Bolivian Americans

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Author: Tim Eigo
Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
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Bolivian Americans

Tim Eigo


Bolivian Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from the central South American country of Bolivia. The only landlocked country in the Western Hemisphere, Bolivia is bordered to the west by Chile and Peru, to the south by Argentina, to the southeast by Paraguay, and to the east and north by Brazil. One of the most striking features of Bolivia is its high plateau, or Altiplano, which is also home to most of its multiethnic population. The Altiplano sits between two chains of the Andes Mountains and is one of the highest inhabited regions in the world, reaching an average height of 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). The valleys and ridges of the Andes's eastern slopes are called the Yungas, where 30 percent of the country's population lives. Three-fifths of Bolivia is sparsely populated, particularly in the lowlands. Altogether, Bolivia covers an expanse of land twice as large as Texas.

According to the World Bank, the 2011 population of Bolivia was approximately 10 million people. Of all the South American countries, Bolivia has the largest percentage (60 percent) of indigenous peoples, including the Aymara, Quechua, Kallawayas, Chipayas, and Guarani. The next largest ethnic group in the Bolivian population is the mestizos, those of mixed-race heritage, who make up 30 percent of the population. Finally, nearly 10 percent of the Bolivian population is of Spanish origin. There is also a small population of Japanese Bolivians living primarily in the lowland areas. The majority of Bolivians are Roman Catholic, although in many areas indigenous beliefs are practiced alongside Catholicism. Bolivia is considered a developing nation; between one-half and two-thirds of the population, many of them subsistence farmers, live in poverty. Exports of natural gas and oil, textiles, and minerals—including silver, tin, and lithium—make up the bulk of the Bolivian economy.

Bolivians first immigrated to the United States in significant numbers following the 1952 Bolivian National Revolution. Many of these immigrants were political dissidents or middle-income professionals. A second wave of immigration occurred in the 1980s during a period of hyperinflation in Bolivia. These immigrants were primarily lower-income workers laboring in manual labor or the service industry. This pattern continued into the late 1990s, but rising political tensions between the U.S. and Bolivian governments, along with the looming financial crisis, led most Bolivian immigrants to settle in countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Spain in the 2000s and early 2010s.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 99,210 people of Bolivian descent living in the United States, making them the third smallest Hispanic group in the country, less than one half of 1 percent of the size of the Mexican American population. However, some Bolivian and Latin American organizations, such as the Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA), believe the number may be as high as 366,000, people when undocumented immigrants are accounted for. The highest concentration of Bolivian Americans resides in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. Compared with other immigrant populations, a relatively small number of Bolivians become naturalized American citizens, with many seeking only temporary employment or education as a means of supporting family members still living in Bolivia.


Early History To those in the relatively recently settled Western Hemisphere—and, in fact, to most people anywhere in the world—the length of Bolivian history is staggering. When the Spanish arrived to conquer South America in the 1500s, they found a land that had been populated and civilized for thousands of years. From around 400 CE until around 1000 CE, the Tiahuanaco culture thrived, though it had inhabited western Bolivian since as far back as 1500 BCE. Its center for ritual and ceremonies was on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the largest navigable lake in the world and a dominant part of Bolivia's geography. The Tiahuanaco culture was highly developed and prosperous. It had superb transportation systems, a road network, irrigation, and striking building techniques.

The Aymara Indians subsequently invaded, probably from Chile. At the end of the fifteenth century, the Peruvian Incas swept over the area. Their rule continued until the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1530s. Spanish rule was known as the colonial period and was marked by the development of cities, the oppression of the Indians, and the missionary work of the Catholic Church.

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The struggle for independence from Spain began in the seventeenth century, and the most significant rebellion occurred when the Aymara and Quechua united at the end of the eighteenth century. Their leader, Tupac Katari, was eventually captured and executed, but the rebels continued to resist, and for more than a hundred days, about eighty thousand Indians besieged the capital city of La Paz. General Antonio José de Sucre, who fought alongside Simón Bolívar, finally gained independence from Spain in 1825. The new nation was a republic, with a senate and a house of representatives, an executive branch, and a judiciary. A few decades after Bolivia obtained its independence, it lost two disastrous wars to Chile, and in the process, lost its only coastal access. It lost a third war in 1932, this time with Paraguay, which further reduced its land holdings. Even at the end of the twentieth century, such setbacks continued to weigh heavily on the Bolivian psyche and affected political actions in La Paz.

Modern Era In addition to being a silver exporter, the republic of Bolivia also became a leading supplier of tin for the world's markets. Ironically, the poor working conditions in the mines led to the evolution of Bolivia's modern political state; conditions in the mines were so abhorrent that a middle-class and workers' party, the National Revolutionary Movement, or MNR, formed. Under the leadership of President Paz Estenssoro in the 1950s, the MNR nationalized the mines, taking them from private companies and transferring ownership to the government. The MNR also began land and industrial reforms. For the first time, Indian and mestizo farmers and the working poor had an opportunity to own the land that they and their ancestors had toiled on for generations. However, political tumult continued and ultimately resulted in the 1964 overthrow of President Estenssoro, leading to almost twenty years of military rule.

