Seeing Past Stereotypes

1. When abroad, I am generally more conscious of my status as a United States citizen and as a white, educated, female with economic solvency. Certainly, risks of being robbed exist as a result of my perceived socioeconomic status and blonde hair and white skin inevitably attract attention in Latin American countries. In Bolivia, I received nicknames of “gringa” and “choquita” referring to my light features. However, in rural Punata these nicknames were affectionate and even used among Bolivians to describe friends or relatives who had slightly lighter skin than other Bolivians. While I did receive some extra attention as a result of my appearance, Bolivians were generally very accepting and hospitable towards foreigners and I integrated very well into life both in the small rural town of Punata and the larger nearby city of Cochabamba. I felt extremely safe in Bolivia and I was never robbed, threatened, or even addressed in a derogatory or menacing manner. Bolivians were generally curious about the presence of a foreigner– asking many questions about U.S. politics, differences in education and healthcare systems– and were eager to explain local customs and offer generous portions of home-cooked meals.

Cusceño- a typical Bolivian dish

Cusceño- a typical Bolivian dish

Bolivians eat meat, (such as this pigeon dish) rice, and potatoes in almost every meal

Bolivians eat meat, (such as this pigeon dish) rice, and potatoes in almost every meal

I also received the nickname “doctorita” (little doctor. Although I repetitively explained how medical education works in the United States and told co-workers and friends that I was a pre-medical student in the university and not yet a doctor, they continued to refer to me as a doctor and introduce me as a doctor. I believe that this experience was largely a reflection of Bolivians’ high opinions of education in the United States and automatic assumptions that any white medical worker in Bolivia was a doctor. This assumption that my United States nationality automatically meant that I was well-educated and intelligent (and probably a doctor) certainly helped me to get some hands-on medical experience as the Bolivian doctors invited me to do everything from write prescriptions to vaccinate adults to suture head wounds to deliver babies, even after I explained that I had no formal medical education.

2. Before living in Bolivia, I knew little about the history, political climate, or culture of the country. Based on statistics that I read, I formed pre-conceived notions that Bolivia is a nation of devastating poverty and extremes in climate and natural landforms. I knew little about the coca leaf and Bolivia’s government, other than that Evo Morales is a leader of indigenous heritage who supports coca farmers and leans toward socialist policies. When telling people that I would be in Bolivia for three months this summer, I received many interesting reactions: one friend gave me antibacterial hand gel, another person asked if I would be living with Communists, and my parents worried that the rural coca farmers in Punata would be involved in drug trade. My actual, lived experience in Bolivia challenged and changed many of these prejudices and pre-conceived notions. 

Having worked in indigent mountain villages in Honduras and a trash-dump community in Nicaragua, I was no stranger to poverty in developing countries and I expected Bolivia to be somewhat similar. I was surprised to find that poverty in Bolivia has a completely different character than poverty in Central America. While countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua lack basic infrastructure since they were devastated after Hurricane Mitch and ensuing corruption, Bolivia has decent roads, infrastructure, and a more stable political system. I also noticed differences in the types of malnutrition I saw in the hospital. In Central American countries, I saw a great deal of kwashiorkor and children with huge potbellies and stick legs, starving and full of parasites. Children in Bolivia also had parasites, but low height and malnutrition were generally due to a lack of vitamins in their diet, since even very poor families ate bread, potatoes, and quinoa. Of course, poverty affected health profoundly in Bolivia; the Bolivian health ministry claims that 60% of the population has chagas disease, caused by insects living in thatched roofs in poor, rural areas and many indigent workers chew coca leaves to stave off hunger. However, I did not observe the devastating, dehumanizing poverty that I expected to see after my experiences in Central America.

Interestingly, when talking about my summer plans to people in the U.S., I found that few people knew much about Bolivia- some people thought it was in Africa, others warned me to be careful since they thought all coca farmers are involved in international drug trade, others joked that I would be kidnapped by Communists. However, many people know that Evo Morales, a controversial political figure, is president of Bolivia. Working in the hospital, I witnessed firsthand the benefits and detriments of the Morales government’s SUMI program for pregnant mothers and children and the Juana Azurduy bonus. After watching documentaries about Evo and his childhood, having conversations both with Evo supporters and detractors, and witnessing Evo deliver a speech in Punata, I learned a great deal more about the enigmatic Evo and his politics and came to appreciate the many complexities and dimensions of social problems and governments in Bolivia. I also observed that Bolivians, even people who live in rural areas and are of more indigenous backgrounds, are very well-informed about both local and international politics and are generally very politically active.

Another interesting aspect of Bolivian culture and politics is the coca leaf. The coca leaf is an important symbol of Bolivian indigenous culture and is used in many traditional ceremonies. The coca leaf possesses over 17 alkaloids (only one of which is used to make cocaine) and is used to make tea, to treat altitude sickness, to stave off hunger, and as a principal ingredient in coca cola. The coca leaf was used by Incans to create the first anesthesia and alkaloids from the coca leaf are still used in anesthesia. I observed many Bolivians masticating (piz’char) the coca leaf and offering coca leaves as part of religious ceremonies to the Pachamama (earth mother). When invited to chew coca leaves, I experienced a gentle buzzing sensation in my mouth and then felt my lips, tongue, and throat go numb as if I had received a local anesthetic. Chewing coca is non-addictive and does not produce a drug-induced high; however, one alkaloid may be extracted from the coca leaf and used to produce cocaine. For this reason, the production of the coca plant and Evo Morales’ programs that allow increased coca production are controversial both in Bolivia and in the international arena. To read more about the coca leaf and the controversy surrounding its production, check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coca and to check out coca in the news click here: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41708.

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4 Responses to “Seeing Past Stereotypes”

  1. Mani Says:

    I liked your article, thank you

  2. william Says:

    Great blog!! I’m married to a Bolivian she is great and I want to know more about her roots. We want to plan a trip to Bolivia but I’m afraid since I’m In the military that would cause problems showing my I’d, oversea. Well reading your blog has cause a paradigm shift… Thanks!!

  3. Elise Says:

    I’m also studying abroad to Bolivia for my senior year in high school starting this august! This article was very helpful (and well written by the way) thank you so much! 🙂

  4. Paul Guillen Says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences during your time in Bolivia. I hope more North Americans get to read your blog and perhaps learn something about Bolivian culture and Bolivian people outside of the preconceived notions and negative stereotypes that exist in most of the Western world.

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