Published: March 5th 2012February 9th 2012
Hey, I'm back in Lima from my travels in Chile and Bolivia. I can't document the whole trip, but here's a taste.
Back in the 90's, Robert, a student from Bolivia, stayed with my aunt and uncle on foreign exchange. Now, continuing the foreign exchange, I went to Tarija to visit him and his family. They gave me a warm welcome. They fondly remembered their times studying in the U.S., and seemed eager to show me their hometown.
Tarija is in south central Bolivia, wine country. Apparently it's one of the higher arable valleys in the world at nearly 2 kilometers above sealevel. People tell me that wine conoisseurs have vouched for the world-class quality of wine, but the problem is just that people haven't invested enough to export Bolivian wine on a large scale (nudge nudge wink wink investors out there). Tarija is also called the Andalucía of South America, because a lot of people came from there and have left a strong cultural influence. People also proudly tell me that the region used to belong to Argentina, which has also left a mark, and that Huaraní is the region's main indigenous culture, rather than Quechua or Aymará.
the circle dance I was pulled into
Within Bolivia, Tarija is a unique region.
I arrived just in time for the Fiesta de compadres. In Tarija, los compadres is on thursday a week before Carnaval, which is the last hoorah before lent. In a park in the center of town there was an area filled with tents selling tamales (filled with potato, veggies, beef, and raisin?), chicha (sweet, slightly fermented grape drink), peanut soup, and other traditional foods from the valley. People seemed proud to celebrate their chapaco (tarijeño) identity, wearing dress shirts adorned with grapes, flowers, cajas (drums), erques (reeded cow horns), and other regional symbols. People dance cueca, a similar rhythm to the Chilean one, but a slower beat, and they sang coplas (folklore ballads). Since I'm a gringuito and I stand out, I got pulled into a dancing circle. There's a similar festival of friendship between women the thursday right before Carnaval, comadres.
During the fiesta de compadres, the tradition is to give a gift of a torta (a cake, often in a basket adorned with fruit, balloons, ribbons) to a friend. That means that you're compadres, friends for life. The following year then, your compadre gives you a torta in return.
Robert's brother Carlos gave me a torta, sprinkled confetti on me, and declared me compadre. I just met him yesterday, but I can't think of a warmer welcome that he could give.
I don't know enough history of Tarija to make a definitive call, but in a lone Chapaco region of an otherwise Andean and Amazonian Bolivia, I think this festival says "this is Tarija, this is who we are." There's a certain amount of protectiveness of regional identity. Robert's family commented to me, for example, that in schools they teach more Inca history than Huaraní history. An official day of celebration of Chapaco identity has also been declared. Does Chapaco identity need a special day designated to protect it? People have commented to me that Tarija has grown a lot since the start of natural gas mining, and as the wine industry expands. Tarija is one of the richest regions of Bolivia (or the richest of all?), and people have come from all over the country for job opportunities. Beyond cultural protectionism, is Chapaco pride tied to fears of that wealth being spread too thin, of being overrun by "foreigners"?
There are more photos below