Gladys Gomez, a Bolivian American beauty queen, holds U.S. and Bolivian flags in New York City, 1962. Gladys Gomez, a Bolivian American beauty queen, holds U.S. and Bolivian flags in New York City, 1962. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARTY HANLEY. CORBIS / BETTMANN. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

From the 1970s onward, Bolivia suffered setbacks due to rampant inflation, other deteriorating economic conditions, and a series of military dictators. A dramatic crash in the world market for tin also severely impacted the economy. However, since 1985 efforts have been made to stabilize and diversify the economy, and in 2010, major credit agencies upgraded their rating of Bolivia's economy. Bolivia's economy has always been dominated by mining and cattle and sheep herding, but the illegal growing of coca had become a major problem by the 1980s. From coca leaves, a paste can be made, which then is used to make cocaine. In the 1990s, the Bolivian government sought to reduce the drug trade in cooperation with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). This process was made difficult by the fact that coca has always been a part of the daily lives of millions of Bolivians. As many as 350,000 Bolivians make their living as coca growers, and with the 2006 election of Indian Aymara leader Evo Morales—a prominent supporter of the coca growers' trade union—as president of Bolivia, coca production is once again on the rise. The illegal manufacture and sale of cocaine has been a major point of contention between the United States and Bolivia, especially during the administration of George W. Bush, when the U.S. ambassador and several American DEA agents were expelled from Bolivia for purportedly conspiring to overthrow the government. While relations improved somewhat under the Barack Obama administration, the relationship between the two countries continued to be shaky.

Bolivian immigrants tend to travel to the United States primarily seeking greater economic and educational opportunities. As such, they fare better than do those who do so seeking political asylum, such as Salvadorans and Nicaraguans. Also, Bolivians who immigrate to North America often come from large cities and therefore adapt more easily to American urban areas. They are well educated and have high professional aspirations. Their families are usually intact, and their children do well in school because the parents come from a higher educational background. In the 1990s Stephanie Griffith, an activist in immigrant communities, stated that, of all recent immigrants, the Bolivians come closest to achieving the American dream.


Since 1820 more than a million immigrants from Central and South America have settled in the United States, but who they were or where they came from remains a mystery. It was not until 1960 that the U.S. Census Bureau categorized these immigrants by their nation of origin. Because of this, and because the total number of Bolivian immigrants to this country has been relatively small, estimates of Bolivian immigration to the United States may be impossible to determine.

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Between 2001 and 2010, Bolivians who sought permanent-resident status in the United States numbered 22,695. However, the average number of Bolivians naturalized every year is 457. This suggests that Bolivian Americans have a continued interest in remaining Bolivians and may hold open the possibility of returning to South America. Additionally, many Bolivians enter the country on tourist or other short-term visas, which further complicates immigration data.

Although relatively few Bolivians immigrate to the United States, those who do are often clerical workers who can afford to travel such a long distance from home. This exodus, or “brain drain,” of educated workers has harmed Bolivia and South America as a whole. It is a middle-class migration from one of the poorest nations in the world. While these workers enjoy relatively high standards of living in Bolivia, they hope for better opportunities for themselves and their children. These educated workers largely settle in urban centers on the West Coast, in the Northeast, and in the Gulf states, where there are Bolivian or other South American immigrant communities that offer support and cultural ties to home. Oftentimes, and especially during the financial crisis of the late 2000s, educated Bolivian immigrants find themselves having to take jobs for which they are overqualified, such as in construction or the service industry.

The largest communities of Bolivian Americans are in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. There are also significant Bolivian populations in Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The 2010 U.S. Census indicated that about 37,600 Bolivian Americans lived in and around Washington, D.C.


Bolivian languages include at least thirty indigenous languages, as well as Spanish and other languages spoken by descendants of immigrants to Bolivia. According to the Bolivian Constitution, rewritten in 2009, all thirty-seven indigenous languages as well as Spanish are considered official languages of the state. The most prominent indigenous languages are Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní. Spanish and Quechua are spoken primarily in the Andes region, while Aymara is mainly spoken in the Altiplano around Lake Titicaca, and Guaraní in the southeast along the border with Paraguay. Formerly dismissed as simply the languages of poor Indians, Quechua and Aymara have gained favor since the late twentieth century due to increasing attempts to preserve Bolivia's customs, particularly under the presidency of Evo Morales, himself an Aymara Indian. Quechua is primarily an oral language, but it is one with international importance. Originally spoken during the Incan Empire, Quechua is still spoken by about 10 million people in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile. About 3 million people in Bolivia and Peru speak Aymara. It has survived for centuries despite efforts to eliminate Page 322  |  Top of Articleits use. Spanish remains the predominant language in Bolivia and is used in all modern forms of communication, including art, business, and broadcasting. However, all civil servants are required to speak and conduct business in at least one indigenous language, and efforts have been made to include indigenous languages in educational institutions.

Bolivian Americans, when they do not speak English, usually speak Spanish in addition to any indigenous language they may speak. Bolivian American schoolchildren new to the United States, for whom English is a second or third language, have experienced increased difficulties becoming adept at English, as support and funding for bilingual education shrinks in the United States. Some private organizations, such as Escuela Bolivia in Virginia, attempt to meet this need by offering English-as-a-second-language classes and academic tutoring as well as cultural programs for Bolivian and other Hispanic immigrants.

