Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Urkupina dances and a conversation with an illegal immigrant

During my two-hour lunch break, I took a taxi to the neighboring town of Quillacollo, where today marked the beginning of the week-long festival of the Virgen de Urcupina. This is a major celebration, not just locally, but also attracting visitors from around the country. It was a bit hard for me to understand when I arrived why people got so excited about a virgin, why they took a whole week to celebration it, and why Thursday would be a local holiday, with people excused from work. But in the past few days, I’m understanding it as a combination of faith, hope, and an excuse to have a good time.

The story is that a peasant girl was feeding her sheep on this hill when she was approached by a woman with a boy in her arms. They had a long conversation and the woman promised to return. She did return to this child several other times. Though the girl thought this occurrence natural, when the elders in her community learned about it, they went to inform their neighbors in Quillacollo. They told the girl to tell them immediately the next time the woman appeared. The next time she appeared, the girl ran to tell her parents and they hurried to tell people in Quillacollo. When the people arrived at the indicated place, they saw the beautiful woman they knew was the virgin. As the virgin rose into the air from the place she was sitting, the girl pointed up at her and shouted “There is she, in the hill.”

People can ask the virgin for favors and they make promises as a sign of their faith. A common promise is to pledge to dance in the festival and/or make the pilgrimage for three years in a row. On the first full day of the celebration, all the dance groups, called fraternities, enter the town in a parade that lasts the entire day. Members have to pay for elaborate costumes, costing up to $300-400, and these may only be used for one year.

When I arrived, it was midday and the temperature reached 31 degrees Celsius. I walked along a street packed with people and filled with vendors – selling hats, sunglasses and drinks, as well as bras, sponges and mirrors. I breathed in the sweet smell of fried chicken, cotton candy, and sliced watermelon and pineapple.

One needs to arrive early, and pay, to get a seat in the bleachers. So I joined the others without the money or time for a good seat, and peered through the spaces in the bleachers. The dancers came by – men, women and children, young, middle-aged and elderly – in colorful costumes. Many of them were full length and heavy. My colleague Celia said they could weigh up to 50 kilograms. Some looked exhausted and drank water while sweat ran down their faces. Others ignored the suffering and shouted with enthusiasm, their suffering a welcome part of their sacrifice to the virgin.

The onlookers looked happy and upbeat, surrounded by music and food. I saw that no matter how seriously one took the virgin story, it was an excuse for the community to unite, to create something fun and beautiful.

On my way back to Cochabamba, I had a fascinating discussion with my taxi driver, Fernando. He spent two years in the U.S. as an illegal alien and just returned to Bolivia this past December. He lived in northern Virginia and worked at odd jobs, such as painting, or maintenance, for $7 an hour.

“It’s a difficult time now to be an illegal immigrant in the United States,” he said. “I felt my future is not there so I decided to come back.”

He told me about his difficult entry, how he paid $2500 to a coyote to take them across the border. He traveled in a group of ten, eight men and two women.

“We had to cross the river naked and carry our clothing over our heads. These women were so determined to get there that they didn’t even have any shame in removing all their clothing.”

He told me they walked for 1.5 days and had a single gallon of water to share among the 10 of us. I asked him what the relations were like among the group. “At the beginning, we tried to help each other, especially the women. They really slowed us down a lot. But at the end, we just didn’t have any strength left.”

He told me about the chaos at the border – the criminality, the drugs, the fear of being murdered and never seen again.

“I’d never seen drugs before in Bolivia,” he said. “I’d have no idea where to buy any. But once I got to the U.S. border, I was surrounded by them.”

He said that not many people cross through the desert, because they can be spotted too easily. He crossed in an area where, if planes were to fly over, they wouldn’t be able to see them. Once they reached a designated place, cars came to pick them up. They got to Houston. From there, he paid an additional $500 to be taken to northern Virginia.

The crossing experience was the worst of his life. “No one told me how bad it is,” he said. “They all lie. But I would never tell anyone it’s easy. I tell them to think about it very carefully, that you can be killed and never heard from again and no one will know about it.”

I asked how one could be killed.

“The Mexicans are rough,” he said. “They will murder someone just to get the $200 they are carrying.”

I asked how people bring their families, how do they get their spouses and children through.

“I wouldn’t risk it for anything in the world,” he said.

He proudly told me he received his driver’s license in the U.S., though he didn’t learn any English in his two years. “In Maryland,” he said. “One of the few states that will give a license without proof of documentation.”

But he had a harder time getting a false social security number, and without that, he had a hard time getting work. I asked who the people employing the illegal immigrants were.

“They are all Latinos,” he said. “The Americans are too scared. The penalties are harsh. The government can even close down a business.”

“But the Latinos aren’t scared?” I asked.


He still has a Mexican visa, but has no plans to return. “One can make a living here if they are willing to work,” he said. “That was what I most learned in the U.S., was how to work hard.”

He returned home by air, and no one at the airport asked to see a visa or what he was doing in the U.S.

“I don’t understand why the U.S. doesn’t enforce more control over immigration,” he said. “Why don’t they just close the entire border? They certainly have the capacity to do it. But what the Latinos there are saying is that they are sending all their resources overseas, to Iraq, and that’s why the job opportunities aren’t as good now, and they aren’t able to take care of internal problems.”

He confirmed my impression that many of the Bolivians who migrate to Spain return, but not many return from the States. I found it a fascinating and a unique opportunity to talk to someone who gone through so much to get there, and had come home. I wonder if one reason for the low return rates is the difficult in getting there. If someone spends $2500 and risks his life to arrive in the U.S., I suppose he doesn’t want to risk it again by going home. Whereas, if there was a system in place by which one could come legally, workers could come and go based on their need to work and not remain only out of fear.

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