PORTABLE CHOLETS: LA MESA – El Alto Visiting School 2019Profile

by Karla Vargas, a student of the AA Visiting School El Alto 2019

The Ballroom, inside one of Freddy Mamani’s Cholets.

The Mesa is a short extract of El Alto’s ordinary life.
To understand El Alto, it is necessary to live it, to know the people, listen to the stories that are told and participate to all the festive ceremonies that are performed daily.

Spirituality and rituals define Bolivian way of living, even if the times are changing fast, the context of El Alto keeps developing around these traditions. El Alto, located at 4,150 mt of altitude, is the fastest-growing city in Bolivia, with over a million inhabitants, is becoming the cultural and economic centre of Bolivia. This growing economy juxtaposed with Aymara traditions and the need of a space to collectively celebrate them has lead to the emergence of the so-called New Andean architecture.

The Cholets host the most scenographic and extravagant social gatherings in Bolivia, parties where only the excessive ornaments and colourful chandeliers can compete with the exuberance of the celebratory acts. Depending on the event, these parties can last up to 4 days straight, interspersed with copious beer, folkloric music and bodily dances.

Vocabulary: Characters and Ritualistic Movements.

El Alto can be depicted by the chaos of its street sellers, their unusual way of strolling around and the multitude of folks, peculiarly acting within the daily landscape of Andean life.

Glimpse of El Alto’s Context

The shoe shiners, always wearing a mask hiding their identity from friends and acquaintances. they are the experts of the hidden and forbidden parts of the city. 

The coca chewers, growing coca plants for centuries, using its leaves as an energy supplier at work and strenuous tasks.

The pasankalla³ eaters are everywhere like its a Bolivian sweet snack originally made near Lake Titikaka which is the highest lake on earth.

The street butchers, selling all types of meat on the way, covered in blood due to the lack of proper space, having the most threatening appearance of all other characters.

The knitters are usually older women, mostly sellers knitting on their free time to gain some money.

The orange sellers, mostly women moving small carts around the city with citric fruits and a special squeezer machine selling fresh orange juice.

Each character appears as a metaphorical element composing an alive Mesa de la  Ch’alla ritual, one of the most popular propitiatory performances to embody the reciprocity between human beings and the mother earth.

The Characters of the Mesa

This ceremony consists of an offering of many elements such as spices, sugar figures, beverages, coca leaves and in some cases the “sullu”. 

The purpose of the offering is to satisfy the meat hunger of any dangerous “ajayus” to prevent it from taking lives or hurting people and as a retribution to the “Pacha”, that is the reason a “sullu” or carnal offer is given in reward. All of the elements are usually wrapped in the “aguayo” and then buried.

As part of every ritual and Bolivian party, each of the participants proceeds with the “challa” to calm down the thirst of the earth. The first sip of the drink is invited to the “Pachamama” to request fortune.

Cholita’s Performance

Ultimately, Aymara culture, as complex as it may seem, can be understood through a very simple concept: the understanding and adaptation to nature. In the existence of diverse worlds distinguished by levels, we find the basis for the notions of duality, complementarity and reciprocity, which are the principles arranging the Andean cosmos. It is, in short, a consecration of the natural environment surrounding us. 

Pacha – Earth, world, time and space.

Alaxpacha – the upper world
Akapacha – the world we live in
Manqhapacha – the world below

Apus – Andean peaks with Inca sites characterised by their height and associated with a divinity.

Pasankalla – Sweet extruded corn similar to popcorn and typical of Bolivia.

Sullu – Ritual objects consisting of fetuses of animals given to the mother earth.

Ajayus – The soul or center of a being that feels and thinks; It is the cosmic energy that generates and grants the movement of life.

Aguayo – A coat or ornament, particularly used by women of indigenous descent.

Ch’alla – Practice consisted on moistening the ground or other elements for protection with ritual drinks such as wine, alcohol or beer.

Detail of the Mask

For more information:

AAVS El Alto is run by Sabrina Morreale and Lorenzo Perri
The Final Corto AAVS El Alto 2019 – Youtube
AA Visiting School (AAVS) El Alto – Portable Cholets Webpage
Apply to AAVS El Alto
AAVS El Alto – Microsite
AAVS El Alto – Facebook
AAVS El Alto – Instagram