In­dige­nous Bo­li­vians flash new-found wealth with col­or­ful man­sions


Splashed in bright colors, sport­ing swank ball­rooms and lav­ish apart­ments, new man­sions are pop­ping up in poor neigh­bor­hoods in the Bo­li­vian high­lands, built by the boom­ing nou­veau riche of the in­dige­nous Ay­mara.

Lo­cals call them “cho­lets,” a blend of chalet and “cholo,” a some­times deroga­tory word for Bo­li­vians of in­dige­nous ori­gin.

But their grow­ing preva­lence is a sign of the chang­ing times in Bo­livia, where in­dige­nous peo­ple have gone from be­ing a si­lent ma­jor­ity long marginal­ized from the worlds of pol­i­tics and busi­ness — to ma­jor play­ers on the na­tional scene.

The cho­lets have sprung up in tan­dem with an eco­nomic boom presided over by Evo Mo­rales, who took of­fice as Bo­livia’s first in­dige­nous pres­i­dent in 2006. He swore in for a new term in Jan­uary af­ter pre­sid­ing over av­er­age eco­nomic growth of more than five per­cent a year dur­ing his first two terms.

Dur­ing Mo­rales’s pres­i­dency, in­creas­ing num­bers of his fel­low Ay­mara have ac­cu­mu­lated for­tunes in in­dus­tries such as min­ing, re­tail and trans­port that they are now us­ing to build sump­tu­ous man­sions that are re­shap­ing the coun­try’s ar­chi­tec­ture.

Their flu­o­res­cent-colored walls tower for up to seven sto­ries at an altitude of 4,000 me­ters (13,000 feet) in the city of El Alto, a poor sub­urb perched above the cap­i­tal La Paz.

“If I were rich, I’d want to live some­where warmer, but this is where they made their for­tunes and this is where they are from,” said Serge Du­croc, a Swiss so­cial worker who lives in Bo­livia and has been giv­ing guided cho­let tours to for­eign vis­i­tors for the past two years.

“They’re not go­ing to go live in a neigh­bor­hood full of white peo­ple. Their suc­cess was built here, and this is where they show it,” he said, chew­ing on coca leaves to com­bat the ef­fects of the high altitude.

Cho­lets are typ­i­cally mixed-use build­ings with a blend of com­mer­cial prop­er­ties on the lower floors — shop­ping malls, in­door sports fa­cil­i­ties, ball­rooms and the like — crowned by a luxury pent­house for the owner.

Built in a new ar­chi­tec­tural style that has been dubbed “neo-An­dean baroque,” they cost up to US$1 mil­lion.

“Be­sides be­ing clients, (the own­ers) are pro­mot­ers of this new ar­chi­tec­ture,” said Freddy Ma­mani Sil­vestre, the Ay­mara ar­chi­tect be-

hind the cho­let boom.

‘Build­ings must have life’

Ma­mani, 42, grew up herd­ing lla­mas with his five sib­lings in the small farm­ing vil­lage of Catavi, where he would build mud bird­houses in the hills.

That cre­ativ­ity to­day drives what he proudly calls an “ar­chi­tec­tural revo­lu­tion that tran­scends bor­ders.”

“I’ve bro­ken the old ar­chi­tec­tural canon, and yes, I’m a trans- gres­sor,” said the ar­chi­tect, who does not like the word “cho­let” to de­scribe his work.

Like the rain­bow Ay­mara flag it­self, the build­ings are an ex­plo­sion of colors, many with two-story ball­rooms that look like in­dige­nous-themed Las Ve­gas casi­nos.

“They’re a poly­chro­matic color gra­di­ent. We try to search for our essence, our own cul­ture by ap­ply­ing vi­brant colors,” Ma­mani told AFP.

The ball­rooms can hold up to 1,000 guests and charge up US$1,500 to host events.

“In An­dean cul­ture, we say that ev­ery­thing has life,” said Ma­mani.

“Our build­ings must also have life. What does that mean? It means they have to gen­er­ate in­come.”

Bo­li­vian philoso­pher Boris Bernal evoked the same idea.

“The Uta (house in Ay­mara) can’t be static or dead. It has to have life, dance, move among the com­mu­nity, serve its peo­ple, gen­er­at­ing

to in­ter­est and ac­cu­mu­lat­ing cap­i­tal for the whole com­mu­nity,” he said.

But out­side the cho­lets, El Alto re­mains largely poor.

Of its nearly one mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, roughly half live in poverty.

“We heard that El Alto was ba­si­cally rich,” said one vis­i­tor on the cho­let tour, 28-year-old Canadian teacher Do­minick For­tugno.

“But when we ar­rived, we saw tremen­dous wealth in the mid­dle of poverty and peo­ple beg­ging. It’s pow­er­ful to see.”


(Left) Pic­ture of the func­tion room of a build­ing built in the neo-An­dean baroque ar­chi­tec­tural style known as Cho­let (com­bi­na­tion of the words cholo and chalet) in El Alto, Bo­livia, on March 13. The constructions, or man­sions — icons of the Ay­mara in­dige­nous op­u­lence — are typ­i­cally built in six or seven floors with shop­ping cen­ters, soc­cer or vol­ley­ball in­door astroturf pitches and enor­mous dance floors dis­trib­uted in the low­ers floors and the res­i­dence of the owner on the top floors.

(Right) Pic­ture of a build­ing built in the neo-An­dean baroque ar­chi­tec­tural style known as Cho­let in El Alto, Bo­livia, on March 13.

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