index things "Bolivian,"—and the multiclass, multiethnic character of these celebrations fosters differential claims to and forging of culture, history, memory, and symbols.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The highland regions were absorbed into the Incan Empire less than a hundred years before the Spanish conquest in 1532. For almost three hundred years Bolivia, or "Upper Peru" (Alto Perú), formed part of the Spanish Empire, and the Potosí silver mines were crucial for the colonial economy.

The wars of independence (independence was achieved in 1825) were led by Spanish-speaking Creoles who consolidated a highly exclusive social order. The disenfranchised majority in the colonial period fared little better after independence: power and privilege were monopolized by a tiny group of landowners and mine owners, and most Bolivians (primarily poor Quechua- and Aymara-speaking peasants and a smaller number of mine workers) were virtually excluded from national society. Only after the 1952 populist revolution did most Bolivians begin to enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship.

National Identity. The sense of nationhood and national identity is shared by all Bolivians but, given the historical disenfranchisement of the peasant majority, probably is of recent origin. Most authors point to the wars of the Pacific and the Chaco and the 1952 populist revolution (along with subsequent state-building efforts) as the key events that created a sense of nationhood. A strong feeling of national identity coexists with other identities, some ethnic and some not, with varying levels of inclusiveness. Regional identities, such as Spanish speakers in the Oriente contrasting themselves with Quechua- or Aymara-speaking highland dwellers, have always been important. For members of lowland ethnic polities, self-identification as Mojeño or Tacana is important in everyday life. In southern highland ethnic politics, shared historical memories and cultural practices such as dress bolster ethnic identification as Macha, Sakaka, or Jukumani.

Ethnic Relations. The construction of a national identity that would override ethnic and other identities has been an important but only partly successful dimension of state-building efforts. With the exception of recent attempts by eastern ethnic polities to gain greater autonomy and enduring tensions between the large ethnic polities in the southern highlands (often exacerbated by land disputes), very little large-scale political and social action hinges on ethnic identification. Ethnicity does not underpin large-scale political action, and ethnic conflicts are rare.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Virtually all urban settlements—small towns and villages as well as large cities—are built around a central plaza where most church- and state-related buildings and offices are situated. This typically Mediterranean social, political and cultural "center" use of space is replicated in many urban and rural homes; most consist of compounds and internal patios surrounded by tall walls where cooking, eating, and socializing take place. Modern skyscrapers are found primarily in La Paz and Cochabamba. In the highlands, most dwellings are built of adobe.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. The typical diet is abundant in carbohydrates but deficient in other food categories. In the highlands, the primary staple is the potato (dozens of varieties of this Andean domesticate are grown), followed by other Andean and European-introduced tubers and grains (e.g., oca, quinua, barley, and, increasingly in the Oriente, rice), maize, and legumes, especially the broad bean. Freeze-dried potatoes ( chuño ) and air-dried jerky ( ch'arki ) from cattle or Andean camelids (llama, alpaca, and vicuña) are common, although beef forms an insignificant part of the daily diet. Maize beer ( chicha ) is a traditional and ritually important beverage in the highlands. In the Oriente, rice, cassava, peanuts, bananas, legumes, and maize constitute the cornerstone of the daily diet, supplemented by fish, poultry, and beef. Favorite national delicacies include guinea pig (also consumed during important ceremonial occasions) and deep-fried pork ( chicharrón ). Meals are served with hot pepper sauces. There are few food taboos, and almost all animal parts are eaten, although reptiles are not consumed. Most cultural restrictions center on food preparation, such as avoiding uncooked, unprocessed foods.

In cities and towns, the early-morning meal usually consists of coffee, tea, or a hot maize beverage ( api ), sometimes served with bread. In marketplaces, hot meals and stews are also consumed. In the countryside, breakfast sometimes consists of toasted ground cereals with cheese and tea, followed by a thick soup ( lawa ) at nine or ten. The major

People involved in a festival procession. The prevailing religious practices center around the Cult of the Virgin Mary and devotion to the Pachamama, the earth mother.

meal is lunch ( almuerzo ), which in upper-class urban households and restaurants typically is a four-course meal. A much lighter meal is eaten at around seven in the evening. Peasants and lower-income urban dwellers have a lunch of boiled potatoes, homemade cheese, a hard-boiled egg, and hot sauce ( lawa ) or a thick stew with rice or potatoes.


Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. The most elaborate and hearty meals, with abundant fresh vegetables and beef, chicken, or pork, are eaten at ceremonial occasions, such as the life cycle events of baptism, marriage, and death. Public displays of generosity and reciprocity, offering abundant food and drink not often available at other times of the year (e.g., bottled beer, cane alcohol [ trago ], and beef), are an important cultural imperative. On All Souls Day, meals are prepared for the recently deceased and those who are ill. Many important meals mimic those of upper-class restaurants in the major cities, including dishes such as ají de pollo (chicken smothered in hot chili sauce and served with rice and/or potatoes).

Basic Economy. Silver (and, later, tin) mining and agriculture in the highlands have historically been the twin pillars of the economy. The nation traditionally has produced and exported raw materials and imported manufactured and processed goods. In 1994, agriculture accounted for 16 percent of the gross domestic product, mining and hydrocarbons almost 10 percent, and manufacturing and industry over 13 percent. Bolivia is self-sufficient in oil and natural gas and exports significant quantities of both. Tourism has emerged as an important economic force. The currency for Bolivia is Boliviano.

After the 1952 populist revolution, major mining concerns were converted into a state mining company (COMIBOL), while smaller companies were allowed to continue operating independently. With the exception of cocaine, a critical political and economic dilemma, no other economic sector rivals mining as a generator of foreign exchange. Since 1985, the neoliberal New Economic Policy (NEP), which was designed to break down barriers to capital flows and strengthen the state, has led to the almost total dismantling of COMIBOL and a surge in private mining. The NEP also has led to the privatization of other state concerns, such as telephones, airlines, and the national oil company.

Bolivia is self-sufficient in almost all food staples with the exception of wheat. Highland crops include tubers, maize, and legumes. Other crops (e.g., peanuts, citrus fruits, bananas, plantains, and rice) are grown in the Oriente, while large cattle ranches are prominent in the departments of Beni and Pando. In eastern Santa Cruz, large agricultural enterprises supply most of the country's rice, sugar, eating and cooking oils, and export crops such as soybeans. Enormous forests provide the raw materials for the lumber and wood products industry (deforestation is an increasing problem). The coca leaf, which is fundamental in Andean ritual, social organization, and health, has always been cultivated in the eastern regions, but the international drug trade has made Bolivia the third largest coca leaf producer and exporter in the world.

Land Tenure and Property. Various legal and customary rights and obligations govern land tenure, such as rules and expectations that structure access to and transmission of use rights to land. Until recently, the legal cornerstone of land tenure was the 1953 agrarian reform law, which recognized various property regimes subject to different legal rights and obligations. In the highlands, where most peasants live, private property rights often are overshadowed by communal and customary forms of tenure, while among southern highland ethnic polities, land is communally held and private property rights do not apply. In frontier colonization areas, where most of the coca is grown and migrants have received land titles from the state, land fragmentation and commoditization are far more developed. Laws stressing partible inheritance (equal shares to all legitimate offspring, male or female) are constrained by informal, customary inheritance practices, and in the rural highlands there is a strong patrilineal bias, with most land inherited by males. There is also evidence of parallel inheritance (an ancient Andean norm), in which women inherit land from their mothers and men inherit from their fathers. Generally, only legally and socially recognized (legitimate) offspring have rights to the land and property of both parents, while illegitimate children are entitled only to a share of the mother's property. The agrarian reform law of 18 October 1996 was intended to stem the growing disparity in access to land, allow the state to reclaim ( revertir ) lands used mainly for speculative purposes, modernize the land reform agency, expropriate lands to protect biodiversity, and ensure the collection of land taxes. Bolivia has passed laws awarding greater autonomy to and delimiting and protecting the territories of the Oriente's ethnic polities.

Commercial Activities. Many consumer goods such as television sets, radios, CD players, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles are sold, partly as a result of neoliberal economic reforms that lifted import barriers. Most consumer goods are bought and sold in large, open periodic markets ( mercados ).

Major Industries. Mining and oil and natural gas are the key industrial sectors. Spurred by an influx of international capital and the "coca economy," construction, including the production of lumber, cement, and other building materials, has taken off. The food and beverage industries (e.g., beer and soft drinks) are significant, as is the production of textiles and leather goods.

Trade. Major exports include textiles, agricultural commodities, minerals, oil, and gas. Important agricultural commodities (excluding coca) that are exported include wood products, soybeans and soybean oils, and coffee. Significant amounts of oil and natural gas are exported to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. In 1994, oil, natural gas, and mineral exports accounted for almost 50 percent of export earnings, while agricultural commodities (soybeans, lumber and wood products, sugar, cotton, and coffee) accounted for almost 30 percent. Almost half of all exports went to the United States and Europe. Bolivia imports mainly consumer goods, raw materials, and capital and manufactured goods, especially from the United States, Europe, and Brazil.

