By Giordan Castellon
‘Cholet’ (not to be confused with the French town) is an ugly word, and Freddy Mamani, the inspiring mind behind the bright neo-Andean superstructures that have started to spread across El Alto, which the term refers to, dislikes the word, too. Supposedly an amalgamation between ‘chalet’ and ‘cholo,’ (a word used to describe indigenous people, often carrying a disparaging tone) the term has stuck, as tends to be the case with short and snappy words. Not only is it ugly, but wildly inaccurate, too. Cholets, for the most part, bear no physical resemblance to chalets. They are modern, brimming with colour, and stand tall like skyscrapers overlooking the Bolivian Altiplano. Most likely, it’s the racial undertones of the term that have been the biggest pull-factor for its adoption. After all, it is Bolivia’s burgeoning, indigenous middle and upper classes that have been providing Mamani (himself of indigenous descent) with the necessary financial backing to build cholets in the first place, the significance of which should not be understated.
Cholets are more than just bright and quirky buildings, they are yet another page in a chapter that started being written in Bolivian history when Evo Morales was elected president in 2006. They are an attempt to reclaim and rehabilitate a suppressed culture and identity, reborn as a result of the social and economic prosperity brought about by the Morales administration. They are also a repudiation of an unquestioned Eurocentric sentiment, harking back to colonial times, that has tacitly clouded Bolivia’s collective conscience and sense of direction ever since.
They are…a repudiation of an unquestioned Eurocentric sentiment, harking back to colonial times, that has tacitly clouded Bolivia’s collective conscience and sense of direction ever since.
Like many countries, Bolivia is home to a deeply unequal society. However, to understand this is not simply a matter of acknowledging that it is populated by both rich and poor citizens; further consideration of the interplay between race and colonial violence is required if we intend on sourcing the root of this inequality. When the Spanish empire invaded and colonised large swathes of South America in the 16th Century, it stole great riches but also enshrined a caste system deep into the fabric of society.
While Spain was taking vast amounts of stolen gold and diamonds back to Europe, it was bringing thousands of men, women, and children from Africa to South American shores, many of whom went on to die in the course of the torturous journey, or while working in mines after failing to acclimatise to the poor high-altitude conditions. Under Spanish rule, indigenous and African people alike were enslaved, and their cultures were repressed and replaced by the cultural norms of their colonisers. In the social hierarchy that stood on what was to become the plurinational state of Bolivia, white, supposedly civilised Europeans stood at the top, while supposedly barbarous indigenous and African peoples were placed at the bottom. The children of those who transcended this barrier nowadays referred to as mestizos and mulatos, stood ambiguously in between. The political and cultural impact can be felt to this day.
Since its independence in 1825, it took 181 years for Bolivia to elect Evo Morales as its very first president of indigenous descent – this being despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Bolivia’s population is indigenous. On another level, to walk through the roads of Oruro, and to compare that experience with walking through the roads of Valencia is not dissimilar, only in that the state of Oruro’s architectural structures is much more dilapidated. Of course, this extends beyond Spain alone. A great deal of Bolivia’s churches, houses, and gardened plazas have a distinctly continental European feel to them. This hopefully paints a clearer picture of the world that Mamani was raised in.
When reminiscing about his beginnings, Mamani recounts his humble background, and the struggle of making the choice to study civil engineering at UMSA, all while his family and Bolivian society, failed to recognize a place for an indigenous person in a classroom, nevermind at university. Not uncommon to the indigenous experience in Bolivia, he became alienated with the fact that there was a certain, accepted and unquestioned way about doing things that provided little if any space for creativity and expression. He didn’t see himself, or much of Bolivia’s rich cultural history in the ideas that were taught. In an interview with El Deber, Mamani recounts a journey he took to Tiwanaku, and how upon his return he started thinking that buildings should be constructed that demonstrate our millennial culture, particularly those with Andean structures, with the colours of the Aguayo. He suggested this to the owner of a plot of land at the time, and the proposal was accepted.
They built the first building and painted it green, because, as Mamani recalls thinking at the time, in El Alto, there aren’t many trees, and he wanted to give the city some colour. Following on from that, Mamani’s popularity soared. It’s notable that Mamani lacks any formal architectural training. He draws his designs by hand and develops his ideas through dialogue. He neither owns nor uses computers and office space to develop his work; Mamani is self-taught, and draws inspiration from his ancestral background, incorporating the colours, designs, and patterns of the Andean cross, the poncho, and Aguayo, to name a few, handed down from the Tiwanaco and Aymaran culture. Above all, Mamani cares little for breaking architectural and structural conventions. To him, this is about representation and pride, and about instilling confidence in authentic Bolivian self-expression. Beyond this, Mamani’s Cholets, in bringing our cultural heritage to the fore, simultaneously allow us to look ahead to the future, and, coupled with a little imagination and ambition, they have the potential to pave the way for solutions to the collective challenges that we face.
Mamani lacks any formal architectural training. He draws his designs by hand and develops his ideas through dialogue. He neither owns nor uses computers and office space to develop his work;
At present, cholets are only accessible to the rich, who build them with the intention of living in them and using them for the most part to host expensive parties and banquets. With the TIPNIS scandal fresh on Bolivian minds’, the issue of oil extraction and climate change are topics that need to be explored. It is not difficult to see Cholets being used to harness solar energy for public consumption, especially given the favourable conditions in places like El Alto, where the high-altitude results in highly potent sun rays. Furthermore, it is no secret that the rate at which El Alto’s population is growing has resulted in overpopulation and high levels of congestion. Cholets, if used to house citizens could help to alleviate this. The matter of overpopulation relates to El Alto’s cultural practices, too. El 16 de Julio, famous for being perhaps one of the largest markets hosted in South America, has struggled to cope with a rise in attendance and demand as a result of overpopulation. Crime is on the rise, and public hygiene has suffered. Citizens may need the Mercado model – the thought of a Mercado being established within a cholet would not necessarily be a bad idea and could be a possible avenue to futureproof the concept.
Of course, the reaction to Mamani’s work has not been entirely positive. The President of the College of Architecture in Bolivia, Rim Safar, as one of the more vociferous critics of cholets, argued that cholets don’t express an ethnic Andean cultural identity – they are merely a ploy by the newly-rich, who ostentatiously call out to us from the top of their cholets saying “I’m a proud cholo. Before, I had no money, but look at me now.”