Days of reconciliation in El Alto

The city of El Alto, in Bolivia, is situated at 4000 metres above sea level. Twelve kilometres from La Paz, the capital, El Alto is a vast city, with around one million inhabitants, 99% of whom are Aymara Indians. The official languages are Spanish and Aymara. There are many young people and they are present in large numbers in the parishes. There is a very active youth ministry. Because of his availability to everyone and his simple lifestyle, the Bishop of El Alto, Mgr Jesus Juarez, is much loved by the people. In the summer of 2003, he was in Taizé to explore the possibility of having a pilgrimage of trust meeting in his diocese. His aim in inviting Taizé to prepare this meeting was to help rekindle the spiritual life of the young people. The meeting was held from 30 April to 3 May 2004.
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The meeting began very simply. We were waiting for groups coming from outside El Alto from 8 in the morning. By 2 in the afternoon, there was still only one group, from Potosi. Then everything changed, with groups coming in steadily from all over Bolivia: Cochabamba, Sta.Cruz, Oruro, and a very large number from the Altiplano – the high plateau. Some, like the groups from Chuma and Titicachi, had travelled more that 12 hours. More than 150 people from Jesus de Machaca came in lorries! There were even people from Argentina, Chile, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Volunteers from Europe presently working in Bolivia came as well. At 18.00, the Bishop welcomed the young people, explaining why these days of reconciliation were important. During the days leading up to the meeting, people had been anxious because of the new wave of strikes and road blocks in various parts of the country. In October last year, El Alto was the centre of demonstrations that forced the president to resign. So for many the meeting came rather like a light kindled in the darkness.

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The Papal Nuncio read a message from Pope John Paul II and a message from Brother Roger was read in Aymara and in Spanish: “… In Bolivia, as in every country in the world, many of you know that it is not possible to move ahead without forgiveness and without being reconciled time and again. You want then to prepare yourselves to create trust around you.
Together, therefore, we can pray:
Holy Spirit, you live in each human being; you come to put within us these essential realities of the Gospel: kindness of heart and forgiveness.
To love and to show it by our lives; to love with kindness of heart and to forgive: there you enable us to find one of the sources of joy… ”

Faces from the Altiplano

“The meeting was held in a Salesian school that stands in large grounds. In the school there is a large sports hall, 50 by 20 metres. During the days just before the meeting, the hall was decorated for the prayers by a team of young people. There were three very large panels, one depicting Emmaus, another the wedding feast at Cana, and the third the Trinity. All the faces clearly come from the Altiplano. On the Trinity panel can be seen the face of a woman. For people from the Altiplano, she represents the Pachamama, the mother earth. Above, can be seen an Andes Cross, a kind of square stone cross with a sun in the middle. For local sensitivity, it represents God the Father. The panels were designed by young people trained by the Jesuits at the Fine Arts Faculty at Oruro”.

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In all, some 2000 young adults took part in the meeting, many of them dressed in the very beautiful traditional clothes of the Aymara and Quetchua cultures. For most of them this was something new. As always in Taizé meetings, there was no one “directing” the prayer up front. Everyone was facing in the same direction, all sitting on the floor. Each song was sung four or five time in Spanish then continued in Aymara, the predominant traditional language in the Altiplano.

There were moments of silence, readings in Aymara, Quetchua and Spanish. The choir was led by a small group of young people from Santiago, Chile, who have a weekly prayer with the Taizé songs at the Catholic University. The sign of young people from Chile participating in the "Jornadas de Reconciliacón" in Bolivia was a very strong one and it was warmly welcomed by the young Bolivians.

In solidarity with those who suffer

On Saturday, the day began with prayers in the parishes. In each parish, a team of young people was in charge. Afterwards, there were visits to places of suffering and hope, and to different voluntary projects. This was a way of expressing the fact that prayer and human solidarity are two complementary realities of faith. In the afternoon, at the Salesian School there were workshops on the Bible, the unity of Christians, the present political situation in Bolivia, ways of reconciliation, God’s call to each one. It has to be said that young people in the Altiplano do not have an easy life. It is very difficult to find work. Among the older generation there is a high level of alcohol related problems, and many of the young people tend follow the same direction. In addition, the young Indians often feel they are looked down on by the other Bolivians, even at La Paz, which is just next door to El Alto.

After the workshops, different folk or cultural groups presented their dances, while people from different organizations and NGOs shared their experiences. In the evening, everyone participated again in the evening prayer. The Symphonic Orchestra of El Alto had come, with twenty five young artists, to help sustain the singing. This time it was the prayer of the Resurrection, so everyone had their candles lit: it was like a sea of light, shining and giving hope.

On Sunday evening, there was a prayer around the Cross that touched many people very deeply. The queue of people waiting to place their forehead on the Cross was very long; it was a long moment of very deep prayer in solidarity with those who suffer.

The first time

Between the school and the different parishes where the people were staying, the transport system worked very well thanks to more than twenty volunteers who put all their heart into helping everyone to find the right bus! The other teams too, for welcoming the participants, for the meals, for information, for the liturgy, and so on worked very well indeed.

For a whole week, there had been brilliant sunshine, in spite of the cold. El Alto is completely transformed when there is sunshine. Here and there you can even see some colour; the sky is an astonishing blue, pure and deep. On Monday, it was cloudy, and, at the exact moment that the meeting ended, freezing rain started falling. This wasn’t water but solid hail stones. And that night the temperature went down to -2°!

One of the brothers who helped prepare the meeting writes, “When the meeting was over, one of the priests commented: this is the first time in a youth meeting that those from the country and those from the city were actually integrated, without forming separate groups. In my parish I have been trying for fifteen years to persuade the young people to sing in Aymara as well as Spanish and they have always refused. But after this meeting, at the end of Mass, quite spontaneously, they sang one of the Taizé songs in Aymara!”

Printed from: - 1 October 2023
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