It’s been a month and a half now that I am living in El Alto, Bolivia, a young and extremely poor city surrounding the Bolivian capital, La Paz. El Alto counts today around 1.000.000 inhabitants, the majority of them are Aymara indigenous migrants who came originally from the countryside – only 60 years ago the city population was around 45.000 inhabitants. We are here at 4000 meters high, in the middle of the Andes, and in the middle of the indigenous traditions. The center of El Alto is a lively and packed market, where one can find absolutely everything he needs at low prices. Between the vegetables, meats, spices, traditional clothes, furniture, or electronic devices, one can find as well all what is needed to make offerings to the Mother Earth, the Pachamama.
In the Aymara indigenous tradition, the month of August is known as the moment where the Earth (or the mouth) is opened. For that reason, it is a particularly appropriated time to make offerings to the Pachamama. Everywhere in El Alto, and particularly in sacred places, groups of friends or families are giving offerings to the Pachamama, by themselves or with the help of a traditional healer (Yatiris, Amautas), by the means of a mesa (table of offerings that is burnt and put into the earth, so the Pachamama can receive it).
Traditionally, offerings to the Pachamama were given to get a good harvest. In order to receive, one needed to give. Today it seems that people are asking more for themselves: to get a good health, to get money, to get a car, to be safe during a travel, to find love. In El Alto there are now some streets full of little blue houses where Yatiris and Amautas offer their services. Their number has been growing over the years. If August is a particular month to make offerings to the Pachamama, all over the year people are coming to ask for services of traditional healers – to get luck during a special event (an exam or a travel, by example), to chase out the bad luck in case of sickness or familial issues, or to protect a new house. I heard some critics saying that rituals performed by healers are becoming more and more a means of marketing. Although for the persons who are asking a ritual, I guess it has a stronger sense.
Over the next months, I will be interested to learn how people of El Alto are facing distress and mental health issues. It seems that referring to a traditional healer is one way one can use to help overpass difficult times. Hopefully it is more than marketing.