Greetings Nonverbal communication is important to Bolivians when they meet and converse. Bolivians who are descended from Europeans often use their hands when they speak, whereas indigenous people from the highlands normally do not gesture. Similarly, urban dwellers often greet each other with a single kiss on the cheek, especially if they are friends or acquaintances. Men usually shake hands and perhaps embrace. Indigenous people shake hands very lightly and pat each other's shoulders as if to embrace. They do not embrace or kiss. Bolivian Americans tend to utilize expansive gestures when they communicate. This is due to the fact that most Bolivian Americans are of European ancestry.


The majority of Bolivians, about 80 percent, identify as Roman Catholic, but various Protestant sects are gaining in popularity, as well as a renewed interest in or adherence to traditional indigenous beliefs. Although the state is officially secular, the strong Catholic influence can be seen in certain policies, such as the lack of access to birth control or abortion. Many indigenous communities interweave pre-Columbian and Christian symbols in their religious practices. In 2009 the Bolivian government decided to recognize the celebration of the Aymaran New Year, or Wilka Kuti (return of the Sun), an event that celebrates the beginning of a new solar cycle with the arrival of the winter solstice. In particular, worship and ritual related to Pachamama, a traditional Andean fertility goddess, are significant. Pachamama, which translates to “Mother World” in Quechua, is often thanked or toasted by a ritual spilling of chicha, a fermented maize drink. This may be done daily, with more elaborate ceremonies occurring on special events, such as the beginning of a trip. The traditions of Pachamama have also influenced environmental legislation, such as the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth, passed in 2010. Another ancient god who plays a role in everyday life is Ekeko, “dwarf” in Aymara. Especially favored among mestizos, he is believed to oversee the finding of a spouse, providing shelter, and luck in business.

One famous Bolivian folktale is about Mount Illimani, which towers over the city of La Paz. According to the legend, there once were two mountains where one now stands, but the god who created them could not decide which he liked more. Finally, he decided it was Illimani, and threw a boulder at the other, sending the mountaintop rolling far away. “Sajama,” he said, meaning, “Go away.” Today, the distant mountain is still called Sajama. The shortened peak that sits next to Illimani is today called Mururata, meaning “beheaded.”

Bolivian Americans generally continue to practice their Catholic faith but may adhere less to indigenous beliefs, particularly if they do not live in an area with a Bolivian community. However, many of the festivals celebrated by Bolivian Americans incorporate both Catholic and indigenous elements, such as the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupina, which is celebrated by the Rhode Island Bolivian-American Association every August. Many Bolivian Americans celebrate El Día de Todos Santos, or All Saints' Day, a major Catholic feast day that honors the numerous saints recognized by the church on the first of each November, and also venerate Our Lady of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia, on August 5.


Bolivian Americans generally find that their skills and experience prepare them well for life in the United States, although the initial period of adjustment may be challenging. However, in the 1990s and 2000s, anti-immigrant sentiments increased in many areas of the country, particularly toward the rapidly growing Mexican American population, and these feelings often failed to distinguish between Mexican and other Latin American immigrants and between legal and illegal immigrants. Thus, the move to the United States can be challenging for Bolivians, especially those who primarily speak an indigenous language rather than Spanish, as well as for those who lack family or community support networks.

Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs Bolivian Americans seek to instill in their children a strong sense of the culture of the country from which they emigrated. As such, children's education includes Bolivian history, traditional dances, and music. In regions with larger Bolivian American populations, there are often cultural organizations to support this education. For example, Virginia's Liga Incopea, a soccer league featuring teams of Bolivian immigrants organized loosely around the participants' city or village of origin, raises money to support various projects in Bolivia and fosters a sense of community among Bolivian Americans, encouraging other Bolivian Americans to attend the games and Page 323  |  Top of Articlesocialize with one another. In addition, social media such as Facebook have made it easier for Bolivian Americans to connect with each other and their relatives in Bolivia.

Cuisine As in most countries, the Bolivian diet is influenced by region and by income. Most meals in Bolivia, however, include meat, usually served with potatoes, rice, or both. Bolivian cuisine is similar to traditional Spanish cuisine and infused with traditional native Bolivian foods such as quinua (or quinoa, a seed that is typically boiled and eaten like rice) and chuño (freeze-dried high-altitude potatoes). Bolivian cuisine is also influenced by other major immigrants to the region, including German, Italian, Russian, and Basque. Near Santa Cruz are large wheat fields, and Bolivia imports large quantities of wheat from the United States. In the highlands, potatoes are the staple food. In the lowlands, the staples are rice, plantain, and yucca. Fewer fresh vegetables are available to those in the highlands. While most of the Bolivian diet is rich in carbohydrates, in rural areas other kinds of food may be more scarce, leading to nutritional deficiencies.

Some popular Bolivian recipes include silpancho, pounded beef with an egg cooked on top; thimpu, a spicy stew cooked with vegetables; and fricase, pork soup seasoned with yellow hot peppers. Also central to the urban Bolivian diet is street food such as salteñas, oval pies stuffed with various fillings and eaten as a quick meal. They are similar to empanadas, which are usually filled with beef, chicken, or cheese. Diets in the lowlands include wild animals such as the armadillo. The most common Bolivian drink is black tea, which is usually served strong with lots of sugar. Maté, made by steeping the dried leaves and stems of the yerba maté plant in hot water, is also a popular drink.

