Bolivia – Constantino Lima: The Other Politics Born of Everyday Experience

If Evo Morales had not awarded him the most important distinction given by the state, the life of Constantino Lima would only be known to his friends and companions, even though his personal life is among those that epitomize the outstanding history of the Aymara people.

Source: Americas Program

If Evo Morales had not awarded him the most important distinction given by the state, the life of Constantino Lima would only be known to his friends and companions, even though his personal life is among those that epitomize the outstanding history of the Aymara people.

One has to make the trip up to El Alto to find the man, a small and fragile body, of medium height, skin the color of earth, clear eyes, and a generous smile. He looks almost carefree in the midst of the hustle and bustle of women hawking their merchandise and the wary young people who glance at the khara (person of European descent) out of the corners of their eyes. He was born in September, 1933 in Rosario, a small village in the province of Pacejas on the [outskirts] of La Paz, where the altiplano is dotted with Aymaran chullpas, the beautiful, thousand-year-old funeral towers.

In 2008, the government of Evo Morales decorated Constantino with the Condor of the Andes, the greatest distinction awarded by the Bolivian state, because he was considered "an important person in the resurgence of indigenous cultures in Bolivia." In 1960 he helped to create the National Autochthonous Party (PAN, Partido Autóctono Nacional) along with 22 other indigenous people and in 1968, when he entered the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, he created the Julián Apaza University Movement (MUJA, Movi). He was the second indigenous person elected to a deputy position in the Bolivian Congress, in 1985, by the Tupac Kataria Indian Movement which he had helped establish in 1978.

We met him at the entrance to the municipality of El Alto. He was accompanied by a young student who did not hide his admiration for Constantino. We walked a number of blocks through the packed streets of La Ceja, the altiplano center filled with street vendors, and entered one of the noisy bars where you can always hear Andean music. At an altitude of 4,000 meters, if you look down from here, you see the city of La Paz and if you look up, you see the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real. Constantino asks for a tea and smiles. There is almost no need to ask him questions. He likes to talk.

Constantino Lima (CL): Sometimes people ask me what ideology has inspired me, and I say that it doesn’t come from the right or from the left, that I have always hated both sides because both sides have called us Indians pieces of shit. My answer is the following: [my inspiration comes from] my mother and my father. One’s parents have much to do with one’s formation, and so do the oral histories of grandparents, great grandparents. The birds also speak, the trees speak, the rivers speak, the rocks speak, in short, animals talk to us, and so do the apus (spirits) and the ancestors.

Raúl Zibechi (RZ): Tell me about your first political experiences.

CL: I was eight years old. I went with my mother, holding on to her and we had to walk eight or nine kilometers. My mother loaded firewood on the burros and sold it where there were kharas and then we bought sugar for tea. My mother brought me to keep her company and to take care of the burros. When we arrived to sell wood to the neighbors, some huge dogs came out of a house and attacked us. My mother defended herself as well as she could, and I grabbed on to her skirt. Some kids of about five or six, perhaps older, shouted "Mama, Mama, our dogs want to eat these Indians, they must be really delicious for the dogs." Their mother wasn’t at all concerned. She wasn’t even worried. The children kicked my mother in the behind and pulled at her bundle and wanted to throw it away. They made fun of us, they called us "little Indians." My mother complained to the mayor to whom we always brought firewood. The mayor was white and he made us go to the office where the kids were hanging out and called to their white mother. The mayor began to argue with my mother, "Listen, woman, never disrespect this woman ever again. You’re not to complain about this girl ever again. Or is that how you act?" He threatened her, and my mother couldn’t do anything but cry. The kharas were merchants and they lived on the firewood business and they paid us a price that would guarantee them a profit.

RZ: Why do you consider this a political experience?

CL: Because from this experience, a kind of anger grew here (he indicates his heart). I arrived home at seven years old and asked my father why these white men with skin a different color from ours were like that. The following day, he gathered together all of us sons, and had us sit around the table. We were six brothers. He stood in front of the blackboard—my father was the first Indian teacher in Pacajes—and he began his explanation. He drew Europe and the Abya Yala (Kuna word for the American continent) and the sea with all its distance between them. And he said to us: "Those who have more or less white skin come from that place, they are not from here. We are from here, in Aymara they say amañoko, ‘we are the root which sprouts from this land’. On the other hand, they come from that other place." And he explained to us that their laws are not from here but that they come from over there. Thus I understood everything that was happening. But at the end he said: Take care children if you get involved in politics. We have more to lose. Look how the mayor told your mother off. That’s always going to happen. If you get into politics, they are going to persecute you, jail you, they are going to torture you, they are going to kill you. Because for us, there are no laws, the laws are their laws. What are we going to defend ourselves with? They are the officials, they are the agents, they are the judges, they are the soldiers, the police are under their command, they are the lawyers. Who is going to defend us? Don’t get involved in politics. It will be painful for me if you do." I consider this to be my first teaching in doctrine and my first political experience. I grew up in permanent rebellion.

