Alasitas (not to be confused with toys)

NPR had an interesting piece on alasitas that I caught on the radio yesterday.  It was fun, but I’m bothered by the (very western) assumption that alasitas should be compared to toys simply because they are small.  This is something that Bolivians (in my experience) rarely say.  In the interviews here, they talk mainly about fe (faith).  And it is about faith, as well as the perceived relationship between miniatures and the real thing.  It is not a festival for children (although they certainly participate).


Natitas: Talking Heads of the Andes

“Ai, senorita, me gustaria tener su calavera!”
“Bueno, senora, cuando ya no lo necesito, es suyo!”

[“Oh, miss, I would like to have your skull!” “Well, ma’am, when I no longer need it, you can have it!”]

Thus I entered laughing with a stranger into natitas in the Cemeterio General of La Paz on Nov. 8, 2007 with fellow GT member Alison Kohn. It was my first time attending, although of course natitas are now famous in Bolivia. Residents of La Paz keep these animate skulls (some family members, some acquired through other means) in their homes, giving them regular offerings of candles, cigarettes, coca, and alcohol in exchange for their protection from thieves and assistance with other requests. Let there be no doubt — these skulls talk, sing, shout, and turn on the lights to scare away intruders. And many who do not have skulls attend in order to ask the blessings of those who are there. Here, Alison offers a cigarette to a natita (with her permission).

Natitas 2007


I timed this trip in part to see “Todos Santos” and the Day of the Dead, celebrated here from Nov. 1-3. I’ll be in the campo for those days (so I won’t be posting here until afterwards) but I want to say something about the sudden appearance of Halloween here in La Paz.

When I was here 2002-2004, I rarely saw references to Halloween, even in the city. Now, wandering around Sopocachi (a middle-class neighborhood near the center of La Paz) and the downtown, it seems to be everywhere.

The new (to me) supermarket down the street from the Tambo is festooned with paper jack-o-lanterns and ghosts. The female staff help customers dressed in plastic saucy witches costumes that could have been bought at the K-Mart in our Chicago neighborhood. The center aisle of the store was lined with rubbery masks and house decorations.

But even in other locations – street vendors on the Prado and Calle Comercio – apparently imported Halloween kitsch is now everywhere – glow-in-the-dark skeleton wall hangings, pumpkin buckets, chocolate skulls, conical witch hats. There seems to be little interest in America’s cute Halloween – the fairies, animals, and cartoon characters that many children dress as in the USA. Instead, this is about bones, gore, and sorcery.

We should not be surprised that Halloween is imported with a distinctly Bolivian interpretation. In fact, for those of you who fear wholesale Americanization, there is clear evidence (on Calle Comercio) that Bolivia’s new-found Halloween incorporates ideas about the taking of trophy heads, a theme that continues from pre-Columbian times to today.


University Autonomy

The Entrada Universitaria was held last weekend in La Paz. Featuring thousands of dancers affiliated with various facultades at UMSA, the entrada is an important event for many students. What’s interesting to this anthropologist is that the Entrada is explicitly about UMSA as an institution publicly fomenting & demonstrating “national culture.” Furthermore, in an interview, Miss Entrada Universitaria said that “No bailamos por devoción a ningún santo, lo hacemos para celebrar la autonomía”.

I don’t think that university autonomy and regional autonomy are markedly different concepts in theory, yet I doubt we will see a university autonomy/regional autonomy unified movement any time soon, in part due to very different (even perhaps mutually exclusive) concepts of national “culture” and the public use and utility of these symbols. Any thoughts on “autonomy” as a generative, powerful concept in contemporary Bolivia? Furthermore, the use of “culture” in the interview is striking. It seems that the term here is meant more as Culture, implying perhaps a fixed, even static, entity that has some finite and broadly recognizable content, not cultureas we anthropologists understand it (i.e. flexible, shifting, lived and produced through daily practice, etc). Though of course the Entrada Universitaria can be interpreted both ways simultaneously.