EL ALTO, Bolivia – June nights on Bolivia’s high plains are dry and piercing cold. But at 5:30 a.m. in El Alto, a city of one million, it’s time to celebrate. The sun will soon rise and a new year begin.
Walking through the darkness in small groups, people converge on a square that looks over the city of La Paz to the snow covered mountains beyond. The new year’s festival is held on the southern hemisphere’s winter solstice, which this year fell on June 21.
“I came here because these are my roots,” said Virginia Callisaya Aliaga, a nurse who lives in El Alto. “We’re waiting for the sun, so he will bless us.”
Like Callisaya Aliaga, the majority of El Alto’s residents are Aymara Indians; many are first or second generation migrants from the vast countryside that stretches away from the city under the lightening sky. El Alto was once a small town perched on undesirable real estate over the city. Now its population of one million has exceeded that of La Paz, the country’s de facto capital.
Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, issued a supreme decree in 2009 making the winter solstice a national holiday. The coming year is 5518 according to the Aymara calendar.
Zenobio Quispe, a journalist and Aymara Indian, said celebrating the solstice has undergone a revival in Bolivia over the past decades. “It’s a recuperation of our traditions and of our culture.”
Morales celebrated the day near La Paz at Tiwanaku, the former center of a powerful civilization that flourished on the shores of Lake Titicaca around 500 A.D.
The celebrations there are growing increasingly popular with tourists, who join the all-night revelry, then watch the sun rise over the ruins with thousands of Bolivians.
But the solstice is more than a celebration in indigenous centers around the country. “It’s a seasonal pivot,” said Andrew Orta, an anthropology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “In the highlands they are finishing their harvest and turning toward a new growing season.” Orta, who has lived in and studied Aymara communities for more than 20 years, said the new year also marks the halfway point on the Aymara political calendar. In many communities, leaders are chosen to serve for one year, beginning in January. At the new year communities begin to select the coming year’s leaders.
Not everyone is happy with Morales’ decision to make the winter solstice a national holiday. When it was first promoted, the celebration was often called Aymara New Year, raising protests that the Aymara are just one of dozens of ethnic groups in Bolivia. Some opposition groups in the lowlands vowed to ignore the holiday, but the government moved forward, insisting that the solstice is crucial to many of Bolivia’s indigenous cultures.
According to Bolivia’s last census – which took place in 2001 – 62 percent of Bolivians over the age of 15 self-identify as indigenous; 25 percent identify as Aymara, 31 percent as Quechua, and the remainder as Chiquitano, Guaraní, Mojeño and other smaller groups.
The new year ceremony performed in El Alto is full of ritual. Yatiris, traditional spiritual leaders and healers, place coca leaves, herbs, sweets, alcohol and llama fetuses on cloths, speaking words of praise to Inti, the sun, and Pachamama, the earth mother. The community builds a crackling bonfire and the offerings are burnt just before the sun rises.
As the sun touches the land, the crowd of hundreds turns from the bonfire toward the mountains that ring the city to the east. They raise their hands and hold out their palms to greet it. The low brick houses of El Alto, the deep valley of La Paz, the dry brown plains and the glacier-covered mountains light from gray to gold. The noisy, congested humming city of El Alto pauses for a moment, then begins another year.