Lima was part of the first generation of formally educated Indian intellectuals after the revolution of 1952. One of Lima’s more significant achievements was to have re-discovered the wiphala, the old flag-standard of the (indigenous) rebels of 1780 led by Tupac Katari. The wiphala waved for the first time in almost two centuries during Holy Week of 1970, in the oath-taking of the 147 students of the first school in the province of Pacajes, 150 kilometers from La Paz. Two months later, it waved again in an assembly of campesino leaders in Coro Coro. On that occasion, the sub-prefect of La Paz was present. He told the authorities that "the Indians of Pacajes had flown a foreign flag." That same year the wiphala returned to fly before 30,000 Indians on the 15th of November, at the inauguration of the monument to Tupac Katari in Ayo Ayo. This is one of the national symbols of Bolivia as it is laid out in Article 6 of the constitution of 2009 which the state rewrote.

RZ: It’s clear that you didn’t follow your father’s advice.

CL: My father taught us to box and I exercised a lot. "In life one has to know how to defend oneself," my father said. I was an athlete. And when I saw those kids who were much bigger who had hit my mother, I said, maybe I can test myself against them. There was a ball field for jai alai where I practiced, and one of those kharas saw me playing. I told him that I wanted revenge sometime. A man saw me. He asked me if I wanted to play. I tied up my burros and I waited and it ended up that I had to play with one of those teams and I beat them. I was very happy. But they waited for me in the street. "Indian piece of shit." And I was on fire and I realized that I was going to beat them. I said to them, "Little white piece of shit, whatever the hell you want, remember what you did to my mother …" They jumped on me, I began to fight, and I made both of them run away because I was very agile. Suddenly they got more people and I untied my burros and ran home. It was my first experience of revenge.

RZ: What were your first steps in formal education like?

CL: That whole situation for me was my ideological and political growth. My experience taught me that I never would kiss the hands of the kharas because they oblige one to kiss their knees and their hands, but I never did it. In 1954 I was already 21 and I was in an Adventist school in Cochabamba, I worked Saturdays and Sundays to pay my fees. The first year I had a very big shock. It was Teachers’ Day, the 6th of June, and those in my class asked me to speak. I reminded them of the history of one Mariano Ticona, a man the age of my father, who they did not want to admit to the school because he didn’t have a tie. "What can you do, you who doesn’t even know how to speak Castellano." "Look son, there’s no seat for you." "I am going to bring my own seat," Mariano told them. And he came every day with his own seat. "I’m just an auditor. Permit me to stay, Sir." He sat in a corner. When it was time for exams, he went to hand them in, and they told him that his didn’t count. And he continued standing there while the rest handed in their exams. "I know I’m bad, but look at it for me." The next day, the teacher arrived, very angry and looked at them and said, "You white blockheads, you’re good for nothing. That boy sitting there, Mariano Ticona, he is." He ordered Mariano Ticona to enroll and by the second trimester he was first in his class. In the speech I said, "We Indians aren’t stupid. The whites are dumber than we are." The people grew angry, because I had spoken harshly. And when we finished the ceremony, they surrounded me to hit me. But there were a few Indians there and so there was no fight in the end.

RZ: Tell us what your third political experience was.

CL: Of course. My third experience was at the Bush School in La Paz. Since I was rebellious in the Adventist College, they didn’t want to accept me. I came here. There were two or three Indians in my class. An indefinite general strike had been called against the admission of Indians to the schools. "The Indians should take care of llamas, tend to their farms, and grow potatoes and choclo (corn) for us. They don’t need to study here," they said. The directors of the Student Federation began to visit schools so that the government would prohibit education for the Indians. There were some 800 students in my college and they spoke and then it was my turn to speak. I began saying to those in the Federation, "We Indians here, what are we, worms? We are capable of studying. You eat lentils, we do, too." In the end, the students supported me, including the kharas. This was in 1958 and I was in the secondary school dormitory. With that, the indefinite general strike was finished. It was my third political act.

RZ: Did you participate in any way in the revolution of 1952?

