By Kandace Vallejo
As we approached our seats, a table with a small mountain of dried coca leaves atop a brightly woven blanket came into focus. I was among a group of North Americans invited to a native foods fair in a large open space amid the dense city of El Alto, Bolivia, a higher-altitude neighbor of La Paz.
An Aymara elder rose and offered coca leaves and alcohol to the Pachamama (Mother Earth or Mother World). As if in response, wind swirled dust off the street, lifted the coca from the table and sent the leaves spiraling to the ground. The moment was indicative of the week to come, as the dual themes of cultural tradition and historical narrative reverberated throughout our food-driven visit to Bolivia.
As participants in a Food Sovereignty Tour organized by Food First, a U.S.-based organization that does research and advocacy around global food issues, our tour was part history lesson, part cultural adventure and part Andean buffet that would include copious amounts of potato, quinoa, coca, llama and alpaca. Our group was whisked about the food fair—meeting proud agricultural families eager to show us traditional Aymara foodways.
“Certain constellations tell us when to plant,” said an older man in an intricately woven alpaca scarf and chuspa (ceremonial bag) as he walked us through a hand-drawn agricultural calendar, complete with detailed representations of crops and animals. “When the vicuña cries in May, we know it will be a good harvest. We watch where the foxes gather in August to know if the rains will come. These are our ancestors’ foods. This is our cosmovisión [worldview], how we understand our world.”
He pointed with a stick at Aymara words and interpreted an organic clock that many of us have forgotten how to read, and ended on the significance of his clothing. “The woven lines on this chuspa tell the story of cooperation between man, woman and families—a necessity for our agricultural ways,” he said. “The coca we carry in it is an offering to the Pachamama.”
“This is good for your complexion, good for your kidneys,” one woman explained as she passed a bowl of cold gray liquid made of a mixture of phasa (Andean clay), water and salt to dip my marbled potato in. As my trip-mates sampled alpaca soup, I washed down my clay tasting with a cold glass of agua de cebada, a golden, cinnamon-sweet beverage made from boiled barley. We closed out the day with a traditional Andean apthapi—a part-potluck, part-picnic celebration with pre-Columbian roots—where families within a community would come together to share their harvest and celebrate guests or the return of loved ones.
The concurrent themes of food as a cultural and historical connective tissue followed us as we ventured over to Santiago de Okola, a small farming community on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Upon arrival, when we were greeted with the apthapi, our hosts sat on the ground a few meters away and ate communally off shared blankets while our group perched on tree stumps and benches around a large wooden table teeming with an impressive spread of various quinoa dishes, more potatoes, alpaca and soft farmer’s cheese creamier than brie.
When we respectfully asked about the dining differences at the apthapi, one guide pointed to the history of indigenous resistance to colonialism in Bolivia which, she explained, caused understandable hesitancy around welcoming and sharing with foreigners. Add to this some general shyness and a language barrier and it manifested in a slightly socially awkward situation.
After the apthapi, we hiked a path between magenta fields of quinoa, pausing between a tall plot of ripe fava beans and an expansive field of potato rows. While an elderly Aymara woman in traditional dress caught our eye as she herded a large group of fuzzy sheep, our guide explained. “Here in the Andes, we have thousands of types of potatoes. The potato was first cultivated here, and the conquistadors sent it back to Europe along with many other of our resources.” He went on to describe the particular process of open-air freeze-drying a certain type of potato—a method that predates the Incan empire and produces chuño. The preserved food remains good for several years and was even used in the past as a staple of the Incan army. “We have eaten the chuño this way for thousands of years,” our guide said. “It is also very good for the kidneys and overall health.”
As our group dozed that evening, cozy beneath layers of thick alpaca blankets, I reflected on the foods we’d come to know in our short stay. In many ways, these crops have Bolivian and Aymara history written into their genetic codes. The initial export of the potato alongside many other precious resources during the process of colonization is perhaps being retold through quinoa. The modern-day challenges of the global demand for quinoa are reshaping the Bolivian agricultural landscape as well as the nation’s economy, and are a driving force in shaping the nation’s history.
I pondered how Aymara food traditions have kept root over time—wondering what made them durable. And as I admired the way in which Bolivian and Aymara history was writ small within their food traditions, I wondered what examples of this we have in the United States. What histories do I locate among my own Mexican-American foodways? What stories might become audible once we ask such questions of ourselves? What challenges might we be facing similar to those facing modern-day indigenous Bolivians if we had an eye toward preservation of such valuable bodies of knowledge? Overall, what is at stake if we lose these ways of knowing our world?