Santa Cruz de la Sierra
We arrived on Sunday, October 25th in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the capital of the department of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is the largest department in Bolivia and certainly the most economically vigorous. With its natural resources of soya, sunflower, sugar, milk, livestock, wood, and natural gas, Santa Cruz produces 31 % of the gross national product of Bolivia.
Since the 19th century, Santa Cruz has been struggling for its independence. Today that struggle continues. Along with the departments of Tarija, Beni and Pando, the « Crucenos », as the people of Santa Cruz are called, ask for more autonomy from the central government. When these four departments are put together they are called « la media luna » (half moon), because on the map of Bolivia, they create the shape of a « half moon » from north to south. They are united because of their desire to be different from the western high plains (Altiplano), where most of the indigenous peoples live and where the political power is concentrated.
These differences lie behind Bolivia’s long history of political and social turmoil. In the eastern part of the country you have the « media luna », with a particular culture, way of life and even a distinct way of speaking Spanish, which is called « camba » and the people who live in Santa Cruz are called « cambas ». Since they are the economic power of the country they can take the risk of asking for more autonomy.
In the west, where the « kollas », a word that is used to refer to the descendants of the Aymara who live in the departments of La Paz, Oruro, Potosi, Chuquisaca and Cochabamba, there is a tapestry of different indigenous and urban cultures. There are over 30 different ethnic groups in Bolivia, the Aymaras and the Quechas being the strongest of these « original » groups. Their lifestyle, values, way of seeing reality is totally different from the « cambas » lifestyle. When you go from the west to the east it is like going from one country to another.
Where can we find the strength to seek reconciliation in such a divided context ? For Christians, one of the sources is prayer. In prayer we understand that it is God who has taken the first step towards us and that he has reconciled our humanity in his son, Jesus. Jesus takes upon himself our wounds, all the things that divide us. In him, our divisions become superficial. Thus, by turning towards him in simple prayer, we become aware that we are loved and welcomed as we are. In turn, our way of looking at others is transformed. We are no longer just « cambas » or « kollas ». Without denying what is specific to our cultures, we are able to welcome the other not as a threat but as a gift from God.
For this reason, during our visits in Bolivia, what we tried to share was our prayer. In Santa Cruz, 200 young people from different parts of the city gathered together in a school auditorium for a vigil of reconciliation. Some of them had participated in the meeting which took place in Cochabamba in October 2007.
In Cochbamaba, the cathedral was filled with young people for the evening of prayer on the 29th. Mgr Tito Solari, the Archbishop of Cochabamba, welcomed the young people warmly, expressing his gratitude for their presence.
Before the prayer began, Father Galo Fernandez, in charge of youth ministry in Santiago, Chile, also spoke to the young people. He recalled how the 300 young Chileans who had taken part in the 2007 meeting in Cochabamba returned to Santiago full of joy and hope. He shared with those present that the welcome of the Bolivian families had touched the hearts of the Chilean young people. They were so touched that during the meeting in Cochabamba, the Chilean young people decided to make a concrete gesture of peace and reconciliation. On Saturday afternoon, during the meetings by countries, the Chileans decided to go and meet the Bolivian youth in order to ask for forgiveness because of the wounds of the past.
To understand the significance of this gesture, it is important to know that another source of division in the region is the war that took place between Chile, Peru and Bolivia in the year 1879. A result of the war is that Bolivia lost its access to the Pacific Ocean. To this day, this loss is a cause of political tensions between the 3 countries. In Bolivia, Chileans are considered to be « the enemy », the ones who have taken the sea from the Bolivians. These historical wounds are at times used to keep the people apart. They are nourished by fear and prejudices. However, when the people meet and welcome one another they realize that many of the things that are said and believed to be true are in fact false. Reconciliation can begin to take place when a space of trust is created and we meet one another on a very human level. For the participants of the meeting in Cochabamba, this was a very important discovery.
Father Galo Fernandez invited those present to participate in a future stage of the Pilgrimage of Trust that will take place in Santiago in Chile. In the same way that the Chileans were welcomed by the Bolivians, this time the Chileans would like to offer hospitality.
The last stop on our brief but intense pilgrimage in Bolivia was the city of El Alto, which is situated at 4100 m above sea level. It is a city which is very familiar for our community.
If Santa Cruz symbolizes the desire for more autonomy from the central government of La Paz, El Alto is the symbol of the city that supports wholeheartedly President Evo Morales, the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia. Many of the political events which in the years 2003 – 2004 led to the changes which resulted in the election of Evo Morales occurred in El Alto.
The prayer took place in the parish of Jesus Obrero. Young people from this parish have been coming to Taizé for many years.
What was striking about the prayer was the beauty of the singing. The songs were sung in Spanish and Aymara. The Gospel was read in various indigenous languages. Like in Taizé, on Saturday night, the Gospel of the resurrection was read. One of the young people who was present said : « It is important that we celebrate the resurrection. There are so many problems in our daily life. Our country is divided and we do not know what will happen in the upcoming elections in December 2009. Our political future is unsure. To celebrate the resurrection is a way of saying that there is something beyond what we see. This does not mean that we escape from our daily problems. Jesus also knew the pain and suffering of the Cross. But, he also rose from the dead. He is the source of our hope. »
The hope of the resurrection and the belief that life does not end with death became a reality during our last days in El Alto. On November 1st we celebrated the Feast of All Saints and on November 2nd, All Souls Day. Deeply rooted in the indigenous cultural tradition, on November 1st at midday the Bolivian people prepare in their homes what they call a « mesa », which is the Spanish word for table. The mesa is decorated with the photo of a deceased loved one. Candles, flowers and the favorite foods of the deceased person are also placed on the « mesa ». It is believed that starting at midday of November 1st until midday of the next day the souls of the loved ones come to visit their families. For this reason the front door of the homes remains open : not only to welcome the souls of their loved ones but also to welcome family and friends who come to pray for the deceased before the mesa. Those who visit are invited to eat after they have finished praying. The next day, in the afternoon, the leftover food is taken to the cemetery, where on the tombs of the decease a feast is prepared. There is food, music and even dancing. We had the privilege of visiting several families and the cemetery of El Alto in order to pray with the people. Some of the young people who accompanied us sang Taizé songs. For the people of Bolivia, death is not seen as the end of life, it is a journey, a passage. In their own way, the Bolivian people have understood what it means to be pilgrims of trust.