Division of Labor. With the exception of political participation in the public sphere (which is profoundly gendered), there are few rigid rules in rural communities regarding the division of labor. Generally, all able-bodied adults and children— male or female—actively participate in tasks required for production. Most local-level government positions require some fluency in Spanish and the adoption of non-Andean cultural mores. Women and men of all ages, skills, and occupations are active in the economically and socially significant informal economy. Women and children are particularly prominent in marketplaces.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. An institutionalized system of unequal access to political, economic, and sociocultural resources is a direct outcome of the Spanish conquest of culturally and physically distinct Andean societies and is closely wedded to the nation's ethnic and cultural makeup. Class, culture (including ethnicity and language), and race (physical characteristics) overlap, solidify, and mark the social hierarchy. Class boundaries are permeable, but the shedding of the Andean cultural heritage is an important prerequisite for social mobility.


A woman with a bundle of barley in the altiplano. The majority of Bolivians work in agriculture.


At the bottom of the hierarchy are peasants, unskilled workers, and those in the "informal" economic sector who live in urban peripheries. Most are referred to as "Indian" and are likely to be monolingual in an Andean or indigenous language and/or barely functional in Spanish, have little formal education and a low income, be only nominally Catholic or Protestant, dress in "traditional" garb, and display Andean phenotypic characteristics (dark-skinned, relatively short, high cheekbones).

Members of a second broad, intermediate category are labeled mestizos, cholos (a disparaging term), or nonindigenous. (In the early colonial period "mestizo" originally referred to the offspring of native Andeans and Spaniards.) They are phenotypically almost identical to "Indians," are more assimilated to Hispanic cultural norms and more likely than peasants or unskilled laborers to have a command (though not fluent) of and preference for Spanish, and usually have more formal education.

At the apex of the social hierarchy is a small, "white" affluent elite class collectively referred to as "decent people" ( gente decente ) by peasants, who also address men of this category as "gentleman" ( caballero ) and women as "madam" ( señora ). (These labels also are used for members of the upper tier of the mestizo category.) Culture, class, and physical characteristics converge to mark and define inequality: Members of this elite class are more likely to be largely fair or white-skinned; be fluent and monolingual Spanish speaking; adopt "Western" clothing; live in major cities; occupy high positions in government, finance, or business; and not identify with the Andean heritage.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Cultural differences and symbols such as language, dress, occupation, and residence are part of the class structure and function as pointers of the social hierarchy. A poor command of Spanish—speaking Spanish that is heavily influenced by Quechua or Aymara phonology or grammar—is an important marker of (lower) class position. Linguistic terms of reference and address also emphasize inferiority and/or social distance; a member of the elite may address a Quechua-speaking male adult peasant as "little child" ( hijito ), while the peasant will refer to him as "sir" or "gentleman." Clothing is also an important marker of cultural distinctiveness and class position. A woman who braids her hair and wears heavy, long pleated skirts ( polleras ) is classed as peasant, Indian, or chola and is presumed not to be at the top of the social hierarchy, as is a man who wears rubber sandals ( ojotas ) instead of shoes and wears a knitted wool cap with earflaps ( ch'ullu ). Other significant markers of class hierarchy and ethnic identity include coca chewing and participation in Andean religious rites.

Political Life

Government. Bolivia is a constitutional republic with an elected president and national congress. Famous for its political instability, it has enjoyed unprecedented stability since 1985. There is a centralized political system (the president has always had the power to appoint the governors [ prefectos ] of the departments), yet recent (mid-1990s) laws were intended to decentralize state administration and increase political participation and decision making, especially at the municipal level. The executive and legislative branches of government are located in La Paz, the de facto administrative capital and seat of government, while the national judiciary is centered in Sucre, the legal capital.

Leadership and Political Officials. Formal political power is fragmented among numerous political parties spanning the ideological spectrum, and coalition governments have ruled since 1982. The most important political parties in the 1980s and 1990s were the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR), Acción Democrática Nacionalista (AND), Movimiento Bolivia Libre (MBL), Conciencia de Patria (CONDEPA), Unidad Cívica Solidaridad (UCS), Frente Revolucionario de Izquierda (FRI), and Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR). As a result of an alliance between AND, MIR, CONDEPA, and UCS, the former dictator General Hugo Bánzer was elected president in June 1997.

