During our two months living and working in the city of La Paz, Bolivia, we have observed various expressions of civic pride and celebration, all of which contribute to a collective sense of positive civic identity for the Paceños. So what is so special about La Paz Maravillosa?
On the day we arrived in the city of La Paz, to begin six weeks of voluntary work for a youth organization, we were informed by our host that we had arrived just in time for the 207th anniversary celebrations of the independence of the department of La Paz, and that the event was rather a big deal here in the city. This became apparent over the coming days as preparations got underway. The entire city became draped in the department’s red and green flag, red and green decorations adorned every street, (it was as if Christmas had come early) and street vendors began setting up for the celebrations on Friday 15 July.
On Friday night we were swept up in the celebrations as the entire city poured into the central area to drink local concoctions (hot spicy alcoholic drinks Sucumbe and Te con Te, as well as the local beer, the aptly named Paceña) and count down to midnight in a shower of red and green fireworks to celebrate the 207th anniversary of their department’s independence from Spain. We watched a small section of a five-hour long parade, where every single department from the municipality had their moment of glory, from the public transport department to the bin collectors. School children joined them, playing military drums and taking the whole thing very seriously. Adorned in red and green, the eclectic citizens of La Paz marched down the city’s main avenue, singing their civic anthem at the top of their lungs. In every country we have visited so far, we have been struck by the fact that people know every single lyric to their national anthem (school children have this drummed into them every morning at school from the age of five), but this was the first time we had come across a civic anthem. And everybody knew the words; the parade participants, the police, the people watching.
That evening was our first glimpse of the pride and positivity that Paceños feel towards their city and department. At the time we thought perhaps it was just a one-off, a chance once a year to get drunk on behalf of the city council. But we soon discovered this collective sense of pride in ‘La Paz Maravillosa’, not to mention the efforts of the municipality to instill this civic pride in the hearts and minds of the people, is a year-round phenomenon.
The day after the city’s celebrations, we were invited by some of the young people from the organization to take a trip out to see the ‘Siete Lagunas’ on the city’s new and shiny Puma Bus. This was a specially organised trip, and as passengers (incidentally, we were the only non-Bolivians on the bus) we were greeted by an upbeat tour guide in a yellow ‘La Paz Maravillosa’ jacket, who described to us everything we passed on our way our to the lagoons. The fact that this mainly consisted of industrial factories and run down buildings did not affect her level of enthusiasm or pride in her beautiful city. We were handed little brochures about La Paz Maravillosa, and all the wonderful places you could visit on the Puma Bus. The brochure explained that in 2014, La Paz had been voted as one of the new ‘seven wonder cities of the world’, which explained a lot about the amount of posters and adverts we had seen for ‘La Paz Maravillosa’ since we had arrived. The pamphlet said that they wanted to show the world the wonder and beauty that La Paz had to offer and to make it one of the top tourist destinations in the world. These day-trips out on the Puma Bus to see local attractions such as the lagoons (which unfortunately were not as impressive as they were made out to be) were one of the city’s new initiatives to make this happen.
In the midst of La Paz’s election as one of the seven ‘ciudades maravillosas’, there has been a great deal of investment and effort put into the city’s infrastructure, transport system and general appearance. On every street corner you will see the city’s logo ‘La Paz Con Fuerza, La Paz Con N’equa’ (the second half is in Aymara, a local indigenous language which is promoted and celebrated in the city, especially since Evo Morales came to power). The city’s bright and eye-catching logo is on every jacket and cap of workers in the streets and a large white sign saying ‘La Paz Maravillosa’ looms on the hill as you enter the centre of the city. Every single weekend there is a city sponsored festival or cultural event for Paceños and tourists to enjoy, all adorned with the yellow La Paz tents with the city’s logo everywhere to be seen.
Public transport has been dramatically improved, with new state-of-the-art ‘teleferico’ cable cars taking you on a smooth, soundless journey over the hills of the city, with breathtaking views below. There are currently three lines, in red, yellow and green (the colours of the Bolivian flag), but work is underway for four more, due to be finished next year.
As well as these truly brilliant cable cars, La Paz has recently introduced the ‘Puma Bus’. We got to know this bus very well as it became our regular form of transport from the house we were staying in to the nursery we volunteered at during the week. A new public transport initiative introduced in 2014 and branded under the name ‘La Paz Bus’, it is made clear from the bus’ marketing strategy that the Puma Bus is the embodiment of all that is good about La Paz. Every bus has a smiling host who helps people to their seats and checks that we are all safe and comfortable during our journey. With in-built Wifi and TV screens showing adverts of local events and city projects, music videos and quirky animated films, you feel more like you’re on an aeroplane than a city bus.
Initially the whole experience feels a bit too squeaky clean; it almost feels as if the TV screens are forms of propaganda as you sit there watching announcements about all of the great work the municipality is doing to improve the city. For example, the bus TV screens show one feature about the ‘Barrios de Verdad’, a citywide project to help improve the appearance of impoverished areas on the city’s hillsides. People from these areas tell the camera with beaming smiles about how their neighbourhood used to be covered in dust and dirt, but that now it is a beautiful place with parks and colourful steps, and they are proud to live there. On the one hand, the way these projects are shown off on the TV invites suspicion. How perfect can these areas really be? Surely there is still a great deal of poverty, and isn’t the focus on these projects simply sweeping prevailing problems under the carpet in order to pretend that La Paz is now a shiny, clean, poverty-free city?
This may well be true, and should not be overlooked. However all in all, after the two months we have spent observing these initiatives and projects and the effort that is put in by the authorities to make people proud of their city, we have to conclude that in general their effect is a positive one. Perhaps this pride should not be forced upon the citizens by the authorities in this way, perhaps it should be a more organic, grassroots sentiment that comes from the citizens themselves. But the work put in by the municipality to instill a positive community spirit in the city is surely better than doing nothing at all. If people love where they live and are proud of their city, they are more likely to look after it themselves, and to look after one another through a sense of collective civic solidarity.
As outsiders, we felt instantly welcomed into the city, found it an easy and enjoyable place to get around and never once felt unsafe on its streets. The development in public transport and projects such as the ‘Barrios de Verdad’ seem to have genuinely made the city a more enjoyable, attractive place to be, and despite the fact that there are clearly still improvements to be made (no city is ever perfect), the efforts that are currently being put into the city should be applauded. La Paz is the unofficial capital of one of the poorest countries in South America, but it certainly feels as if it has a bright future with the support of its people behind it. It is a modern, forward-thinking city, which at the same time celebrates its indigenous roots and sees its multiculturalism as integral to it moving forward. And for that if nothing else, it truly deserves its title of La Paz Maravillosa.