Due to the availability of South American produce and other foods in the United States, Bolivian Americans have been successful in incorporating much of their native cuisine into their everyday diets. In areas with a high concentration of Bolivian immigrants, Bolivian restaurants and bakeries have become increasingly popular, not just among Bolivian Americans but with other Americans as well, who often appreciate the familiar dependence upon meat and carbohydrates in Bolivian cuisine. As Americans have taken an interest in street food in recent years, a number of Bolivian food trucks have appeared in the Washington metropolitan area, serving hearty dishes like peanut soup, empanadas, salteñas, and chicharrón, a dish made with fried pork rinds.

Traditional Costumes Bolivian clothing varies greatly between regions, indigenous cultures, and income levels. In addition, traditional clothing often reflects a combination of indigenous traditions and colonial Spanish influences. Traditionally, Bolivian men living on the Altiplano would wear homemade trousers and a woven poncho. Today, they are more likely to wear factory-made clothes imported from other countries. For headgear, however, the chulla, a woolen cap with earflaps, remains a staple of the wardrobe.

Traditional native clothing for women includes an apron over a long skirt and many underskirts. An embroidered blouse and cardigan-style sweater is also worn. A shawl, which is usually in the form of a colorful rectangle, serves many purposes, from carrying a child on the back to creating a shopping pouch. While the wool of the alpaca, a llama-like animal, is a traditional fiber, it is now often too expensive for native Bolivians, although alpaca sweaters and shawls are frequently sold to tourists. Bolivians are also known for their jewelry, particularly that made with silver, an abundant resource in Bolivia. Many Bolivian women wear silver necklaces, earrings, or bracelets.

One of the more striking types of Bolivian clothing is the bowler hat worn by Aymara women. Known as a bombin, it was introduced to Bolivia by British railway workers. It is uncertain why more women than men tend to wear the bombin. For many years, a factory in Italy manufactured bombins for the Bolivian market, but they are now made locally by Bolivians.

On most days, Bolivian Americans tend to wear typical American-style clothing, including jeans and t-shirts or more formal business attire, with the occasional addition of traditional Bolivian accessories such as a woven poncho, alpaca sweater, chulla, or handmade jewelry. During celebrations such as National Hispanic American Heritage Month, celebrated each year in the United States from September 15 to October 15, it is not uncommon to find Bolivian American women wearing the bombin or a flowing skirt known as a pollera, and people of both genders wearing colorful woven clothing representative of the type of clothes traditionally worn on the Altiplano. In the United Sates as well as in Bolivia, however, there is something of a generation gap when it comes to clothing, with younger generations largely turning away from traditional Bolivian clothing and embracing a more modern style.

Music Bolivian music reflects the continuing pride and interest in indigenous traditions. The use of pre-Columbian musical instruments remains an important part of Bolivian music. One of those instruments is the siku, a series of vertical flutes bound together. Bolivian music also uses the charango, which is a cross between the mandolin, guitar, and banjo. Originally, the soundbox of the charango was made from the shell of an armadillo, which gave it a unique sound and appearance. During the 1990s Bolivian music began to incorporate lyrics into traditionally mournful Andean music, creating a new genre. Bolivian musicians continue to fuse traditional music, instruments, and lyrics with pop, jazz, and rock sounds. Greater distribution through the Internet has made it easier for Bolivian Americans to listen to music from their native land and has allowed Bolivian and other Andean musicians to gain international fans. The popular Bolivian rock band Octavia, for example, toured the United States in the late 1990s, focusing

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Children in traditional Bolivian costumes brighten the Annual Dance Parade along Broadway in New York City. Children in traditional Bolivian costumes brighten the Annual Dance Parade along Broadway in New York City. DAVID GROSSMAN / ALAMY

on areas with significant Bolivian populations, such as Florida, Virginia, and New York.

Dances and Songs More than five hundred ceremonial dances can be traced to Bolivia. These dances often represent important events in Bolivian culture, including hunting, harvesting, and weaving. One dance performed at festivals is the diablada, or devil dance, which is believed to have originated in Oruro, Bolivia, as a fusion of indigenous and Catholic traditions. Another famous festival dance is the morenada, the dance of the black slaves, which may have been inspired both by the suffering of African slaves brought to Bolivia, as well as traditional Aymara dances. Other popular dances include the tarqueada; a llama-herding dance known as the llamerada; the kullawada, which is known as the dance of the weavers; and the wayno, a dance of the Quechua and the Aymara.

In the United States, traditional Bolivian dances are popular among Bolivian Americans, and dance groups are considered an important way of maintaining cultural ties to Bolivia. During the late twentieth century, Bolivian dances began to appeal to a broader audience as well and became one of the most visible examples of Bolivian culture in the United States. Performances by groups of Bolivian American folk dancers from around the country have increased in recent years, with younger generations viewing the dances as a source of pride. The Comite Pro-Bolivia, an umbrella organization of arts and dance groups, organizes many school parades and other appearances year-round. Held every year on the first Sunday of August, the Bolivian National Day Festival is sponsored by the Arlington (Virginia) Department of Parks and Recreation and attracts about 10,000 visitors. Examples of Bolivian dancing can be viewed online via a number of blogs devoted to the art form and on sites like YouTube.

