Photos of Photos – A Visit To La Paz’s Museo Nacional de Etnografia y Folklore

It was the last room I visited on my way out of the Museum. Inside was a temporary exhibit of photographs of the people of La Paz from 100 to 125 years ago.  As I went in I asked the guard – “Puedo tomar algunas fotos, Señor?”  I wasn’t expecting him to say “No problemo, Señor.”   Surprised,  I asked again -“Por verdad?” “Si, Señor.” “Gracias!”

an extended Paceno family portrait

What I found inside was a most engaging collection of images, some portraits  but also many street scenes. The theme was definitely the women of La Paz and of the Altiplano – las Cholas Paceñas. Some appeared in European style;  however, many wore the clothing – the bowler hats, the puffy skirts, the shawls, the boots – associated with the chola, the cholita.  These days Aymara and Quechua women use the terms with pride and defiance but when these photos were taken, they had a discriminatory sting to them.   

Photo after photo drew me in with questions about their lives and the struggles they faced. I was also reminded that one hundred years ago people related to a camera lens differently than we do today!

Paceno family portrait 1900

The seriousness with which they took the process of being photographed – difficult to grasp in the age of the “selfie” – comes out in most of the images. The clothing provides all sorts of clues for the anthropologist to discern rank and class and status and aspiration.

seated woman and two men

campasina women at a market

women at market in La Paz - circa1910

In many of the photos the subjects stare intently at the photographer and his unwieldy camera after he asks for five seconds of absolute stillness.  And now it was my turn as the photographer to peer back into the stillness of their eyes and search for scenes of the lives they lived.  There were about forty images in the exhibit and I spent some time taking them in – and then going back for a second look.

eight pacenas with bowler hats around 1910

Just where are these women in the photo below? What is the woman in the foreground looking at so intently?  And those girls in the next image – what are their stories?

campasinas outdoors

young Pacena girls starting at the camera

drinking and making merry in La Paz

Something I wish I had done is take a photo of the information card next to each photo with the title and the year it was taken. It would have given me more to work with two months later as I experience these images once again.

party in a La Paz courtyard

The exhibit ended with a one modern photograph taken by Fernando Miranda, a photographer from la Paz,  at Tiwanaku in 2013.

Fernando Miranda photo of campasinas at Tiwanaku

One of the striking first impressions of any visit to la Paz are the Aymara women, the cholitas,  with their characteristic clothing style.  The hotel I was staying at – the Rosario –  is right in the centre of the sprawling Aymara market area and just around the corner from the Witches’ Market where Aymara talismans and magic are for sale!   Looking out the window of my room I saw these two women selling more mundane products and waiting for potential customers to stop –

market women in the Rosario district of La Paz

The day after my visit to the Folklore Museum was a Saturday.  I had already visited Plaza Murillo the day before on my way to the museum but I decided to go back again. It is a twenty-minute walk from the hotel – down hill and up hill! – but Murillo Square is a great place to sit and watch La Paz life unfold. Well, I walked into the square as a major celebration of the life  of Bartolini Sisa was taking place.

In the streets were hundreds of campesinas representing various towns from the Altiplano, the highland region of Bolivia.  It would prove to be a history lesson that moved me to tears as I took in the speeches and music and marching delegations of mostly women looking very much like the women in the photos above from one hundred years ago.

main speaker at the Bartolina Sisi comemmoration at Plaza Murillo

main speaker at the Bartolina Sisi commemoration at Plaza Murillo in La Paz

delegation at Bartolina Sisi Day Plaza Murillo La Paz 2105

An upcoming post will focus on some of the pix I took Plaza Murillo, “the living room” of La Paz.

Rough Guides provides a brief background on La Chola Paceña here and a informative BBC magazine article titled “The Rise of the’Cholitas'” can be accessed here.

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