CINCINNATI, Ohio — It’s a drizzly Sunday in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and the cafés near the Simon Patiño Cultural Center are closed. We duck into Blueberry, a Bolivian knockoff of the Pinkberry franchise, where on a warmer day, affluent teenagers might be making out on the candy-colored couches, the boys occasionally turning to tease each other, while English speakers crowd the benches with gossip from home. But today, I sit in the stark-white space alone with the street artists El Dengue, Li Q, and Machy, as well as an interpreter, to discuss the local urban art movement over hot, too-sweet coffee. Immediately, we recognize the irony of our location. “Bolivia is a country for sale,” El Dengue says.
Cochabamba is a place where art can have real influence, because the people believe in real action. Folks are not afraid to hit the streets or even block them with boulders when their government misbehaves, as I witnessed on my first day in town. The artists in front of me see Bolivia as the last holdout against US influence — and yet, we’re sitting in the wealthy northern district, where the upper crust wear fitted jackets and designer jeans in overpriced restaurants nearly identical to chains in the US. I’m reminded that Bolivia has no copyright laws.
As members of the collective Motivacion Violenta, Li Q and El Dengue describe their mission as one of unity against the establishment, an attempt to remind Cochabambinos where they come from — in particular some of the young, wealthy residents whose parents are still shopkeepers in the vast, abundant, and shady La Cancha market on the other end of town. Much of the wealth around, though, also comes from coca farming and coal mining.
While members of Motivacion Violenta and other street artists have been acknowledged as legitimate by the progressive arts center Martadero, for instance, the public at large is still skeptical. Many view all spray paint as graffiti or vandalism, which is easy to understand given the near absence of wall space around town free from hastily scribbled text like the ubiquitous “te amo.” Machy also describes being denounced while working on a commissioned piece, however, when a passerby yelled at her for painting a mural depicting an indigenous person outside a business.
The artists then remind me of the story of “La Lucha Por El Agua Continúa” (literally, “the struggle for water continues”). An expat from the States once told it to me, and sitting in Blueberry, hearing it again, it sounds like the perfect metaphor for the story of activism and art in Cochabamba.
Painted in 2010 under the direction of San Francisco–based artist Mona Caron outside Complejo Fabril (the local factory workers’ union building) to mark the 10th anniversary of the Water War, the mural depicted campesinos (country people), ricos (the wealthy), the urban middle class, and the working poor from Zona Sur united to defeat privatization of the region’s water.
The factory workers’ union played a key roll in organizing these disparate groups against their own government and an international conglomerate largely dominated by the infamous US company Bechtel, so the location of the mural was honorary and symbolic. However, shortly after the painting had been completed, a conservative party member climbed into the union president’s chair and had the mural replaced by an advertisement. The resulting backlash from the people caused the city to pass an ordinance barring citizens from painting over or otherwise destroying murals.
Gary Lime, the expat who first told me the story and who helped paint “La Lucha,” laments that the ordinance came too late for the memorial, but not for other less desirable murals, such as one honoring him as the “Cookie Master” of Cochabamba. He uses a special blend.
Lime is the resident hippie at an ecotourism outfit called Sustainable Bolivia. Having befriended the founders, he’s been there almost as long as the organization, which began in 2006, and, as a result, has hanging in his room a work by Scottish artist Thomas MacGregor, one of SB’s first volunteers. “Mac” liked to drink, Lime says. He liked to talk. And he liked to paint social commentary. As a result, he immersed himself in the culture of Cochabamba, often bringing Cochabambinos back to the SB’s main house — “Mansion de Gringos,” as Lime refers to it — for late night parties, barbeques, and games.
Mac’s positive affect on the local community, as well as his ability to connect SB with that community, was undeniable, so after his two-year stint ended, SB’s directors developed an art residency program, providing room and board for three months at a time to artists who demonstrate the desire and ability to create socially and politically minded, site-specific works throughout the city. At least eight artists from all over the world have participated to date, providing murals for various organizations such as the natural history museum and participating in local collaborations, including a recent one focused on the coca leaf — both the base material for cocaine and the source of centuries-old spiritual and social traditions.
Now a regular contact for artists in residence, Machy hopes the program will bring more recognition to the work of Cochabambinos, as well as to the issues that concern them and divide their city. The next big collaboration she sees taking place will center on the theme of water, as the region is in the middle of a drought and the city’s water table is shrinking, not to mention the fact that it’s also undrinkable, already scarce, and a source of potential conflict.
But Machy and the boys of Motivacion Violenta keep returning to the subject of unity. The great success of the Water War was not only that it prevented privatization of a natural resource, but that it brought together factions of Cochabamba that had long been at odds, marching on the streets together and fighting off tear gas. The destruction of the “La Lucha” mural is a symbolic defeat of that unity. So, the purpose of spray-painting an indigena on the walls of a north-end suburb, Machy says, is to remind the wealthy where they came from in the hope that they will participate in the struggle to define where the country is going. “We are all Bolivians,” she says.