Social Problems and Control. Social control is exercised informally at the local level (neighborhood and village) and within networks of acquaintances and kin, and recourse to the police and the judiciary is rare. In peasant villages, disputes usually are settled internally by elected officials who follow customary practices. The drinking of alcoholic beverages and petty crime are growing in importance, as is the smoking of cocaine-laced cigarettes. Interpersonal violence is rare, although there is some domestic violence. Few people have a complete understanding of their constitutional rights and the complex judicial system. In addition to local and departmental courts, the government has set up special narcotics tribunals. The judicial branch is being restructured to streamline bureaucratic procedures.

Military Activity. The military has often intervened directly in politics, and many presidents have been military officers who achieved power through a coup d'état. The military has not fought an external war since the Chaco war. Major garrisons are based near cities and/or areas of major peasant concentrations. As a result of U.S. pressure, the military has become involved in anti-coca and anti-drug efforts.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

There is a poorly developed social safety net. Pension funds and retirement systems mainly benefit long-term wage earners, such as those employed by the state. Most Bolivians work in agriculture or the informal economy, sectors poorly covered by social welfare and security programs, and most rely on relatives for assistance during old age and in times of need. Since 1985, a variety of programs to ameliorate the impact of neoliberal policies and alleviate poverty and growing unemployment and under-employment have been financed by international development organizations.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Bolivia is a major recipient of international development aid. Development funds underwrite the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that emphasize agricultural productivity and overall health. Many NGOs are involved in promoting sustainable agriculture in the Oriente, especially the search for tropical and subtropical crops that could compete with coca cultivation. Recent laws encouraging decentralization and popular participation have increased the roles and variety of NGOs.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Important positions of public authority are invariably held by men, while the domestic arena (symbolically associated with fire, kitchen, and hearth) is a female realm. Most ritual specialists, diviners, and healers are male. In agriculture, a flexible division of labor leads to men and women participating in all planting and harvest tasks. Women predominate, as they have since colonial times, in the marketing of crops and reproducing tradition and ethnic identity through weaving, transmitting the native language to their offspring, and their repertoire of songs. An especially gendered division of labor exists in the thriving domestic maid service, which depends on the recruitment of young, poor, usually Quechuaand/or Aymara-speaking, "Indian" girls to serve in upper-class, Spanish-speaking urban households.


A man puts bread in the oven in a farm on the Rio Guapay near Santa Cruz. A typical Bolivian diet is high in carbohydrates.


The Relative Status of Women and Men. Gender complementarity—the idea of a necessary union of opposites and of the crucial role of women and men in human and social production—is a hallmark of Bolivian and Andean society and surfaces in many symbolic domains, such as the presence of male and female supernatural deities. The high status of women is bolstered in many rural communities by matrilineal ideology and inheritance, matrikin groups, and access to resources independent of the male spouse. Nevertheless, in many rural areas, the balance is tipping toward greater inequality as the economic position of women deteriorates. Recent research has focused on how notions of masculinity and the symbolism that center on the giving and taking of wives (the metaphors of bull and condor, respectively) are linked to violence against women, often in highly ritualized contexts.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Marriage, a fundamental rite of passage and a marker of adult status, often is linked to the formation of new households and is expected of all Bolivians. The typical Andean marriage pattern (customary in the highlands and Oriente but often frowned on by members of the elite) entails three highly ritualized steps: an initial period of cohabitation ( juntados ) lasting up to three years in which the spouses set up a household and begin to bear children, a civil wedding, and a religious wedding followed by a two- to three-day marriage celebration. Although there are polygynous marriages in some Oriente ethnic groups, monogamy is the norm. The most important marriage prescription in the highlands is that of not marrying someone with an identical first (often paternal) surname and/or within the third cousin range. Village or hamlet exogamy is often the rule. Postmarital residence is usually neolocal (the couple sets up its own household independently of the parents), although this sometimes is preceded, especially in the case of cohabitation, by a patrilocal phase in which the couple temporarily resides with the groom's parents. Marriage expands alliances and networks of kin and generates obligations and reciprocities between the kin group, including godparents and other fictive kin, of both spouses. Divorce, while legal, is rare in rural communities. Remarriage among widows and widowers is common and expected.

Domestic Unit. The basic urban and rural domestic unit is the household: single-family, nuclear (husband, wife, and children), or extended. Bolivians attach importance to bilateral kinship—the tracing of kin links through both the father and the mother—and households often include different

Women sell fruit and vegetables at a street market in La Paz. Women play an important role in the marketing of crops, which are equally harvested by men and women.

categories and generations of kin. Although males usually represent the household in public affairs, women control the kitchen, hearth, and household budget.