Holidays Bolivian Americans maintain strong ties with Bolivia. This is emphasized by the fervor with which they celebrate Bolivian holidays in the United States. Because Bolivian Americans are primarily Roman Catholic, they celebrate the major Catholic holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and All Saints' Day, as well as feast days of particular or local significance to Bolivians. They also celebrate Bolivia's Labor Day and Independence Day on August 6.

Festivals in Bolivia are common and often fuse elements from the Catholic faith and from pre-Columbian customs. The Festival of the Cross, which Page 325  |  Top of Articleoriginated with the Aymara Indians, is celebrated on May 3. Another Aymara festival is Alacitas, the Festival of Abundance, which takes place in La Paz and the Lake Titicaca region on January 25. During Alacitas honor is given to Ekeko, who brings good luck. One of the most famous of Bolivia's festivals is Carnival in Oruro, which takes place before the Catholic season of Lent. In this mining town, workers seek the protection of the Virgin of the Mines. During the Oruro Carnival, the diablada is performed.

Health Care Issues and Practices In terms of key health indicators, Bolivia ranks very low among Western Hemisphere countries. Malnutrition and sanitation problems are responsible for many of the health problems in the Bolivian population. Bolivia also has an extremely high child and maternal mortality rate. In addition, cocaine addiction has increased since the 1980s, when the illegal drug trade expanded. However, in the 2000s reforms began with international support, particularly targeting women and children and expanding vaccination programs. A 2011 United Nations report indicated small but steady progress in the areas of maternal and infant mortality.

Bolivian Americans, particularly urban professionals with broad access to medical care, tend to have much better health statistics. Undocumented immigrants or those who come from poor or rural areas, however, often find it difficult to obtain health care in the United States, as the cost of insurance or medical bills for uninsured laborers can be prohibitive. In the late 2000s it was reported that a blood disease known as Chagas, which can remain dormant for years before suddenly becoming fatal, was affecting hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Latin America, with Bolivian Americans having the highest rate of infection.


Gender Roles Bolivian culture tends to emphasize traditional gender roles and division of labor. Men hold positions of public authority, while women are primarily responsible for the domestic sphere. In rural areas, however, the division of labor in agricultural tasks may be more flexible. Women also tend to be primarily responsible for the transmission of cultural skills and traditions such as weaving, songs, and dances. Since the 1990s, legal efforts have been made to address violence against women. The 2010 constitution contains provisions that strengthen women's rights, including prohibition of gender discrimination and requiring equal pay for equal work. President Evo Morales also nominated several women to his cabinet. However, women are still disproportionately affected by violence, illiteracy, and poverty. Bolivian women also suffer from high rates of maternal mortality and often lack access to health care.

Bolivian American women, particularly second- and third-generation Americans, have largely embraced the ideal of gender equality. They are often highly educated and are serving as heads of their households with greater frequency. Women now make up the majority of immigrants arriving from Bolivia, and studies have shown that they are contributing to a greater share of remittances—money earned in the United States but sent back to relatives in Bolivia—over the last decade. While many Bolivian American men often feel undervalued due to the lack of high-paying jobs available to them, Bolivian American women have embraced the educational and employment opportunities available to them in the United States and are achieving greater social status as a result.

Education In colonial times, only upper-class men were educated, either privately or in schools run by the Catholic Church. In 1828, President Antonio José de Sucre ordered public schools to be established in all states (known as “departments”); however, on the eve of the 1952 revolution, less than one-third of the adult population was literate. Efforts have been made to increase literacy, and as of 2008, according to United Nations standards, Bolivia was declared free of illiteracy. Nonetheless, in rural areas levels of functional literacy still remain low.

Education in Bolivia is free and compulsory for children between seven and fourteen years of age. In rural areas of Bolivia, however, schools are underfunded, people are spread far and wide across the countryside, and children are needed to work on the farms. Children in rural areas often receive less than five years of schooling, compared with nine years for urban children. In 2008, the first indigenous universities were established with the goal of increasing opportunities for those populations.

Bolivian females tend to be less educated than their male counterparts. Only 65 percent of girls in rural areas receive any schooling and may attend school only until the third grade before they are expected to stay at home and help with housekeeping and child care. Bolivian women have an illiteracy rate of 38 percent compared with a 14.5 percent rate among men.

Education levels among Bolivian Americans vary. Many Bolivian immigrants are high school or college graduates, and they often obtain jobs in corporations, in health care, or in government. In the 2010 U.S. Census, it was found that 34 percent of Bolivian Americans over the age of twenty-five have a bachelor's degree or higher, making them one of the more highly educated Hispanic populations in the United States. Bolivian Americans from rural or indigenous regions have less schooling and often work as manual laborers or in the service industry. As with other immigrant and minority populations in the United States, programs have been created that are specifically designed to serve the needs of Bolivian American students and preserve cultural traditions and values. For example, at the Bolivian School in Arlington, Virginia, roughly 250 students practice their math and other lessons in Spanish, sing “Que Bonita Bandera” (“What a Pretty Page 326  |  Top of ArticleFlag”) and other patriotic Bolivian songs, and listen to folktales in native dialects.

