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art and culture | by Miguel Centellas | January 13, 2004 at 05:20 AM | comments (3) | trackback (0)

I thought it necessary to define the words camba, kolla, and chapaco for those unfamiliar w/ the terms. I'm hesitant to do so, since the terms are cultural ones that have multiple meanings (positive & negative) depending on context. Also, I want to point out that while I'm a camba (and proud of it!), I've no anti-kolla sympathies, like many cambas do. And, to be honest, I much prefer living in La Paz to living in Santa Cruz.

But there's at least two Bolivias, and I don't mean the division between the Europeanized mestizo urban populations and the indigenous campesinos (which is, of course, an important division as well).

Bolivia's divided, regionally, into three different "cultural" groups. The eastern, lowland departments of Santa Cruz, Beni, and Pando are considered camba departments (people from the city of Santa Cruz are, specifically, cruceños). The western, Andean departments of Oruro, Potosí, La Paz, Cochabamba, and Chuquisaca are considered kolla departments. People from the southern department of Tarija are known as chapacos and are neither camba nor kolla (parts of Chuquisaca also share this distinction).

The international image of Bolivia is kolla. These departments are more "Andean" and have large Quechua & Aymara populations and traditions. Basically, fill in all your Bolivian stereotypes here, including music, food, dress. Everything you've seen in a postcard or travel guidebook. I've many kolla friends (also, my family's originally was born in Oruro). Kollas are pleasant & courteous as a rule, even somewhat humble & socially conservative. Most meals include soup, evenings require sweaters, and mate doesn't mean "yerba mate".

Cambas are another story. Forget everything you think you know about Bolivia. Cambas almost never wear sweaters (they wear shirts open to the third button & their pants below their waists), dislike soup, and mate is something strong & bitter drunk through a metal straw (that is, yerba mate). Cambas are extremely direct, perhaps even rude at times (if we don't like you, we'll let you know, kollas might just avoid you). We don't have a reputation for humility; a camba will always demand good treatment, and is quick to anger if slighted (kollas will wait until water boils to steam out). These three departments sit on the edge of the Amazon basin, and are tropical & hot. The folk dance isn't the cueca, it's the taquirari.

Chapacos resemble Argentine gauchos. They're laid back, speak in sing-song, and are well known for their carefree attitude (including love for parrilladas, wine, and friendly parties). They seem cold to strangers at first, but take time to warm up. They do dance cueca, though in such a way that it barely resembles the cueca danced in the west. The real tarijeño folk dance is the chacarera. And when they sing, chapacos love to stop in the middle of a song for a round of joke-telling.

Cambas, kollas, and chapacos speak differently. Whereas kolla Spanish is marked by Aymara or Quechua words & expressions, camba Spanish is marked by the near-inability to pronounce the letter "S", sprinkled Guarani words & expressions, and verb conjugation patterns that resemble Portuguese. Chapacos speak w/ a slow, sing-song cadence and many Argentine idioms.

Attitudes towards property are also very marked. The kolla campesino is more familiar w/ the tradition of the ayllu, a form of communal farming. The camba & chapaco campesino isn't. Private property is private property — and fiercely defended. In the Beni countryside, you don't walk up to a door and knock (you're liable to be shot). Rather, you walk up to w/in viewing distance of the door, and clap (loudly) in the air — then you sit down & wait for the owner to decide if you're friendly or not.

So much for the ethnography lesson. Why does it matter? Well, it probably shouldn't, but for many cambas & kollas it does. A lot. The Nación Camba (an ultra-regionalist, vaguely racist organization) has tried to lead cruceño secession from time to time. There's a long history of bitter distrust (even "racism") against kollas in Santa Cruz. Ironically, many of the camba-kollas (immigrants to the city of Santa Cruz) are often most fiercely regionalistic — although they still retain their familial kolla ties.

Part of this animosity is your typical xenophobia (a popular pastime throughout the world). Part of it's an extension of European racism — since many cruceños (traditionally European & mestizo) even think of themselves as "true" cambas compared to the countryside cunumis. Part of it's a long tradition of centralized politics that virtually ignored the eastern departments for over a century. The city of Santa Cruz (population 1.2 million) was a small backwater town just 50 years ago. That is, until oil was discovered.

In school, we learned about Melchor Pinta Parada & el once porciento — the bitter struggle to win the right to keep 11% of the oil profits in Santa Cruz (the rest all went to the "national" treasury, that is, La Paz). Such history of political marginalization left deep scars among both cambas & chapacos. This has led to a great deal of mistrust against La Paz (the center of political power) in particular and the poor western departments (Potosí & Oruro) that receive large chunks of economic support from the state while producing less than 5% of the national GDP (Santa Cruz alone produces more than 30% of Bolivia's GDP). In essence, cambas & chapacos frequently see themselves supporting the nation economically while getting little back, and being politically ignored to boot.

October's guerra del gas was emblematic. Both the international & paceño press portrayed the conflict as having pitted all of Bolivian political society against an unpopular government. Of course, cambas & chapacos are well aware that there were no anti-government protests in their cities, but rather pro-Goni rallies. Here, again, Santa Cruz & Tarija felt specifically slighted. The debate over what to do w/ their oil & gas resources was being debated in La Paz, w/ little interest in what the eastern half of the country felt about the issue. Add to this the fact that while Mesa went out of his way to meet w/ all the leaders of the anti-Goni revolt, he didn't visit Tarija until he'd been in office almost two months.

I'm not justifying camba or chapaco secessionism. But it's a very real problem facing Bolivia today. During October, the cruceño media often referred to "the two Bolivias" — el país que bloquea, y el país que trabaja. Fair or not, cambas & chapacos (more recently) see themselves as the country that works, and constantly hindered by the rest of the country.

NOTE: I thank my friend Daniel Bustillos (a paceño, and proud of it!) for looking this over to make sure it was a fair/accurate assesment. Many of his comments are included in the text. Any errors, however, are my own.


Que buena nota amigo, gracias por tu esclarecedora relación de hechos, veo que ese tema de los regionalismos fuertes es similar también en Ecuador y en Perú, países muy parecidos a Bolivia. Hasta la Vista.

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