Inheritance. In many Quechua- and Aymara-speaking communities, the inheritance of noncommunally held land and water rights is claimed to be bilateral and partible, although often a patrilineal bias in which males but not females inherit property is present. Both men and women keep and control access to the property they inherit before marriage.

Kin Groups. Bolivians stress bilateral kinship, and virtually all recognize and stress kin groups beyond the nuclear family and household. Ritual kinship such as godparenthood is extremely important. In urban and rural areas, "family" ( familia ) often refers to a bilateral kin group (kindred) of the third cousin range. Patrilineally related kin groups (the members of which share an identical paternal surname), sometimes called castas ("castes"), are important in many rural villages, as they sometimes jointly manage and cultivate land. Members of southern highland ethnic polities such as the Macha, Jukumani, and Sakaka are organized in inclusive kin-based groups and categories called ayllus .


Infant Care. Women have the primary responsibility for child care. Few deliver their babies in hospitals, relying instead on the help of midwives. Most rural and low-income women breastfeed, wrap, and swaddle their babies, sometimes for as long as two years. Young infants always accompany their mothers during productive activities such as cooking, gardening, and selling goods at marketplaces.

Child Rearing and Education. Infants and children usually are raised by their parents or other close kin. Adoption and fosterage are widely practiced. Children are taught early to contribute to the household economy and learn adult responsibilities. It is common for rural children to pasture flocks of sheep and help their parents and kin plant and harvest crops. In urban areas, children often help their mothers sell goods at marketplaces. Children are taught the importance of respect ( respeto ) for family, kin, and adults. Education is highly valued. Children are encouraged to attend school from about age six, although rural attendance and retention rates are considerably lower than urban ones. There is a definite gender bias, and young girls are less likely to complete their education than are boys. Cultural mores emphasize learning by watching, not necessarily by explicit teaching. Infants go through several rituals of socialization, such as the haircutting ceremony after about a year, followed by baptism and confirmation.

Higher Education. The illiteracy rate is 20 percent. According to the 1992 census, almost 37 percent of rural inhabitants are illiterate; gender inequalities are especially pronounced, as almost half of all women in rural areas cannot read or write. Poverty and, in the countryside, the wide cultural gap between students and teachers, contribute to high rates of illiteracy.


Social interaction is governed by norms emphasizing respect and formality and marking age, gender, status, and class differences. Shoppers are expected to be polite and convey deference to shopkeepers by using the adverb "please." The use of formal Spanish pronouns ( usted but not tu ) is especially important in addressing elders and older relatives, as are honorific titles for men and women ( don for men and doña for women). Peasants address members of the urban, Spanish-speaking elite as "gentlemen." Cultural mores dictate that one stand very close to the person with whom one is interacting. Gazing and looking directly in the eye are acceptable. Physical greetings vary greatly. In rural areas, simple, short, firm handshakes are common; a hug (but short of a full bear hug), followed by a short pat on the back, is expected between kin and close friends. In rural settings, public touching, caressing, and kissing among couples are frowned on. Generosity and reciprocity are required in all social interactions, many of which involve the sharing of food and alcoholic beverages.


Religious Beliefs. Bolivians are overwhelmingly Catholic (at least formally), and the Catholic Church has historically wielded enormous influence. However, religious beliefs and practices constitute a system of "popular religion" that encompasses formal elements of Catholicism and, increasingly, Protestantism (especially rituals) with only a partial understanding and acceptance of doctrine, coupled with pre-Hispanic Andean beliefs and rituals. In popular religion, complementary deities and supernatural beings coexist. Many people believe in a k'harisiri , a malevolent semihuman being who usually is identified as the soul of a priest, foreigner, or Spanish-speaking elite mestizo who, in a pact with the Devil ( supay ), attacks mainly indigenous travelers. Miners are especially devoted to the uncle ( tío ) deity, who ensures rewarding work and protects them against accidents and ill fortune. The widespread devotion to the cult of the Virgin Mary, which intersects with and is nurtured by the equally powerful devotion to the female Pachamama (earth mother), is a cornerstone of popular religion. Another distinguishing feature of Andean popular religion is the importance of rituals through which people maintain social relationships and reciprocal ties with supernatural deities. Such rituals sometimes entail the sacrifice of Andean camelids (such as llamas) but more often require constant libations ( ch'allas ) to them in the context of heavy drinking and ritualized coca chewing.

