El Alto wedding
Dario Kenner, La Paz
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Last weekend I went to my friend’s wedding. It started off like most weddings in England. We went to a church where a priest married David and Julia before the eyes of God and then we covered them in confetti when they came out of the church. But then you started to notice the differences. Why was it that my friend who is from the Aymara indigenous group was getting married in a Catholic church with the full elaborate gold altar?
Since the Spanish colonised Latin America at the end of the 1400´s there has been a fusion of indigenous and Catholic beliefs in everyday rituals. And many people today combine them without really thinking about it. It made me realise that however much someone can say to you they reject imperialism (whether it is from the United States or historically Spain in the case of Latin America) when it comes down to it they still conform with society´s expectations. This is the legacy of the Spanish. In a country with one of the biggest indigenous populations in the world, at the last estimate 60% of the population of 10 million, the majority of people conform to Catholic traditions and practices in some way.
To get to the wedding reception I had to get a taxi from the centre of La Paz to the city of El Alto. The dramatic views of the mountain range as you snake up and up to this satellite city of 1 million are spectacular. La Paz has a population of 1 million spread out in a valley. El Alto sits above it on the flat highland plains four thousand metres above sea level that stretch to Lake Titicaca and Peru. At night it is much colder there than in the valley, where we are more protected and it can be as much as 7 degrees warmer.
Things took a while to get going and I was worried there were not many people there for David and Julia´s big day. The bride and groom danced a few waltzes with their godparents and then we all had the chance to get up and dance. This was just as well because the baroque decorated hall we were in was huge and freezing! Most people here don´t have central heating. They usually have one small gas fire they move around depending on the room they are in.
As more guests started to arrive David and Julia kept on having to go to and greet them with their godparents. After a while I started thinking they must be getting bored not being able to dance along with the rest of us. Then a friend explained this was all part of the Aymara tradition of Ayni. Instead of checking the John Lewis wedding list, guests bring presents such as 6 crates of beer and a desk. This gets written down and then when David and Julia go to their wedding they have give them 12 crates of beer and two desks (i.e. double). This sounds a bit crazy but is part of the concept of reciprocity which is very strong in rural indigenous communities. I worked out that basically everyone is always going to someone else´s wedding giving them the double of what they got at their own wedding. It must be a bit of a headache trying to remember who you need to give what but these are the kinds of things that strengthen community links instead of just being a group of individuals.
These kind of values are crucial in a place like El Alto where the daily struggle to make ends meet is tough. The city is growing at an incredible rate as more and more people migrate from the countryside looking for work because of extreme poverty and the increasingly negative impacts of climate change. The city has gone from a population of under 30,000 in 1960 to around 1 million people in 2010. Some of El Alto is more developed with paved roads, running water and electricity. But the newer arrivals live in the most basic conditions as they seek to start a new life, although many people still have a foot in the countryside as they go home for the harvest.
By the time I left the party was in full swing with the beer flowing and at least three hundred people going for it on the dance floor. It was quite a sight seeing indigenous women with their bowler hats and colourful long dresses sweeping round the dance floor.