Bolivia Altiplano, Yungas, and Valley Indians

Bolivia Country Studies index

Bolivia - Altiplano, Yungas, and Valley Indians

More about the Ethnic Groups of Bolivia.

Altiplano, yungas, and valley indians

In 1989 about 25 percent of Bolivians spoke Aymara and 30 percent Quechua. La Paz Department had the heaviest concentrations of Aymara speakers, although small communities of Aymara were scattered throughout the Altiplano. Increased migration in the 1950s gave rise to a sizable urban contingent of Aymara in La Paz, as well as significant numbers in the Yungas and the lowlands.

Quechua were found throughout the Altiplano and the intermontane valleys of central and southern Bolivia. The largest populations resided in the departments of Cochabamba, Oruro, Potosí, Chuquisaca, and Tarija. The diversity of habitats that they occupied contributed to significant regional variation. Some authors noted more dialectal diversity in Bolivian Quechua than in Aymara. In both languages, Bolivian dialects were mutually intelligible to all other speakers of the tongue.

Language served a major role in shaping ethnic identification and relations. Traditionally, the inability to speak Spanish had contributed to the vulnerability of the Indians. Mestizos and whites controlled access to the larger society through their command of Spanish. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, only minute numbers of Quechua and Aymara were bilingual; for many of these, competence in Spanish was simply a step in severing their links to their Indian identity.

Data from the 1976 census revealed that, for the first time in the country's history, a majority of Bolivians spoke Spanish, one of three official national languages. Slightly more than onethird of the population were monolingual Spanish speakers, the same proportion were bilingual or trilingual in Spanish and one or more indigenous languages. Official figures showed an absolute and relative drop in the number of monolingual Indians. Between 1950 and 1976, the number of monolingual Quechua Indians dropped by nearly 40 percent. The number of monolingual Aymara speakers declined by more than half over the same period. In 1950 more than 60 percent of all Bolivians were monolingual speakers of an indigenous language; by 1976, however, only one-fifth fit this classification. This trend was even more pronounced in larger cities. By the mid-1980s, surveys found a scant 1 percent of the population of department capitals to be monolingual Quechua or Aymara speakers. Sociolinguist Xavier Albó cautioned, however, that these surveys underestimated the number of monolingual Indian speakers.

In practice, Spanish and indigenous languages were intermixed to a large extension in regional dialects. Indeed, Quechua and Spanish in Cochabamba were so intermingled that observers dubbed the local dialect Quechuañol. In other regions, too, Aymara or Quechua vocabulary relied on extensive borrowing from Spanish coupled with indigenous suffixes. A lexicon of Spanish borrowings included kinship terms, forms of address, place-names, and much of the vocabulary for food, clothing, and tools.

So-called social dialects also reflected this intermixture of Spanish and indigenous languages. For example, three Aymara dialects--known as patrón, radio, and missionary--differed from the version spoken by natives as a result of the influence of Spanish. Patrón Aymara, used by Spanish speakers in positions of authority over monolingual Indians, had a limited lexicon and relied on extensive Spanish borrowings. Radio Aymara was used by radio announcers who, although they were native speakers of the language, were translating directly from Spanish. It tended to appropriate Spanish linguistic categories and also borrowed many words. Missionary Aymara also superimposed Spanish on the indigenous languages to a large extent.

As the numbers of bilingual Indians grew, a shift in the pattern of bilingualism occurred. Early in the twentieth century, for example, virtually everyone in the city of La Paz spoke or understood Aymara. Spanish speakers learned it in childhood. Until the Chaco War (1932-35), Aymara was the only means of communicating with underlings. Among contemporary paceños (residents of La Paz), however, the Aymara were bilingual, whereas native Spanish speakers were monolingual.

Changes beginning in the 1950s brought Indians into greater contact with national society. Increasingly, Indians themselves gained access to national political institutions at the same time that reforms gave them a greater measure of control over their lives. Whole communities gained access to consumer goods, governmental services, and educational opportunities unavailable a generation earlier. Those accustomed to dealing with Indians as a subservient underclass, however, found these improvements hard to accept.

Despite extensive changes in the relations among ethnic groups, the cultural categories and vocabulary that non-Indians customarily used in talking about ethnicity remained in general use. Indio (Indian) was still a term of disparagement, carrying with it a variety of negative connotations and implying intellectual inferiority and backwardness. In response to the pejorative meanings commonly attached to indio, the government substituted the term peasant (campesino) in official pronouncements following the 1952 Revolution. Nonetheless, improvement in social status usually meant becoming a mestizo.

Indians focused their loyalties on their local community rather than on some abstract sense of a common ethnic identity. These loyalties extended outward in concentric circles from family to neighborhood to village. Regardless of how much neighbors might fight and litigate with each other, they united in quarrels with rival villages. Factionalism and solidarity existed side by side in the local setting, implying simply a different arena of action.

By the late 1960s, small but growing numbers of educated Indians could be found in the professions, especially teaching. Although education was predicated on the goal of "Hispanicizing" the individual, some educated Indians--especially those teaching in more remote areas and those with fewer years of teaching experience--retained a strong positive orientation toward their ethnic background. These educated Aymara and Quechua speakers formed the nucleus of a genuinely Indian intelligentsia. The 1970s and 1980s saw a fluorescence of Indian intellectual groups and centers.

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Bolivia - Climate |
Map of Bolivia | Explore Bolivia
Altiplano : Creative Tours Bolivia & Beyond
Yungas : Creative Tours Bolivia & Beyond
Interandean Valles - Wikipedia

Bolivia Country Studies index
Country Studies main page