Bolivia's Rural Women Are Remaking Cities, Lives

Severiana Oruo, a recent arrival in El Alto, lives in one room with her four children and husband.
Severiana Oruo, a recent arrival in El Alto, lives in one room with her four children and husband. (By Evan Abramson For The Washington Post)
By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 6, 2007

EL ALTO, Bolivia -- The women attending Esperanza Mitta's community meetings moved here from tiny mountain villages and worn-out mining towns, and now they are fashioning a modern metropolis out of whatever they have in hand.

Toilet paper serves as decorative bunting on the walls of their meeting hall. A rocky vacant lot, surrounded by several leafless trees, serves as their "central plaza." A nearby soccer goal, recently used by neighborhood vigilantes to hang a thief, is considered a local law enforcement tool.

For all the ways they have changed this city, though, the women have altered their own lives even more.

"We don't have educations, so we get together and talk about how we can teach ourselves skills," said Mitta, 51. "A lot of the women just need to work out some of the fears that they have about living in a city, and they all do it, little by little."

For the first time in the world's history, more people next year will live in cities than in rural areas, according to U.N. population experts. Women are leading the urban push, leaving the countryside at higher rates than men, lured in large part by domestic service jobs. They tend to gravitate to places like this: a sprawling expanse in a developing nation struggling to provide basic infrastructure.

Because of people like Mitta, this former hamlet is now larger than the neighboring city of La Paz. El Alto had a population of about 11,000 in 1950, exploded to about 400,000 people by the 1990s and could surpass the 1 million mark next year, according to city officials. The majority of houses lack indoor plumbing and sewer service. Collecting local taxes to pay for services is difficult because about 70 percent of the economy is off-the-books.

It was in those conditions that Mitta started organizing women's meetings several years ago. About 30 of her neighbors get together to talk, many of them dressed in the same shawls and pleated skirts they wore in the indigenous communities where they were born. Newcomers are often shy; the lifestyle changes they are going through can be so overwhelming that they don't know where to start. Unlike some of the men, who had held jobs that exposed them to broader social systems, many of the women had rarely strayed from immediate family and neighbors before moving here.

"The women have to make a lot more changes than the men when they move to a city like this," acknowledged David Apaza, whose family is part of the migration wave to El Alto. "In the countryside, they've lived the same way for hundreds of years, but everything is different here."

The process of change can send women's personal relationships into dizzying spins, but it also can give them collective opportunities previously unknown. One of the most important things they have found in these unpaved streets, many said, is something unimaginable in the countryside: a voice.

Social Transformation

El Alto stretches across a plateau more than 13,000 feet above sea level. In the early evening, one's gaze is drawn to the distance -- snow-covered peaks, the lights of La Paz flickering in a bowl-shaped valley below. The immediate surroundings are less inviting: an imprecise grid of dirt streets, block after block of low-slung adobe and brick houses, abandoned tires, stray dogs nosing through trash piles.

Mitta's neighborhood is known as Villa Mercedes G, and she lives there with about 10,000 other people. She commutes each day in a series of minibuses to a housekeeping job in La Paz. The trip -- an hour and a half each way -- consumes nearly a third of her monthly salary of about $50.

One recent evening, she arrived at her simple two-bedroom brick home as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. In the electric light of the kitchen, her husband, Celadonio, stood before a stove spreading dough to make fritters for their dinner. His sun-browned hands were gloved in white flour. His left hand was missing a finger, the result of an accident when he worked in a copper mine.

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