Urban Society

Bolivia Table of Contents

The Working Class

Urban artisans, street hawkers, and servants had been part of city life since the colonial period. Bolivia's modern working class, however, had its roots in the tin-mining boom of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Miners, transport workers, and manufacturing employees formed the core of this group. Added to this were a motley crew of self-employed artisans and small-scale retailers.

The prosperity of the various segments of the working class varied significantly. Wage earners who were permanently employed in well-established factories represented an elite. They benefited from the reforms of the 1952 Revolution. The selfemployed , who were far more numerous, were generally not so fortunate. At best, their activities could be as profitable as contract work or comparable to regular wages. At worst, their position was marginal indeed. Competition was intense; artisans and small manufacturers were handicapped not only by their sheer numbers but also by illegal imports of cheap manufactured goods. They received little in the way of government assistance, although the Roman Catholic Church and some international aid agencies helped by offering technical assistance and organizing cooperatives.

The self-employed who were successful were generally able to specialize, to remain flexible in their economic activities, and to coordinate effectively the family's efforts to secure a livelihood. Families did well when they were able to pursue diverse activities as their own options varied and the market changed. The economic activities of women were an essential component in the family's success or failure. They embodied flexibility as they balanced the demands of marketplace and family.

The working class as a whole experienced numerous economic difficulties in the 1980s. Wage earners suffered from the rampant inflation of the early to mid-1980s. Unionized workers frequently protested that they bore an unfair burden under the economic stabilization packages enacted by the government of Víctor Paz Estenssoro. Miners, facing reduced employment in that industry, were especially militant.

An ideology rooted in the shared struggle for improved conditions united organized workers. Railroad workers began union organizing early in the twentieth century; miners organized in the 1910s. Labor leaders mobilized their followers through appeals to the memory of such massacres as those at Unciá in 1923, Catavi in 1942, Villa Victoria in 1949, and, more recently, the Catavi-Siglo XX mines in 1967.

The sense of class consciousness and camaraderie that marked the working-class ethos at times conflicted with other values. Sentiments of class solidarity, for example, might be overshadowed by the overwhelming desire for upward mobility both for the worker and for his or her children. To attain this end, lower-status persons were always ready to enlist the support of a patrón (patron), a powerful, influential person of higher status, such as a local landowner, who could help a client, such as a peasant, with favors such as obtaining a license for selling produce in a local market. In return, the patrón would gain the personal support of the client. Patrón-client ties thus cut across class boundaries.

A significant portion of the working class was bilingual. In department capitals, more than one-third of the population was trilingual or bilingual in Spanish and Quechua and/or Aymara. The Spanish spoken by these individuals might be heavily accented, but it was understandable. They were frequently better educated than peasants and usually at least minimally literate.

Cities, and in particular mining centers, were a linguistic melting pot. Although Quechua predominated among the workers, many spoke Aymara and Spanish as well. Aymara speakers learned Quechua in order to communicate with the majority of miners. Spanish became the preferred language in marriages where the couple spoke different languages, in part because parents recognized that their children needed a solid grounding in that language for social advancement.

Despite the sharp dichotomy between city and countryside in life-style and livelihood, working-class families maintained numerous links between the two. Mining provided an excellent example of the complex, ongoing relations between the urban working class and the countryside. Even before the sharp drop in employment in mining in the 1980s, the transition from farming to full-time employment in the mines was a lengthy one. Peasants might begin with part-time seasonal or piece-rate work--a strategy that could continue indefinitely as a supplement to earnings in agriculture or one that could evolve into regular full-time employment.

Even full-time miners depended on peasants for critical supplements to their livelihood. Miners' wives toured the surrounding countryside after harvest, trading commissary goods that they had obtained relatively cheaply for agricultural products. They timed their purchases to take full advantage of the fall in food prices immediately after the harvest.

Miners' families also reflected their rural Indian heritage by following a pattern of exchange, sharing, and cooperation. The techniques that peasant communities had long used to ensure families a minimum subsistence in difficult times were adapted to the mining town. Families created both money and labor pools to increase their productive power. In addition, they continued to plant gardens to produce at least part of their subsistence.

In larger cities, working-class life was organized around a variety of associations. In addition to union locals, neighborhoods often had a women's association, soccer team, and councils to mobilize for civic action. Overlapping membership in neighborhood associations cut across occupational specialties. Factory workers, petty merchants, and artisans were drawn into a social life that reinforced class consciousness.

The urban working class was also linked through its own fiesta system. Urban fiestas were organized by neighborhood and by occupational group. Factories held their own fiestas, and older establishments often had a shrine to their patron saint on the premises. A senior employee typically sponsored the annual fiesta, sometimes helped by a cash advance from the employer. Celebrations were less elaborate during economic downturns. From time to time, municipal governments regulated various aspects of fiestas as either too expensive or "inappropriate to urban living." Although the details of urban fiestas differed significantly from those held in rural communities, they were understandable to all potential participants.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress