Friday, September 5, 2008

The Many Hats of Bolivia

One cannot help but notice the diversity of hats in Bolivia. They are mostly utilitarian-providing protection from a fiercely strong sun-but are also steeped in identity, culture, and custom. Female campesinos outside of Cochabamba prefer wide-brimmed, white or tan, very feminine hats. Aymara women in the altiplano are known around the world for their perfectly perched bowler hats that somehow stay on as they bustle through the urban squalor. Men often wear styles similar to baseball hats with a variety of slogans or slightly more formal styles. When the sun goes down, or during the frigid winters, the sun hats are swapped out for hand-knit stocking caps in every color and pattern you can imagine.
Like its people, the country also wears many hats and currently can’t decide which style it’s going to adopt moving forward. For the nearly 70% of Bolivians who recently re-voted Evo Morales (the country’s first indigenous president) into office, Bolivia is finally started to look like the campesina-proudly wearing its indigenous heritage. In the 4 eastern provinces, however, a different look appears. The struggle for autonomy in these regions and their dissatisfaction with the national government is causing young men to form groups ready to take arms-complete with black ski masks. Depending on which side of the political spectrum extranjeros analyzing Bolivia from afar fall on, they either see a country being led by an indigenous majority after hundreds of years of inequity or a man donning the proverbial chapeau of his neighbor in Cuba.
As I write this, week-long blockades in 5 of the country’s states continue to intensify, as they are not in agreement with the particular style of hat Evo Morales wants the country to don. I’m supposed to fly to Santa Cruz Sunday night to meet a group of 18 people coming to Bolivia to see the work we’re doing, but am waiting for word from our cuy, or guinea pig, who is traveling there tonight to make sure the roads are open and that we’ll be able to travel without incident.
The country continues to debate which style it will settle on in the new constitution-to be approved by referendum later this year. One thing is for sure-with this many different hats to choose from, it is unlikely that one style is going to please everybody.

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