Religious Practitioners. The most important religious practitioners with whom the average person

Buses and trucks line along the side of a cobbled street in the capital of La Paz. Since 1992 there has been increased migration from rural to urban areas.

comes into contact are church officials (such as parish priests or bishops) and the leaders of Protestant sects. Popular religion includes religious practitioners ( yatiris ) who are diviners or claim knowledge of and ability to intercede with supernatural beings.


Rituals and Holy Places. Social life is punctuated by many rituals that coincide with major agricultural seasons and/or are linked to the celebration of Christian deities, especially the Virgin Mary. The summer solstice is celebrated during the Night of Saint John (21 June) and has important pre-Hispanic antecedents. The carnival festival of Oruro (beginning on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday) is a crucial ritual event that blends Hispanic and pre-Hispanic cultural and religious elements; thousands of spectators and performers take part in musical and dance troupes that commemorate motifs, themes, images, and events, including veneration of the Virgin Mary. A similar festival is that of the Virgin of Urkupiña (14–16 August) in Quillacollo. The cult of the Virgin of Copacabana, the religious patroness of the nation, whose image was sculpted in 1583, is an especially important ritual event. Many communities have their own ritual celebrations and holy places, almost all associated with the appearance of a Christian saint or the Virgin Mary or the presence of mountain deities.

Death and the Afterlife. Household shrines and the rituals that occur during All Souls and All Saints Day (1–2 November) point to the fact that the dead form part of the sociocultural universe of the living. During this solemn celebration, specially prepared ritual tables ( mesas ) with food and drink are offered to the souls of the recently deceased, who are expected to visit their kin (a return associated with the powers of reproduction, especially during the planting season). Funerary rituals typically include washing the body and clothes of the deceased; purchasing and preparing the casket; marshaling large quantities of coca, food, and drink for the all-night wake and subsequent burial; and sponsoring four masses within the next year.

Medicine and Health Care

Bolivia has one of the highest infant mortality rates in South America—between sixty-eight and seventy-five per one thousand live births. Major causes of infant and child mortality include respiratory infections, diarrhea, and malnutrition; almost 30 percent of infants under age three suffer from chronic malnutrition. Most people, particularly in the rural areas and low-income neighborhoods surrounding the large cities, lack access to basic biomedical care. Most sick people are cared for by family members and other kin. Many only partially understand and accept Western biomedical ideology and health care. Health beliefs and practices often include aspects of Western medicine and typically Andean elements. Traditional medical practices, often revolving around rituals and ritual practitioners (diagnostic specialists, curers, herbalists, and diviners)—among them the Callawaya of La Paz— are widespread. Divination, rituals, and ritual sacrifices are important in treating illness, as is the use of coca leaves, alcoholic beverages, and guinea pigs. Traditional medicine attaches importance to the social and supernatural etiology of illness and death, which often are attributed to strained social relations, witchcraft, or the influence of malevolent spirits. Dozens of illness categories, many psychosomatic, are recognized. Many curing rituals emphasize balanced, reciprocal relations with deities, who are "fed" and offered drink to dissipate illnesses.

Secular Celebrations

Important secular celebrations include Independence Day (6 August) and the signing of the 1953 agrarian reform law (2 August), also known as the Day of the Indian ( Día del Indio ). Some of the best known and most meaningful secular celebrations are also national folkloric celebrations.

The Arts and Humanities

The Bolivian Institute of Culture sponsors the arts and humanities and plays a role in preserving the nation's cultural heritage. Bolivia has a distinguished tradition in literature (especially the novel and short story), a popular oral tradition, and, to a lesser extent, graphic and performance arts. An important genre consists of world-class textile production in the regions of La Paz and Sucre. Supported by the Inter-American Foundation, Bolivian anthropologists are working with weavers and documenting their ancient techniques and traditions.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

The system of higher education consists of nine state and more than a dozen private universities. Most offer degrees in law and the humanities and the social, health, and life sciences as well as engineering and the physical sciences. A National University Council of Science and Technology has been created. Teaching and research in the physical sciences are not well developed. In 1994, the social sciences received only about 10 percent of all research funds but accounted for 67 percent of university degrees. A doctoral degree is not offered in any field. Important privately funded social science research centers include CIPCA (Centro de Investigación y Promoción del Campesinado), based in La Paz; Cochabamba's CERES (Centro de Estudios de la Realidad Económica y Social); and ASUR (Asociación de Antropólogos del Sur) in Sucre.


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