Courtship and Weddings Traditionally, marriage is seen by both indigenous and Hispanic cultures in Bolivia as an important commitment to a broad family network. In rural Bolivia, it is common for a man and a woman to live together before marrying. The couple usually lives in the house of the man's family. They may live together for years, and even have children, before they save enough money to formally celebrate their union. There might also be a series of different ceremonies, including a formal betrothal, a traditional indigenous ritual, a Roman Catholic ceremony, a planting ritual, and a housewarming.

Urban weddings among Bolivians of European descent are similar to those performed in the United States. Among mestizos and other indigenous peoples, weddings are lavish affairs. After the ceremony, the bride and groom enter a specially decorated taxi, along with the best man and parents of the bride and groom. All of the other guests ride in a chartered bus, which takes them to a large party.

Bolivian American weddings are often performed in Catholic churches, and the bride and groom wear typical wedding clothing such as a tuxedo for the groom and a white dress for the bride. In some instances, the groom will present the bride with gold coins that are then blessed by the priest as a symbol of the groom's commitment to support his bride. The reception usually features Bolivian folk music, with the bride and groom dancing a cueca, a courtship dance traditional to several Latin American countries. The parents of the bride and groom then give speeches in support of the new couple, and the celebration commences. Dances among attendants are usually performed in lines separated by gender, with a line of men facing a line of their female partners. Bolivian food and drink, such as signani, a grape-based liquor that is Bolivia's national drink, or chicha, a corn-based beer, are generously served.

Funerals Funeral services in Bolivia often include a mixture of Catholic theology and indigenous beliefs. Mestizos participate in an expensive service known as velorio., which is similar to a wake. The wake, or viewing of the deceased's body, occurs in a room in which all of the relatives and friends sit against the four walls. There, they pass limitless servings of cocktails, hot punches, and beer, as well as coca leaves and cigarettes. The next morning, the casket is carried to the cemetery. The guests extend their condolences to the family and may then return to the funeral celebration. The next day, the immediate family completes the funeral rite.

For mestizos who live near La Paz, completing the funeral rite includes a hike to the Choqueapu River, where the family washes the clothing of the deceased person. While the clothes dry, the family eats a picnic lunch and then builds a bonfire to burn the clothes. This ritual brings peace to the mourners and releases the soul of the deceased into the next world.

While Bolivian Americans mostly adhere to typical American funeral customs, they often retain a greater sense of connection to the deceased after they are buried. Bolivian Americans, along with many other Latin Americans, celebrate El Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on November 2, the day after All Saints' Day. On this day it is thought that the souls of the dead return to the world, and Bolivian Americans visit the graves of their loved ones to hold conversations with and offer food to nourish the departed on their journey back to the afterlife. Decidedly joyous affairs, Day of the Dead celebrations have become annual community events featuring Latino music, art, dancing, and food in areas with large Hispanic populations.


Like immigrants from other Central and South American countries, Bolivian Americans have relatively high levels of income and education. Their median income is higher than that of other Hispanic groups, such as Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexicans. Also, a higher percentage of Central and South Americans work in managerial, professional, and other white-collar occupations than members of other Hispanic groups.

Many Bolivian Americans highly value education, which has allowed them to do well economically. Upon arrival in the United States, they are often employed as clerical and administrative workers. By pursuing further education, Bolivian Americans often advance into managerial positions. A large percentage of Bolivian Americans have held government jobs or positions in American corporations. Multinational companies often benefit from their skills and facility with foreign languages. Bolivian Americans have made inroads in academia, as well, and many teach about issues related to their former homeland.

Immigration into the United States is often tied to the economy of an immigrant's home country, and Bolivia is no exception. One measure of Bolivia's economic health is its fluctuating trade balance with the United States. In the early 1990s Bolivia had a positive trade balance with the United States. In other words, Bolivia exported more to the United States than it imported from it. By 1992 and 1993, however, that balance had shifted, causing Bolivia to have trade deficits with the United States during those years of $60 million and $25 million, respectively. These amounts are relatively small, but they added to a national debt that was staggering for such a poor nation. In fact, the International Monetary Fund and the United States forgave some of Bolivia's debt in the 1990s and again in the mid-2000s, releasing it from its obligation to repay them. While Bolivia once again enjoyed a positive trade balance with the United States totaling Page 327  |  Top of Articlenearly $238 million in 2011, American aid to the country dropped to just $42 million—a decline of $80 million since 2007—as political tensions continued to strain U.S.-Bolivian relations.

Bolivian Americans are employed in a variety of careers in the United States. Among those immigrants who provided occupation information to the U.S. immigration authorities, the largest single occupation category in 1993 was professional specialty and technical workers. The next largest group of Bolivian Americans identified themselves as operators, fabricators, and laborers. About two-thirds of Bolivian immigrants in 1993 chose not to identify their occupation, a percentage that is consistent with immigrants from most countries. In the twenty-first century, a contracting U.S. economy has forced most educated Bolivian immigrants to take low-paying jobs as laborers, field workers, and hospitality staff. As a result, many Bolivians have stopped viewing the United States as a desirable destination, with many temporary residents choosing not to renew their visas and to seek greater opportunity elsewhere.


