It’s January 24th in La Paz, Bolivia and despite pouring rain, thousands of Paceños are in the streets buying miniature versions of whatever material possession they most desire. The hope is that the tiny suitcases stuffed with passports, cardboard laptops and credit cards, carefully crafted replicas of foodstuffs, dollars, euros or the local currency, the boliviano, will transform into their life-sized counterparts over the next year.
“If you believe, it really will become true,” said Julia Mamani as she searched for the perfect university diploma for her son. A year ago, she chose a minute replica of a land title accompanied by tiny bricks and tools. By September she had put enough money together to purchase a real lot.
People line up with their diminutive purchases for an indigenous amauta or yatiri shaman to consecrate them. But in Bolivia’s syncretic religious world, they also rush to churches just before noon on the festival’s first day so their miniatures can be blessed by local priests. Hoisting their tiny goods and imitation money overhead, they scramble to position them so a drop or two of the holy water scattered by the priests trickles onto them.
The frenzied free-for-all has convinced several churches to bring in extra staff and position priests on raised platforms above the fray. “I think that Alasitas symbolizes the expression of wealth and abundance that God wishes for everyone,” said Franciscan Father Carmelo Galdós in explaining the Church’s acceptance of the tradition.
The goal is for the blessings to convert the miniature into an illa, which in the Aymara tradition, is a symbolic object that solves the endless problem of scarcity. In the semi-desert plains above 12,500 feet where most Aymara come from, shortages are very much part of daily life. Crops fail frequently, as the growing season is short and the rains often don’t come as has happened this growing season, or come in the form of damaging hail. Acquiring a mini basket of foodstuffs as an illa represents the capacity to successfully overcome shortages.
Bound up in Alasitas are Aymara economic concepts of reciprocity and redistribution. Converting the miniatures into an illa requires a ch’alla (libation to the earth mother), el sahumado (burning of herbs) and thanks to the priests, the church’s blessing. “We used to keep our indigenous beliefs secret,” explained yatiri Paulino Mamani. Now with our government run by an indigenous leader, we can worship openly.”
The Ekeko, the Aymara god of plenty, is at the heart of Alasitas. This pint-sized ceramic figure has miniature foodstuffs and fake money dangling. He is a chubby, light-skinned man with a cheery smile, outfitted in a suit with a jaunty hat or Andean cap with earflaps (llucho in Aymara) and a cigarette jutting from his mouth. “He’s certainly not Catholic,” admits a middle-class woman whose Ekeko has pride of place in her living room. She pays him homage by lighting the cigarette and sprinkling him with alcohol and coca leaves to ensure he will watch over the household and turn the tiny goods pinned on him into their life-sized equivalents within the year.
Originally, Alasitas was a spring planting festival, when local farmers gave the Ekeko miniature gifts to request plentiful crops for the year ahead. The most common illas were tiny animals chosen to ensure fertility. The celebration originates in the powerful and sophisticated Tiwanaku culture, which dominated a huge swathe of territory of central South America near Lake Titicaca for 500 years until drought led to its collapse in about 1100 CE.
During Spanish colonization, Alasitas and the Ekeko were considered idolatry by the Spanish invaders, and the practices went underground. Legend says they were revitalized by the Spaniard Sebastian Segurola, who successfully fought off the 1781 siege of La Paz, Bolivia by indigenous people. The festival was moved to January to coincide with the celebration of La Paz’s patron saint and the Ekeko was transformed to resemble a Spaniard. Smaller versions of Alasitas are now found in 13 cities and four countries.
La Paz’s 5,000 Alasitas vendors mostly make their own miniatures. They are organized into semi-autonomous groups, each one with a board of directors responsible to an umbrella governing structure. At the individual and family level, the vendors are oriented to making money, but the overall structure is more focused on keeping the organization alive and healthy, rather than on accumulating capital. Alasitas now moves almost $3 million a year.
As Bolivia has become more urban and less impoverished, the La Paz, Bolivia festival has acquired new connotations, shifting from reciprocal exchange to the current emphasis on material acquisition. The festival has become a place in this rapidly changing and increasing urban society where people of different social classes rub elbows, united by faith and hope, and their common roots in indigenous culture.
But beyond its serious underpinnings, Alasitas is a lot of fun. Participants delight in reading the teeny satirical versions of local newspapers that poke fun of politicians and prominent people while heaping praise on the Ekeko. People gladly share tiny banknotes called “Central Bank of Fortune” with each other “to be sure there is always enough money” as one young woman told me. They jostle for the best miniatures, often stopping for the local sweetened hot corn drink, api, and puffy fried dough known as pasteles or buñelos along the way. “Alasitas is all about tilting luck in your favor,” Julia Mamani said, “and giving life to your dreams.”