Published October 26, 2017

By David Bearinger

Virginia is home to the largest Bolivian community in the U.S. and one of the largest Bolivian communities in the world, outside of Bolivia itself.

An estimated 150,000 Bolivians live in Annandale, Springfield, Arlington, and Falls Church. Many of them are from the region known as Valle Alto (literally High Valley), a cluster of small towns and agricultural villages in the “Department” (state) of Cochabamba.

It’s a region that has been defined by emigration since the 1800s, poor in economic terms but rich in cultural traditions. Many of those traditions are now taking root and thriving here in Virginia.

A street in Santa Rosa in the Valle Alto region of Bolivia, July 2017. Photo by David Bearinger.
Woman cooking Chorizo, a traditional pork sausage, in the town of Tarata, Valle Alto, Bolivia, July 2017. Photo by David Bearinger.

Earlier this year, a VFH grant supported completion of a multi-media documentary, part of a larger project exploring the historic, cultural, economic, social, and familial ties between the Valle Alto communities in Virginia and their homes in Bolivia.

For many immigrants the idea of “home” is complicated, and many of Virginia’s Valle Alteños maintain strong connections to their towns and villages: Arbieto, Tarata, Santa Rosa, and others. Often, they have left family members behind—usually elderly parents and children—so they return if they can, as often as they can. They send money home and it’s common to hear them speak of going back someday.

“Bolivians in Virginia say there are two spaces of their lives: Bolivia, the territory of the heart [and] the United States, land of work.” —Carey Averbook, Project Director Only the Bridge Matters Now

Valle Alteños danced during the first carnival party of the year, which was hosted by the Virginia residents of Santa Rosa, a town in the Valle Alto. Fairfax, Virginia, February 6, 2016. Photo by Carey Averbook.

People and families from the Valle Alto tend to stay closely connected in Virginia. They raise money through soccer leagues and fundraisers to build churches, plazas, and other infrastructure, and to support festivals and cultural programs back home.  And they continue to maintain many of their traditions here, the dances, the rituals, and celebrations.

“There’s massive respect for our communities….My town, Santa Rosa, is a small town with an immense heart.  So everything that we work for here is for the town, for our town to progress more.” —Orlando Perez, Project Interviewee, Santa Rosa, Bolivia; Fairfax, Virginia

In this sense, the Bolivian community in Northern Virginia is a transnational community. It stretches across thousands of miles and two continents and is grounded in the ideals of solidarity and reciprocity (ayni in the native Quechua language). And in many ways, the depth and resilience of the connection that Valle Alteños maintain between “home” and “here” is unique.

Julia Garcia makes an offering to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, during a traditional Bolivian ceremony at the 2015 Richmond Folk Festival.  Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Bolivian culture is expressive, vivid, and colorful. It is often playful, rooted in respect, even reverence, for Mother Earth—La Pachamama—and for the unity of all life. But for many of those who have immigrated to Virginia, there is a sadness too, a longing, a feeling of separation that can be seen sometimes even in the most joyous celebrations.

“It’s like a tree, no? A tree has roots, its flowers can fly away, its fruits can leave; but never, never will they forget where they came from …. So culture is a historical dependency of your life. It’s a return” —Julia Garcia, Cochabamba, Project Advisor and Virginia Folklife Program Master Artist, Andean Ceremonial Traditions

To people who are coming to terms with their new identity as Americans and Virginians, but who maintain a deep connection to their homeland, bridges often matter more than borders. The name of the VFH funded project—Only the Bridge Matters Now—is inspired by this recognition and by a poem of the same title, by Eduardo Mitre.

The multi-media documentary is presented on a dedicated project website and includes video and still photographs, audio interviews, and links to a newly-published book of the same title and to other primary sources. It has already been featured in programs at the Bolivian Consulate in Washington, D.C. and in a variety of community settings, both here and in Bolivia.

A second phase of the project designed to engage the Latino communities in Northern Virginia in conversations about the experience of immigration is planned for 2018. Both the book and the multi-media documentary are bi-lingual in English and Spanish throughout.

Chapter one explores the history of emigration from the Valle Alto to Virginia; the reasons why people come; and how the community in Virginia has grown and evolved over time.

Chapter two is about the separation of family members, about the experience of being apart, and the complex legal landscape that some members of the community have to navigate.

Chapter three focuses on traditions, roots; and why Virginians from the Valle Alto work so hard to raise money for their hometowns.

Chapter four explores a challenge that is common among many immigrant communities—the differences between how first-generation immigrants and their children see themselves; the complex issues of identity and parents’ sometimes ambivalent hopes for their children’s future. Some parents hope their children will return to Bolivia someday; others wonder if their own sacrifices would be meaningless if their children moved “back home.”

And finally, chapter five explores what it means to live a “good life,” whether in Bolivia or here in the United States—and how different this vision of a good life can be from the reality on either side of the “Bridge.”

“Living in other lands, far from Bolivia, is like having your heart divided in two. You are neither from here and no longer are you from there….I affirm [after 25 years living in the U.S.] that I have never left Bolivia.  I brought with me so much culture and wisdom learned in my community and my family, where living in harmony and balance with each species and all beings of Earth is the code of life.” —Julia Garcia

Only the Bridge Matters Now explores some of the deepest questions at the heart of the immigrant experience; a story of immigrants from one region of Bolivia that is also common across many of the immigrant and refugee communities of Global Virginia.  It is a project about “home” and “identity.” And as such, it speaks to many of the questions that are moving to the center of our own work at VFH.

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