For Bolivian Americans, the political system of the United States is quite familiar. Both countries have a constitution that guarantees basic freedoms, a government with three separate branches, and a Congress that is divided into two houses. However, Bolivia's government has experienced upheaval and several military coups since its nineteenth-century struggle for independence from the Spanish.

Bolivian American participation in American politics has been focused on improving the living conditions in Bolivia and other areas of South America, as well as on issues relating to immigration, including amnesty and bilingual education. During the 1990s Bolivian Americans developed a strong desire to influence politics within their homeland. In 1990 the Bolivian Committee, a coalition of eight groups that promote Bolivian culture in Washington, D.C., petitioned Bolivia's president to allow expatriates to vote in Bolivian elections. In 2009 Bolivian expatriates were eligible for the first time to vote in the Bolivian general election for the president, vice president, and legislative assembly. During the 2000s American and Bolivian political and diplomatic relations became significantly strained, in part due to disagreements about narcotics policy and heavy tension between newly elected President Morales and the Bush administration. In 2011 both countries made gradual steps towards reestablishing relationships, although tension remained, particularly due to Morales's support for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.


Academia Eduardo A. Gamarra (1957–) is an assistant professor at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. He is the coauthor of Revolution and Reaction: Bolivia, 1964–1985 (1988) and Latin America and Caribbean Contemporary Record (1990). In the 1990s he researched the stabilization of democracy in Latin America. Gamarra is a cofounder of Newlink Research, a consulting firm dedicated to electoral and public policy campaigns throughout Latin America.

Leo Spitzer (1939–) is a professor of history at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. He was born in La Paz, the child of refugees from Nazi persecution in Austria. His written work includes Hotel Bolivia: The Culture of Memory in a Refuge from Nazism (1974). His research concerns have centered on colonialism and racism in Latin America, Africa, and Central Europe as well as issues of historical memory, refugees, and depictions of trauma in photography and film.

Jaime Escalante (1930–2010) was a renowned teacher of mathematics whose story was told in the award-winning film Stand and Deliver (1987). This movie documented his life as a calculus teacher in East Los Angeles, where he encouraged his students, primarily low-income Latinos, to view studying advanced math as an opportunity for future success. He was born in La Paz.

Art Juan Fernando Bastos (1958–) is an American portrait artist of Bolivian descent. He has painted portraits of celebrities (including actress Charlize Theron and author Gore Vidal) and high-society figures and was featured in a 1999 New York Times article about the reemergence of portraiture. He has also created works that fuse his Catholic upbringing with Andean myths and traditional themes, such as the Lake Titicaca mermaids. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

Antonio Sotomayor (1904–1982) was a renowned painter and illustrator of books. His work also includes a number of historical murals that are painted on the walls of California buildings, churches, and hotels. His illustrations can be seen in Best Birthday (by Quail Hawkins, 1954); Relatos Chilenos (by Arturo Torres Rioscco, 1956); and Stan Delaplane's Mexico (by Stanton Delaplane, 1976). Sotomayor also wrote two children's books: Khasa Goes to the Fiesta (1967), and Balloons: The First Two Hundred Years (1972).

Government Cecilia Muñoz (1962–) is a civil rights activist who serves as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama and previously worked as director of intergovernmental affairs. She also served as senior vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving opportunities for Hispanic Americans and overseeing advocacy activities that cover issues of importance to immigrants. In 2000 she received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for her work on civil rights and immigration policy reform. She was also featured in Page 328  |  Top of ArticleEpisode 12, “Last Best Chance,” of the HBO documentary How Democracy Works Now: Twelve Stories (2010). Her parents emigrated from La Paz.

Journalism Hugo Estenssoro (1946–) is accomplished in many fields. He is prominent as a magazine and newspaper photographer (for which work he has won awards), and he has edited a book of poetry (Antología de Poesía Brasileña [An Anthology of Brazilian Poetry], 1967). He has also written as a correspondent for numerous magazines both abroad and in the United States. In his correspondence, Estenssoro has interviewed Latin American heads of state and political and literary figures in the United States. In the 1990s, he was a resident of New York City.

Literature Ben Mikaelsen was born in La Paz in 1952. He is the author of several children's and young-adult books, including Rescue Josh McGuire (1991), Sparrow Hawk Red (1993), Countdown (1997), Petey (1998), and Tree Girl (2005). Mikaelsen's stories often focus on his characters developing a harmonious relationship with nature. Mikaelsen lives in Bozeman, Montana.

Music Jaime Laredo (1941–) is an award-winning violinist who, early on, was noted for his virtuoso performances. He first performed when he was eight years old. His likeness has appeared on a Bolivian airmail stamp. He also plays viola and has recorded piano quartets with violinist Isaac Stern, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Emanuel Ax, as well as collaborating with renowned pianist Glenn Gould. In 2012 Laredo was appointed to the strings faculty at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Jaime Mendoza-Nava (1925–2005) was a Bolivian American composer and conductor born in La Paz. He studied at the Juilliard School, the Madrid Royal Conservatory, and the Sorbonne. Later he was on the staff of Walt Disney Studios, and his works were recorded by MGM Records. Much of his music is inspired by the pentatonic music of the Andes. In Hollywood, he also had several credits as a sound editor and provided scores for many films, including The Boys in Company C, A Boy and His Dog, and Equinox.

