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!”
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
The exhibit ended with a one modern photograph taken by Fernando Miranda, a photographer from la Paz, at Tiwanaku in 2013.
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 –
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.
An upcoming post will focus on some of the pix I took Plaza Murillo, “the living room” of La Paz.