Asi Es Pues, La Tierra Llama

04 Nov, 2012 | Amaru Villanueva Rance


The Return

It’s how it is, the earth calls for you’, Edson told me plainly, when he heard that I was thinking of returning to Bolivia after having lived abroad for almost a decade. Minutes earlier, I had been explaining my situation: I was torn between staying in the US for a few years to take advantage of all sorts of opportunities, and the irresistible urge —duty, even, I liked to tell myself— to return to Bolivia and put an end to my incessant longings. The story was not an unfamiliar one around those parts, especially not to Edson. Indeed, in all of my interactions with members of the sparse Bolivian community in San Francisco, the idea of returning was a constant: a recurring imperative so obvious it was barely worth bringing up in conversation, like talking about the weather — only good for small-talk, perhaps. The real question wasn’t so much whether, but when.

Photos: Evan Abramson

Just as obvious and beyond the realms of conversation were the reasons Bolivians gave for why they found themselves in the US in the first place. Yet in all exchanges that touched on this topic, and implicit in many life plans, I constantly encountered an almost Christian idea of deferred gratification; a theme also present in many migratory accounts collected in this issue. The maxim seemed to be: work hard today, and save some money to enjoy tomorrow. However, this promised tomorrow rarely seemed to arrive. For example, I met Rodolfo and his family, who had been living in the US for 20 years but were not able to return due to their status as illegal immigrants; if they left the US, they would never be allowed back in. I spoke to Maria, who, while able to go back (holding dual Bolivian-American citizenship), couldn’t quite bring herself to make the move, as the timing never seemed right. During a Bolivian gathering, Alberto, a man in his forties making a routine trip to visit some relatives in the US told me: ‘When you talk to Bolivians here, everyone says that they will go back soon, next year even, but they never do. Remember my words.’ I wondered whether the same thing would happen to me. I set out to investigate different return experiences, in order to understand what drives this process and what are the necessary conditions for it to take place.

The first step was realising that, whether or not it consciously registered in our minds, Rodolfo, Maria and myself had a choice, broadly speaking. Sure, going back would imply all sorts of sacrifices and trade-offs, and yet the idea presented itself to us as at least one path among many which we could decide to take.


Others have been less fortunate. During the 70s and early 80s, many Bolivians (activists, musicians, and writers among them) were either driven to, or forced into exile, due to their opposition to the military dictatorships of the time. For them, leaving the country was not so much a case of looking for a better life, but rather a chance to stay alive. It wasn’t migration in the standard voluntary sense with which we are familiar today. In their case, the idea of returning didn’t present itself as a choice, but as a dream. While many settled abroad, others returned to the country after democracy (of some sort) was reinstated, or they were no longer persecuted. These individuals were instrumental in fighting the military regimes by campaigning from abroad and helping to ease the flow of information between Bolivia and the outside world. Luis Rico, a well known activist, researcher and musician, exemplifies this migratory and return trajectory, continuing with his political work when he returned to the country after spending several years in Mexico.


La Patria, el Pueblo

What I began to see was that is an additional motivation which drives the return process, one of duty and a commitment to our communities of origin. Luis Rico tells me ‘Migration is a way of getting compensation from developed countries for the looting that they were responsible for during the colonial period.’ He continues by telling me that he feels a strong affection towards migrants, ‘because they have had the courage to leave the country, because in their departure they carry with them a part of Bolivia’, explaining how he hopes that ‘one day they will have the courage to come back to teach us what they have learnt.’

Yet the international dimension of the migratory process can make us believe, mistakenly, that it is a purely transnational phenomenon. As Alfonso Hinojosa says, ‘We often make the mistake of differentiating between local and international migration. They are one and the same phenomenon.’ Jorge Sanjinez poignantly captures one such journey in his 1989 masterpiece Nacion Clandestina, a film which tells the story of Sebastián Mamani, a man from the countryside who leaves his community to go to the city, eventually playing a part in their brutal repression at the hands of a military regime. When he returns he is no longer welcomed; he is scorned not only for his departure and subsequent alienation, but for the shame that he has brought on his people, who are no longer able to recognize him. To redeem himself, he is presented with only one path. He must take part in a ritual which involves dancing himself to death, a custom associated with shame and redemption documented in rural communities of the Altiplano.

Indeed, shame is a strong ‘return inhibitor’ (to use de la Torre’s term) in migratory trajectories, a theme also present in Rose Acton’s piece on Bolivian migrants in Argentina. Returning home after spending time abroad is a complicated decision, for a whole range of reasons besides money and logistics. As Amador Choque explains, some Bolivians see this reverse journey as a form of failure. ‘They ask themselves, what face will I show my brothers and my parents if I return empty-handed?’ Another strong deterrent to el retorno comes in the form of an identity crisis. As Amador puts it: ‘We experience an emotional migration as well as a geographic migration. We end up living in a social limbo; we don’t know what culture we belong to. It’s a bastard identity you grow into whether you arrive as a child or an adult.’

Todos Vuelven

Yet just as strong as these inhibitors are the gravitational forces which pull one back to the homeland. Rilke famously said that ‘our only real home is our childhood’, an idea echoed by several of the migrants with whom we spoke. Hinojosa tells me that implicit in the notion of a migratory departure, ‘we find the idea of an eventual return’, the idea being that there is an existential dimension to migration, as well as an economic one. Maria Lily Maric argues for a social construction of meaning surrounding the idea of migrating, imbuing individuals in a given society with the idea that not leaving their country represents a failure or stagnation of some sort. Also present in these social constructions is the idea that an eventual return offers a level of realisation and fulfillment, or even redemption, as Sebastian Mamani’s story suggests, which is not available outside of our homeland. And of course there’s the incessant and irrepressible longing for the smallest details which colour the memories of the person who has left. Saudade is a Portuguese word which apparently has no direct translation into Spanish or English, but means something like a yearning that shines along one’s path like a guiding light. Romanticisations of everything from the smell of marraquetas to the blinkering city lights of La Paz on the way down from El Alto airport are certainly familiar to me, not far removed from Chaplin’s famous ‘city lights’ which attracted me to Europe in the first place.