Sports Marco Etcheverry (1970–) is an accomplished athlete well known to fans of professional soccer. Before his stellar career with the D.C. United team, he was already one of Bolivia's most famous athletes. He played for soccer clubs from Chile to Spain and traveled the world with various Bolivian national teams. He is the captain of his team and a hero to thousands of Bolivian immigrants in the Washington area. Etcheverry led D.C. United to championship wins in both 1996 and 1997. In 1998 Etcheverry had a career high ten goals and matched a personal best with nineteen assists for a total of thirty-nine points. Nicknamed “El Diablo,” Etcheverry and his country-man Jaime Moreno are the only two players in league history to reach double figures in goals and assists.

Jaime Moreno (1974–) is a former Bolivian soccer player now serving as Youth Academy Technical Training Coach for D.C. United in Major League Soccer and as the head coach of D.C. United's U-23 side. He was the all-time leading scorer in Major League Soccer at the time of his retirement.

Jennifer “The Bolivian Queen” Salinas (1982–) is a professional boxer with a record of thirteen wins and three losses. The daughter of Bolivian immigrants, she was born in Virginia but spent most of her childhood in Bolivia before returning to the United States at fifteen. Salinas frequently makes charitable donations of sporting goods and other athletic materials to organizations in Bolivia and has been the guest of president Evo Morales at the presidential palace in La Paz.

Stage and Screen Raquel Welch (1940–) is an accomplished actress who has appeared in a number of films and on stage. Her film work includes Fantastic Voyage (1966), One Million Years BC (1967), The Oldest Profession (1967), The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968), 100 Rifles (1969), Myra Breckinridge (1969), Mother, Jugs, and Speed (1976), Tortilla Soup (2001), Legally Blonde (2001), and Forget About It (2006). Welch won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her work in The Three Musketeers (1974). She acted on Broadway in Woman of the Year (1982). She has also appeared as a guest star on numerous television programs, including Seinfeld, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and the PBS series American Family: Journey of Dreams (2002–2004), the first original American prime-time TV drama to feature a primarily Latino cast.


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Los Tiempos

The largest newspaper in Cochamba, Bolivia, Los Tiempos, began publishing a weekly version of the newspaper in the Washington metropolitan area in 2004.

Bolivia Web

Collates news articles regarding Bolivia from around the web, as well as linking to numerous Bolivian newspapers, relevant blogs, and streaming Bolivian radio.

Bolivia Weekly

Offers English-language Bolivian news and a weekly podcast discussing current events in Bolivia.

Upside Down World

An online magazine dedicated to activism and politics in Latin America. Includes a section on Bolivia.

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Asociación de Damas Bolivianas

P.O. Box 77653
San Francisco, California 94107

Bolivian-American Chamber of Commerce, Inc.

Promotes trade, commerce, and investment between the United States and Bolivia.

909 Third Avenue #6721
New York, New York 10150

Bolivian Medical Society and Professional Associates, Inc.

Serves Bolivian Americans in health-related fields.

Dr. Jaime F. Marquez
9105 Redwood Avenue
Bethesda, Maryland 20817
Phone: (301) 891-6040

Comite Pro-Bolivia (Pro-Bolivia Committee)

Umbrella organization made up of ten arts groups, located in the United States and in Bolivia, with the purpose of preserving and performing Bolivian folk dances in the United States.

P.O. Box 10117
Arlington, Virginia 22210
Phone: (703) 461-4197
Fax: (703) 751-2251

Embassy of the Plurinational State of Bolivia

Provides news, cultural, and travel information regarding Bolivia.

3014 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20008 Phone: (202) 483-4410

Rhode Island Bolivian-American Association

Organization devoted to promoting Bolivian culture throughout Rhode Island.

P.O. Box 114329
North Providence, Rhode Island 02911


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Griffith, Stephanie. “Bolivians Reach for the American Dream: Well Educated Immigrants with High Aspirations Work Hard, Prosper in D.C. Area,” Washington Post, May 8, 1990.

Klein, Herbert S. Bolivia: The Evolution of a MultiEthnic Society. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Kohl, Benjamin, Linda C. Farthing, and Felix Muruchi. From the Mines to the Streets: A Bolivian Activist's Life. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.

Morales, Waltraud Queiser. Bolivia: Land of Struggle. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992.

Pateman, Robert. Bolivia. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.

Paz-Soldan, Edmundo. “Obsessive Signs of Identity: Bolivians in the United States.” In The Other Latinos, ed. José Luis Falconi and José Antonio Mazzoti. Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard, 2008.

Sánchez-H., José.My Mother's Bolivian Kitchen: Recipes and Recollections. New York: Hippocrene Books, 2005.

Schuster, Angela M. “Sacred Bolivian Textiles Returned,” Archaeology, January/February 1993, 20–22.

Skiemeier, James F. The Bolivian Revolution and the United States: 1952 to the Present. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300035