The Upper Class

Bolivia Table of Contents

The traditional Bolivian upper class built its status on the triangular base of wealth, political power, and Spanish heritage. Its wealth was based on a virtual monopoly of agricultural production, mineral resources, and commerce. For most of the country's history, the upper class constituted the only educated sector of society and the only one that had contact with and an understanding of the world beyond Bolivia. Although generally of mestizo origin, its members considered themselves white and identified with European culture. They formed a cohesive enclave who kept their status intact through intermarriage and regarded their privileged position as a birthright.

The 1952 Revolution had a profound impact on the elite. They retained a prominent position in society, but the very foundations of their status became subject to challenge. The concepts of racial superiority and purity of the blood, nonetheless, continued to be central to the elite's class consciousness. Outsiders, except for European Roman Catholics, found acceptance by this group difficult. An aspirant to upper-class status faced a critical appraisal of his physical features and his name (for signs of Indian derivation). Social climbers merited disdain, often expressed in terms of prejudice toward those of Indian or cholo origin.

The changes begun in the 1950s made both upward and downward mobility increasingly possible. Growing numbers of Bolivians with "new money" emulated the life-styles of the elite. At the same time, the loss of land relegated some former hacienda owners to regular jobs in the city or even to poverty and dependence on the generosity of relatives.

Despite the change in actors, traditional values and social roles remained relatively intact. Men continued to follow the ideals of machismo and the patrón. Machismo demanded that a man demonstrate heroism, forcefulness, a zest for action, and sexual prowess. The patrón dispensed favors to his underlings--an action that demonstrated his power--and expected loyalty in return. The ideal of womanhood still emphasized the qualities of modesty, sacrifice, and motherhood.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress