Human Interest

Museum preserves memory, culture of Tocaña African-Bolivian community

By Gina Baldivieso

Tocaña, Bolivia, Oct 18 (EFE).- Cultural expressions such as the “saya” dance, musical instruments, work tools and audiovisual memories on display at the Tocaña African-Bolivian Cultural Interpretation Center are preserving the history of that village that evolved from a hacienda estate into one of Bolivia’s main African-descendent communities.

Tocaña is located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from La Paz at an altitude of 1,344 meters (4,400 feet) above sea level in the Los Yungas de La Paz subtropical zone, with a climate as warm as its people.

The center opened in 2003 with an initial unit seeking to “show (the community’s) cultural expressions,” above all “based on the saya,” one of the emblematic dances of African-Bolivians, the official in charge of the venue, Edgar Gemio, told EFE.

In 2007, the “teatrin” was launched, a performance center with capacity for 200 people, along with a second exhibit hall, a coffee shop and dining hall.

In the following years, the center went into a period of “decline,” but in July 2021 new life was breathed into it and it was rejuvenated under Gemio’s direction.

“(There was much) suffering, struggle and certainly much blood. So, this space serves to cement that, to mark the (community’s) identity, to place a value on these situations and be able to express it and share it with the people who visit us,” he said.

Tocaña’s story is not a simple one.

The first Africans arrived in Bolivia in the 16th century, possibly via the Panama-Peru and Buenos Aires routes, as slaves to work in the Potosi silver mines.

That memory is present in some of the sayas, like the one that expresses the “honor and glory of the first blacks who arrived in Bolivia and who died working, very much exploited, in the Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) of Potosi,” said Gemio.

A century or two later, the slaves were taken to Los Yungas to work on agricultural and ranching estates belonging to Spaniards.

That is how the ethnic group arrived at Mururate, “which was the mother hacienda, and from there they were distributed among the Tocaña, Chijchipa, San Joaquin and Suapi haciendas,” among others, where “there was a master and they worked” for him.

Later came the “pongueaje,” a type of semi-feudal servitude whereby the “patron distributed land” to the laborers on the estate so that they could work, ostensibly, a few days for themselves and the rest of the time for him, but ultimately he wound up with all the production. That is, “it was a more covert type of slavery,” Gemio said.

With the 1952 revolution’s agrarian reform “the people began to appropriate the land,” because “the land is what one works for,” and unions arose to protect the small farmers’ interests, including the “Tocaña Community Agrarian Syndicate.”

“This was the organization whereby, to this day, we manage ourselves and our top official is the general secretary,” he said.

Spreading the African-Bolivian culture also was not an easy task, since the community memory is that the first attempt to perform the saya in Corioco during the 1970s was received with ridicule in that nearby town.

During the following decades, however, these cultural expressions were introduced in the schools in the area and both “African and non-African” students there presented the saya again, this time to great applause and without any public mockery.

That was the start of the spread of the saya, and Gemio emphasized that the dance is what “has allowed us to break down all the doors” that previously had hindered the community.

In this rhythmic dance, men and women more their shoulders, hips and hands to the beat of the drum and the “reque reque,” a musical instrument made from the shell of a local fruit.

“With the saya, we can go on stage in various spots and show and tell what we’re feeling, tell about our experiences, our dreams and the emotions we have,” Gemio said.

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