Of Peaches and Politics

Occasionally, several of these psycological, political and economic forces are contained in a single migratory trajectory. If Cochabamba is the archetypal migrant department in Bolivia, Arbieto is the emblematic migrant town in Cochabamba. In 2009, a Bolivian researcher and filmmaker, Leonardo de la Torre, made a documentary titled ‘Un Dia Mas’ which tells the astonishing story of an individual, Don Diógenes Escobar, who first left his community of Arbieto aged 20, returning decades later as the town’s elected mayor - leaving behind four children and a wife in West Palm Beach, Florida.

What’s most curious about this story is that Don Diógenes was elected as the MAS candidate largely on the strength of voters belonging to over 500 migrant families from Arbieto (population 8000, registered voters 4809) residing in the USA. Such is the influence of the ‘resident’ base abroad (‘resident’ being a bizarre misnomer used to denote the population of Arbieto natives living abroad), that the streets of this town have been cobbled with funds raised entirely through contributions from the town’s US ‘residents’. Indeed, these streets could easily be mistaken with American suburbs, boasting wide pavements, manicured lawns and all — this is no coincidence. The film premiered on March 6th 2009, so chosen because this is the day of the month when the ‘residents’ traditionally —almost ritually— return to visit their birthplace. Politics and economics aside, what’s almost poetic about Don Diógenes’ tale is his romantic desire to one day harvest and see blossom the peach orchards which he left behind.

We are born migrants

It is said that humans don’t have roots but feet. As Alison Spedding puts it, ‘¿Acaso las personas son árboles para no moverse?’. Migration has been one of the few constants throughout human history; indeed, until relatively recently it has been the default state of existence of our entire race. In a 2009 study, Maria Lily Maric estimated that humans have only been sedentary for the past 10 thousand years; that is, for less than one percent of our time on this earth. Prior to this, we were nomadic, conquering territories far and wide from deserts to arctic regions. We would have disappeared off the face of the earth if this hadn’t been the case. Evolutionary biologists such as E. O. Wilson attribute our success as a species above all to our capacity for adapting to new and unfamiliar environments in creative ways. In this sense, not much has changed in today’s world, where travel and telecommunication technologies have only hastened migratory processes.

Bolivia is a prime example of this global phenomenon. As de la Torre argues in a 2006 article, in a country such as Bolivia we can adopt Hirschman’s notions to explain how desperation diasporas (migrating due to overriding forces, political or economic) transform into hope diasporas (migrating in pursuit of better opportunities), and eventually into tradition diasporas  (migrations driven by the experiences and expectations of older generations).


According to a 2009 study by Alfonso Hinojosa on Transnational MIgration, Bolivia has in the region of 25-30% of its population living abroad, making it a ‘country in diaspora.’ Indeed, according to the International Organisation for Migration (OIM), there are around 3 million Bolivians living abroad, with half of these in Argentina, followed by 350 thousand in Spain and 200 thousand in both Brazil and the USA. Economic dimensions have perhaps received the greatest attention in studies about
migration; by some estimations, over $1Bn come into the country every year in remittances. We need not look far to find remarkable figures on the economic impact of migration elsewhere. For example in Mexico, over $10bn come into the country every year in remittances. Nicaragua receives 14% of its GDP in this way, and in Haiti the figure is four times larger than what it gets in international aid.

The Migratory Merry-go-Round

Even after Bolivian migrants are forced to leave their host country due to an economic crisis, deportation or family problems at home, there’s no guarantee that they will stay in Bolivia when they make their way back home. In the words of a Bolivian migrant interviewed by Dandler and Medeiros in 1985: ‘I don’t say “I’m staying” when I go away, and when I’m back, I don’t come back forever either.’ Accounts such as these make it clear that many of today’s migrants live in a perpetual migratory limbo: their existential predicament is one of coming and going, not of settling. de la Torre and other researchers have referred to this phenomenon as ‘circular migration’, describing a cyclical process in which migrants don’t merely return home, but embark upon a new migration shortly after. Hinojosa tells me that ‘it is common for families to experience not one, but two to three migratory processes during the course of their lifetime’.

The return, a new departure

A couple of weeks after speaking to Edson, I had a conversation with a friend who recently spent over a year in Ecuador after living in the US for 24 years – her whole life. Lulí was born in the US to Ecuadorian parents, yet talked about how she sensed a deep connection with the motherland she inherited, eventually gravitating back to her roots. Her story was, sure enough, one of the famed Return, although strangely it took place across generations. This duty-driven, almost ceremonial, cross-generational (and certainly emotionally-laced), return process reminded me of what is referred to by the Jewish community, the diaspora people par excellence, as an aliyah. I explained to her, just as I had told Edson, about the existential dilemma I was facing. My predicament was becoming all too familiar and even unremarkable to me, to the point of getting tiresome to my own ears. If I was facing a dilemma, Lulí wisely failed to see what it was. She gave me the same plain look Edson had given me weeks earlier and told me: ‘what you don’t realize is that you’re already in Bolivia. You’ve already returned, you just need to become conscious of this fact and follow your path.’


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