Bolivians celebrate growing economy at Alasitas festival

Yearly event sees throngs of attendees spend money on miniatures and counterfeit money in hopes that their purchases will bring good fortune

The streets of La Paz were strewn with money on Sunday, as Bolivia celebrated its rising affluence and indigenous pride with an orgy of wishful consumption at the annual Alasitas festival.

The ritualistic splurge on miniatures and counterfeits was more colourful and creative than ever this year, boosted by a decade-long boom in the economy and the incorporation of once-shunned Aymara superstitions into the mainstream.

At the market in Plaza Murillo, cholitas in traditional bowler hats and shawls hawked thick blocks of fake currency that were stacked high on tables: $500,000 for five bolivianos ($0.72), or a $100,000,000 block for 25 bolivianos ($3.62). In the first hour of trading, trillions changed hands. Mere $100 bills were trodden underfoot.

Throngs of consumers snapped up toy cars, tiny crates of plastic beer, little sacks of household goods (all elaborately copied from existing brands), model plots of land and pocket-sized suitcases filled with paper laptops, passports and credit cards.

Each purchase represents a wish. Those who wish to marry buy a plastic hen (representing a bride) or a cock (a groom). Students pay for tiny reproductions of degree certificates and professional licences from leading universities. The sick – and their families – acquire scaled-down copies of health testimonies from respected hospitals.

“I bought all the things that I want this year,” said Milenka Calderón, who was carrying a bag full of toy money, a sack of food and a baby doll, the latter in the hope that her newly wedded daughter would soon become pregnant.

“If you have faith, it comes true,” she said, observing that last year she picked up a toy house and then went on to buy a real one.

According to local custom, each item has to be sanctified by an indigenous shaman using incense and powders, at a makeshift street shrine to the god of good fortune, Ekeko. Dozens performed the rite, each charging a fee.

Not wanting to miss out, the Catholic church also offered blessings. Many in this spiritually eclectic nation lined up to have bags of fake cash and goods doused in holy water by priests in the cathedral, or to rub their plastic toys against statues of the saints.

Anyone seeking spiritual exclusivity would be disappointed. Like Bolivia, the festival is very much a mix-and-match affair. As long as fortune comes, nobody seems overly concerned about what form it takes. The vendors also offer Japanese manuki-neko cats pawing in good luck and ceramic monkeys, marking the current animal year of the Chinese zodiac, bearing wheelbarrows full of jewels.

The festival, which takes place in cities across the country for two weeks from 24 January, is good-natured fun. Families come shopping. Adults dine at street stalls while their children play with toys. Revellers hand out wads of cash to strangers as a sign of goodwill.

But Alasitas also reflects many of the economic and social changes that have transformed Bolivia in the decade since Evo Morales became the country’s first indigenous president, and since the country began using income from a commodities boom to raise its living standards and reduce inequality.

Alasitas originated in Aymara beliefs and was long left on the periphery of Bolivian culture. The miniatures used only to be available at the Parque de los Monos. Morales, however, put the festival at the centre of national life by allowing stalls to open at Plaza Murillo outside the congress and presidential palace. Today, its popularity extends far beyond the Aymara population.

“There is more faith now,” said Juan Carlos Ballón, a shaman. “Before, when Bolivia was a Catholic state, all of our beliefs were hidden. Now, we are a plurinational nation and all beliefs are respected, so we can practise in the open. This is a good time for us.”

Ballón noted that Bolivia, formerly one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is enjoying the greatest prosperity of his lifetime. The items on sale at the festival evince this success and reflect the expectations of a population that has become accustomed to average growth of 5.1% over the past 10 years.

Instead of miniature sacks of staple grains, people are buying more luxury fakes. As well as toy houses, they purchase plastic or wood tower blocks with fake architectural blueprints and mini-ownership documents.

“I only bought a house today, but next year I might buy a condominium,” joked Mercelas Gómez, a local resident, as she ate a traditional plato paceño dish with her husband.

With global commodity prices falling, Bolivians will need more than just luck if its boom is to continue for another 12 months. But for now, at least, the country is in a festive and generous mood.

As this correspondent was leaving the plaza, a woman pressed three $100 bills into his hand. “Here, have this for good luck,” she said.

The Guardian | Jonathan Watts

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