CL: I was a soldier and I had to fight against the people. The command obligated us to, and my older brothers fought against us. We had to shoot to kill in order to save our lives. I was in Bolivar Regiment 2, Artillery, and we started with 800 men, only 17 survived. All the rest died. Brothers had to fight against each other. And kill. A mortar landed near me and everyone died. Terrible. I thought that I was going to die. I grabbed the rifle by the butt and launched myself through the window and threw myself down tumbling, and I left … and thus I saved myself. In the press it said, "Constantino Lima is dead," but I saved myself. I had three bullet wounds. When I arrived at a nearby place they looked at me as if I were Dracula, I was full of blood and they went crazy trying to heal me …"

RZ: How did the founding of the Indianist parties come about?

CL: Twenty years after the Revolution of ’52 we created Indianism, on the 5th of November, 1960. People were looking for someone to establish a political movement and on that date I succeeded, along with 22 native brothers, in founding PAN (National Autochthonous Party). At that moment, we still didn’t have an ideology. There were Aymara, Quechuas, and Guaraníes, all the native peoples and nations. Just as I grew up, in this state there also had been the development of a way of thinking. We analyzed the parties that existed on the right and on the left, and we saw that none were going to solve the problem of the Indian. It was going to be us who had to solve our problem: that was the thinking.

RZ: How did society react?

CL: PAN issued a first manifesto whose title was "The Clock of Time." The press laughed at us. In 1968 we established the Julián Apaza University Movement (MUJA). Everyone believed that it was a political party, but it was a university student movement. In ’68 I entered the University, and I studied law with two native brothers. It was as if we had come from the moon. Then three more came, and after a couple of years, we were six, and from there we began to work, and later in 1970 when Torres was president, we entered a list of candidates to the University Federation, and they laughed at us.

RZ: You played an important role in the re-creation of the wiphala.

CL: I didn’t create the wiphala, I only rediscovered it. When we established PAN in 1960, the leadership began to think about what our wiphala would be like. We didn’t know what it looked like, how Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa used it. We said it needed to be investigated. I went to the city hall, the libraries, the priests, nobody knew anything, nobody gave us any information. At the prefecture, at the government palace, nobody knew anything until one of the founders, Manue Tarqui, told me that a brother who came from Peru had a book that contained our wiphala. I asked him to get a copy of the book. Something like three years passed and the man came but without the book. Several more years passed. It was only in 1968 that we actually got the book. They called me at the university and told me the book had arrived. We ran over there and when we got there they showed me the book but said we could only have it for one night, because the brother didn’t want to sell it and he was leaving the next day. I brought the book to my house and started to read like crazy. I bought colored pencils and graph paper. When I arrived at the wiphala I drew like four of them, crudely, and I read all night. I was very happy. The next day I returned the book and kept the drawing in a safe place. When we met again I showed it to the leadership: "Brothers what does this look like to you? It is the wiphala that Tupac Katari used." Nobody said anything. Disappointed, I put it away.

RZ: A few years later, they made it public.

CL: During Holy Week 18 of us prepared a trip to a fort in Pacajes. We made two wiphalas for the group. It was the first time that the whipala was waved. It was in front of 147 secondary students, a long time before it happened in Peru and Ecuador. The people were moved. The second time, it waved in Coro Coro one 6th of June in a front of a large campesino audience. We brought the wiphala there and we said that this was the wiphala of our grandparents and that the kharas had banned it for too long. But this reminds me of an anecdote. The next day the prefect said, "The Indians of Coro Coro have flown a foreign flag."

RZ: This was the second time…

CL: The third time was in front of 30,000 bothers in Ayo Ayo on the 15th of November in 1970 when the monument to Tupac Katari was inaugurated. Until this moment, we flew the flag of Tawantisuyo but we didn’t recognize Kollasuyu’s, which today is Bolivia’s. When we arrived with our two wiphalas the other one appeared which is a little different. When we noticed, they told us that that it was the flag of Kollasuyu, it wasn’t so different. In this one the white band is at the center and the other has green in the center. In the Tawantisuyo there are five wiphalas.

RZ: Then came Hugo Bánzer’s coup in 1971, jail, and exile.

CL: In 1972 I was in prison. I left in ’74 and then they put me in jail another time and they sent me to Canada. I returned in ’78. We had a congress in April where we created MITKA (Tupac Katari Indian Movement) and they elected me deputy in 1982.

RZ: What is your opinion of Evo’s government?

CL: Tupac Katari didn’t want a Bolivia but rather he wanted the reconstitution of Kollasuyo. Evo is our brother and we are pleased we have him. The leftist Indians voted for an Indian and we who don’t have an Indian candidate voted for him with pleasure. Evo is president thanks to the Indian vote. But this isn’t what we wanted. He almost doesn’t speak of Kollasuyo. He believes that Bolivia is his country, something that Indianism would never say. Bolivia is a European idea and in this sense we continue under colonialism.

Translated for the Americas Program by Esther Buddenhagen.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He writes the monthly "Zibechi Report" for the Americas Program (

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