In mid March, the architect Freddy Mamani sat surrounded by microphones and cameras inside the press room of a municipal building in El Alto—Bolivia’s second-largest and fastest growing city, sprawled across a high plateau above the country’s capital, La Paz. Mamani, dressed in a wrinkled shirt, announced that an exhibition of his works, A4 Expo: Art and Architecture Andina in El Alto, would be held on 20 March, in one of his most extravagant creations: the Príncipe Alexander building, with two ballrooms, seven floors, one indoor football arena, and a value of almost $2 million. Mamani, once called the “Aymara version of Michaelangelo” by The Guardian, was convinced that his style of architecture would redefine the image of not only El Alto, but all of Bolivia.
Mamani belongs to the Aymara, Bolivia’s largest indigenous group, who comprise nearly 20 percent of the country’s 10 million people. Like all of Bolivia’s indigenous communities, they were, until recently, historically excluded from money and power. That changed in 2006, with the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an Aymara himself. As the economy boomed—per capita GDP almost tripled from 2006 to 2013—Aymara incomes did too. Between 2004 and 2012, their total bank deposits quadrupled, from $2.6 billion to $10 billion. In El Alto, home to a quarter-million Aymara and seen as their unofficial capital, conspicuous consumption has risen as the Aymara assert themselves economically and culturally. This city of scruffy, low, red-brick buildings is now dotted with large, showy, brightly painted high-rises—both commercial and residential, and often of mixed use. Mamani’s buildings—he has now designed over a hundred—are the most famous of them, and have assumed a totemic significance as symbols of the Aymara rise. Some have started calling them “cholets”: a blend of cholo, a term for indigenous people, and “chalet.”
In a La Paz bar, I met Jorge Viaña, a sociologist, who told me the Aymara rise has been underway for a while, but that Morales’s rule has accelerated it. “We are a very slow country and too peaceful,” he explained. Before the mid-sixteenth century, what is now Bolivia was part of the Inca empire, until it was conquered and colonised by Spain. After the country gained independence almost 300 years later, mestizos, of mixed indigenous and European ancestry, replaced the Europeans in positions of power. Until the 1950s, many indigenous people were still subjected to forced labour. They “were not even considered citizens,” Viaña said. “They were treated as slaves.”